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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First Listen: Daughn Gibson, 'Carnation'NPR, May 24th
It's a tale of the narrator's wakeup from an eternal sleep and return to, in his words, "the worst of the world," scored against a chopped vocal sample, pedal-steel guitar and a bit of keyboards to lighten an impossibly somber mood. A move like this...Read more
Discovery Place exhibit rocks the science of guitarsCharlotte Observer, May 24th
Touring bands played it and had someone playing the lap steel guitar. The leader of one such band, George Beauchamp, got tired of not hearing his own playing over the band's. His experiments included building a cone into the soundboard – and this ...Read more
Shelby Lynne captivates a Folly Theater crowd with stellar performance of 'I Am'Kansas City Star (blog), May 23rd
Her band comprised a stout and steady rhythm section (with both electric and standup bass), a keyboardist and two guitarists, one of whom played lap or pedal steel on several songs. Lynne also added rhythm guitar on many songs. On a few of those, when ...Read more
5 things to do in the Rogue ValleyMail Tribune, May 22nd
The acoustic guitarist and yodeling cowboy and his band — with lap steel guitar, percussion and sax, and acoustic bass — will present its stripped-down take on country and roots music at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 27, at the Wild Goose Cafe and Bar, 2365 ...Read more
'Ghent up' and danceSunday night at the CBCTahoe Daily Tribune, May 22nd
“Ghent is a direct descendent of 'sacred steel' legends,” according to the bio. “His great uncle Willie Eason was among those who popularized gospel lap steel in the early 1900s, and his father Aubrey Ghent tours the world playing lap steel for the...Read more
AJ Ghent brings his guitar licks to Crystal Bay CasinoTahoe Daily Tribune, May 20th
“His great uncle Willie Eason was among those who popularized gospel lap steel in the early 1900's, and his father Aubrey Ghent tours the world playing lap steel for the Slide Brothers. While Ghent grew up playing lap steel, he has chosen to take the...Read more
The DIY Musician: The 2x4 Lap Steel, Part 2 — Cool ModsGuitar World Magazine, March 12th
Instead of just drawing the fret markers on with a Sharpie like I did with the first lap steel, I used a common wood-burning pen and burned the fret lines into the wood. I had some decorative furniture tacks in my shop, so I used them as my fret dots...Read more
The DIY Musician: How to Build a 2x4 Lap Steel GuitarGuitar World Magazine, March 4th
This is one of the easiest homemade guitars I've ever built, and it took me only an hour to make. This lap steel was made from an extra 2x4 I had in my shed, with just a few saw cuts to the wood. I even used a pre-wired acoustic sound hole pickup, so...Read more