Steel guitar

A steel guitar (Hawaiian: kīkākila [1]) is any type of guitar that is played while moving a steel bar or similar hard object against plucked strings, as opposed to a traditional guitar which is played by pressing the fingers between frets. Playing a steel guitar does not use frets and is somewhat akin to playing a guitar with one finger (the bar). By moving the bar the player has freedom to slide infinitely and smoothly from note to note (portamento) over wide intervals emulating that feature of the human singing voice. The hard object held against the strings is called a "steel" and is itself the origin of the name "steel guitar". The bar may go by many names, including "steel", "tone bar", "slide", “slide bar”, "bottleneck" and others. The strings are typically plucked (not strummed) by the fingers of the dominant hand while the tone bar (steel) is pressed lightly against the strings and moved by the opposite hand.

Steel guitar
Steel guitar.jpg
Three types of steel guitars: resonator, lap steel, pedal steel
String instrument
Other namesHawaiian guitar, lap steel, pedal steel, console steel, kīkākila, Dobro
Classification String instrument, flat picked or finger picked
Hornbostel–Sachs classification
(Composite chordophone)
Inventor(s)Popularized by Joseph Kekuku
Playing range


An ordinary guitar can become a steel guitar when played in a horizontal position across the player's knees using a steel bar— a technique originated by Joseph Kekuku in Hawaii in the 1890s. This type of playing is referred to as "Hawaiian style". A steel guitar may also be played in the traditional position (flat against the body) with the player using a hard tubular object around his finger, then called a "slide" and the technique called "slide guitar". This style was derived from Hawaiian style and popularized by African American blues artists in the Mississippi Delta near the beginning of the twentieth century. Slide guitar is typically heard in blues or rock music. The term "bottleneck" was historically used to describe this type of playing.

Creating music with a slide of some type has been traced back to primitive stringed instruments in African culture, but the modern steel guitar was conceived and popularized in the Hawaiian Islands about 1890. The sound of Hawaiian music featuring the instrument became a major musical trend in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century and its popularity spawned the manufacture of guitars designed specifically to be played horizontally. The archetypal instrument is the Hawaiian guitar, also called a lap steel. These acoustic instruments were not loud enough to be heard at first, but that changed in 1934 when the electric guitar pickup was invented by a steel guitarist named George Beauchamp. Electrification allowed these instruments to be more audible and it also meant that their traditional resonant chambers were no longer essential; i.e., steel guitars could be manufactured in any design, even a rectangular block bearing little or no resemblance to the traditional guitar shape. This led to table-top instruments in a metal frame on legs called "console steels", which were technologically improved to become the more versatile pedal steel guitar. The steel guitar's easily recognizable sound became associated with American country music in the mid-twentieth century.

Early historyEdit

In the late 19th century, Spanish guitars were introduced in the Hawaiian Islands by European sailors and Mexican "vaqueros" who had been hired by Hawaii's king to work cattle ranches.[2][3] For whatever reason, Hawaiians did not embrace standard guitar tuning that had been in use for centuries.[4] They re-tuned the guitars to make them sound a major chord when all six strings were strummed, now known as an "open tuning".[5] The term for this is "slack-key" because certain strings were "slackened" to achieve it.[2] To change chords, they used some smooth object, usually a piece of pipe or metal, sliding it over the strings to the fourth or fifth position, easily playing a three-chord song.[a] It is physically difficult to hold a steel bar against the strings while holding the guitar against the body (hand supinated) and the Hawaiians laid the guitar across the lap and played it with the hand pronated. Playing this way became popular throughout Hawaii and spread internationally.[2]

Oahu-born Joseph Kekuku became proficient in this style of playing around the end of the 19th century and popularized it—some sources say he invented the steel guitar.[7] He moved to the U.S. mainland and became a vaudeville performer and also toured Europe performing Hawaiian music. The Hawaiian style of playing spread to the mainland and became popular during the first half of the 20th century; noted players of the era were Frank Ferera, Sam Ku West, "King" Bennie Nawahi and Sol Hoopii. Hoopii (pronounced Ho-OH-pee-EE)[8] was perhaps the most famous of the Hawaiians who spread the sound of instrumental lap steel worldwide.[2] This music became popular to the degree that it was called the "Hawaiian craze"[9] and was ignited by some of the events described below.

The annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory in 1900 stimulated interest in Hawaiian music and customs by Americans.[10] In 1912, a Broadway musical show called "Bird of Paradise" premiered; it featured Hawaiian music and elaborate costumes.[11] The show became a hit and, to ride this wave of success, it was subsequently taken on the road in the U.S. and Europe, eventually spawning the 1932 film Bird of Paradise.[9] Joseph Kekuku was a member of the show's original cast[12] and toured with the show for eight years.[13] The Washington Herald in 1918 stated, "So great is the popularity of Hawaiian music in this country that 'The Bird of Paradise' will go on record as having created the greatest musical fad this country has ever known".[14] In 1915, a world's fair called the "Panama–Pacific International Exposition" was held in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and over a nine-month period introduced the Hawaiian style of playing to millions of visitors.[8]

Radio broadcasts played a major role in fueling the popularity of Hawaiian music. "Hawaii Calls" was a program originating in Hawaii and broadcast to the U.S. mainland west coast. It prominently featured the steel guitar, ukulele and Hawaiian songs sung in English. Subsequently, the program was heard worldwide on over 750 stations.[15] Sol Hoopii began broadcasting live from KHJ radio in Los Angeles in 1923.[10] By the 1920s, Hawaiian music instruction for children was becoming common in the U.S.[10] One of steel guitar's foremost virtuosos, Buddy Emmons, at age 11 studied at the "Hawaiian Conservatory of Music" in South Bend, Indiana.[16]

The acceptance of the sound of the steel guitar, then referred to as "Hawaiian guitars" or "lap steels", spurred instrument makers to produce them in quantity and create innovations in the design to accommodate this style of playing.[17][18]

Steel guitar playing develops in two different directionsEdit

An electric lap steel guitar. Note that the instrument bears only token resemblance to the traditional guitar shape.

In the early twentieth century, steel guitar playing divided into two streams: lap-style, performed on an instrument specifically designed or modified to be played on the performer's lap; and bottleneck-style, performed on a traditional Spanish guitar held flat against the body.[19] The bottleneck-style became associated with blues and rock music, and the horizontal style became associated with several musical genres, most notably American country music.

Steel guitar in Blues musicEdit

Slide guitar played with slide on musician's little finger

Near the beginning of the twentieth century the bottleneck-style (slide guitar) was popularized by solo African-American blues artists.[19] One of the first southern blues musicians to adapt the Hawaiian sound to the blues was Tampa Red, whose playing, says historian Gérard Herzhaft, "created a style that has unquestionably influenced all modern blues."[20] The Mississippi Delta was the home of Robert Johnson, Son House, Charlie Patton, and other blues pioneers, who prominently used a tubular slide on a finger.[21][22] The first known recording of the bottleneck style was in 1923 by Sylvester Weaver, who recorded two instrumentals, "Guitar Blues" and "Guitar Rag".[23][24] His song, "Guitar Rag", was adapted by Western swing pioneers Bob Wills and Leon McAuliffe in 1935 for the influential instrumental "Steel Guitar Rag".[25] Blues musicians played a conventional Spanish guitar as a hybrid between the two types of guitars, using one finger inserted into a tubular slide or a bottleneck while using frets with the remaining fingers.[2] This is known as "slide guitar" and the hard object against the strings in this case is called a "slide". Lap slide guitar is not a specific instrument, but a style of playing.[26]

Steel guitar in country musicEdit

A Resonator guitar played in lap steel fashion. It demonstrates slanting the bar and a grooved tone bar

The earliest record of a Hawaiian guitar used in country music is believed to be in the early 1920s when cowboy movie star Hoot Gibson brought Sol Hoopii to Los Angeles to perform in his band.[2] Jimmie Rodgers featured acoustic steel guitar in his song "Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues" released Jan 3, 1930.[27] In the early 1930s acoustic lap steel guitars were not loud enough to compete with other instruments, a problem that many inventors were trying to remedy. A steel guitarist named George Beauchamp invented the electric guitar pickup in 1934. Beauchamp found that a vibrating metal string in a magnetic field generates a small current that can be amplified and sent to a loudspeaker and his steel guitar was the world's first electric guitar. [28] According to music writer Michael Ross, the first electrified stringed instrument on a commercial recording was a steel guitar by Bob Dunn on a Western swing tune in 1935.[29] Dunn recorded with Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.[30] With electric amplification, steel players realized the benefit of having constant active control the volume of the instrument with a foot pedal. Skilled use of the volume pedal allows guitarists to fade in or fade out notes or chords during a song to make their playing more expressive.[31]

In the mid- to late-1930s, Leon McAuliffe advanced steel guitar technique while playing in the western swing band Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. McAuliffe's "Steel Guitar Rag" helped to popularize the steel guitar in country songs of the 1930s and 1940s. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the steel guitar was prominently featured in the emerging "honky-tonk" style of country music. Honky-tonk singers who used a lap steel guitar in their musical arrangements included Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce.

