Construction of the Pedal Steel Guitar
The construction of the PSG was the result of an evolution of necessity. Many clever musician-machinists contributed to it.
The end result of all that ingenuity is that each pedal or knee lever on the pedal steel guitar can alter the pitch of one or more strings. These pitches can be controlled. That is, they are customized by the player.
There is a lot of room for variation here, and steel guitarists occasionally assign their pedals and knee levers to different strings. They will also change the amount of pitch increase or decrease assigned to each string. They make these changes to vary their sound and make it unique, as well as to make the playing more comfortable.
The modern PSG has several parts which allow it to alter the string pitches. We'll start from the ground up.
OverviewThere are four legs. Two rear legs (closer to the player) and two front legs (further away from the player).
Attached across the base of the front legs is the rack.
Attached to the rack are the pedals with any number between 3 and 9 depending on the specific model.
Running up from the pedals to the underside of the body are the pedal rods. When a pedal is pushed it pulls the pedal rods.
Sitting on top of the four legs is the body. The body can have one neck or two. Whether the model is one neck or two, most pedal steel guitars have one neck tuned to the standard "E9" tuning and is called by consequence the E9 neck. The other neck, if present, is usually closer to the player and tuned to the traditional lap steel tuning (C6 Tuning). It is called, as a result, the C6 neck. Some instruments have a single neck that combines the tunings of the two; it is called the 12-string universal, or U-12.
Hanging from the body are the knee levers. They perform the same action as the pedals.
TopsideAt the left are the tuning pegs (or keyless tuning knobs depending on the model).
Attached to the tuning pegs at the left are the strings. They run over the nut, across the body, and attach to the changer at the right.
The strings are supported at the left by the nut. They are referred to by number. The 1st string is the one furthest away from the player. The 10th string is the one closest to the player.
Under the strings, between the nut and the changer is the fret board. It looks like a regular guitar fret board except it has no metal frets and it is not used for fretting the strings. Rather it is used for easily locating bar positions on the strings.
To the right of the fret board is the electric pickup. The pickup transfers string vibration into electronic signals which can be fed to an amplifier through the output jack. This is the only electrical part on the steel guitar - everything else is strictly mechanical.
To the right of the pickup is the changer mechanism. This is what changes the pitch of the strings by means of pedal or lever action.
UndersideWhen a pedal or lever is depressed:
It pulls the pedal rod
which rotates the cross rod
which rotates the bell crank finger
which pulls the pull rods
which pulls the changer finger.
On the underside of the body you'll see the pedal rods attached to cross rods. The pedal rods rotate the cross rods and are stopped by the pedal stops. The pedal stop may or may not be adjustable on your steel guitar. If it is adjustable, it can be tightened or loosened to increase or decrease the pedal distance, and by consequence the degree to which a string is raised or lowered. Attached to the cross rods are the bell crank fingers. Like the pedal stops, the bell crank fingers also control how much a string is pulled. Attached to the bell crank fingers are the pull rods.
Attached to the other end of the pull rods is the changer mechanism. The changer mechanism attaches to the strings on the topside of the instrument.
Also on the underside are the knee levers. These hang down from the body and are operated with the knees. They perform the same function as the pedals except they are attached directly to the cross rods.
Changer MechanismThere are 3 different types of changers; push-pull, split finger, and all-pull. Since most steel guitars around today are all-pull type changers, we will focus on them.
Each string has two pivoting parts. The upper finger raises the pitch when pulled. The lower finger lowers the pitch when pulled.
The pull rods run through the changer fingers and stick out at the right end of the body. You can see them there; they usually have white, plastic, hex-shaped ends. These white plastic rod ends are also the tuning pegs for the pedals and knee levers.
The rods sticking out of the lower changer fingers lower the pitch. The upper rods raise the pitch.
Tightening the hex nut will shorten the distance between the changer finger and the bell crank finger. This makes the raise or lower more drastic.
Loosening the hex nut will increase the distance between the changer finger and the bell crank finger. This makes the raise or lower less drastic.
You may notice the string will not raise or lower to the note you want it to. In other words, you are not getting enough pull.
First try to tighten the hex nut. If you tighten so far that the open string pitch begins to change, then the pull rod needs to be put on a lower hole in the bell crank finger. The lower a pull rod is located on the bell crank finger, the farther the changer finger will be pulled.
If this still does not give you enough pull, the pedal stop may be the reason. If adjustable, the pedal stop can be tightened or loosened to increase or decrease the pedal travel distance.
Pedal and Lever Names and LocationsMost players name the pedals A, B, C, and so forth. Sometimes the knee levers are given alphabetical letters too. Though you'll often find the knee levers called:
LL (left knee, left lever),
LV (left knee, vertical lever),
LR (left knee right lever),
RL (right knee, left lever),
RR (right knee, right lever).
Some players have different names for their pedals. I learned with the system above and so we'll use that for the instructional material on this website.
AccessoriesAlong with the steel guitar itself, there is additional equipment that may or may not be required.
The steel guitar requires an amplifier. It was the first instrument that required one: HISTORY OF THE STEEL GUITAR. Many models exist out there. I've tried a few, myself. Peavey amps are the industry standard, but many other brands make good amps for steel guitars.
Obviously, without the tone bar, you cannot fret the strings to change the pitch of the instrument. There are many models and types out there. They are usually just a solid bar of steel. Some players experiment with different materials to acquire different sounds.
Though not necessary, most steel guitarists use finger picks. They give the bell-like ring to the steel guitar strings. There are several types and brands. The thumb pick is usually made of plastic. The finger picks are usually made of metal.
The volume pedal, though not required, is used by almost all players. It is used to create swell on long notes in melodic or harmonic passages.
Which one to buy? It's really a matter of taste. Volume pedals come in powered types and unpowered.
Powered types require a power adapter. Powered volume pedals usually use photocell technology which requires no maintenance.
Unpowered, require only cables from the guitar to the pedal and from the pedal to the amp. I use a Goodrich 120 (a classic among steel guitarists) and a Fender Tone-Volume Pedal. Unpowered volume pedals use volume potentiometers ("pots"), which wear out after a while and start to crackle. They need to be replaced at this point. It's pretty simple, usually only requiring a little soldering.
Any serious music student should have a metronome on hand. These are rhythm-keeping devices that can be adjusted by tempo. I use a tuner/metronome combination for convenience.