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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Club scene: Quirky folk singer part of concert for a class and a cause
London Free Press, February 10th

“It's a real natural sort of sound,” says Lund, “which I'm also very into.” Lund crafted this new album with his longtime band the Hurtin' Albertans, which includes Grant Siemens (electric guitar and lap steel), Kurt Ciesla (bass) and Brady Valgardson...Read more

Wilco's Music for Adulthood
The New Yorker, February 10th

Often described as “alt country,” Uncle Tupelo was young men channelling old music—Depression-era country and blues—often on pre-war flattop guitars, mandolins, steel guitars, and so on. So when Tweedy turned to straightforward electric rock, after...Read more

International Blues Competition First Stop for North Carolina Guitarist
Huffington Post, February 10th

VunCannon, who plays guitar and lap steel, says, “I am very proud of this young man. We are already hearing from friends in Memphis that Seth Williams 'killed it' in the IBC Youth Showcase. He represents the new generation of blues music, North...Read more

Photos: Singers, actors and comedians perform the music of Fleetwood Mac at LA ...
OCRegister, February 10th

on the harmonies between actors Bijou Phillips and Adam Busch on “Second Hand News” – were quickly be followed by unexpected gems, such as the Jamestown Revival's down-home lap steel guitar-propelled performance of “Never Going Back Again.”\...Read more

PREVIEW: Winter Garden Blues and BBQ Festival
West Orange Times, February 10th

The 30-year-old artist returns with his band to play at the Winter Garden Blues and BBQ festival. Birchwood, who plays both the guitar and lap steel, is known for his signature afro and performing barefoot, which he said is just a comfortable way to be...Read more

Music: Skiffle on
Pacific Sun, February 10th

Many songs on Skifflin' prominently feature a repetitive hook, with McCombs singing sonorously over a weeping lap pedal steel guitar solo; others nearly verge on honky tonk, with barroom pianos and blazing harmonicas. Collected together, Skifflin' is a ...Read more

Nils Lofgren on playing with Springsteen: 'Every night I learn stuff and grow'
Allentown Morning Call, February 8th

Nils Lofgren, the guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for 32 years, recently released his first live solo album in a decade, of what he says were the best solos shows of his career. It came just a year after a massive career-spanning, 10...Read more

5 Women Steel Guitar Players Every Country Fan Should Know
Wide Open Country, February 4th

Her steel guitar abilities were discovered early on and she quickly rose to fame and performed with some of country's best-known acts, including Tex Ritter and Johnny Cash. Later, her ... Cashdollar is a multi-instrumentalist, mostly playing lap steel...Read more