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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Songs of the Dead (and Others), Alive and Kicking
New York Times, April 16th

He had other guises too: mimicking bends and glides of pedal-steel guitar notes, slipping into jazz modes, coming up with eerie, isolated slide-guitar moans when jams grew abstract. A Traffic song, “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” dissolved into...Read more

The evolution of The Men
San Diego CityBEAT, April 16th

And while the band hasn't completely abandoned its roots, the ongoing transformation was solidified last year when The Men added lap-steel wizard Kevin Faulkner and longtime recording engineer / collaborator Ben Greenberg. The Men's new album, Tomorrow...Read more

Trisha Rapier, Kathryn Boswell & More to Lead Human Race's PLAY IT BY ...
Broadway World, April 16th

Musical Director Nils-Petter Ankarblom plays the keyboard and leads band members Mark Becknell on percussion, Jay Brunner on guitar, Cameron Cochran on pedal steel guitar, Joel Greenberg on mandolin and Laura Hazelbaker on fiddle. The regional ...Read more

Border Bash 2014: The bands, April 16th

Parsons' passion for music began with the piano at the age of six and quickly grew into the art of songwriting. Versed in guitar, bass, banjo, piano, lap steel, and even the saxophone, Parsons' natural talent for songwriting, along with his versatile...Read more

Big lineup for Kenny Lives
West Coast Sentinel, April 16th

Extraordinary solo artist Kane Slater's earthy, contemporary sounds are the perfect combination of didgeridoo, lap steel guitar, stomp box and vocals. Tickets are available at the Port Kenny Hotel, Streaky Surf and Style in Streaky Bay, Little Love...Read more

Bonfanti is back to make his Marc
Bakewell Today, April 16th

The show is a real musical experience with the musicians playing acoustic guitar, lap steel, electric guitar, double bass, drum kit, mandolin and electric bass with harmony vocals. Doors open for both of these gigs at 8pm. Admission is £12 for The...Read more

Woods: With Light and With Love
PopMatters, April 16th

And the band sounds full here—organs, guitars, bass, drum, and vocals rising together and converging into a muscled sort of fragility. The sound of this ... Opener “Shepherd” is full of swaying pedal steel and crisp acoustic strumming. “Leaves Like...Read more

ISSUE 84: Spinning Steel Into Gold
Oxford American, April 15th

The space was dimly lit, but I immediately saw what I had come for—in a semi-circle stood five pedal steel guitars, two double-necks and three singles, each a waist-high oblong box on four metal legs topped with what resembled a guitar neck, except...Read more