the personal side of making sounds
Pedal steel guitars are played with a bar moved along the strings, typically have one or two necks
each with 10 to 14 strings each, and chord-changes are made by pushing combinations
of foot-pedals and knee-levers for raising and lowering string pitches while placing
the bar on the strings in any position along the neck. Sliding the bar between
chord-positions is one of the ways we create a typical “steel guitar”
sound that stands out and is recognisable by most who listen.
The pitch-changing mechanism — changing tension on already very high-pitched
strings — puts a lot of stress on the guitar body, so not all pedal steel
guitars stay perfectly stable in tune when we push pedals and levers while playing.
Stability is one reason for my choice of pedal steel guitar models/brands, as my
old Dekleys are amongst the most stable pedal steel guitars ever built. A
pity Dekley went out of production back in 1984-85 – someone should
We can play anything from rock through country, jazz and soul to classic
music on a pedal steel guitar. It is all up to the player, and it takes a
little longer to master a pedal steel guitar than to master a regular 6 string
If you are interested, see…
• How It's Made:
Pedal Steel Guitars
and a few examples of how how it is played by masters…
• Lloyd Green—live,
I have been out of circulation for many years, and am too rusty to release any
sound-bites of my own for now. May get within my comfort-zone and create
something worth listening to one day.
steel guitar strings — not just any strings
Strings on E9 tuned pedal steel guitars are under very high tension, close to
what the highest tuned strings can take without breaking when tuning up. With the
added stress of being re-tensioned every time we push a pedal or lever for
pitch-changes, string-breaking at the most awkward times is an occupational hazard.
All my pedal steel guitars have pitch-changes beyond what most players would call
“normal”, with the added stress on strings that comes with constant
mechanical re-tensioning. Thus, finding strings that sound good, stay well in tune,
and that last for more than a few hours of playing before breaking, has always been
In earlier years there were only strings more suited for regular 6-string guitars
available – re-packaged for 10-string pedal steel guitar, and the top string
in most sets typically only lasted for 6 to 8 hours of playing. Back in the 1980s
when I was learning to play pedal steel guitar, string breakage was a constant
problem as I could not get hold of more durable strings than what was sold in the
local music store. I considered myself lucky if someone in the staff knew what kind
of instrument a pedal steel guitar is, as most had no idea – even if many
thought they knew everything…
To be able to play in tune, the mechanics must be perfectly balanced over all
10 strings and all pedals/levers. This means we can't just put any odd string-set
on, without risking having to re-balance the entire mechanics of the instrument.
Thus, finding good string brands/types and sticking to them, is a must
in order to minimize frustration.
(stainless wound) E9 strings have for decades been my only somewhat safe option
– up until 2010. They sound extremely good when “treated” right
secret of mine), and hold up quite well with a reasonable long time between
I use .0115 gauged 3d string instead of the more standard .011, for increased
strength and sound-level. I also prefer a .020 or .022 wound 6th string on my pedal
steel guitars, while most players use plain 6th string. I like the “rounder”
sound of a wound 6th string, and it also makes it easier to balance the mechanics
on my pedal steels for perfectly even pedal/lever changes.
and, then I found…
Strings — Lloyd Green Artist Series (stainless wound) E9 strings
became my standard brand/type mid 2010 – did not know they existed before
This a bit heavy-gauged Jagwire strings set sounds extremely good on my
Dekley steel guitars, and also really brings life to my GFI Ultra
that is really sensitive to type of strings.
Lifespan for my Jagwire strings sets – time between breakages or
starting to sound dull – is at least twice that of equivalent D'Addario.
The all important “tone” is maybe also a notch better, but more
important: Jagwire strings keep their tone character for much longer.
I did of course
not choose this particular Jagwire set because it carries the name of my
main musical inspiration over the years (Lloyd Green), but because they sound
right and string-gauges line up with my preferences right out of the box.
Good to not have to swap, or throw away, strings just to get “my
string-set” with “my tone”.
For a month or so (writing May 2012) I have been testing out LiveSteelStrings
(nickel wound) custom E9 sets, with same gauges as the Jagwire sets to be
able to compare them for tone as well as for tuning stability. Needed more
alternatives, as getting the strings I want when I want them, is not always easy.
The LiveSteelStrings, unlike all other string-brands I have tested as
alternatives to Jagwire strings lately, score extremely high for tone and
stability. I know I have found a good alternative to Jagwire strings –
on my steel guitars they sound and tune so identical that I can mix them, but it
will take months to decide which to go for first when I need new strings.
LiveSteelStrings' “fresh strings” guarantee is of course a big
plus for that brand, as, as far as I know, LiveSteelStrings is the only steel
guitar string supplier that issues such a guarantee. As LiveSteelStrings
only sell via their on-line store,“string freshness” and most other
quality-parameters are totally under their control — and it shows on the
Usually when buying strings, we don't know when they were actually made and
for how long they have been stored somewhere. Many millions of people buy
strings for 6-string guitars, but for steel guitar we're talking about a few
tens of thousand worldwide. So since there are not all that many steel guitar
players around buying loads of new strings to keep circulation fast and time on
shelves short, if we find steel guitar strings at all in music stores we risk
buying “new” strings that are anything but “fresh”.
Consequently, I do not often buy strings in music stores. Instead I more and more
buy them directly from a few, reliable, suppliers of dedicated pedal steel guitar
strings, where the chance of getting reasonable fresh strings is higher.
I do not buy strings in batches — only a few sets at a time, as strings
that have grown old in storage at home are less predictable for tone and
lifespan when put on the instrument. Keeping string-packages well sealed and in
a low humidity storage, does of course help reducing deterioration while stored,
but only so much.
