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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Resonator guitar played lap steel fashion.
Resonator guitar played lap steel fashion.

A Steel guitar is any type of guitar that is played using a hard object against the strings that allows the player to make an infinite smooth glissando or deep vibrato that is not possible with the fingers alone. The hard object may be a solid bar held in the hand or a tubular object placed around the player's finger; it may go by many names, including "steel", "tone bar", "slide", "bottleneck" and others. The strings are typically plucked (not strummed) by the fingers of the dominant hand while the tone bar is pressed against the strings by the opposite hand. Creating music with a slide of some type has been traced back to primitive stringed instruments in African culture.

A steel guitar might be or look like an ordinary guitar and be played in the traditional position (flat against the body). In that case, the player uses a tubular object around his finger, then called a "slide", and the technique would be called "slide guitar", typically used in blues or rock music. The term "bottleneck" was historically used to describe this type of playing.

A steel guitar may also be played in a horizontal position, a technique popularized in Hawaii by Joseph Kekuku, with the instrument placed across the knees or otherwise supported. In this case, the hard object would be a solid bar held in the hand (see photo) and called a "steel" or "tone bar" and that type of playing referred to as "lap style" or "Hawaiian style".[1]

From its first use in Hawaii in the 19th century, the sound of a steel guitar became popular in the United States in the first half of the 20th century and spawned a family of instruments designed specifically to be played with the guitar in a horizontal position. The first instrument in this chronology was the Hawaiian guitar also called a lap steel; next was a lap steel with a resonator to make it louder. The electric guitar pickup was invented in 1934, allowing steel guitars to be heard equally with other instruments– but also allowing the instruments to be made without any resonant chamber. This opened the possibility of new designs bearing no resemblance to a traditional guitar shape, e.g., a rectangular block. Electronic amplification led to the development of the electrified lap steel, then the console steel, and the pedal steel guitar.

Steel guitar in Hawaiian and Hawaiian-inspired popular music

Steel guitar became visible outside of Hawaii in the early 20th century as Hawaiian steel guitarists such as Frank Ferera and Sol Hoʻopiʻi brought the instrument to North American theaters and nightclubs. On commercially records released through the 1920s and early 1930s, Hawaiian steel guitarists such as Ferera, Ho'opi'i, "King" Bennie Nawahi, Sol K. Bright and others recorded a mix of Hawaiian folk music standards, such as "Wahine Ui" and "Tu-Tu-E-, Tu-Tu-Hoi", and North American popular songs, which often had Hawaiian- or tropical-themed lyrics. These guitarists performed on either traditional acoustic guitars played as lap steel guitars, or on acoustic resonator guitars, which were prized for the extra volume they could produce. As electric lap steels became widely available in the mid-1930s, some artists like Ho'opi'i switched to the new electric instruments.

North American popular music had included hits with Hawaiian-themed English lyrics as early as 1905, when Sonny Cunha had his first hit song, "My Honolulu Tomboy". Hawaiian-themed popular songs (referred to by some Hawaiian musicians as "hapa haole" music, meaning "mixed" or "half-foreign" music) continued to be successful in North America into the 1930s and 1940s, and often featured steel guitar in the musical arrangements. For example, the 1933 hit "My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii" was recorded by a number of artists, including the Noelani Hawaiian Orchestra, which featured steel guitar. Popular singers such Louis Armstrong (e.g. "On A Coconut Island" from 1936), Fats Waller (e.g. "Why do Hawaiians sing Aloha" from 1937), and Bing Crosby (e.g. "Blue Hawaii" from 1937) recorded Hawaiian-themed popular songs during the 1930s featuring steel guitar.

Steel guitar in country music

Steel guitar began showing up in country music as early as the 1920s. For example, Jimmie Rodgers featured acoustic steel guitar in his song "Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues" (1929).

