Steel Guitar
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Steel Guitar
Steel guitar
Steel guitar.jpg
Three types of steel guitars: resonator, lap steel, pedal steel
String instrument
Other namesHawaiian guitar, lap steel, pedal steel, console steel, Dobro
Classification String instrument, flat picked or finger picked
Hornbostel-Sachs classification
(Composite chordophone)
Inventor(s)Popularized by Joseph Kekuku
Playing range


A steel guitar is any type of guitar that is played while moving a steel bar or similar object against the strings. It is a continuous pitch instrument known for its portamento capabilities including deep vibratos and smooth glissandos over wide intervals. It is perhaps the only instrument that can play full chords in portamento.[1] The object held against the strings is called a "steel" and is itself the origin of the name "steel guitar". It may be a solid bar held in the hand or a tubular object placed around the player's finger; it may go by many names, including "steel", "tone bar", "slide", "slide bar", "bottleneck" and others. The strings are typically plucked (not strummed) by the fingers of the dominant hand while the tone bar (steel) is pressed against the strings and moved by the opposite hand. Creating music with a slide of some type has been traced back to primitive stringed instruments in African culture, but the modern instrument was born and developed in Hawaii.

A steel guitar might be (or resemble) a traditional guitar, but played in a horizontal position, placed across the player's knees or otherwise supported- a technique developed in the 1890s popularized by Hawaiian musician Joseph Kekuku. This type of playing is referred to as "lap steel" or "Hawaiian style". A steel guitar may also be played in the traditional position (flat against the body) with the player using a hard tubular object around his finger, then called a "slide" and the technique called "slide guitar". It was developed in the Mississippi Delta by African American blues artists near the beginning of the twentieth century and typically heard in blues or rock music. The term "bottleneck" was historically used to describe this type of playing.

The sound of the Hawaiian music, featuring ukulele and steel guitar, became a major musical trend in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Its popularity spawned the creation of guitars designed specifically to be played horizontally. The first instrument in this chronology was the acoustic Hawaiian guitar also called a lap steel; next was a lap steel with a resonator to make it louder. Dramatic changes in these instruments came after 1934, when the electric guitar pickup was invented, allowing steel guitars to be heard equally with other instruments. Electrification allowed new guitars to be designed without any resonant chamber, bearing little or no resemblance to the traditional guitar shape, e.g., a rectangular block. Electronic amplification led to the development of the electrified lap steel, then the console steel, and the pedal steel guitar.

Early history

In the late 19th century, Spanish guitars were introduced in the Hawaiian Islands by European sailors and Mexican "vaqueros" who had been hired by Hawaii's king to work cattle ranches.[2][3] For whatever reason, Hawaiians did not embrace standard guitar tuning that had been in use for centuries.[4] They re-tuned the guitars to make them sound a major chord when all six strings were strummed, now known as an "open tuning".[5] The term for this is "slack-key" because certain strings were "slackened" to achieve it.[2] To change chords, they used some smooth object, usually a piece of pipe or metal, sliding it over the strings to the fourth or fifth position, easily playing a three-chord song.[a] It is physically difficult to hold a steel bar against the strings while holding the guitar against the body and the Hawaiians laid the guitar across the lap and played it while sitting. Playing this way became popular throughout Hawaii and spread internationally.[2]

Oahu-born Joseph Kekuku became proficient in this style of playing around the end of the 19th century and popularized it--some sources say he invented the steel guitar.[7] He moved to the United States mainland and became a vaudeville performer and also toured Europe performing Hawaiian music. The Hawaiian style of playing spread to the United States mainland and became popular during the first half of the 20th century; noted players of the era were Frank Ferera, Sam Ku West, "King" Bennie Nawahi and Sol Hoopii. Hoopii (pronounced Ho-OH-pee-EE)[8] was perhaps the most famous of the Hawaiians who spread the sound if instrumental lap steel worldwide.[2] This music became popular to the degree that it was called the "Hawaiian craze"[9] and was ignited by some of the events described below.

The annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory in 1900 stimulated interest in Hawaiian music and customs by Americans.[10] In 1912, a Broadway musical show called "Bird of Paradise" premiered; it featured Hawaiian music and elaborate costumes.[11] The show became a hit and, to ride this wave of success, it was subsequently taken on the road in the U.S. and Europe, eventually spawning the 1932 film Bird of Paradise.[9] Joseph Kekuku was a member of the show's original cast [12] and toured with the show for eight years.[13] The Washington Herald in 1918 stated, "So great is the popularity of Hawaiian music in this country that 'The Bird of Paradise' will go on record as having created the greatest musical fad this country has ever known".[14] In 1915, a world's fair called the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, and, over a nine-month period, introduced the Hawaiian style of playing to millions of visitors.[8]

Radio broadcasts played a major role in fueling the popularity of Hawaiian music. "Hawaii Calls" was a program originating in Hawaii and broadcast to the U.S. mainland west coast. It prominently featured the steel guitar and Hawaiian songs sung in English. Subsequently, the program was heard worldwide on over 750 stations.[15] Sol Hoopii began broadcasting live from KHJ radio in Los Angeles in 1923.[10] By the 1920s, Hawaiian music instruction for children was becoming common in the U.S.[10] One of steel guitar's foremost virtuosos, Buddy Emmons, at age 11 studied at the "Hawaiian Conservatory of Music" in South Bend, Indiana.[16]

The acceptance of the sound of the steel guitar, then referred to as "Hawaiian guitars" or "lap steels", spurred instrument makers to produce them in quantity and create innovations in the design to accommodate this style of playing.[17][18]

Steel guitar playing develops in two different directions

An electric lap steel guitar. Note that the instrument bears only token resemblance to the traditional guitar shape.

In the early twentieth century, steel guitar playing divided into two streams: lap-style, performed on an instrument specifically designed or modified to be played on the performer's lap; and bottleneck-style, performed on a traditional Spanish guitar held flat against the body.[19] The bottleneck-style became associated with blues and rock music, and the horizontal style became associated with several musical genres, most notably American country music.

Steel guitar in Blues music

Slide guitar played with slide on musician's little finger

Near the beginning of the twentieth century the bottleneck-style (slide guitar) was popularized by African-American blues artists.[19] One of the first southern blues musicians to adapt the Hawaiian sound to the blues was Hudson Whittaker, known as "Tampa Red", whose playing, says historian Gérard Herzhaft, "created a style that has unquestionably influenced all modern blues."[20] The Mississippi Delta was the home of Robert Johnson, Son House, Charlie Patton, and other blues pioneers, who prominently used a tubular slide on a finger.[21][22] The first known recording of the bottleneck style was in 1923 by Sylvester Weaver, who recorded two instrumentals, "Guitar Blues" and "Guitar Rag".[23][24] His song, "Guitar Rag", was adapted by Western swing pioneers Bob Wills and Leon McAuliffe in 1935 for the influential instrumental "Steel Guitar Rag".[25] Blues musicians played a conventional Spanish guitar as hybrid between the two types of guitars, using one finger inserted into a tubular slide or a bottleneck while using frets with the remaining fingers.[2] This is known as "slide guitar" and the hard object against the strings in this case is called a "slide". Lap slide guitar is not a specific instrument, but a style of playing.[26]

Steel guitar in country music

A Resonator guitar played in lap steel fashion. It demonstrates slanting the bar and a grooved tone bar

Steel guitar was heard in American country music as early as the 1920s. Jimmie Rodgers featured acoustic steel guitar in his song "Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues" released Jan 3, 1930.[27] In the early 1930s acoustic lap steel guitars were not loud enough to compete with other instruments, a problem that many inventors were trying to remedy. A violin repairman in Los Angeles named John Dopyera and his brother Rudy created a guitar with a large resonator cone (resembling an inverted loudspeaker) attached under the instrument's bridge.[28] Their company was called Dobro, a portmanteau of DOpyera BROthers. A former associate and business partner of the Dopyeras, George Beauchamp, went on his own to invent an electric guitar pickup. Beauchamp came up with the idea of using two horseshoe magnets encircling the guitar strings like a bracelet, and six small metal rods wrapped with wire to concentrate the magnetic field (one under each guitar string).[29] A vibrating metal string in a magnetic field generates a small current that can be amplified and sent to a loudspeaker. He applied for patent June 2, 1934 and received it on August 10, 1937.[29] According to music writer Michael Ross, the first electrified stringed instrument on a commercial recording was a steel guitar by Bob Dunn on a Western swing tune in 1935.[30] Dunn recorded with Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.[31] With electric amplification, steel players realized the benefit of having constant active control the volume of the instrument with a foot pedal. Skilled use of the volume pedal allows guitarists to fade in or fade out notes or chords during a song to make their playing more expressive.[32]

In the mid- to late-1930s, Leon McAuliffe advanced steel guitar technique while playing in the western swing band Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. McAuliffe's "Steel Guitar Rag" helped to popularize the steel guitar in the context of 1930s and 1940s country and western music. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the steel guitar was prominently featured in the emerging "honky-tonk" style of country music. Honky-tonk singers who used a lap steel guitar in their musical arrangements included Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce.