Rickenbacker Console 758 tripleneck steel

Most recordings of that era were made on a C6 neck (guitar tuned in a C6 chord), sometimes called a "Texas tuning".[32] Steel guitarists felt a need to change tunings for different voicings, so leading players added additional necks with different tunings on the same instrument. The added bulk and weight meant that the instrument could no longer be supported on the player's lap and required placement in a frame with legs. This was called a console steel guitar. The players of that era added more necks and eventually designed instruments with up to four different necks. Since these instruments proved too expensive for most musicians, a better solution was needed, which led to the invention of the pedal steel guitar.

The original idea for adding pedals to a console guitar was to simply push a pedal and change the tuning of all the strings into a different tuning, thus obviate the need for an additional neck, but these early efforts were unsuccessful. A pedal system was designed about 1948 by Paul Bigsby, a motorcycle shop foreman.[33] Bigsby put pedals on a rack between the two front legs of a console steel guitar. The pedals operated a mechanical linkage to apply tension to raise the pitch of certain strings.[34] In 1953, musician Bud Isaacs used Bigsby's invention to change the pitch of only two of the strings, and was the first to push the pedal while notes were still sounding. When Isaacs first used the setup on the 1956 recording of Webb Pierce's song called "Slowly", he pushed the pedal while playing a chord, so certain notes could be heard bending up from below into the existing chord to harmonize with the other strings, creating a stunning effect which had not been possible with the steel bar. It was the birth of a new sound that was particularly embraced by fans of country and western music and it caused a virtual revolution among steel players who wanted to duplicate it.[35][33] This sound became associated with American country music for the ensuing four or five decades.

Steel guitar in other genresEdit

In the United States in the 1930s, the steel guitar was introduced into religious music, a tradition called "Sacred Steel". The lap steel guitar was embraced by the congregation of the House of God, a branch of an African-American Pentecostal denomination, based primarily in Nashville and Indianapolis. The steel guitar often took the place of an organ and its sound bore no resemblance to typical American country music.[36] The Sacred steel genre was largely unknown until, in the 1980s, a minister's son named Robert Randolph took up the pedal steel as a teenager, popularized it in this genre and received critical acclaim as a musician.[37] Neil Strauss, writing in the New York Times, called Randolph "one of the most original and talented pedal steel guitarists of his generation".[38]

The steel guitar's popularity in India began with a Hawaiian immigrant who settled in Calcutta in the 1940s named Tau Moe (pronounced mo-ay).[11] Moe taught Hawaiian guitar style and made steel guitars, and is believed to have been a force in popularizing the instrument in India.[39] By the 1960s, the steel had become a common instrument in Indian popular music—later included in film sound tracks. Indian musicians typically play the lap steel while sitting on the floor and have modified the instrument by using, for example, three melody strings (played with steel bar and finger picks), four plucked drone strings, and 12 sympathetic strings to buzz like a sitar.[40] Performing in this manner, the Indian musician Brij Bhushan Kabra adapted the steel guitar to play ragas, traditional Indian compositions and is called the father of the genre of Hindustani Slide Guitar.[39]


Steel bar (tonebar) used in playing steel guitar. What appears to be frets on this guitar are only markers, not real frets.

Steel guitar, when played with the guitar held horizontally, features a "steel" against the strings above the fingerboard while the strings a plucked by the opposite hand which typically has picks on the thumb, index and middle fingers. If an unmodified traditional guitar is played this way, the steel will usually hit against the frets causing an unpleasant sound.[41] This is remedied by raising the strings higher off the fretboard by raising the bridge and using a nut extender, because frets are not used in lap steel except as a visual reference. When strings are raised, it may create a greater force on the neck than a traditional guitar can take, so these instruments are usually designed with thicker (sometimes square) reinforced necks or are used in console instruments.[42]

The steel guitar, according to music writer Jason Borisoff, is "like trying to play a guitar with one finger".[32] The steel bar is the "finger". The bar limits the amount of chords and scales that are available to the player. The first attempt at solving this problem was to add more necks to the instrument, each tuned differently. Later pedals and knee levers were added to change the pitch of certain strings, vastly improving the versatility of the instrument.

