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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REVIEW: Blast Furnace Blues festival is fully realized in its fourth year
Allentown Morning Call, March 29th

Carolyn Wonderland showed herself as the Joan Jett of the blues – the diminutive guitarist playing stinging and saucy and belting out with a voice that occasionally sounded like Janis Joplin. She also played lap steel guitar on “Only God Knows When.”...Read more

Review: Kimmie Rhodes & Awna Teixeira at St George's Bristol
Bristol Post, March 29th

Opening the show was multi-instrumentalist Awna Teixeira from renowned Canadian roots band Po'Girl, accompanied by the hirsute Ja Speed who added very tasteful banjo, guitar and lap-steel. Her quiet, melodic and rather beautiful songs showed the ...Read more

Junior Brown to perform at NSU
Tahlequah Daily Press, March 27th

The Sequoyah Institute presents Junior Brown at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31, in the Northeastern State University Center for Performing Arts. For tickets, call 918-458-2075. Brown's signature instrument is the “guit-steel” double neck guitar, a...Read more

Small Forest Launches Crowdfunding Campaign for Album
Peninsula Pulse, March 26th

That was eye-opening.” The band brought in several guest musicians: Tony Dale on drums, David Walker on jazz guitar, Tommy Burroughs on fiddle and mandolin, George Sawyn and Seth Raddatz on lead guitar, and Hans Christian on lap steel and cello...Read more

Here's Tempo's top five picks for live entertainment this week
Mail Tribune, March 26th

The band sounds as though a lap-steel player ate a couple of magic mushrooms and zoned out to Pink Floyd's "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." The outfit picks up the country-psych tradition on its 2013 "Baba Yaga, and takes it to the ... Tim & Myles...Read more

Special concert at Capital Stage
Mountain Democrat, March 25th

a special one-night-only music concert with local and internationally acclaimed duo Misner & Smith on Sunday, March 29 at 7 p.m. For this very special concert at Capital Stage, Misner & Smith will be joined by Josh Yenne on pedal steel and electric...Read more

The DIY Musician: The 2x4 Lap Steel, Part 2 — Cool Mods
Guitar 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 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