Monday, May 20, 2013

Buying a Pedal Steel Guitar II

Here is my second post on Buying A Pedal Steel Guitar. In case you missed Part I follow the link to Buying a Pedal Steel Guitar Part I  In this post I cover wood choices, cabinet drop, pickups, and more.

In my last post  about Buying a Pedal Steel Guitar I talked about general considerations as a player to be taken into consideration. In this post, I want to discuss some specifics of pedal steel guitars, the manufacturers and specific details to consider.

Keep in mind throughout this discussion that in the end it is about your personal preference. Every steel player either loves his guitar or hates it. There is no middle ground and if a player hates his guitar, you can rest assured he/she will not keep it for very long.

Wood Choices

You can order any guitar with any wood you want as long as the manufacturer is willing. Most steel guitars today are made out of Maple. Most are made from quilted maple instead of hard rock Maple which give a better tone. In my opinion the reason manufacturers have chosen quilted maple is because it is easier to work with. There are other good woods such as  Zebra wood and cocobolo wood which are considered exotic woods. Check out the density of the wood you select. You want the density to be in the 0.65 to 0.75 range. The Fender console guitars of the 50's were made from swamp ash which produces a good tone. Also check with your manufacturer on the aging of the wood. Aged wood produces a better tone.

Cabniet Drop

I debated whether to include any discussion of cabinet drop, however, at some point you will hear or read a discussion about it. Cabinet drop is when you press on a pedal and a string not raised or lowered by the pedal pressed goes out of tune - usually flat. An example is press A and B pedals down and the 4th string E goes flat. Not all cabinet drop is detectable by the ear and you will have to put a needle tuner to your guitar to see it. Now this is where things start to get muddy.

Where does the problem originate? Now my instructor and I had this discussion and we experimented on our guitars. Yes, the E string (4th) did go flat when we pressed the A and B pedals down. We physically restrained the pedal bar from twisting and reduced but did not eliminate the problem. If the pedal bar is not the problem and there is twisting of the cabinet then not only would I expect to see a detuning of the 4th string but I would expect to see it on strings 1, 2, and 3 which is not the case. This leads me to believe that because the machining today uses NC machining it is far more precise and tight than it was 50 years ago. Therefore, tight tolerances in the changer mechanism might be susceptible to minor distortions in the cabinet. Now if you consider that the B pedal affects the 3rd and 6th string and the A pedal affects the 5th and 10th strings, the 4th string (E) is being affected by both A and B pedals. Bud Carter contends that pedals near the center of the guitar contribute more to cabinet drop and he concludes that the Day setup is more susceptible to cabinet drop than the Emmons setup. I thought this curious and decided to test this out. On my guitar I have pedal four pulling on strings 5,6, and 10 so I picked the 4th string and pressed down on my 4th pedal. Guess what? I did not detect cabinet drop. To verify this I will need to put a needle tuner to it. Yet singularly my 3rd pedal (A) does have cabinet drop and my 2nd pedal (B) does not have cabinet drop. The commonality between my 3rd and 4th pedals is that they both pull strings adjacent to the 4th string. Interesting but still inconclusive.

Here is a link to a discussion of changers with animation showing the operation.

Steel guitar changer with animation

Other things to consider in discussing cabinet drop include:

  • Modern steel guitars have thin end plates compared to those made 30 years ago. 
  • Wood choice may have an affect on cabinet drop. 
  • Pedal bar stiffness may play a role. 

There are a myriad of guesses and no one knows for sure. I suspect when the problem is finally clearly identified, they will find it is a combination of issues. I will leave it to those far smarter than me to figure it out.

Bottom line. If you are a new user or even a fair intermediate player, I think cabinet drop is the least of our issues. I think this is one of those cocktail hour discussions no one wins. This discussion has been my personal opinion as I am no expert and should be given the appropriate consideration.

Bud Carter of Carter Steel Guitars and now retired is a Master builder of Pedal Steel Guitars and here is a link to Bud Carter on cabinet drop


I use Alimitone pickups in all my guitars. I was first introduced to the Alumitone when I bought my Carter guitar. Carter highly recommended the Alumitone pickup and I am not sorry I listened to Carter. There is no hum or noise from lights or mics or other electronics. In my opinion the Alumitone sounds almost as good as the triple coil pickups that came with the old ZB guitars. Yet the ZB coils were unshielded and have major noise issues with all the noise produced by lighting and such that is common today on bandstands. There are links to both Lace and George L pickups on Accessories and Supplies page.

Bobbie Seymour is a great information resource Bobbie Seymour's site

Switch Position

The three way switch allows you to turn on the E9 neck or the C6 neck or both. On my Mullen and on my Carter the danged switch is right smack in the way of where my hand needs to be for palm harmonics. This causes me to adjust to the way I play. While Mullen has said it can place the switch anywhere there are still trade offs.

Input Jack

Modern guitars have the input jack on the changer end of the guitar. I believe this is more because it is easier on the manufacturer than from a users point of view. In my opinion, the input jack should be on the underside of the cabinet to prevent people from running into the jack sticking out from the body of the guitar and damaging the jack or worse yet knocking your guitar over. While being careful what you do around your guitar is always a good idea, you can never rely on others to be so careful. Plus, on stage real estate is at a premium and you and your band members could be jammed up together which could raise the possibility of accidents. Talk real nice to your manufacturer and maybe they may accommodate you are at the very least if enough people request a change then the change is more likely to be forthcoming.

 Half stops

After buying a guitar with a half stop on one lever and using it, I will not have half stops again and here is why. I learned to manually find the half stop on my A pedal. It took some time to figure out how much pedal I needed for the desired pitch and now it comes easily and naturally. When I use the half stop on my one lever it feels mechanical and not natural.


The copedant is the most personal and self-defining characteristic of a steel guitar player. Generally steel players will not share everything abut their copedant as it helps define the sound they create when they play. In time you will develop your own personal preferences for your own copedant. In my post on a Description of a Steel Guitar I described the difference between an Emmons and Day setup. Which you choose is mostly a matter of preference. I have played on both setups, first on the Emmons and then on the Day setup. It took me a couple of weeks to make the transition from the emmons setup to the Day setup, however, once I did make the transition I only use the Day setup. My reasons for using the Day setup over Emmons is that the Day setup seems more natural to me when I play. Do not fret (pun intended) as you can change the setup easily enough. Most players use the Emmons setup as that is what most all the manufacturers install. You can define whatever setup you want. I would suggest the Day setup but I would also tell you talk with your instructor and other players for advice. In the end it is preference.

1 comment:

  1. Day is the way. I Emmons had just thought about it a little longer, he would be playing the Day set-up.