Strictly speaking, a steel guitar is any guitar made out of metal, which means it can be a resonator guitar used for the blues and Americana music, a lap steel guitar popular with those who play Hawaiian music, or a venerable pedal steel, which is what gives country-western music and Texas swing their distinctive sounds.

While the first resonator guitars made in the 1920s only featured an aluminum amplifying cone where the guitar's sound hole would be, subsequent resonators had all-aluminum bodies. Resonators grew out of the popularity of the acoustic guitar in the 1920s—the amplification helped them be heard over louder instruments such as banjos.

The invention of the resonator is widely credited to John Dopyera who, in the mid-1920s, developed an amplifying system for ukuleles. He founded the National String Instrument Corporation in August 1926 with his brothers Rudy, Robert, Louis, and Emil, and their company would use John’s system to produce “ampliphonic” or “self-amplifying” guitars, known today as resonators. But Dopyera was frustrated with the sound his uke-sized resonator produced when fitted on guitars so, in 1929, he left National and founded Dobro Manufacturing.

Lap-played steel guitars produced by Gibson, Epiphone, and National were produced in the 1930s to cash in on the craze at the time for Hawaiian music. Fender and Gretsch also produced lap-steel guitars (some of which were misnomers since they had stands), but not until the 1940s. Because these guitars lacked sound holes for natural amplification, even the earliest models were electric—Gibsons like the E-150 and Roy Smeck Special, both of which had Charlie Christian pickups, are especially prized by collectors today.

Finally there are pedal steel guitars, single neck or double, which are mounted on stands and fitted with anywhere from four to 10 pedals, each of which can change the pitch of selected strings. Vintage Fender steel guitars, with or without pedals, are favorites of players and collectors alike, as are Sho-Bud instruments—the fingerboards of Sho-Buds are known for their inlay of diamonds, spades, hearts and clubs.

Regardless of the type of steel guitar played, one thing they all have in common is that the player needs to be adept at finger picking—these instruments are not meant to be strumed. In addition, instead of using the non-picking hand to push down the strings to produce chords, the player holds a tube—sometimes made of steel, sometimes glass—lightly against the strings. The tube is slid up and down the fingerboard, which is why the technique is also known as slide guitar.

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Recent News: Steel Guitars

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Heartwood Returns After 40 Years
WCQS, October 9th

The band is: Bill Butler on dobro and vocals, Tim Hildebrandt on acoustic guitar and vocals, Byron Paul on acoustic guitar and vocals, Joe McGlohon on lap steel guitar, Carter Minor on harmonica and vocals, and Robert Hudson on conga and vocals...Read more

Reminder: Joe Topping and Scott Poley at Craigmore this weekend
Buteman, October 9th

Topping, on vocal and guitars, has been described as “a cross between Ry Cooder, Woody Guthrie and Paul Brady”; growing up in the American folk scene, his music has also been influenced by Americana and blues from around his native land, on adventures...Read more

ON THE GROW: Mark and Lori Lyon of 13 Seeds talk music and more w/ RDR
Red Dirt Report, October 8th

But the two musician/songwriters knew each other from 20 years earlier, Lori having met Mark while he was playing his guitar on the porch. After some life changes, some ... Love the addition of lap steel from Rod Boutwell on this one. Another Mark...Read more

My Morning Jacket Stops in SB
Santa Barbara Independent, October 8th

Released last April The Waterfall delivers the signature sound that MMJ fans crave: grandiose '80s synths, swelling lap steel guitar, explosive electric guitar, drum transitions, and lead singer Jim James's reverbed-out voice. According to MMJ's...Read more

AJ Ghent to give free concert Saturday in Bergfeld Park
Tyler Morning Telegraph, October 8th

Blues singer/musician AJ Ghent will give a free concert at 8 p.m. on Oct. 10 in Bergfeld Park amphitheater as a prelude to the Texas Rose Festival. The concert is being presented by the Strutters, the volunteer group that stages the Rose Festival Parade...Read more

Corb Lund finally returns
Country Standard Time, October 8th

Lund's brand of country focuses more on the traditional sounds with sometimes steely guitar, upright bass, occasional lap steel and steady handed drumming. There were rockabilly elements along with rock and a touch of funk on one song anyway. Perhaps ...Read more

State by state
Reno News & Review, October 8th

The group mixes tight soul grooves with swampy lap steel guitar lines, funky vintage keyboard and organ sounds, upbeat horn charts, and jammy guitar solos. It used to be easy to peg the group as a funk band—but the band's sound has evolved recently to ...Read more

The DIY Musician: How to Build a 2x4 Lap Steel Guitar
Guitar World Magazine, March 4th

This is one of the easiest homemade guitars I've ever built, and it took me only an hour to make. This lap steel was made from an extra 2x4 I had in my shed, with just a few saw cuts to the wood. I even used a pre-wired acoustic sound hole pickup, so...Read more