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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Selwyn Birchwood On World CafeWDIY, September 18th
Today's World Cafe guest is Florida bluesman Selwyn Birchwood. Out of the Tampa area, Birchwood, who plays guitar and lap steel, started out self-releasing his music before winning the 2013 International Blues Challenge with his band. That led to a...Read more
Down East FolkArts Society kicks off seasonCarolinacoastonline, September 18th
Danielle Miraglia comes armed with a strong, steady thumb on an old Gibson, an infectious stomp-box rhythm and harmonica. Her husky alto, riding over the sound of her steady foot stomp, the lap steel, fiddle and lead guitar, packs an unforgettable wallop...Read more
Building a band: Joinery records a new albumBrattleboro Reformer, September 18th
Andy Foster plays the lap steel and resonator guitar while John Pozzi plays guitar and sings. Drummer Michael Zimmer recently joined the band full-time as well as soundman Jim Harduby. "We have some momentum but we're not professional musicians...Read more
Lost Leaders to play Colony CafePoughkeepsie Journal, September 17th
Isaacs on the duo's new album sings and plays bass, guitar and lap steel guitar. Cole sings and plays guitar. The results are seismic, like an earthquake, like a shifting of the tectonic plates, like a leap into another dimension where everything makes...Read more
In the spotlightJournal Advocate, September 17th
Dragondeer — Eric Halbord on vocals, guitar and harmonica; Cole Rudy on lap steel and mandolin; Carl Sorensen on drums and percussion; and Casey Sidwell on bass — is a "psych-blues" band from Denver. They have played at the Nacarubi Music ...Read more
Ruins and Rising in LuhanskForeign Policy, September 16th
LUHANSK, Ukraine — Celebrations of this eastern Ukrainian city's 219th anniversary over the weekend featured a guitar-slinging Orthodox priest, Cossacks on armored personnel carriers, and a sheet-metal-clad Mad Max-style truck ridden by members of...Read more
A.J. Ghent was born to play the steel guitarCharleston City Paper, September 2nd
Although the ladies are indeed key ingredients to the A.J. Ghent Band, the group's signature sound lies in the magic Ghent works with a lap-steel guitar — an instrument that's been in his family for generations. At the church he grew up attending...Read more
The Slide Brothers call us all to join them Sunday at StageOneNew Haven Register, August 22nd
Cooke, considered to be the most influential living pedal steel guitar master and revered in Nashville as “the B.B. King of gospel steel guitar,” began learning how to play steel guitar back in 1955 when a member of his family bought him a six-string...Read more