The pedal steel is an instrument unlike any other. Its haunting tones and smooth glissando attract many players, but it's a challenging, high-maintenance instrument, and players often feel unsure if they'll have the patience to learn it. For this reason, most first-time players seek out a used pedal steel to try it out before buying an expensive new model.
What to Look For
Used pedal steel guitars are not nearly as expensive as new, but they are still expensive. You will be paying at least $1,000 for your first used pedal steel guitar, assuming you choose one that's worth buying. Cheaper student or starter models exist under $1,000, but they are of such poor quality and will require so much maintenance it is not worth the time or money.
Here are some general tips to provide a basic but well-defined playing field for your shopping research.
Avoid the 60s and 70s.
Unlike the electric guitar market in those classic eras, the technology for pedal steels was poor, and it resulted pedal steels that either sounded terrible or were very difficult to play.
Avoid Fender and Gibson
Both Fender and Gibson tried their hand at selling pedal steels, but they failed and eventually left the market long ago. You might find old Fender and Gibson pedal steels occasionally, and their brand power might entice you to buy, but their attempts at pedal steel were not well contrived, and their instruments are difficult to play.
Stick to Newer Models
Only go as far back as the '90s or 2000s. Modern technology improved dramatically for pedal steels, and your playing experience will be better with newer models.
Get Enough Pedals and Levers
Buy a pedal steel with at least three pedals and four knee levers so you have enough versatility in tone and performance to make it worth your time and money to learn.
The best pedal steels are made by boutique custom shops. There is not enough demand for the big manufacturers (i.e. Gibson, Fender, Ibanez) to make pedal steels, so it is a niche-focused, boutique industry that supplies the quality ones. You will meet fantastic steel guitar enthusiasts like this man:
Get Visual and Audio Evidence of Good Condition
Do not buy a used pedal steel guitar without asking for pictures showing every area of the guitar, especially if the seller's reputation is unknown. (If the seller is reputable, however, you can feel more at ease if every square inch hasn't been shown.) Check less visible areas such as the undercarriage and the tuning keys. You want to make sure there is no damage or missing parts. If you can see a recently recorded demonstration of it being played, that's even better.
Dings Are Okay
Dings on the wood surface of a pedal steel are not deal breakers. In fact, they are common. Players will often slip and accidentally drop their tone bar on the wood. What is a deal breaker, however, are broken mechanical pieces--the parts that allow you to operate the pedal and other levers to produce and regulate the sound.
Buy in Person
Buying a used pedal steel is similar to buying a car. You need to know that it runs well and taking it for a test drive is the only sure way of knowing. If you're able to find a shop within distance so you can play the used pedal steel in-person before buying it, then do whatever it takes. Buying online is convenient, but you won't know for sure what you're getting until it arrives.
Know the Quality Boutique Brands
Some of the most reputable brands include Rains, Emmon, Franklin, Fessenden, Derby, and Show Pro.
Look for Properly Aged Wood
The pedal steel's cabinet is usually made of wood, and it should be a wood that was properly aged during the manufacturing process so it does not easily shrink or expand in different temperatures.
Avoid Humming or Buzzing Electronics
If you turn it on to play it and there is noticeable humming or buzzing, the pickups or electronics are not as good as they should be. Move on to another model or insist on repair work before purchasing it. Pedal steels need quiet electronics to sound excellent.
Lacquer Finishes Are Best
A best case scenario is a pedal steel with multiple layers of lacquer finish. With lacquer, there's less need for expensive refinishing throughout the life of a pedal steel.
Buying Used vs. Buying New
To be clear, there's no shame in buying a new pedal steel guitar from the start if:
- You can easily afford it.
- You don't feel confident enough about your assessment ability during the shopping process and don't want to take the chance of buying a lemon.
- You're just too nervous about getting cheated (which does happen, sadly, even in the tight-knit pedal steel communities).
New models costs thousands more than used, but if you're set on it, brands such as the Show Pro are reliable, high quality guitars and a great brand for your first new model.
Where to Buy
The following boutique shops and websites are great places to find high quality used pedal steel guitars:
- Billy Cooper's Steel Guitars: Jeff Newman, a legendary Nashville pedal steel guitar sessions player, describes Billy Cooper's Steel Guitars as "The biggest and best steel guitar shop in the world, and I've seen them all." The shop located in Orange, Virginia, and it has a 4,200 square foot showroom that is dedicated to the pedal steel guitar. Prices range from about $2,500 to $4,000 before shipping.
- Steel Guitars of North County: This Oceanside, California company has a detail-oriented website with direct access to their Google spreadsheets detailing all the specs and condition assessments of every used steel guitar on their floor. Prices range from about $1,100 to as high as $20,000 because they occasionally get a collectible pedal steel owned by a famous player.
- Lamb's Music: This Texas-based custom shop buys and sells used pedal steel guitars. It has an excellent reputation, and it is a family-owned boutique shop that has been in business for 30 years. It has done repair work for big-name brands such as Fender, Gibson, and Taylor. It does not publish its prices for its used steel guitar inventory, but you can fill out their contact form to get the latest models and prices. The price range is most likely similar to other boutique stores from low $1,000 to several thousand dollars.
- Steel Guitars of Nashville: The pedal steel guitar is synonymous with the Nashville country sound, so it makes sense to buy direct from the source. This Tennessee-based store has a small rotating stock of used steel guitars that range from about $1900 to $4000 depending on stock. Although inventory is small, its used steel guitars are always top-notch.
- Steel Guitar Forum (linked above): This warm community of pedal steel enthusiasts is a primary hub for players who want to sell their used steel guitars directly to other players. This is where consumer savvy comes in because sometimes sharks prowl these communities. Prices range from $1,000 or less (occasionally) to many thousands of dollars. The moderators do an excellent job of monitoring sales, providing a system of etiquette, and maintaining a list of sellers who've been blacklisted, but bad characters do sometimes get in so be vigilant. For the most part it is a wonderfully supportive community, but there can be the occasional bad apple.
That Smooth Glissando Makes the Effort Worthwhile
Admittedly, taking up the pedal steel guitar is hard work and expensive. It requires real time and effort to research and shop for instruments in the boutique pedal steel world, and then it takes even more time and effort to learn. But once you've mastered that smooth glissando sound that can fill an entire show space with its warmth (like Daniel Lanois above), it will all be worth it.