The Art of Sweetened Tuning — Pedal Steel Guitar and Peterson Tuners

It was a cold January morning in 2003, and I was sitting in the office when the phone rang. “Hi, my name is Jeff Newman” a voice said. “Is this the guy who makes the tuner for pedal steel?”

“Yes it is. Did you get my call about it?” I tried to hide my excitement.

“Yeah”, said Jeff, “I’m pretty tickled! What were you guys thinking? Don’t you know that you can’t tune a steel guitar?” he said, laughing.

At Peterson, we had been working on designing the successor to the Peterson VS-1, and one of the instruments that caught our eye was pedal steel guitar — a quirky, four-legged puzzle requiring hands, knees and feet to play.


Intrigued, we had discovered that lots of pedal steel players eschewed Equal temperament in favor of elements of Just Intonation. It made sense, as a pedal steel’s sustain far outstrips that of a regular guitar, so the ear would have a hard time putting up with the grating sound of Equally tempered thirds and various other intervals.

This led us to the presumption that pedal steel players were tuning to something in their heads that they deemed ideal, but that the common LED/Needle tuner could not zero in on.

Further investigation revealed that at one time, quite a few years ago, a chart had been compiled from the results of a tuning performed by the legendary Lloyd Green, who played with everyone from Paul McCartney to Tammy Wynette. The man behind compiling the chart was Jeff Newman, a player/teacher from outside Nashville, Tennessee.

We decided to see if we could add a preset that would incorporate this chart, and so began our quest. Initially, we decided to include a couple of offset presets for the two most common pedal steel tunings, E9 and C6. These now- standard tunings are relatively recent, having been developed by steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons in the 1950s and adopted by the majority of players of pedal steel since then.

One drawback with pedal steel is its complexity. With the steep learning curve involved, even accomplished players of the regular six-string guitar can find it quite intimidating. In addition to this already daunting challenge, there is the special “tweaked” )or so-called “tampered tuning”) of the instrument, which tended to discourage beginners from becoming potential players.

For those who are unfamiliar with the pedal steel guitar, it started its evolution based on the Hawaiian slide guitar, became console mounted, acquired pedals and was established as a mainstream instrument. It is a peculiarity of the pedal steel that, although most people would not recognize the instrument on sight, they most certainly have heard it played on thousands of recordings from the 1950s to the present day. The sound of a pedal steel guitar is unmistakable, and, although some see it as a country music instrument, it has been used by rock musicians like Jimmy Page and Steve Howe of Led Zeppelin and Yes fame, as well as by lesser-known but supremely gifted jazz musicians such as Hal Rugg, Jimmy Day, Curly Chalker and, of course, Buddy Emmons, who remains an icon of the pedal steel guitar and was responsible for much of its development.

Initial tuning tests using the new tuner prototype, which ultimately became the Peterson VS-II, on a mid 1960s Emmons D10 pedal steel guitar were encouraging. Further exhaustive trials were then conducted with various other pedal steel guitars, including a Sho-Bud, and a modern MSA Millennium. My own pedal steel, an early 1980s Marlen D10, spent more time being the test bed for these presets than it spent being played. The instrument is quite complex, so we spent a lot of time evaluating responses and tweaking parameters. Independent opinions are vital, so we called on the expertise of local steel player Paul Warnik, who is knowledgeable in matters of pedal steel and has supplied both reso and steel instruments to notables such as Ry Cooder, Junior Brown, and Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, tuning these guitars – which was previously quite a chore even for a seasoned professional – became so easy that even a non-player could do it in a few minutes! 

However, it remained to be seen what Jeff Newman thought of it all. In addition to being a very active figure in the advancement of the pedal steel guitar, Jeff was also a well known educator, teaching both beginners and advanced players. Refusing a freebie, Jeff insisted that he would feel better evaluating the tuner without bias. Back at Peterson, we waited for the call.

“I’d sure like to introduce it during one of my seminars at Scotty’s this year” Jeff said, referring to the annual International Steel Guitar Conference. “Players need to know about this tuner, so you better be ready to sell a lot of tuners!”

And so it was that on Labor Day Weekend in 2003, we set up a Peterson booth for the first of many years at the International Steel Guitar Show in St. Louis, the biggest pedal steel convention in the world.

At the time, half of the worldwide steel guitar- playing population came to Scotty’s every year. (The other half was apparently gigging or subbing for and stealing the attendee’s jobs while they were at the show!) 

Suffice it to say, we were bowled over by the response to the new pedal steel tuner! Being the first tuner for pedal steel made the Peterson VS-II synonymous with tuning that instrument and almost every Peterson tuner since then has had pedal steel guitar presets, each one surpassing the previous model in its effectiveness. We also introduced a special mounting clamp called the Pitch-HolderTM, allowing the tuners to be mounted to the changer-side leg of a pedal steel, a mic stand, etc. Currently, the Peterson StroboPlusTM is the flagship pedal steel tuner in the world. Through the years since then, we can count among our users such steel guitar virtuosos as the late great Don Helms, John Hughey, Doug Jernigan, “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, Neil Flanz, Terry Bethel, Randy Beavers, Jeff Peterson, Buck Reed, and many more. More importantly, being able to quickly and easily tune this most advanced member of the guitar family has removed a hurdle for beginning players and has proven to be an encouragement to persevere in the learning process, which, as every steel player knows, never ends.

      Current Peterson Tuners featuring presets for the pedal steel guitar include:

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®2013 John Norris for Peterson Electro-Musical Products, Inc. All rights reserved.