Rickenbacker Console 758 tripleneck steel

Most recordings of that era were made on a C6 neck (guitar tuned in a C6 chord). Steel guitarists felt a need to change tunings for different voicings, so leading players added additional necks with different tunings on the same instrument. The added bulk and weight made the instrument so heavy that it could no longer be held on the player's lap and had to be placed in a frame with legs. This was called a console steel guitar. The players of that era added more necks and eventually designed instruments with up to four different necks. Since these instruments proved too expensive for most musicians, a better solution was needed, which led to the invention of the pedal steel guitar.

A pedal system was designed about 1948 by Paul Bigsby, a motorcycle shop foreman.[33] Bigsby put pedals on a rack between the two front legs of a console steel guitar. The pedals operated a mechanical linkage to apply tension to raise the pitch of the strings.[34] In 1953, musician Bud Isaacs used Bigsby's invention to change the pitch of two of its strings, and was the first to push the pedal while notes were still sounding. When Isaacs first used the setup on the 1956 recording of Webb Pierce's song called "Slowly", he pushed the pedal while playing a chord, so certain notes could be heard bending up from below into the existing chord to harmonize with the other strings, creating a stunning effect which had not been possible with the steel bar. It was the birth of a new sound that was particularly embraced by fans of country and western music and it caused a virtual revolution among steel players who wanted to duplicate it.[35][33]

Steel guitar in other genres

In the United States in the 1930s, the steel guitar was introduced into religious music, a tradition called "Sacred Steel". The lap steel guitar was embraced by the congregation of the House of God, a branch of an African-American Pentecostal denomination, based primarily in Nashville and Indianapolis. The steel guitar often took the place of an organ and its sound bore no resemblance to typical American country music.[36] The Sacred steel genre was largely unknown until, in the 1980s, a minister's son named Robert Randolph took up the pedal steel as a teenager, popularized it in this genre and received critical acclaim as a musician.[37] Neil Strauss, writing in the New York Times, called Randolph "one of the most original and talented pedal steel guitarists of his generation".[38]

The steel guitar's popularity in India began with a Hawaiian immigrant who settled in Calcutta in the 1940s named Tau Moe (pronounced mo-ay).[11] Moe taught Hawaiian guitar style and made steel guitars, and is believed to have been a force in popularizing the instrument in India.[39] By the 1960s, the steel had become a common instrument in Indian popular music--later included in film sound tracks. Indian musicians typically play the lap steel while sitting on the floor and have modified the instrument by using, for example, three melody strings (played with steel bar and finger picks), four plucked drone strings, and 12 sympathetic strings to buzz like a sitar.[40] Performing in this manner, the Indian musician Brij Bhushan Kabra adapted the steel guitar to play ragas, traditional Indian compositions and is called the father of the genre of Hindustani Slide Guitar.[39]


Steel bar (tonebar) used in playing steel guitar. What appears to be frets on this guitar are only markers, not real frets.

Steel guitar, when played with the guitar held horizontally, typically features a "steel" against the strings above the fingerboard while the strings a plucked by the opposite hand which typically has picks on the thumb, index and middle fingers. If an unmodified traditional guitar is played this way, the steel will usually hit against the frets causing an unpleasant sound.[41] This is remedied by raising the strings higher off the fretboard by raising the bridge and using a nut extender, because frets are not used in lap steel except as a visual reference. When strings are raised, it may create a greater force on the neck than a traditional guitar can take, so these instruments are usually designed with thicker (sometimes square) reinforced necks or are used in console instruments.[42]

