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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Looking Backwards, Moving Forwards: Gemma Ray Interviewed
The Quietus, September 1st

Perhaps it's the twang of her Harmony Rocket guitar, a sound whose deep cultural associations mean that, however it's employed, the same tired, superficial comparisons are repeatedly bandied about: a shopping list of David Lynch, Duane Eddy, Ennio...Read more

Gimme Five: Bruce Springsteen's New Jersey songs, including 'Sandy,' 'Rosalita ...
Something Else! Reviews, August 31st

With the founding of Steel Mill, which featured several future E Street Band members, Springsteen then began making significant appearances outside of his home state. Things quickly began to pick up steam. By 1972 ... The image of Wanda sittin' on his...Read more

Jeff Bridges shows his musical side at the Wilbur
Boston Globe, August 30th

A. I sing and play acoustic and electric guitar, and some piano. My buddy Chris Pelonis, who I've been playing with for about 20 years, is on guitars and harmonica and keyboards. We've got Bill Flores on pedal steel and accordion and lap guitar, Randy...Read more

Record Bin: The lacerating beauty of Neil Young's "Harvest"
Nooga.com, August 30th

With the help of bassist Tim Drummond, steel guitarist Ben Keith and drummer Kenny Buttrey, the makeshift band was able to lay down the foundations of a few songs—some of which would go on to find homes on "Harvest," while others would be released at...Read more

'Music Jamboree'
The Daily Breeze, August 29th

He started playing music on a lap steel guitar at the age of 14 and took lessons from Hal Seiber. Philipsen plays on Thursday nights at the Ivanhoe Restaurant in Ferndale, and also with the original Redwood Ramblers in Eureka. Dann was born in central ...Read more

Country duo the Secret Sisters attract pop and rock fans with Put Your Needle ...
Isthmus, August 28th

They also recorded a 7-inch at Jack White's Third Man Studio; he played guitar on both tracks. Then their song "Tomorrow Will ... Layers of fiddle, lap steel and walking bass melt into a twangy background for the siblings' velvety voices. Patsy Cline...Read more

Former members of The Explorers Club join forces in Honeysmoke
Charleston City Paper, August 27th

Honeysmoke doesn't claim to have created its own genre, but we think the local band's blend of bluesy guitars and breezy island instrumentation is pretty unique. The foursome uses lap steel, ukulele, harmonica, resonator guitar, upright bass, and the ...Read more

In Italy and France, guitarist Spencer Bohren finds a wealth of love for ...
The Times-Picayune - NOLA.com, August 13th

Spencer Bohren demonstrates the lap steel guitar New Orleans guitarist, singer and songwriter Spencer Bohren has just released a CD, "Tempered Steel," that features the lap steel guitar. In the accompanying video, Bohren describes his attraction to the ...Read more