Tunings are a crucial part of the pedal steel story. The standard Nashville E9 tuning for 10-string pedal steel is B-D-E-F#-G#-B-E-G#-D#-F#. The pedal steel’s most common C6 tuning—sometimes called “Texas tuning”—is C-F-A-C-E-G-A-C-E-G. Like pedal and knee lever arrangements, tunings can be highly personalized, and this often makes it difficult for pedal steelers to sit in on each others' instruments.
The ability to play in tune is an important attribute that separates the successful session steel players from the wannabes, and as with guitar, pedal steel intonation is a compromise. Because one note can play a different role in different chords, a note that’s perfectly in tune in one voicing might not be spot-on in another. “You might have to shift your bar, use more vibrato, or stay away from certain chords,” says Bruce Bouton. “You have to play positions that are in tune.”
Here too, Paul Franklin’s father was innovative. He noticed that while his son’s strings were returning to correct pitch when the pedals raised them, the strings were returning sharp after being lowered. The elder Franklin invented a return compensator that made the string return to pitch after being lowered.
Ten Essential Pedal Steel Albums
You have to start somewhere, so here are 10 pedal steel records that exemplify the art. These are handpicked by Joe Goldmark, a fine pedal steel player with some fun records of his own. He is also a steel scholar, record collector, and an owner of Amoeba Music, California’s legendary indie record chain. Goldmark’s top picks, in alphabetical order:
- Buddy Charleton with the Texas Troubadours, Almost to Tulsa
- Jimmy Crawford, A Ton of Steel
- Pete Drake, For Pete’s Sake
- Buddy Emmons, Steel Guitar Jazz
- Lloyd Green, The Hit Sounds
- Doug Jernigan, Uptown to Country
- Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Shiloh Records Anthology
- Red Rhodes, Velvet Hammer in a Cowboy Band
- Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, Stratosphere Boogie
- Various, Pacific Steel Co.
Buddy Emmons works his magic onstage with Ray Price in this vintage television performance.
This recent clip of Western swing band the Time Jumpers features long-time collaborators Vince Gill and Paul Franklin and reveals Franklin’s jaw-dropping technique.