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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Talent, friendships fuel Bonsoir Catin
Opelousas Daily World, January 31st

The "Light the Stars" CD contains eight original songs with touches of electric guitar, harmonies, swamp pop, blues and even Hammond B-3 organ, courtesy of Eric Adcock from the Hub City All Stars. The recording is the first for new band member, Maegan ...Read more

Playing western swing with authority
Waterloo Record, January 30th

WSA members include top call players Ed (Bapa) Ringwald, pedal steel guitar/dobro/lap guitar/ Shane Guse, fiddle/viola/mandolin/cello/vocals, Stacey Lee, vocals, Paul (Chappy) Chapman, electric/ acoustic guitar/mandolin, Dan Howlett, fiddle/mandolin, ...Read more

Damon Fowler Band bring roots rock, blues style to Westville Friday
The News, January 29th

In 2008's “Best of Tampa” poll, Creative Loafing magazine named him “Best Guitarist… And Slide Guitarist… and Lap Steel Player… And Dobro Player.” Fowler's guitar work has been compared to Johnny Winter and Jeff Beck, while his slide guitar has a...Read more

El Cerrito: Area bluegrass pickers find a place to jam
San Jose Mercury News, January 29th

Tom Cline of El Cerrito, a retired UC Berkeley employee, played his Dobro, which has a similar sound to slide guitar. The Dobro is a lap steel guitar which is played with a pick in one hand and a dampener in the other that creates a twanging guitar sound...Read more

The Hot List of events for the coming weekend
Pittsburgh Post Gazette, January 28th

Mr. Birchwood, who plays guitar and lap-steel, grew up in Orlando, Fla., and got into Hendrix as a teenager, leading him to such blues pioneers as Albert King, Albert Collins and Buddy Guy. He toured with Sonny Rhodes while also earning an MBA from the ...Read more

Bluesman Selwyn Birchwood puts his youthful experience to practical use
The Daily Times, January 28th

Throughout his time in college, Birchwood worked as Rhodes's second-in-command, picking up lap-steel guitar and honing his chops as a purveyor of music that pays homage to traditional blues but also finds a comfortable groove in more contemporary ...Read more

Staff Picks: Pining for Thy Board
Premier Guitar, January 28th

My current obsession is: Applying fartlek training techniques to guitar. I'll set up three “stations”—acoustic flattop, high-gain electric, and lap steel—then spend 15 minutes at each one. Perhaps I'll map out two measures of a classical piece on...Read more

Ville Leppänen, Rising Steel Guitar Hero
World Music Central, January 5th

Finnish guitar virtuoso Ville Leppänen has captured perfectly the essence of American roots music on Hale's Pleasure Railway. Armed with arsenal of guitars, including electric guitars, lap steel and pedal steel guitars, Leppänen and his band take you...Read more