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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What Is 'Project Rock'? We Don't Know What The Rock Is Teasing, So Here Are ...
Uproxx, February 27th

Corporate Kane on the lap steel guitar. J&J Security on dueling tambourines. Can Dwayne convince them to ignore their differences so they can come together to create an all-ages pop-rock smash? You know… for the kids? 4. Project Rock: Rock, Paper, ...Read more

Six Degrees of Separation: Larkin Poe
Paste Magazine, February 27th

When we played with him in Central Park in NYC, a guitar luthier brought him a beautiful handmade lap steel. He turned around and gifted it to me, saying 'This guitar deserves to be with you. Take it as something to remember me by.' Conor is just one...Read more

Review: Campbell Brothers honor the legend of John Coltrane Press, February 26th

The band includes brothers Chuck (pedal steel), Darick (lap steel) and Phillip (electric guitar) along with drummer Carl Campbell (Phillip's son) and bassist Daric Bennett. In 2013, the brothers were commissioned to re-create the Coltrane four-part...Read more

Forecast: Hawaiian musical breezes headed this way
Post-Bulletin, February 26th

In between all that, Kahumoku has found time to record a new album, "Kani Wai — Sound of Water," which features duets with lap steel guitarist Bob Brozman. Da Ukulele Boyz, who are co-hosts of Kahumoku's slack key show, recently released their first ...Read more

Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheater Announces First Concert of 2015 Season ..., February 25th

The players of Union Station—Jerry Douglas (Dobro, lap steel, vocals), Dan Tyminski (guitar, mandolin, lead vocal), Ron Block (banjo, guitar) and Barry Bales (bass, vocals), with Krauss on lead vocal and fiddle—are five distinct personalities who...Read more

Pedal to the Metal: A Short History of the Pedal Steel Guitar
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Modern pedal steels typically have 10 or 12 strings and come in single- and double-neck models. Photo by Andy Ellis. For many, pedal steel guitar is synonymous with country music. The instrument's sinuous string bending and crying sound has long ...Read more

Win a Stentor Mahalo surfboard lap steel guitar with Learn To Play Day
Music News, February 10th

The charity Music for All, organisers of the national Learn To Play Day to be held on 21st March 2015, have got together with and Stentor to bring you the opportunity to win a fantastic Mahalo 8655 surfboard lap steel guitar worth £149...Read more

Robert Randolph: A slide, some steel at Daryl's House
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With a gospel tinge, Randolph has carved out a niche for himself with the pedal steel guitar — which you sit down to play — among jamband, rock and festival fans. He has collaborated with Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana, delivering a signature sound...Read more