A steel guitar is a "continuous pitch" instrument, meaning that the notes it plays are not constrained to discrete intervals, as they would be, for example, on a fretted instrument or a piano. Frets serve to constrain the pitch and therefore the note is theoretically always in tune, assuming the guitar itself is tuned properly. On a steel guitar, intonation is totally dependent on the player's skill in placing the tone bar in exactly the right place. To facilitate this, these guitars typically have painted lines or "pictures of frets" as a visual cue to the player. To the casual observer, these look like frets, but are non-functioning (see photo).[41] The steel guitar is thus able to play full chords in portamento, perhaps the only instrument with this capability.[43]

Another property of the instrument is the fact that when a note is sounded or a steel guitar, it continues to sound until it dies out unless physically silenced by the player. On a traditional guitar a note stops as soon as the player's finger is lifted off the fret, similar to a piano note stopping when the player's finger is lifted off the key. The steel guitarist must play the note and physically stop it afterward in order to play a staccato passage. This technique is called "blocking" and may be done by the player's palm (palm-blocking) or another digit (pick-blocking).[44] Using the piano analogy, playing steel without blocking or damping would be like playing a piano with the sustain pedal permanently depressed; the notes would overlap and proper articulations and staccato notes would not be possible.

Dobro is a brand of resonator guitars, but the word is commonly used as a generic term to describe bluegrass resonator lap steels of any brand. Bluegrass dobro players often use a "Stevens bar" which has deep groove in it to allow the steel to be grasped more firmly so it can be lifted and angled vertically downward slightly for playing single notes.[45] The technique also allows for hammer-on or pull-off notes when there is an adjacent open string.[46] Dobro players often slant the bar horizontally when playing to change an interval between two or more notes played simultaneously on different strings.[45]

Slide guitar is played with the guitar held in the conventional position and a tubular form of slide is slipped over the middle, ring or little fingers to accommodate this playing position. The slide is almost always held parallel with the frets and rarely if ever slanted. Slide guitar may be played as a hybrid by fingering the frets on some strings (usually for rhythm accompaniment) and using the slide on others. Slide players may use open tunings or traditional tunings as a matter of personal preference.[21]

Lap steel guitarsEdit

Early lap steel guitars were traditional guitars tuned to a chord and modified by raising the strings away from the frets. After the electric pickup was invented, lap steels no longer needed any resonant chamber, thus newer designs began to resemble the traditional guitar shape less and less. These instruments were played resting across the musicians knees. George Beauchamp's invention, which he nicknamed the "Frying Pan", was officially called the "Rickenbacker Electro A–22": an electric lap steel guitar produced from 1931 to 1939. It was the first electric stringed instrument of any kind, and was the first electric stringed instrument to be heard on a commercial recording.[2] The new instrument was immediately embraced by steel players, including Alvino Rey.[10]

Console steel guitarsEdit

The console steel is an electric steel guitar that is resting on legs in a frame and designed to be played in a seated position. The console steel usually has multiple necks, each tuned differently, up to a maximum of four. In the evolution of steel guitar, the console steel is intermediate between the lap steel and the pedal steel.

Pedal steel guitarsEdit

The pedal steel guitar is an electric console instrument with one or two necks, each typically with ten strings. The neck tuned to C6 (Texas tuning) is closer to the player and the E9 (Nashville tuning) neck is further from the player.[32] It may have up to ten pedals and a separate volume pedal, and up to eight knee levers are used to alter the tunings of various strings, allowing more varied and complex music than any other type of steel guitar. As an example, use of the pedals and knee levers in various combinations allows the player to play a major scale without moving the bar. Invention of the instrument was set in motion by the need to play more interesting and varied music that was not possible on previous steel guitars and to obviate the need for additional necks on console steels.

Steels and slidesEdit

A "steel" is a hard smooth object pressed against guitar strings and is the reason for the name "steel guitar". It may go by many names, including "steel", "tone bar", "slide", "bottleneck" and others. A cylindrical-shaped steel with a bullet-shape on one end is typical in console steel and pedal steel playing. Lap steel and Dobro players often use a steel bar with squared-off ends and a deep groove for firmer grip. It has a cross section that resembles a railroad track. Another type of steel is a tubular object around a finger then referred to as a "slide" and that style of playing is called "slide guitar".

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The Hawaiians also learned to play this re-tuned guitar without a steel, fretting it and holding it against the body like a traditional guitar. This led to its own genre known as slack-key guitar.[3][6]


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  3. ^ a b Fox, Margalit (March 5, 2008). "Ray Kane, Master of Slack-Key Guitar, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved December 11, 2017.
  4. ^ Owen, Jeff. "Standard Tuning: How EADGBE Came to Be". Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  5. ^ Chapell, Jon. "Tuning for Slide Guitar: Standard or Open?". John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
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External linksEdit