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String Heights

by Bob Schaefer


Up until just a few years ago, no one in our industry made much out of the fact that the pedal steel guitar detuned itself to a certain degree each time a pedal or lever was activated. In a way it was considered nit-picking, but it did however get someone's attention, because a couple of guitar builders have installed a device to limit the detuning effect. We also have seen the electronic tuner come into common use in recent years. This was and is a big help towards all instruments playing in tune. So being a bit of a nit-picker myself, I'd like to discuss a condition that used to be a problem for me as I played my guitar, that problem being the height of the strings and the pressure required to make them all contact the steel bar, especially at the first fret and also a little bit at the second fret if the string heights varied a great deal. Just how these string depths are arrived at by the people that make guitars I don't know, but I would suppose that they are the result of an average of string diameters used by many players? Sort of a one size fits all?

Anyhow I have never sat down at a guitar yet where some pressure isn't required to keep the steel in contact with all the strings. When you press down hard enough to make contact with all strings (so the bar touches even the lowest string) you do raise the pitch of the highest string a certain amount. It's really only noticeable at frets one and two but if we go to the trouble of electronic tuning, and adjust for the detuning of the instrument via pedal\knee lever pressure, why not try and eliminate one other source of a potential problem?

GET A BIGGER BAR! I've heard that said a few times, ha ha, but that doesn't solve anything except make it easier on the player by his not needing to press down so hard, etc. Having worked in a machine shop all of my working years, I used its facilities to correct this problem for myself. I re-grooved some of my rollers that needed it until all of my strings were the same height at the first fret within .002". So now very little pressure is required to make contact with all of the strings. Most any tool shop could do this for a player by using a cutting tool or grinding wheel with a .042" radius at its tip and grooving the necessary rollers as needed, or doing likewise on the stationary nut of a lap steel provided that you will always use these same string diameters (otherwise a new nut might be in order.) On the ten string Alkire E-harp steel guitar, the stationary nuts were grooved very accurately, but only for that particular tuning. Put other strings on and you are back to square one. Now about 95% of this problem could be solved if the manufacturers would stock rollers with .002" depth graduations, then the players could choose for their own needs. As I see it, only 14 groove depths would be required. Since 10 or 12 or 14 are required anyway I can't see why this couldn't be done.

Some years ago I saw the ultimate fine adjustment method that a fellow made, but this method was expensive! What he did was to make individual roller holders with a 7/32" stem about 1/2" long, and with the upper portion that held the roller being just the right width, so that when 10 or more were placed in a row they looked like they were all mounted as part of a common holder as today's do. The height adjustment was made by an 8-32 set screw that fit into a threaded hole just below the stem. It required drilling ten or more holes (depending on the number of strings) quite accurately and in an exact straight line completely through the guitar. The holes would be drilled with a #29 drill, and then tapped for an 8-32 thread. If necessary, the lower ends of the holes could be drilled out to clearance size, so that an excessively long tap would not be required. This works perfectly but is not a project for the do-it- your selfer.

Am I alone out here? Have any of you had this problem with string heights that bothered you?