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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On the Dime
Free Times, July 29th

White was a college friend of Dickerson's older brother, and the young singer and guitarist had long admired Yardwork, the exuberantly aggressive pop-rock band with which White spent a few years building up a small but loyal following around the...Read more

An Honest Liar: An Interview with Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins
PopMatters, July 29th

“I play really hard in Nickel Creek”, Watkins says, “I'm slamming the guitar a lot of the time. A few of the songs we play end on this big upstroke, such as the song “Scotch & Chocolate”. I've since figured out how to avoid that”. With a good deal of...Read more

Blues Festival aims to keep the fun going in Onset
Wareham Week, July 27th

The 22nd installment of the festival will start with a performance from Lloyd Thayer, a Boston musician known for playing his lap steel guitar in the city's streets and T stations. Thayer's performance won't take place at the Lillian Greggerman Band...Read more

300 artists, 500 concerts, one big fest
New Jersey Herald, July 24th

3, blues guitarist Carolyn Wonderland Aug. 1, Celtic rockers Scythian Aug. 5-6, Amsterdam-based global bass group Kuenta i Tambú Aug. 9, and Southern Hospitality, featuring lap steel guitar master Damon Fowler, guitarist extraordinaire J.P. Soars and ...Read more

This Week in FUNK: Juno What?!, Turkuaz, Kung Fu & Jelly Bread
303 Magazine, July 24th

Jelly Bread's “chameleonic playlist is highlighted by dual vocals, four part harmonies, in-the-pocket drum and bass grooves, swampy lap steel guitar, dirt under the fingernails guitar licks, and take-'em-to-church organ that is downright appetizing...Read more

Learning from the masters
Durham Herald Sun, July 17th

Birchwood plays the electric and lap steel guitars. The band is “kind of a mashup of contacts I had,” Birchwood said. He knew Oliver when he was in Orlando, and the rest of the band came together when he moved to Tampa, where he now lives. He won the ...Read more

Slide Guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya Performs Tonight at Arts Centre Melbourne
Broadway World, July 15th

Bhattacharya made his debut at the age of four on All India Radio, after first strumming a guitar at age three when his father gave him a full size Hawaiian lap steel guitar. As a prodigy musician at age nine, Bhattacharya left his parents for ten...Read more

Tele Servo Bender emulates a lap steel sound using servos
Gizmag, July 10th

Though mostly associated with country music, there's a pretty good chance that you've heard the sweet singing tones of a lap steel guitar in whatever modern genre floats your boat. OK, maybe not techno or electronica, but certainly blues, rock, jazz...Read more