Some of the most interesting topics regarding the steel guitar for me are the various issues around tuning and intonating. This is at the heart of the most challenging aspect of playing this instrument well. All musical instruments have their own particular tuning quirks. From the piano to the guitar, woodwinds to violins, each instrument has it's own unique set of problems that you have to overcome to play it in tune. The pedal steel guitar seems to have more than it's fair share due to it's constantly changing tunings and the physical demands the instrument exerts on itself. The topic of the best way to tune the pedal steel has been going on, I suppose, since the advent of the instrument in the middle part of the 20th Century. This is not meant to be an entry into this discussion or argument but merely an observation I made while attempting to write and record a tune for my recent CD. The song in question is called Hymn For Peace. My idea (not an original one, by the way) was to play a melody on the lowest strings of the instrument, a la cello, with the bar fretting the notes while playing open strings above it providing harmony, drone effects and general accompaniment. The problems of doing this were many fold and while trying to solve this "puzzle" it took me on a great journey and study of tuning and intonation.
One of the basic concepts and difficulties with the E9th tuned pedal steel is that the relationship of the intervals change when the tuning is changed. For example, when the guitar is played open, with no pedals, and all strings are in tune with each other the E is the tonic, the B is the 5th tone, and the F# is the 2nd tone. When you press the two pedals that change the tuning from E9th to A6th the E is now the 5th tone, the B is the 2nd tone, and the F# is the 6th tone. The new tonic is found on the A strings that were raised from G#. Since the relationship of the strings have changed the delicate balance that is the tuning is upset and you have some notes that are noticably out of tune—particularly the F# notes. Some people, including myself, have taken to playing with compensators that will flatten the 7th and 1st strings slightly when the pedals are depressed. This is one piece of the problem.
While exploring the concept of fretted melody with open strings I found the relationships to be changing not only with the pedaled notes but with the open strings as well. Sometimes this required fretting a note with the pedal down and then slightly adjusting the tuning with the bar as the pedal is released. This type of playing is difficult and while probably not practical for most of your everyday playing I think it is a great ear training and bar training study. I have included the tab for the first part of this tune to illustrate some of these issues. I hope you enjoy playing this and I hope it may lead you on an exploration of your own. Stay tuned and I will include part 2 of this song soon.