Pedal Steel   >   Info/Edu   >   C Scale

The C Scale Tuning for the Pedal Steel Guitar

by Bob Lee


The pedal steel guitar tunings currently in common use hinder the acceptance of the instrument in musical forms other than American "Country" music. An alternate tuning based on the natural C scale is proposed and explained.


The pedal steel guitar is a truly amazing musical instrument. It is one of the few instruments that can easily produce any note in the micro-tonal spectrum. Many musical instruments are limited to the notes of the twelve tone musical scale of the piano keyboard. Some instruments can produce notes that fall in between those tones as special effects ("bending" a note), but few can produce those "in-between" notes as easily and predictably as a fretless stringed instrument.

Like the violin, the pedal steel places the precise pitch of each note in the hand of the performer. But even the violin cannot produce full micro-tuned chords - it is limited to two-note harmony (the "double stop") by the curvature of its bridge. The pedal steel has no such limitation. The full potential of the pedal steel includes chordal music subtleties that cannot be performed on any other single instrument.

Why, then, is this remarkable instrument largely ignored by the international music community? The answer lies in the musical tastes of the Americans who invented the pedal steel and pushed the mechanical technology to its current advanced state, and in the large American subculture that appropriated certain pedal steel effects for its own music, called "country" or "country and western".

By and large, the best pedal steel guitarists in the world are the professional players of country music. This de facto association is one factor that works to the detriment of general acceptance of the instrument, but it is not the only factor. The tuning of the instrument makes it very easy to play American country music at the expense of most other musical forms.

The Technical Limitation

The standard E9th or "Nashville" tuning used on most pedal steels today is specifically designed for the country and western genre. This tuning spans an octave in the space of 5 strings. Pedals and knee levers are engaged to produce the remaining notes of a standard diatonic scale. Scale-based runs that include glisses or "bends" to get from one note of the scale to the next are a characteristic effect used in country music. Specifically, the whole tone bend is an effect that is used to excess. It is a recognizable ingredient of the "country sound", even to a casual listener.

Avoiding the whole tone bend effect is a major performance challenge for anyone playing the Nashville tuning. Even for the intermediate level player, fast scale-based melody work remains difficult. Some written passages seem to be beyond the capabilities of the instrument, especially if note bends are not to be permitted. In theory, the pedal steel guitarist should be able to play the right hand part of any piano piece. In practice, the Nashville tuning compromises that ideal.

An Historic Parallel

The pedal steel is a direct descendent of the Hawaiian electric steel guitar. During its most popular period (the 1930's through the 1950's) the Hawaiian guitar progressed from primitive major chord tunings to tunings based on jazz or swing chords. The sound of those advanced chordal tunings became part of the stereotyping of the instrument in Hawaiian and "western" (as in "country and western") music.

In the 1960's Jerry Byrd, an acknowledged master of the instrument, was approached with a project of difficult Japanese pop music. To accomplish the required degree of melodic expression, Byrd chose to use a scale-based, rather than chord-based, tuning. He called this 7-string tuning a "C Diatonic".

The Japanese album, later released in the USA by the Steel Guitar Record Club, was called Steel Guitar Romantic World. The music profoundly broke the Hawaiian steel guitar stereotype. It did not hint at any Hawaiian or "western" music flavor, because it did not use the characteristic major 6th and dominant 9th chords of those styles.

Jerry Byrd's C Diatonic Tuning

    1   E
    2   C
    3   B
    4   A
    5   G
    6   F
    7   E

Within Jerry Byrd's C Diatonic tuning, the next melody or harmony note is usually within easy reach from the fret of the current note. This means that the placement of glisses in the melody can be determined by the arranger or performer, rather than by limitations imposed by the tuning of the instument. In skilled hands, the resultant effect can be a striking departure from the "old timey" flavor most listeners expect from the Hawaiian electric steel guitar.

Extending The Concept

The addition of pedals greatly extends the capabilities of a steel guitar. Just as the logical extension of a chordal tuning is to give the player more chords at every fret, a scale tuning can be logically extended to give the player more scales at every fret.

Elementary music theory teaches us that the C scale can be altered to an F scale by flatting one note (B to Bb), and then to a Bb scale by flatting one more (E to Eb). In a similar fashion, the C scale can be altered to a G scale by sharping one note (F to F#), and then altered to a D scale by sharping one more (C to C#).

A third flat is accomplished by lowering the A to Ab, which in conjunction with the other two flatting changes makes an Eb scale. Likewise, a raise of the G to G# can be applied with the other two raises to create an A scale.

Thus, a pedal steel with 3 lowers and 3 raises can easily produce seven different scales at any fret. Applying these concepts to two pedals and four knee levers on an 8 string version of Jerry Byrd's tuning yields the following pedal steel tuning:

        LKL   P1   P2   LKR      RKL   RKR 
1  E                    -Eb                
2  C    +C#                                
3  B              -Bb                      
4  A                             -Ab       
5  G                                   +G# 
6  F         +F#                           
7  E                    -Eb                
8  C    +C#                                

The table below shows how pedal and knee lever combinations produce the key signatures of seven scales from the open, unfretted position:

scale   signature   combination
C       ---         ---
G       1 sharp     Pedal 1
D       2 sharps    Pedal 1 + Left Knee Left
A       3 sharps    Pedal 1 + Left Knee Left + Right Knee Right
F       1 flat      Pedal 2
Bb      2 flats     Pedal 2 + Left Knee Right
Eb      3 flats     Pedal 2 + Left Knee Right + Right Knee Left

The remaining five scales (E, B, F#, Ab and Db) are available at the first fret. Using this system, the player is never more than one fret away from any key signature at any fret.

