Warning: I am writing about things I am still straining to understand. I am not a scientist or mathematician. The chance of inaccuracy is therefore high. If you are writing a thesis on this subject I urge you to look elsewhere.
When it comes to tuning up, it turns out that we’ve all been doing it wrong forever. Unless, that is you’re a 14th century Persian, in which case you have my admiration.
I came to the pedal steel guitar through the guitar, a six-stringed instrument which requires the fretting hand to press on the space behind different frets with the four fingers, and occasionally, thumb of the left hand for right handers and vicey versa.
Since I could afford one, I’ve tuned my guitar using a variety of electronic tuners. Currently, like most guitarists, I use a clip-on guitar tuner on the headstock of my instrument which usually tunes the guitar to, from the lowest in pitch E-A-D-G-B-E. I often drop the bottom-pitched (geographically top) string from an E to a D. This gives the guitar a drone D-A-D chord on the bottom three strings which I love to hear.
I have never questioned all of this until I started to play the steel guitar, but I think I was always aware that some chords on my six-string guitar sounded better than others. This was so even when the guitar was demonstrably perfectly in tune according to the device I was using. I always imagined that this was as a result of the intonation of the guitar being off in some way, and needing the adjustable bridge to be professionally set up, something which, due to laziness, never ever happened.
This suck-on-a-lemon dissatisfaction with tuning manifested itself in a couple of ways: firstly, an awareness that some chords on the neck would result in a sound that was a little like a serrated knife being run slowly along the top of the ear. A tonal wobble would be hanging around between the notes and detracting from the joy of the whole thing. It’s a really subtle thing, but I’d say I was wincing and then checking tuning maybe 1 time in 20 to see what was going on.
I suspect now that what I was experiencing was the drawbacks of equal temperament. It’s a maths thing. The frequency intervals between notes should be mathematically pure, for instance, A = 440 Hz and the A an octave above it = 880 Hz. The one below is 220 Hz. Which is fine if you’re only playing As. the problem is that fretted stringed instruments are designed to play in any key that Gary Barlow fancies. So if you’re going to do that, and play more than one note at a time to make harmonies, there are new, complex intervals and mathematical frequency ratios involved which have to work together to cover every note in a chromatic scale. But they can’t. In short, the notes on a guitar neck cant be mathematically in tune with eachother in every key. They’re divided equally, which gives you roughly there or thereabouts the note you’re after, but it’s usually a multi-tasking near-as-dammit because the precise ratios you need for harmonies can’t work in every direction at the same time.
A classic example of this is that if you add up 7 pure octaves and compare it to 12 pure fifths, you get a slightly different number. Although they should be the same, they are naturally out by a tiny fraction, referred to as a Pythagorean comma. If you’re playing a fretted instrument, somewhere, a compromise must be made. Your average scale is a size 9 foot squeezed into an 8-and-a-half shoe.
Funnily enough, Vincenzo Galilei (father of) spotted this in 1581. He was a lutist, and worked out that despite having a genius son, he’d never play a perfect scale in equal temperament. Well, he should have got out more. The Arab world was perfecting the art of microscopically adjusted tuning (Maqamat) as early as the 14th Century. It’s an art because you can’t mathematically come to a perfectly adjusted tuning. But you can make some sound better than others for you, and for the style of music you play. Art.
You see, perfection isn’t everything. The downside of guitars having straight frets is slightly wonky tuning, although the upside is that you can pick them up and play them almost straight away. It’s a small price to pay. It also gives the guitar its very own sound – although being in tune is a mathematical proposition, it’s also a matter of taste. Sinatra’s voice was all over the place when it came to tuning, but it never lost him girlfriends. The guitar, with its fatally flawed straight frets, has a sound that we all recognise and love as being a guitar, mathematically compromised warts and all. It’s got sonic baggage that we have all got used to and love.
But of course, as even the casual observer would notice, there are no frets on a steel guitar. And that changes everything.
The relationship between the notes is, by and large, constant, thanks to the large chunk of steel in your left hand. Keep that straight and your left foot and knees still, and the intervals between the strings won’t change. They don’t need a one-size fits all approach like you do with a fretted or, for that matter, keyed instrument. Give me a key! I’ll play it! The straight bar maintains the same frequency ratio between all the strings. And even if you do use pedals and knee levers, the range of keys you’ll be playing makes it much more predictable which mathematical side of each note you’ll want to jump.
I hadn’t really appreciated this until I bought a new tuner. Say hello to my new tuner, the Peterson Strobe Plus HD, supplied by Gerry Hogan.
Isn’t she a thing? I don’t know how the strobe bit of the Strobo Plus Hd ™ works, but just to be safe, if you have experienced seizures at any point in your life then please look away from this page periodically and take regular rests. Importantly, this machine has a FANATICAL devotion to accuracy in a way that my little clip-on Jeremy just didn’t. As you can see, the signal runs straight through its body without acoustic adulteration, then out to pedals and amps. 100% instrument, all day long. But that’s not where the exciting bit happens. The Strobo Plus HD comes equipped with sweeteners, some based on Maqamat patterns, and some based on the work and impeccable ear of pedal steel didact Jeff Newman (see blog ep. 9). Thanks to him and his ancient Persian buddies my new tuner has more sweeteners than a tea room catering specifically for those with diabetes.
A Sweetener is a set of tunings – some dating all the way back to the 14th Century – which takes account of the notes with which the note it’s tuning is likely to be paired, and adjusts it by a tiny amount to make the ratio between them mathematically correct, or at least less of a compromise than equal tuning. The effect on the of this is staggering. It’s like being in tune for the very first time.
It’s like you’re in love for the very first time.
Being able to swoop along the neck in a mathematical justified manner is one of the things that gives the pedal steel its intergalactic feel, its dramatic effect and what makes people ask with such regularity.
‘What is making that sound? That’s amazing.’