How to Understand Overtones when Tuning a Pedal Steel Guitar

Learn how to understand overtones in this Howcast video about how to tune a pedal steel guitar.

Okay. So how do you tune this thing? As I said before this is an E ninth chromatic tuning. What does that mean? Well, it means that it’s tuned to an open chord of E ninth. It has two E notes, two G sharp notes, two B notes, two F sharp notes, one D and one D sharp. The D sharp is why it’s chromatic. All the other notes are in the E ninth chord.

The pedal steel having ten strings there are issues with overtones that start to resemble the piano more than a guitar. You’ll find that if you tune all of the strings and all of the pedals to exactly straight up perfect in tune for the note that is assigned, it probably won’t sound very good. In fact, it’ll sound pretty bad.

So people have come up with different approaches to sort of temper the tuning as you do with a piano to compensate for the sort of psycho acoustics of the fact that it just doesn’t sound very good when everything is totally tuned perfectly to straight up 440.

Now 440 is just a measure to describe the tune of an A note, but if you have a tuner like this, this is the kind I like to use, a Boss tuner, basically it starts from the supposition that you’re working in 440 and then all the other notes sort of fall in line and you use the same grid in a way. So even though it says 440, the note if it’s an E note it’s not going to be exactly 440. It’s going to be what the E note would be tuned to if in the universe of having A at 440. I hope this is not too complicated but just take my word for it.

As far as the open strings are concerned, the tuning I use was devised by a guy called Jeff Newman, the late Jeff Newman, who was a very good teacher and one of the few guys who really had something you could call a pedal steel guitar method. And he, after a lot of trial and error, came up with a system that he wrote down that could be followed on a tuner specifically.

Now you will want to use a tuner that shows you what are called the cents. You see here 440, 442, 444, 446. This is important to have these gradations illustrated in this way in order to be able to follow the tuning that I’m going to show you.

Now surprisingly he had the E note at 442 and a half which is sharp of what you would expect, but then again he has the thirds, the G sharps slightly flat. So that is where the greatest interval occurs is between the root and the third.

So as just a matter of rote exercise and just following this little chart the first note is 441 and a half. The second is 439. The third is 439. The fourth, the E, 442 and a half. The B 442, the G sharp, the sixth string, 439. The F sharp 441 and a half. The second E 442 and a half again, the D 441 and a half, and the B 442.