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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Tonight in live music: Freekbass, Ben Prestage, Displace Welcome Home Show ...
Creative Loafing Tampa, August 29th

Ben Prestage An explosive one-man band whose feet tap fills and rhythms (his specially-rigged pedal drum-kit includes bass, snare, tom and high hat) while he switches between acoustic, electric, cigar box and lap steel guitars, banjo and even some...Read more

10 not-to-miss acts at Passim's campfire. festival
Boston Globe, August 28th

A sublime instrumentalist who plays the acoustic blues on a 1929 National steel guitar laid flat on his lap, Lloyd Thayer complements his estimable instrumental skills with a gritty, lived-in voice and an eclectic taste that extends from Delta blues to...Read more

Norfolk: Local band, Switch Factory, playing Infinity Hall Sept. 4
Torrington Register Citizen, August 27th

“I go to Infinity Hall all the time to sit in the audience and watch my heroes perform,” said Switch Factory guitarist and vocalist Jason Perkel, a physician with Torrington-Winsted Pediatrics. “Having this opportunity to be up on that stage in that...Read more

Irish Fest music lineup brings several first-timers to Kansas City
Kansas City Star (blog), August 27th

Beyond the standard guitar/bass/drums, arrangements include penny whistle, bagpipes, mandolin, lap steel, fiddle and bodhran. On songs like “Donnybrook Affair” and “She's Gone,” they go full-out Celtic, arousing a sound akin to Flogging Molly or the ...Read more

Instrument makers follow their bliss
Port Townsend Leader, August 27th

This is the first in a series of profiles of instrument makers, focusing on two who build guitars and other stringed instruments. In this edition, learn about James Curtis ...... Gordon has made two Hawaiian lap steel guitars of koa. Known as...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

The Slide Brothers call us all to join them Sunday at StageOne
New Haven Register, August 22nd

Cooke, considered to be the most influential living pedal steel guitar master and revered in Nashville as “the B.B. King of gospel steel guitar,” began learning how to play steel guitar back in 1955 when a member of his family bought him a six-string...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