I usually seal up string sets in plastic bags along with moisture-absorbers for
storage at home and as replacements while traveling, even if they only will be
stored for a few months at most. Does not hurt to be a bit overcautious when it
comes to preserving tone.
The picks I prefer may look a bit odd, as the finger-picks have cut-outs
along the edge facing the strings, making them kind of two-pointed. By balancing
which point that actually pick the string, I modify the attack-sound, and the
edge in between the points favors the pick-hammering style of picking I
developed decades ago.
My preferred picks are made of some very hard steel – much harder than the
material most picks are made of, so I have serious problems finding another set
of picks to shape like these old ones to go with my picking techniques.
Lately (June 2013) I have found some steel picks that show potentials, and am about
to test these out for accuracy and longevity.
The bar I use the most is a Zirconium bar, as it has the smoothest
surface of all bars I have tested. This bar measures 7/8 by 3 1/4 inch, suitable
for 10 strings pedal steel guitars.
The Zirconium bar produces a “warmth” not found when using other
bars, and even if it is a very subtle effect it is enough to make me grab that bar
I also have, and use from time to time, a BJS bar, a BulletBar, a
couple of ceramic Paloma Bars, an old Dunlop bar, and lastly a
couple of bars I don't know the name of.
The match-box does what the name says: its input-impedance is matched to
the instrument's PickUp's impedance, providing the PickUp with an optimal and
constant load. The match-box' low-impedance output drives all following cables
and circuits optimally.
I have two such match-boxes – practical to have one at each side of the pond,
a Goodrich SteelDriver III and a Goodrich model 7A. These have
identical circuits apart from that the former also has a “FUZZ”
circuit built in.
I actually don't use the match-box so much for its impedance matching characteristics
– the sustainer that comes after it will do that on its own if the match-box
is left out. But, driving the sustainer with low impedance and just the right level
– adjustable on the match-boxes, makes the entire sound-chain match better
to and through all stages, for optimal sound.
The sustainer, or compressor, raises the volume as the string-tone fades,
much like the volume pedal does but automatically. As the sustainer comes before
the volume pedal, it does not limit my ability to modify audio level and
I use a BOSS LMB-3 Enhancer/Limiter, as it has most of the audible
characteristics of a studio compressor built into a stomp-box. With
moderate settings it does its job quite well, without sounding like a compressor.
The BOSS LMB-3 is a good-sounding and very “playable” effect
I have so far not found any other stomp-box size compressors that work well with
steel guitar, as they all, unlike the BOSS LMB-3, compress or clip the peaks
for an unnatural sound better suited for semi-distorted 6-string lead guitar.
I most definitely want a natural and totally undistorted sound from my steel
guitar, and use the BOSS LMB-3 in conjunction with the match-box to get more
of the instrument's inherent tone through.
The volume pedal I use is low-impedance (50Kohm), and would not work for
steel guitar if I did not have a form of match-box between it and the instrument's
PickUp. With such match-boxes in place a low-impedance volume pedal is perfect,
as it reduces the effects of noise across cables after it.
The availability of low-impedance volume pedals is much higher than of dedicated
high-impedance steel guitar volume pedals, so I can “shop around”
without sacrificing quality and tone. Mine, a BOSS stereo/expression pedal,
is pretty standard, and cheap.
I also have another (cheaper) BOSS, in addition to a Goodrich and a
Morley volume pedal, and then also a homemade one. All get used now and
The amplifier is a Peavey Nashville 112 — Solid State
dedicated steel guitar amplifier, which is a decent workhorse for small to
medium size venues.
To audiophiles the Nashville 112 isn't much, especially not right out of
the box. To tube-amp aficionados it isn't much either, as it doesn't compress
and color the tone the way tube-amps do. The Nashville 112 simply does
what it should: amplifies the instrument without coloring the tone too much.
I connect the instrument to the amplifier different from what most players do,
as since I have no need for the built-in pre-amplifier, equalizer or reverb, I
go directly into the power-stage's “return” input. This way I
effectively bypass all stages that may introduce noise, distortion and filtering,
and get as clear and natural an instrument tone through this amplifier as I
If you wonder what type(s) of pre-amp, equalizer and reverb/delay I use, my
answer is “none apart from the match-box and sustainer described
In my opinion: a well-built steel guitar with suitable PickUp and good,
well-balanced, strings, pretty much has the tonal characteristics I want to
amplify in any venue. If it doesn't sound good without being equalized and
having effects added, either the instrument or something else is defect, or I am
not playing it to its true potentials.
The match-box does provide some control over tone, and so does the sustainer. As
these devices are both attached to the leg of the steel guitar, I can adjust
them while sitting in playing-position for the slight variations needed to match
different venues and my own taste at the time.
I do use equalizers and effect units at times, but only for true
“effects” and other deviations from inherent steel guitar tone. Play
around with a BOSS OC-3 when I want extra sub-harmonics, and want to try
out a BOSS PS-6 for better pitch-change effects. I am no stranger to any
effects one can impose on the instrument, I just don't want to rely on them to
get “my sound”.
For the most part I play without any units for audible effects in the sound-chain,
and pick/play the pedal steel guitar to use its inherent tone-qualities for
effects. The BOSS LMB-3 Enhancer/Limiter I always use, does help a lot in
milking, ducking and balancing, and it is a very playable effect. It also
immediately reveals any weaknesses in the instrument's tonal quality and
mechanical stability, and the player's precision or lack thereof, which is
exactly as I want it.
The author playing his 30 year old but showroom ready Dekley
D10 pedal steel guitar…
…which in periods doesn't get played as much as it