According to music writer Michael Ross, the first electrified stringed instrument on a commercial recording was a western swing tune by Bob Dunn in 1935.[1][2] He recorded with Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies. Brown has been called "The father of western swing" [3]

In the mid- to late-1930s, Leon McAuliffe advanced steel guitar technique while playing in the western swing band Bob Wills. McAuliffe's 1936 composition "Steel Guitar Rag" helped to popularize the steel guitar in the context of 1930s and 1940s country and western music. 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 steel guitar in their musical arrangements included Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce. Steel guitar continued to be associated with country music throughout the rest of the 20th century, in country styles including countrypolitan, bluegrass, outlaw country, and others.

Steel guitar outside of Hawaiian and country music

Steel guitar has been incorporated into songs and compositions across many genres of music. In the late 1920s jazz musician Andy Sanella, although primarily a saxophonist had some success as a steel guitarist, often playing short featured solos with the jazz and dance bands in which he mostly played saxophone. He also recorded several solo records of steel guitar music with a jazz flavor. South African, banjoist and guitarist, Len Fillis also played the instrument in jazz and dance bands in London in the early 1930s. Steel guitar has been featured in swing music (e.g., the work of bandleader Alvino Rey), rock (e.g., Steely Dan's "Razor Boy", and Beck's "Sissyneck"), soul (e.g., The Spinners' "Sadie"), reggae (e.g., Toots & The Maytals' "Beautiful Woman"), jazz (e.g., Bill Frisell's Blues Dream album), Indian classical music (e.g., the music of guitarist Shrikrishan Sharma), gospel music (particularly in the sacred steel tradition), and in many other genres of music.

Definitions of steel guitar

Steel guitar can describe:

  • Any guitar played with a hard object against the strings to change pitch
    • An acoustic or electric guitar played with a tubular slide on the finger
    • A round-necked resonator guitar held in conventional guitar position.
    • Lap steel guitars, instruments which are specifically designed to be played horizontally:
      • a traditional guitar adapted for horizontal playing by raising the nut to make the strings higher off the fretboard
      • An acoustic Hawaiian guitar
      • A resonator guitar such as a National or Dobro-type guitar with a reinforced square neck
      • An electric lap steel guitar
      • An electric console steel guitar in a frame with legs, typically with more than one neck.
      • An electric pedal steel guitar, a console steel with pedals and levers to increase versatility

Lap slide guitar is not a specific instrument, but a style of playing.[4] The term "steel guitar" is often mistakenly used to describe any metal-body resophonic guitar. It is also mistakenly used to refer to steel-string acoustic guitars.


Steel guitar may include playing on a guitar held horizontally, with the treble strings uppermost and the bass strings towards the player, and using a device called a steel above the fingerboard rather than fretting the strings with the fingers. This may be done with any guitar, but is most common on instruments designed and produced for this style of play, typically with painted lines instead of frets, since frets are not used in this way of playing. Playing a steel guitar with a steel can be quite challenging, and great (non-pedal) steel players are few and far between, because of some of the techniques involved such as slanting the bar, palm damping, thumb damping, and unique styles of picking are not easily mastered.

The technique was invented and popularized in Hawaii. Thus, the lap steel guitar is sometimes known as the Hawaiian guitar, particularly in documents from the early 20th century, and today any steel guitar is frequently called a Hawaiian steel guitar. However, Hawaiian guitar often refers to slack key guitar, played in the conventional or Spanish position, using a conventional fretted guitar in various open tunings, generally with the strings tuned considerably lower than usual. Steel guitar tunings tend to feature close intervals (2nds and 3rds) whereas slack key tunings more often contain 4ths and 5ths.

Dobro is a brand of resonator guitars, but the word is most often used to describe bluegrass instruments of several different brands. Tunings and techniques are similar to acoustic Hawaiian steel guitar playing, but have evolved somewhat differently in the bluegrass idiom, which generally involves faster picking and changes than Hawaiian music does.

Bottleneck guitar may have actually developed from Steel guitar technique. It is similar, with the exception that the guitar is held in the conventional position, and a different, tubular form of slide is slipped over the middle, ring or little fingers to accommodate this playing position. The slide is almost never slanted. Common bottleneck tunings are open D and E chords.

Hawaiian guitars

Soldier's Joy, North Carolina Hawaiians, 1929.

