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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Swans @ The Roundhouse, London - 21/05/2015
Gigwise, May 22nd

Multi-effected lap steel combines with monolithic guitar sounds and pulsating drums. Long instrumental passages play out here and steadily build to create an uplifting soundscape that evokes a complete disregard for pop structures and channels a primal ...Read more

'Ghent up' and danceSunday night at the CBC
Tahoe Daily Tribune, May 22nd

The AJ Ghent Band is Ghent (vocals, guitar), his wife MarLa Ghent (backing vocals), his sister Tiffany Ghent (backing vocals), Seth Watters (bass), Gary Paulo (saxophone, guitar) and Will Groth (drums). The group released their debut album, “Live at...Read more

Album reviews: Daniel Johns swaps the 'Chair for the Garden
NEWS.com.au, May 22nd

It is also tempting to say that anybody who loved Silverchair's debut album, Frogstomp, will thoroughly detest the (almost) guitar-free electro-pop of Talk. But Johns has .... Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule) lends his belligerence to High...Read more

5 things to do in the Rogue Valley
Mail Tribune, May 21st

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

Matt Armor Still Rocks
Santa Barbara Independent, May 20th

And his warm voice sets a foundation for the mellow vibes of the Hawaiian lap-steel guitar and the percussive groove of the upright bass guitar, creating listenable and soulful music. “I wanted to write an honest record,” Armor said. “It took me a...Read more

Album Review: Banditos, 'Banditos'
Diffuser.fm, May 20th

“Blue Mosey #2” joins other album slowburners, like the Richardson-led laments, “No Good” and “Old Ways,” the latter of which features meandering lap steel guitar and Stephen Alan Pierce's finely plucked banjo. They make for beautiful reprieves in an ...Read more

AJ Ghent brings his guitar licks to Crystal Bay Casino
Tahoe 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: How to Build a 2x4 Lap Steel Guitar
Guitar 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