PSG Buyer's Guide
Here are some useful guidelines developed with you in mind... They were created through extensive research with experienced players, beginners, and steel guitar builders in the areas of reliability, ease of maintenance, playability, materials, and construction.
If you follow these guidelines when purchasing a pedal steel guitar, you can expect to be happy with your selection.
- Pay for quality
Many of us know steelers who have gone through 3 or 4 steel guitars within a few years. They were not happy and kept trading up. By the time they were done, they had spent more than enough to own any brand on the market.
What we heard nearly all the time from experienced players was:
- Buy the very best quality you can afford the 1st time.
- Quality is VERY important to playability and reliability.
Steel players have no room for steel guitars that let them down. You'll be glad you paid the price for quality -- you'll regret settling for less. Buy the best steel guitar you can possibly afford.
- Research the manufacturer
Experience is the best teacher in steel guitar-making. A steel guitar builder who has not been around long enough to experiment extensively with materials and manufacturing methods still has mistakes to make. The resale or trade-in value of an instrument tends to decline (sometimes rapidly) when the manufacturer goes out of business. The simple truth is that a builder without a past may not have much of a future.
- Verify service and warranty
Remember: You are purchasing both a steel guitar and an ongoing "relationship with the builder" of your steel. Here are some important things to remember:
- Find out about the warranty. A warranty indicates the manufacturer's confidence in the reliability of its product.
- Ask about the owner's manual. Having a clear, concise, and up-to-date owner's manual will save you a lot of time. The manual should be detailed enough to quickly answer most questions you may have about maintenance, tuning, and any adjustments or changes you may want to make to your steel guitar.
- Ask about the company's reputation for parts availability. You cannot play an instrument which stays in the shop for long periods of time or requires a lot of maintenance.
- Find out how the manufacturer handles warranty repairs, as well as "out-of-warranty" repairs.
- Are the builders available to answer your questions when you call? If not, do they respond promptly and professionally to your inquiries?
All of these are important considerations since you want to make sure that the company and its personnel will be there for you when you need them.
- Look for a semi-production steel guitar
Semi-production steel guitars can provide better values at a lower price. Manufacturing processes which require repeatable precision (such as machining, stamping, turning, sawing, and routing) are best performed by automated Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) machinery because CNC automation is more consistent, accurate, and cost-efficient.
The benefit of using these automated processes is that each part is exactly like the next and easily interchangeable by the purchaser or the builder. Every part fits precisely without modification.
Lower costs mean lower prices to you. These volume production techniques allow the builder to produce higher quality steel guitars while maintaining reasonable prices.
The steel guitar can then be "customized" for you by a skilled craftsman, who takes the parts of the instrument in hand to buff, fit, finish, assemble, install electronics, install your pedal/knee lever setup, and adjust the mechanics.
- Look for stable woods with good tone
Make certain that properly aged wood is used in the manufacture of the steel guitar you purchase. Wood tends to shrink and change moisture content after being sawed. This is one of the main reasons that wood needs to be aged (or seasoned) sufficiently before a steel guitar is built from it.
Steel guitar cabinets (bodies) should be built from "good-tone" wood. The wood should also have good strength and rigidity. Good-tone wood is wood that is capable of producing a clear tone when it vibrates. Hardrock Maple is a good compromise between "good tone" and the strength needed to provide the structural integrity necessary for a steel guitar.
Whatever the construction method of the body (or cabinet), the moisture content of the wood must be maintained throughout manufacture.
Also, the wood must be properly sealed to maintain a constant moisture content. The moisture content of the wood should remain both constant and average throughout the manufacturing process, so the steel can be shipped anywhere, any climate, with little change.
- Insist on quiet electronics
Steel guitar pickups must be shielded as well as possible from extraneous sound (such as humming and buzzing) and encapsulated to prevent microphonic feedback. Sometimes feedback is desired -- however when it is unintentional, it's a nuisance. Hum and buzz are always objectionable.
Humbucking-type pickups are the quietest. Humbucking pickups have 2 coils with reverse polarities wired out-of-phase for virtually no extraneous noise. The signal, however, is actually "beefed-up" for a fatter tone.
Some players prefer the single-coil sound because different pickup configurations have different resonant frequencies. Generally speaking, single coil pickups peak in the high midrange and are bright sounding.
Double-coil humbuckers peak in the low midrange and have a richer sound. Single-coil pickups may also be preferable in applications where a very quick attack is needed.
