How to Tune the Pedal Steel Guitar

Depending on what kind of changer mechanism you have will determine whether you tune the pedals first or the open strings first. Older steel guitars, as well as some student models, required tuning some of the pedals and knee levers first and then the open strings. Most modern pedal steel guitars use all-pull changers and so this lesson will assume you have to tune the open strings first.

The open strings are tuned with the tuning pegs at the left. Turning them clockwise and counter clockwise raises and lowers the pitch.

The tuning nuts for the pedals and knee levers are at the right end of the instrument. They are usually plastic hex screws or allen screws. They are tuned with a hex socket wrench or allen wrench.

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.

If you still can't get all the pull you want, the problem may be with the string gauge. If you use a thicker gauge string the original and final tension of the string will be higher, but the distance will be lower to get to the next pitch. Thicker wound strings reduce some of the tension that plain steel strings have, but they also will require more tension and less distance as you increase their gauges. If you use a thinner string you will get the opposite effect: the original and final tension will be lower, and the distance required will be higher, to move to the next pitch.

If these terms don't make sense to you click here: CONSTRUCTION for a detailed description.

Tuning Methods

There are three ways to tune the PSG:
1. Tune with an electronic tuner.
2. Tune with harmonies.
3. Tune with chords.

Ideally, we want our instrument to have "JUST INTONATION." But because this is mathematically impossible, we seek the closest intonation to that.

Out of the three tuning methods, tuning with chords gives the closest example to just intonation on the PSG. But by the time you finish tuning all the strings, there will always be an interval that is significantly out of tune, called the "wolf interval". This makes some chords difficult to play. Tuning with dyad harmonies will also create the wolf interval.

Tuning with a tuner results in "equal temperament." Every interval is equally spaced from each other in terms of vibration frequency. This however causes all intervals except the octaves to sound slightly flat or sharp. So, there's definitely a trade off whether to tune with chords or with equal temperament. On a student model, tuning with chords works well, but with a chromatic tuning equal temperament might be the way to go.

Tuning with a Tuner

The easiest way to tune the instrument is with a tuner. There are hundreds of models out there. Technically speaking, electronic tuners are not the most accurate tuning device. Your ear is actually more accurate. (See "tuning with harmonies" section below.) However, tuning with a tuner will give you an equal temperament.

Each string is picked and the tuner tells you which note is playing and how flat or sharp it is. Tune the tuning peg until the indicator on the tuner is dead center.

When using a tuner, start with the 10th string and move toward the 1st, tuning all the open strings to their proper notes. Then tune the pedals in left-to-right order, then the knee levers from left to right. In this way you will not forget any string or pedal.

Tuning with Harmonies

Once you've trained your ears to recognize HARMONIES, you can tune your instrument by ear, which will allow you to create just intonation for each interval.

Listen for beats

Even though beats in music theory are stressed parts of the rhythm of a piece, beats have another meaning in the physics of music. When two notes are struck together and the wavelengths they form in the air are out of sync, they form beats, which are deciphered by our ears as a quick wah-wah sound. Notice in the image below that the note that vibrates at 447 Hertz has more waves squeezed together than the one at 440Hz. The result is that the waveforms become out of sync over time and our ears recognize this as beats.

Note Waveform

When both notes are tuned to the same frequency, 440Hz in this case, the notes form a "unison interval" and are said to be in tune.

Two different notes that are related mathematically may also be sounded together without beats resulting. For example, the third interval, the fifth interval, the sixth interval and the octave all sound "consonant" when struck together. This is because their frequencies are related to each other by simple ratios.

For example, an octave note is one that is twice the number of hertz as the original note. In this case, "A" at 880hz is twice the "A" note that is at 440hz. It has a ratio of 2:1.

The easiest intervals to hear in tune are the unison, the octave, the perfect fifth, and the major third, in that order. They're easy because there are no quavering out-of-sync wah-wahs when they are in tune.

For an in depth explanation of intervals, CLICK HERE.

When tuning by ear, the idea is to play the consonant intervals and try to eliminate the wah-wahs.

First tune a central note using a tuner or another instrument. On steel guitar, the 8th string E is probably your best starting note. Then tune the high E note (string 4) to it, eliminating any beats.

Here is an outline for tuning the rest of steel guitar by ear. The intervals between the two notes are written in parentheses:

Open Strings:
String 8: Tune the E to a tuner or another ins. (Uni)
String 4: Tune the high E to the low E (Oct)
String 10: Tune the low B to the low E (5th)
String 5: Tune the high B to the low B (Oct)
String 6: Tune the low G# to the low E (3rd)
String 3: Tune the high G# to the low G# (Oct)
String 7: Tune the low F# to the low B (5th)
String 1: Tune the high F# to the low F# (Oct)
String 2: Tune the high D# to the high G# (5th)
String 9: Tune the low D to the low F# (3rd)

Pedals and levers:
1. Tune the low C# to the low F# (5th)
2. Tune the high C# to the low C# (Oct)
1. Tune the low A to the low E (5th)
2. Tune the high A to the low A (Oct)
1. Tune the C# to the low F# (5th)
2. Tune the F# to the high F# (Uni)
1. Tune the low F to low C# (A pedal down) (3rd)
2. Tune the high F to low F (Oct)
1. Tune the low Bb to low D (3rd)
2. Tune the high Bb to low Bb (Oct)
1. Tune the high D# to high open D# (Uni)
2. Tune the low D# to high D# (Oct)
1. Tune the low G to low D (5th)
2. Tune the high G to the low G (Oct)
1. High C# to High G# (5th)
2. Low C# to string 10 C# (Uni)
1. Tune the low G to low D (5th)
2. Tune the high G to the low G (Oct)
3. Tune the D# to the D# on string 8 (LR Lever) (Uni)

Tuning with Chords

If you are able to detect out-of-tune beats with harmonies, you most likely can detect them with full chords too. When a chord note is out of tune from the others, the whole chord will quaver and the chord will not sound consonant. You can tune the other chord notes until this quaver is eliminated. This is probably the best way to tune the PSG in order to create just intonation. However, be aware that if you tune your chords with just intonation, your vertical scales and some seldom-used chords may sound a little out of tune.

  1. Start by tuning the low E on string 8 to a tuner or another instrument.
  2. Tune the E major chord. Tune strings 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10 to the 8th string E (already tuned).
  3. Tune the A major chord. Depress pedals A and B and tune strings 3, 5, 6, and 10 to the 8th and 4th string E's (already tuned).
  4. Tune the C# major chord. Engage the A pedal and the LL lever. Tune strings 4 and 8 so they're in tune with the chord notes on strings 3, 5, 6, and 10.
  5. Tune the D major chord. Engage pedal B. Tune string 7 and 9 with string 6.
  6. Tune the B major chord. Engage the X pedal. Tune strings 1, 2, 7, and 9 with strings 5 and 10.
  7. Tune the F# minor chord. Engage the B and C pedals. Tune strings 1, 4, and 5 with 3 and 6. Strings 4 and 5 are C pedal notes; 1 is an open note.
  8. Tune the G# minor chord. Engage the LR pedal and tune strings 4 and 8.
  9. Tune the E minor chord. Engage the X pedal and the RL pedal, and tune strings 1, 3, 6, and 7 with 4, 5, 8, and 10.
  10. Tune the A minor chord. Engage the A, B, and LV. Tune the LV notes (strings 5 and 10) to make a consonant chord with strings 3, 4, 6, and 8.
  11. With Pedal A down, engage the RR lever and tune strings 2 and 9 to match 5 and 10.



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