The Steel Guitar - A Short History

THE STEEL GUITAR was invented in Hawaii in the late 1800's. By the end of WWI it had worked its way into country music and though it appears in other settings, these are the two types of music where it is most often heard. Steel guitars are a small family of instruments closely related to the six string Spanish guitar. They may look quite similar (though not necessarily), but the playing technique is different in two important ways: steel is played with a steel bar held in the left hand, and the string height is such that instead of pushing a string down with the left hand to fret or shorten it at a particular fret, the string is barred or touched with the steel to raise its pitch. To make this easier, the original steel guitar was held in the player's lap, and the electric ones are often referred to as a 'lap steel'. Most steel players use a plastic thumb pick and three metal finger picks on the right hand although some use two or four; many Hawaiian players use a thumb pick with bare fingers and a few steelers (mostly converted guitar players) use a flat pick.

While the very first acoustic steel guitars had bodies much like the Spanish guitar, a special off-shoot of acoustic guitar, the resonator guitar first appeared in the 20's and is still popular today. Resonator guitars were primarily made by two companies: National and Dobro. Just to confuse matters more, Dobro makes instruments with both a 'Hawaiian' neck and a 'Rhythm' neck, although the term Dobro usually refers to an instrument meant to be played with a bar, and 'rhythm' neck refers to a Dobro with a fingerboard fretted like a standard guitar.

Like the Spanish guitar, the steel guitar can be electrified. With the introduction of amplification in the 30's, the steel guitar (like the Spanish guitar) gained pickups and became the electric steel guitar. Since an acoustic body was no longer necessary and actually caused feedback problems, the steel guitar quickly acquired a solid body and became the first true lap steel.

There is no one standard tuning for the steel guitar and the solid body electric steel allowed for instruments to be made with two, three and even four necks, each tuned differently. Multiple necks made holding the instrument on the lap almost impossible, and legs were added, making the first 'console' instruments, although a few single neck consoles were already being played by 'steelers' who preferred to stand. At the same time, the steel picked up two more strings (there were a few seven string steels) and by the end of WWII the double neck eight string console was fairly standard, although even today there are still many players who prefer a single neck six or eight, especially in Hawaiian and Western Swing music.

In the early 50's several players began experimenting with adding pedals which raised the pitch of a string, and in 1953, Bud Isaacs was the first player to use a pedal steel guitar on a hit recording: "Slowly" by Webb Pierce. The sound quickly caught on and many steel players converted to playing the 'pedal sound' For over a decade almost every steeler had his own tunings, but in 1964 Buddy Emmons started to use a steel guitar with two ten string necks, one tuned to 'chromatic E9' (the 'Nashville' neck) and the other to an extended C6 (the 'jazz' neck). This quickly became the standard and is probably the most popular setup today. As the technology improved, knee levers (functioning like pedals) were added along with the capability of double raising and lowering a string (having two different pitch changes on the same string on different pedals). In the late 70's Maurice Anderson started using a single 12 string neck with a 'universal' tuning which produced many if not all the sounds available on the double neck 10 string. Although there are a few exceptions, most of today's pedal steel pros use some variation of the E9-C6 double 10 or a Universal 12 or 14 string. The standard beginner's pedal steel is a single ten tuned to E9, with three pedals and one or two knee levers.

Back to the Music History Page