Split-coil (tapped coil) pickups have not been popular with steel guitarists and have not been used in quite awhile.
- Focus on attention to details
Attention to the smallest details is how you build value into a steel guitar. You can hear the difference. You can feel it, too. Sometimes, it doesn't even take that much more time to get it exactly right. Another thirty minutes or an hour at a certain point, and it's a much more playable steel guitar.
Attention to details by the builder makes the instrument more playable as it comes from the factory. Small details such as lining up the pull rods and pull bars are of great consequence. Properly lined-up pull bars and pull rods ensure that the steel guitar will play properly and that no binding will occur. Binding can cause problems with a string's ability to return accurately to pitch after being pulled.
This process is more time-consuming. However, it's the only way to get it right.
- Look for an innovative builder
Find out if the builder of the steel guitar originated any of the important innovations it incorporates. Unless the builder does his (or her) own research and development, he can't be as theoretically sophisticated as he needs to be.
Any steel guitar builder can put together a steel guitar using someone else's parts or copy their competitor's designs. However, can they perfectly integrate various parts and designs and assemble a steel guitar for optimum playability and sound? Do the various components in and manufacturing processes used to produce the steel guitar utilize the latest technology for increased reliability and quality?
- Examine action, playability, and comfort
Take a blindfold test ... you can distinguish a good steel guitar from an average steel guitar. Good action, sustain, intonation, and playability should give it away.
Check for little problems, such as knee levers which continue to travel after they hit the stop and and rods that clatter when you step on and off the pedals.
Good action means the pedals and knee levers are quick, responsive, positive-feeling. This is particularly important on fast leads. Playing the steel guitar is the way to check for good action.
Verify that you fit under the steel guitar and that you would be comfortable playing the guitar for long hours at a time. If the steel is too tall or too short, ask your builder to modify the height. Your builder should be able to do this operation for a modest fee.
Make sure the knee levers are wide enough apart to prevent "accidental" operation of a knee lever (be certain that the knee levers are not too far apart since that will slow you down). Verify that the knee levers can be adjusted easily by you if you choose to do so at a later time. If the knee levers would be more comfortable in a different position, ask the manufacturer to reposition them.
- Check tone and sustain
Compare several several steel guitars. Play each string open, and listen for sustain. Feel for vibration.
Good tone means different things to different people. Everyone's ears are uniquely shaped and have a unique frequency response. Therefore, each person hears the same sounds slightly differently. Listen to the tone and see if it pleases you. Check for clarity, balance, separation, and sustain across the strings, as well as above and below the 12th fret.
Sustain on a steel guitar is affected by many factors, some of which are:
- Materials used in construction of the steel guitar.
- Methods used to mount different components to the cabinet.
- Grain and density of the wood used in the cabinet.
- Type of strings used.
Sustain can be adversely affected by pickup magnets not being centered under the strings or mounting the pickups too close to the strings.
- Listen for extraneous noise from the pickups
Plug into an amp, turn the volume pedal wide open, step on and off the pedals, and then tap on the pickup itself. That will bring out hum, buzz, and 'microphonics' if the instrument is prone to unwanted noise.
Sometimes, feedback is a desirable sound for rock and heavy metal. Microphonic noise is never welcome. The hollow ringing and amplified undercarriage noises caused by microphonic pickups is annoying. Insufficient isolation, as well as improper construction of the pickups, are some of the main causes of these phenomena.
- Inspect the finish
The quality of the finish shows the care taken by, and skill of, the builder in assembling the steel guitar.
If the steel guitar is covered with mica, make sure that the laminate does not have dropouts (small white spots where the color is missing). Check for scratches and how well the laminate is glued to the cabinet. Check the quality of the polishing.
Look for pits, scratches, or extrusion marks on the polished metal parts.
On lacquer-finished steel guitars, look for paint sanding scratches and "orange peel" roughness to the finish. These are signs that finishing wasn't meticulous enough, and the new appearance may not last very long.
Ideally, the instrument will have multiple coats of lacquer, which were very carefully buffed by hand on a buffing wheel to take out all the "orange peel" rippling. Lacquer gives a deep, warm, mirror-like luster for a finish that makes a quality statement. Nitrocellulose lacquer tends to be more lasting and temperature-resistant than water-based lacquers. Lacquer is preferable to the commonly-used polyurethane because lacquer allows repairs without total refinishing. Refinishing, of course, is an extremely expensive, time-consuming process.