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Use C Scale Tuning for the Pedal Steel Guitar

May 7, 2008
The pedal steel guitar tunings currently in common use hinder the acceptance of the instrument in musical forms other than American "Country" music. The addition of pedals greatly extends the capabilities of a steel guitar. Just as the logical extension of a chordal tuning is to give the player more chords at every fret, a scale tuning can be logically extended to give the player more scales at every fret.

Elementary music theory teaches us that the C scale can be altered to an F scale by flatting one note (B to Bb), and then to a Bb scale by flatting one more (E to Eb). In a similar fashion, the C scale can be altered to a G scale by sharping one note (F to F#), and then altered to a D scale by sharping one more (C to C#).

A third flat is accomplished by lowering the A to Ab, which in conjunction with the other two flatting changes makes an Eb scale. Likewise, a raise of the G to G# can be applied with the other two raises to create an A scale.

Thus, a pedal steel with 3 lowers and 3 raises can easily produce seven different scales at any fret. Applying these concepts to two pedals and four knee levers on an 8 string version of Jerry Byrd's tuning yields the following pedal steel tuning:

The remaining five scales (E, B, F#, Ab and Db) are available at the first fret. Using this system, the player is never more than one fret away from any key signature at any fret.

This simple extension of Jerry Byrd's tuning to the pedal steel requires a very low level of mechanical changer technology. Each string is altered in only one direction, and by only one pedal or knee lever. This "single raise or single lower" concept makes the tuning easy to set up on inexpensive "student model" instruments.

In contrast, the Nashville E9th requires a "double raise and single lower" changer to set up the standard pedal and knee lever changes. The advanced machinery required by the Nashville E9th tuning raises the price of student instruments beyond what many can afford.

A Justifiable Omission

You have probably noticed by now that the D note is absent from this tuning. This deliberate omission is to accommodate the nuances of just temperment. Many steel guitarists are attracted by the beauty of pure physical harmonies. If the guitar is to be tuned to natural string harmonics, the tuning of the D note becomes a dilemna.

Given C as a starting point, G is tuned to a perfect fifth and F to a perfect fourth. The A string is tuned as a perfect third of the F, using the F string's harmonic point below the 4th fret as a reference. Similarly, the E and B strings are tuned as perfect thirds from the C and G strings, respectively.

The dilemna is that a D note that is in tune with the A string (derived as a third of F) is considerably flat of a D note that is in tune with the G string (derived as a fifth of C).

One of the pedal steel's greatest strengths is its ability to create perfectly tuned (i.e. "just tempered") music in any key. The compromise of the equal tempered scale, required by instruments that have twelve fixed pitches per octave, is not necessary on the steel guitar. While some steel guitarists use an electronic tuner to impose equal temperment on their instruments, forcing the twelve tone compromise as part of the tuning would do a disservice to those players who prefer the "sweeter" sound of just tempered chords.

By omitting the D string, the choice of temperment is left to the player.
About the Author
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