Lap steel guitars

The lap steel guitar typically has six strings (and sometimes eight) and may have various tunings. Originally the 'standard' EBGDAE tuning was changed to allow 'open' i.e. major chord tunings to accommodate using the straight steel bar and not require changing string gauges. Currently a new generation of musicians use open tunings (e.g. Open D), but typically, Hawaiian music for virtually the last 100 years has used more complex tunings once musicians could manipulate bars to execute diagonal barrings, both forward and back. Hawaiian tunings evolved from A Major and E Major to E7, C sharp Minor, C sharp Minor 9th, F sharp Minor 9th, B11th and the popular E 13th. Jerry Byrd is credibly the originator of the C6+A7 tuning ECAGEC sharp(CA) which allows a wider ranging of chording for Hawaiian and many other forms of modern music. (Reference Needed) It differs from a conventional or Spanish guitar in having a higher action and often a neck that is square in cross section. The frets, unused in steel style playing, may be replaced by markers.

Early lap steel guitars were Spanish guitars modified by raising both the bridge and head nut. The string height at the head nut was raised to about half an inch by using a head nut converter or converter nut. This type of guitar is claimed to have been invented in about 1889 by Joseph Kekuku in Hawaii.[5]

Some lap slide guitars, particularly those of Weissenborn and their imitators, have two 6-string necks, but electric and resonator lap steel guitars are normally single neck instruments.

Square-necked resonator guitars are always played in lap steel fashion, and so are specialized lap steel guitars. Round-necked varieties can be played in lap steel fashion, with some restrictions on the available tunings, but can also be played in Spanish position.

The Rickenbacker frying pan, an electric lap steel guitar produced from 1931 to 1939, was the first commercially successful solid body electric guitar.

Console steel guitars

The console steel guitar is an electric instrument, intermediate between the lap steel from which it developed and the pedal steel which in turn developed from the console steel. There are no pedals, so the player has only as many tunings available as there are necks.

The development of the lap steel guitar into the console steel guitar saw the introduction of amplification as standard, multiple necks, and additional strings on each neck, first to seven, and eight strings per neck is now common. One, two, three and four neck instruments are not uncommon. The two neck, eight string per neck configuration is particularly favored in Hawaiian music.

The distinction between console steel guitar and lap steel guitar is fuzzy at best, and some makers and authorities do not use the term console steel guitar at all, but refer to any steel guitar without pedals as a lap steel guitar even if playing it in lap steel position would be quite impossible.

Pedal steel guitars

The pedal steel guitar is an electric instrument normally with eight to fourteen strings per neck, and one or two necks, each in a different tuning. Up to ten pedals (not counting the volume pedal) and up to eight knee-levers are used to alter the tunings of different strings, which gives the instrument its distinctive voice, most often heard in country music.

The extra strings and use of pedals gives even a single-neck pedal steel guitar far more versatility than any table steel guitar, but at the same time makes playing far more complex.


The type of slide, called a steel, which gives the technique its name, was probably originally made of steel. There is a legend that the first steel was a railroad track.

Many materials are used, but nickel-plated brass is popular for the highest-quality slides, which are shaped to fit the hand and as a result have a cross-section not unlike a railroad track.

Another traditional and popular shape is a cylindrical-shaped steel bar balanced between the thumb and the middle finger. The forefinger provides varying degrees of pressure on the string. The cylindrical bar is most often used with the pedal-steel guitar.

See also


  1. ^ a b Ross, Michael (February 17, 2015). "Pedal to the Metal: A Short History of the Pedal Steel Guitar". Premier Guitar Magazine. Retrieved May 8, 2020.
  2. ^ Foley, Hugh W., Jr. "Dunn, Robert Lee (1908–1971)". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. Archived from the original on September 5, 2008. Retrieved May 8, 2020.
  3. ^ Ginell, Cary (1994). Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02041-3.
  4. ^ Tipaldi, Art (2002). Children of the Blues: 49 Musicians Shaping a New Blues Tradition. Hal Leonard.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-04-22. Retrieved 2010-08-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

External links

This page was last edited on 11 May 2020, at 13:22
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