Instruments designed and produced for horizontal playing typically have painted lines or "pictures of frets" as a visual cue only. Without the aid of frets, playing in tune is more difficult and requires considerable skill to place the bar exactly where the fret would be.[41] A unique property of the instrument is the fact that when a note is sounded or a steel guitar, it continues to sound until it dies out unless physically silenced by the player. On a traditional guitar a note stops as soon as the player's finger is lifted off the fret, similar to a piano note stopping when the player's finger is lifted off the key. The steel guitarist must play the note and physically stop it afterward in order to play a staccato passage. This technique is called "blocking" and may be done by the player's palm (palm-blocking) another digit (pick-blocking).[43] Using the piano analogy, playing steel without blocking or damping would be like playing a piano with the sustain pedal permanently depressed; the notes would overlap and proper articulations and staccato notes would not be possible.

Dobro is a brand of resonator guitars, but the word is commonly used as a generic term to describe bluegrass resonator lap steels of any brand. Bluegrass dobro players often use a "Stevens bar" which has deep groove in it to allow the steel to be grasped more firmly so it can be lifted and angled vertically downward slightly for playing single notes.[44] The technique also allows for hammer-on or pull-off notes when there is an adjacent open string.[45] Dobro players often slant the bar horizontally when playing to change an interval between two or more notes played simultaneously on different strings.[44]

Slide guitar is played with the guitar held in the conventional position and a tubular form of slide is slipped over the middle, ring or little fingers to accommodate this playing position. The slide is almost always held parallel with the frets and rarely if ever slanted. Slide guitar may be played as a hybrid by fingering the frets on some strings (usually for rhythm accompaniment) and using the slide on others. Slide players may use open tunings or traditional tunings as a matter of personal preference.[21]

Lap steel guitars

Early lap steel guitars were traditional guitars tuned to a chord and modified by raising the strings away from the frets. After the electric pickup was invented, lap steels no longer needed any resonant chamber, thus newer designs began to resemble the traditional guitar shape less and less. These instruments were played resting across the musicians knees. The Rickenbacker frying pan, an electric lap steel guitar produced from 1931 to 1939, was not only the first electric stringed instrument of any kind, but was the first electric stringed instrument on a commercial recording.[2] The new instrument was immediately embraced by Hawaiian steel players, including Alvino Rey.[10]

Console steel guitars

The console steel is an electric steel guitar that is resting on legs in a frame and designed to be played in a seated position. The console steel usually has multiple necks, each tuned differently, up to a maximum of four. In the evolution of steel guitar, the console steel is intermediate between the lap steel and the pedal steel.

Pedal steel guitars

The pedal steel guitar is typically a ten-string electric console instrument with one or two necks, each in a different tuning, usually C6 closer to the player and E9 further from the player. It may have up to ten pedals and a separate volume pedal, and up to eight knee levers are used to alter the tunings of various strings, allowing more varied and complex music than any other type of steel guitar. As an example, use of the pedals and knee levers in various combinations allows the player to play a major scale without moving the bar. Invention of the instrument was set in motion by the need to play more interesting and varied music that was not possible on previous steel guitars and to obviate the need for additional necks on console steels.

Steels and slides

A "steel" is a hard smooth object pressed against guitar strings and is the reason for the name "steel guitar". It may go by many names, including "steel", "tone bar", "slide", "bottleneck" and others. A cylindrical-shaped steel with a bullet-shape on one end is typical in console steel and pedal steel playing. Lap steel and Dobro players often use a steel bar with squared-off ends and a deep groove for firmer grip. It has a cross section that resembles a railroad track. Another type of steel is a tubular object around a finger then referred to as a "slide" and that style of playing is called "slide guitar".

See also


  1. ^ The Hawaiians also learned to play this re-tuned guitar without a steel, fretting it and holding it against the body like a traditional guitar. This led to its own genre known as slack-key guitar.[3][6]


  1. ^ "Steel Guitar/Home". Patrick Brenner. 2011. Retrieved 2020.
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  3. ^ a b Fox, Margalit (March 5, 2008). "Ray Kane, Master of Slack-Key Guitar, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017.
  4. ^ Owen, Jeff. "Standard Tuning: How EADGBE Came to Be". Retrieved 2017.
  5. ^ Chapell, Jon. "Tuning for Slide Guitar: Standard or Open?". John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved 2017.
  6. ^ Peterson, Jeff. "Jeff Peterson Demonstrates Slack Key Guitar". YouTube. Retrieved 2020.
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