This late 60’s- early 70’s Fender 400 comes to us courtesy of our good friend Chris Bowden of Seattle band Other Desert Cities. In addition to being a top-notch musician he’s also a top-notch photographer, so check out his work with Locket Studios!
Chris has had this pedal steel for over a year, and since it came into his possession it’s had a few problems: the mechanism that changed the tuning of the strings was heavily corroded, 3 of the instrument’s 4 pedals were frozen, and the pedal that did work wasn’t all that accurate to begin with.
Still, with all of these problems the guitar was pretty darn cool. Chris had gotten used to the instrument’s limitations and has been able to use the unique sound of this pedal steel to great effect. (The slogan taped on to the face of the pedal steel reflects his minimalist ethos!) He’s even using a non-standard tuning: instead of the usual E9th, he’s using a sort of modified Em6th (E A D E G B D E) which is closer to a guitar. This model is a bit of an underdog in the steel guitar world; whereas most units have 10 or 12 strings, this one only has 8. In place of rods there are tensioned cables using a “primitive” pulley system to make note changes. Even so, this is one mean tone machine, and I was determined to have it playing as good as new.
First things first, I started by completely disassembling the instrument. That meant relieving the tension on the cables, disconnecting the pedals, removing the bridge plate and the tuning assembly beneath it- this was much harder than it looked. Every single part of this instrument’s innards needed a thorough cleaning, most notably the springs.
I gave every piece of metal a lengthy oil bath; the springs alone spent 15 minutes in a mug of oil before I removed them and polished them to a semi-brilliant shine. (Hey, they’re old.) Tuning levers were well cleaned and lubricated, and even the tuners and tray needed some TLC. The cables were also cleaned and their pulley systems properly greased.
The hard part was getting it all back together. On the end closest to the Volume and Tone controls, there’s a route through which you can adjust the raising and lowering of pitch of each string. These screws are each mated to a cam, and those were incredibly difficult to reset. After replacing the bridge assembly and joining it with the tuning assembly in the correct fashion, I went to work on the pedals. It seemed as though all that was needed was some lubrication and adjusting the tension of the cables to suit my note altering needs. Everything operated smoothly and efficiently, so I moved on to installing strings and calibrating the pedals.
Stringing wasn’t quite as easy as it should have been either. Pedal steel guitars use vastly different gauges than normal guitars, of course. Chris’s alternate tuning gave rise to some unique problems involving string tension. Taking into account the pressure of the player’s hand on the strings, with too-light gauges it would be impossible to keep the guitar properly tuned. At first I thought, “I could just take a pack of guitar strings and add 2 spares!”, but this turned out to be untrue. I needed to custom-tailor a set of strings for each string note in order to keep tension even across the playing surface. The set I made for Chris looks like this: .013, .015, .014, .018, .022w, .030w, .034w, .036w. Ideally, I would have thrown some flatwound strings on this bad boy, but two factors prevented me from taking this path:
1) I was afraid that Chris would loose some of that raunchy, ringing sustain, and
2) We didn’t have any single flats
Next time Chris or myself restrings his pedal steel, I’d like to alter the gauges just a bit. I felt that the low E (.036w) is just a little floppy, but the next highest gauge we carry is a .042, which to my hand throws off the balance just a little and also has thicker windings than the others, creating more noise. I’d prefer a .038 or .040. I may also thicken the gauge of the G (.018) and the wound, high E (.022 currently).
Having strung this beast- with it’s gloriously stable Kluson Deluxe tuners- I really began to feel the excitement of a new, unfamiliar instrument in my hands. I’m not a pedal steel player at all, but spending all this time on it started a fire within me. I quickly picked up some basic principles, and once I had the pedals properly adjusted I even wrote a tune!
Speaking of the pedals…
The hard part of this process was making choices. Aside from pedal #1, which Chris had gotten quite used to, there were no rules or traditions to follow when setting up the cables. I did a great deal of studying at this step, and in light of his altered tuning, I needed to think very carefully about how to get the maximum benefit out of the fewest possible pedal/string combinations.
Each pedal was connected to a cable that had two loops at the end; when Chris first set up the instrument, pedals 2 and 4 only connected to one string each. What to do?! Taking into account Chris’s unusual tuning I made some equally unusual choices. Here’s a run-down of what everything does now:
Base Tuning: E A D E G B D E
Pedal #1: E A D E G A#C#E (lowers the B and D strings to A# and C#, respecively)
Pedal #2: E A D E G C D G (raises the high B to C and high E to G)
Pedal #3: E G#D E G#B D E (low A down to G#, high G up to G#)
Pedal #4: E B D E G B D E (low A goes up to B for more power chord options)
I made a short video so you can see and hear the final result. Bear in mind that I’m not really a pedal steel player, and that this was my first time ever. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to get better, though! I’m also kind of proud of the little tune I wrote. Here’s what it sounds like:
What do you think? I mean, about the instrument. I know my playing isn’t virtuosic. Come on, I just started! Lay off!
By the way, this pedal steel sounded great when run through effects; the Fromel Electronics DIG, Phuz GE and a Fromel-Modified Memory Man took things to the next level!