Steel guitar tone

Hello fellow players,

In the last newsletter I covered materials that are used in steel guitars, namely the exotic woods. Everyone agrees that maple, well dried makes about the best sounding body that can be built. Well dried maple from 5/8ths to 3/4ths seems to be the trick when it comes to building a good steel guitar body. Maple is getting harder and harder to find every year. That is, maple with good knurled grain. Straight grain maple is a lot easier to find and to my ear, straight grain maple sounds about as good as birdseye or fiddle-back maple.

But if you’re not going to paint the wood or cover it with mica, the grain in the birdseye maple will really help the value of the guitar. You’ll find grain in maple that you won’t find in most other kinds of wood. After all, whoever heard of curly ebony?

At times, you will run across some walnut with good grain and possibly a small piece of birch, but maple is what you need to look for, for tone. Many people have asked me what difference the kind of wood makes for tone because it’s a solid body guitar, not an acoustic body and they’ll say, “It’s the pickup where the tone comes from and not the body.”

Nothing could be more ridiculous or farther from the truth. If the guitar doesn’t sound good acoustically it’s not going to sound good when you put a pickup in or a microphone in front of it. As I have said many times before, it’s not the microphone that makes the singer sound good, it the way he sounds normally without being amplified.

Sure, a tiny amount of the timbre comes from the amplifier, the tape machine, the cords, the microphone and so on, but if the tone isn’t being made at the source, the finest equipment in the world won’t help.

The bridge on a steel guitar, the way it is mounted and where it is placed as to the string length is also very important. This is why Fender Stringmasters sound very differently even though the guitars are make out of the same wood in pretty much the same way. The string length being twenty two and a half, twenty four and a half or twenty six will sound amazingly different.

What I’m trying to tell you here is there are many things that can affect the tone of a steel guitar, even if they all have the same pickup. There are a couple of pedal steel guitars made today that I see people raving about how incredible they are, but these people are having tremendous problems with the tone of the guitar. These players are continuously trading their pickups around. They’re buying TrueTones, Alumatones, Lawrence and GeorgeLs trying to fix the tone of their steel guitar, but to no avail.

Soon they realize that they are fighting an uphill battle, even with great amplifiers, they’re having serious problems but they’ll never get fixed with different pickups. There will always be a market for these guitars because many people just don’t realize what the problem is, and many wouldn’t notice the problem if they did know tone.

I remember in my first years of playing steel guitar, I always wanted to get a Bigsby pickup to put on my guitar. I went on for years. I finally bought a used Bigsby pickup from Shot Jackson. I put it on my guitar and it still didn’t fix my tone. The guitar just had to be right and it wasn’t.

I used to think Chet Atkins tone was all in his black Gretsch pickups make by DeArmond. Then he switched to Gibson. His tone did not get any worse, but stayed pretty much the same. A lot of it had to do with his hands, the way he set the controls on the amplifier and his aggressiveness or execution in playing the Gibson.

The same thing here goes for steel guitar. It’s hard to beat an Emmons push pull through a Standel or Webb amplifier. I’ve heard some incredible Sho-Buds through old Fenders and I’ve heard Sho-Buds through several other kinds of amps. Then I’ve heard some bad steel guitars that I won’t name here that sounded bad no matter what you plugged them into.

The reason I’m bringing all this up is that in the last two months I’ve had many steel players email me saying their tone is nowhere near as gorgeous as I get on records. They want to know how myself, Lloyd Green and many of the Nashville players get the tone that we do.

It’s really pretty easy to get a good tone if you have the right guitar and a very good amplifier, the right cords, volume pedal and attack the strings correctly with your right hand. If you ever get a chance to see Ron Elliott play, watch him closely. Lloyd is a good player, gets good tone as is Steve Hinson with Randy Travis and many other players in this town that sound really good. They pick correctly with good right hand technique and are pretty fanatical about their equipment.

I was pretty shocked the other night to hear Lynn Owsley get such a good tone from what I considered a somewhat off brand guitar, but he sounded great through a Webb amplifier. Jimmy Day also sounded great as you’ll remember through a Webb amplifier.

One more thing I’d like to add before I close out this newsletter is guitars that were previously owned by star players. It’s foolish to think that these guitars are better because so and so star had them and played them for several years. Guitars of the same brand and model are pretty much created equal. What makes them sound different is the player and his choice of amplifier settings and his technique.

Listen to the difference in Curly Chalkers playing and Ralph Mooneys playing. The difference is night and day, however both can be playing the same brand of guitar. It’s not all their hands. It’s their choice of amplifier settings and their minute choices of cords, picks, volume pedals and effects.

Check out our monthly specials at and we’ll try to save you a lot of money.

Your buddy,

Steel Guitar Nashville
123 Mid Town Court
Hendersonville, TN. 37075
(615) 822-5555
Open 9AM – 4PM Monday – Friday
Closed Saturday and Sunday

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