This simple extension of Jerry Byrd's tuning to the pedal steel requires a very low level of mechanical changer technology. Each string is altered in only one direction, and by only one pedal or knee lever. This "single raise or single lower" concept makes the tuning easy to set up on inexpensive "student model" instruments.

In contrast, the Nashville E9th requires a "double raise and single lower" changer to set up the standard pedal and knee lever changes. The advanced machinery required by the Nashville E9th tuning raises the price of student instruments beyond what many can afford.

A Justifiable Omission

Readers have probably noticed by now that the D note is absent from this tuning. This deliberate omission is to accommodate the nuances of just temperment. Many steel guitarists are attracted by the beauty of pure physical harmonies. If the guitar is to be tuned to natural string harmonics, the tuning of the D note becomes a dilemma.

Given C as a starting point, G is tuned to a perfect fifth and F to a perfect fourth. The A string is tuned as a perfect third of the F, using the F string's harmonic point below the 4th fret as a reference. Similarly, the E and B strings are tuned as perfect thirds from the C and G strings, respectively.

The dilemma is that a D note that is in tune with the A string (derived as a third of F) is considerably flat of a D note that is in tune with the G string (derived as a fifth of C).

One of the pedal steel's greatest strengths is its ability to create perfectly tuned (i.e. "just tempered") music in any key. The compromise of the equal tempered scale, required by instruments that have twelve fixed pitches per octave, is not necessary on the steel guitar. While some steel guitarists use an electronic tuner to impose equal temperment on their instruments, forcing the twelve tone compromise as part of the tuning would do a disservice to those players who prefer the "sweeter" sound of just tempered chords.

By omitting the D string, the choice of temperment is left to the player.

Professional Level Extensions

A common "minimum requirement" for pedal steel guitars made in recent years includes 10 strings, 3 pedals, 4 knee levers, and a double raise / double lower changer. The tuning of the strings, pedals and 3 of the knee levers are dictated by the Nashville E9th standard, with the 4th knee lever (and perhaps a 5th, vertical lever) set up to the player's preference.

The C Scale tuning can be easily extended to take advantage of these sophisticated instruments. The following chart shows an advanced version of the tuning for use with a modern 10 string pedal steel, complete with string gauges.

            LKL   P1   P2   P3   LKR      RKL   RKR 
1  E .015                  --D   -Eb                
2  C .018   +C#                                     
3  B .020p            -Bb                           
4  A .022p                                -Ab       
5  G .024w                                      +G# 
6  F .026        +F#                                
7  E .030                        -Eb                
8  C .036   +C#                                     
9  A .044                                 -Ab       
10 G .052                  --F                  +G# 

The 9th and 10th strings provide additional range and low harmonies. By lowering the 10th string to F with the third pedal, the tuning acquires a range close to that of a standard Spanish guitar.

The "bonus" third pedal also provides the missing D note in the low octaves. The just temperment dilemna is solved by positioning the change on the "flat side" of the tuning, where it would logically be tuned relative to the A strings and used in conjunction with pedal 2 and the flatting knee levers.

What Kind Of Music?

This tuning lends itself easily to most musical forms, including classical, new age, jazz, and adult comtemporary. In modern pop and dance music, it turns the pedal steel guitar into a versatile controller for the latest electronic effects.

Once the tuning is learned, fast scale runs with tight harmonies are nearly as easy on the pedal steel as they are on a piano keyboard. In progressive rock, the steel guitarist can work a level playing field with other band members without fear of accidently "countrifying" the band's sound. The tuning is likewise at home in orchestral music, show tunes and film scores.

On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to coax the Nashville pedal steel sound from this tuning. Country dobro and blues licks are available, of course, but the characteristic full step bend is missing. The western swing style is also compromised because it relies on full step pedal changes within strummed chords. Bluegrass, with its reliance on fast arpeggios and pentatonic runs, is another form that's harder to play in the C Scale tuning than in the standard Nashville E9th.


A scale-based pedal steel tuning has firm historical roots and a solid foundation in music theory. The C Scale tuning in particular can be applied to either inexpensive or professional level instruments for musicians who have little interest in country music but want to play the pedal steel guitar. It permits a wide variety of musical expression and makes it easier to play fast diatonic music in any key.

Mastery of a scale-based tuning can expand a steel guitarist's musical vocabulary. For professional country musicians, it's a good choice for the rear neck of a double neck instrument. For those involved exclusively in other forms of music, the C Scale tuning effectively blocks the accidental use of undesirable country music cliches, especially the "full step bend".

Bob Lee is a computer programmer and freelance steel guitarist from Santa Rosa, California. His email address is, and he maintains The Pedal Steel Pages on the World Wide Web at