Tuning Up Your Steel Guitar

Like everything else in steel guitar, you start simple and somehow get pulled off to the more complex or even to the absurd. Yes, there are some wrinkles to tuning up if you are one of those guys who make slight pitch adjustments to the basic tunings. (You guessed it... I'm one of those guys.)

The Basics

C13th Tuning
Pitch Gauge Cents 440 Scale
E .014 -6.0 438.5
C .017 +4.0 441
A .020 -6.0 438.5
G .024w +6.0 441.5
E .030w -6.0 438.5
C .036w +4.0 441
Bb .042w -6.0 438.5
C .060w +4.0 441
A6th Tuning
Pitch Gauge Cents 440 Scale
E .014 +6.0 441.5
C# .017 -6.0 438.5
A .021 +4.0 441
F# .026w -6.0 438.5
E .030w +6.0 441.5
C# .036w -6.0 438.5
A .042w +4.0 441
F# .052w -6.0 438.5
E13th Tuning
Pitch Gauge Cents 440 Scale
E .014 +4.0 441
C# .017 -6.0 438.5
B .018 +4.0 441
G# .024w -6.0 438.5
F# .026w +4.0 441
D .034w +4.0 441
G# .046w -6.0 438.5
E .056w +4.0 441
My 3-neck Fender Stringmaster settings based on the Adjusted Tuning scheme (see below).

If you are a beginner, you're best bet is to tune up with an electronic tuner, or if you have a good ear already you may be able to tune up using harmonics. I will post more on tuning with harmonics soon. Though I can tune quickly by ear in most situations, I do have to rely on a tuner when crowd noise is a factor or when silence is important in a concert setting.

Tuning Mechanics

We call it "tuning up" for a reason. Always start with the string below your target pitch and slowly raise the string up to your desired pitch. If you start with the string higher than your target pitch and then tune down to your note, you're going to have problems. Because of the metal-on-metal construction of tuning gears there is inherent "slack" in the system. If you tune downward instead of upward, the tuning gears could slip a little resulting in a flat note, and this could happen in the middle of a steel solo! Always tune upward to remove the slack in the tuning gears.

Tuning Systems

Okay, now for the fun part. Here's a boiled down version that I hope makes sense to you. For quite a while western music has been based on Equal Temperament—a tuning system based on a 440 A—an invention designed to make all keys sound similar harmonically. Before that, musical instruments were tuned via natural harmonics, the so called 'Just' tuning method, which had a very rich sound but made playing in different keys difficult or impossible. Some instruments, notably the piano, can even be "stretch" tuned to compensate for how the human ear perceives notes in different registers. Ouch! How does steel guitar play into all this?

Steel guitarists generally follow one of the tuning systems just mentioned above. Let's break it down to three schools of thought:

  • 440 Tuning - tuning all your strings to an electronic tuner based on A 440 (Equal Temperament).
  • Harmonic or Just Tuning - tuning to the upper harmonics generated by your tuning's primary note (C for a C6th, E for an E7th, etc.). When you tune by this method half the strings are flat to 440 tuning.
  • Adjusted Tuning - This is like Harmonic/Just tuning but all the pitches are raised up by a small amount so that the average of all pitches is closer to 440.

The Steel Guitar Tuning Dilemma

When you tune your steel guitar strings to 440 on an electronic tuner, you're getting notes that sound very good with your band; keyboards and guitars are generally tuned to 440 (Equal Temperament). But when you play a simple major chord by yourself and let it ring, you notice "beats" that suggest to the ear that the chord is out of tune. This is because the chord root generates harmonics in the upper register that can be faintly heard, among them notes that your other fingers are picking. But these natural harmonic tones are slightly flat to the tones you are picking and that's what creates the beats and the sense of being out of tune.

Why is this a problem for steel guitar and not the other instruments? This has to do with how the sounds are produced. Pianos and guitars have hammers and frets, which produce a percussive sound. The attack is sharp and then you get a quick drop-off in volume. For this reason, you don't notice conflicts created by the upper harmonics. On steel guitar, you don't have a strong attack since there are no frets, and you often play chords with lots of sustain, which allows the ear to track the upper harmonics.

Three Possible Solutions

One solution to this problem is to just ignore it. Tune up to 440 and play right along with the band and hope you blend in. You will if you play lots of single-note stuff and percussive, rapid chords. But if you play long sustaining chords and pads, it may drive you and others crazy. I say "may" because this is a controversial issue and there's lots of disagreement about it. My view is that if your chords have the richness of just tuning, your audience will separate your sound from the stuff other instruments are playing and there won't appear to be a clash. Also, vibrato on the steel tends to mask intonation problems with the rest of the band. I play lots of chords and lots of pads with a fair amount of vibrato, so I feel that tuning to the natural scale (the scale based on natural harmonics) is the way to go for me. Long, sustained chords have a very majestic sound when you are tuned to natural harmonics.

The Thirds and Sixths Problem

The biggest conflicts between 440 tuning and natural harmonic tuning are with the thirds and sixths. So in the key of C, the E notes (thirds) and A notes (sixths) are the problem. They will sound sharp if you tune to an electronic tuner. I generally drop these tones 8 to 10 cents. Some players try to compensate for this flatness by shifting the whole tuning up in pitch slightly so that the average pitch is around 440. This is the Adjusted Tuning scheme listed above. It makes sense and works well for a lot of musical situations and playing styles. I have now largely adopted the Adjusted Tuning scheme (see my settings above). The drawback is that no notes will then be exactly in tune. But you'll be closer to your guitar player or keyboard player on average.

Other Tuning Factors

Your Band's Instrumentation

There are a host of factors that creep in when you decide on a tuning scheme for your steel guitar. As mentioned, how you play is a factor, how many chords you play and how much sustain and vibrato you use. And your band's instrumentation can be a factor—if you're in a trio with no guitar player or piano player, you're going to have a lot more leeway—you probably won't want to use 440 tuning.

Keys Favored By Your Band

If your band strongly favors one key over the others, you may want to adjust your tuning scheme. For example, if you use Just Tuning on a C6th, and the band plays frequently in the key of E, those open E notes are going to sound flat if you're doing a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs on the E strings. It's one thing to have flat thirds and sixths as mentioned above; but if the root of the chord, E in this case, is 10 cents flat, you have a much more severe problem. You could offset this problem if you play a double or triple neck guitar and have an E tuning on board for some of these open string effects—those E notes will be in tune if you use Just Tuning. If you don't have access to an E tuning or don't want to deal with the excessive flattedness of Just Tuning in general, you would probably want to take the Adjusted Tuning approach and raise each string by 3 or 4 cents.