THE PEDAL-STEEL GUITAR
Further to the hawaiian guitar, the Dobro and the lap-steel, comes the pedal-steel guitar, that still intrigues and fascinates many guitarists. It is indeed a very unusual instrument and the last stop on our journey from Hawai to Nashville, we'll tell us more about this magical instrument. The competition that exists between different types of instruments is fierce. Some offer a very wide range of harmonics like the piano, others like the violin offer different possibilities of modulating or pitching notes. Throughout the history of instruments, one will notice how these have always been improved thanks to the talented musicians that played them or thanks to the technical enhancements that were developed at their request in order to play certain subtleties that were unheard of before.
The lap-steel was played, as the name clearly indicates, lying flat on the lap, first as a plain electric guitar, to which two additional strings were added, although certain chords were difficult to play. This is how the lap steel with more than one neck with different tunings came about. Because of the additional necks, up to five, with each a different tuning in order to cover the range of chords played in Western Swing, the instrument soon became too heavy and was thus set on a stand to be played in an upright position.
However this solution had too many drawbacks and lead to an apparent dead end situation. Various musicians made enough suggestions to the Gibson company for them to come out with the very first pedal-steel, the Electraharp, with one neck but fitted with eight strings and 6 pedals. Identical to the harp technique, the general idea was to be able to variate the pitch of certain strings at a fixed interval by using a pedal attached to a wire, or better yet to a set of thin rods, that would command the different string pitches. In order to obtain a precise pitch variation for all chords, the technique is implemented with stops based on a very well adjusted basic tuning. It simply turned into a new technique one needs to learn.
For example : one can easily pitch a note a semi-tone by carefully sliding the steel bar with the left hand, one bracket higher (just like with a bottleneck), and then, without moving the left hand, by pressing on the right pedal (the one pre-set to pitch a semi-tone higher). In both cases, one must obviously hit the string with the two finger picks and thumb pick on the right hand.
Emmons and Sho-Bud in the US, Weisner (the ultimate model, now manufactured in France !) took over where Gibson left off, to build pedal-steel guitars that became more and more sophisticated as they went along and some of the most talented performers, like Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green and Paul Franklin (from Dire Straits) are able to really add another dimension to this instrument's potential.
Your basic pedal-steel is played sitting down, has 10 strings tuned E9 (the Nashville tuning), 3 pedals and 4 knee-pieces that are used by spreading or joining the legs. They are used exactly for the same purpose as the pedals and were made to enhance the possibilities of this technique. If you ever come accross double-necked models, the second one is tuned C6, to play jazz. And if you would like to buy one in France, I would certainly recommend Lozach, Wenling, Bozonnet, Langlois...