What Is A Steel Guitar (everything you need to know)

What Is A Steel Guitar? (everything you need to know)

We’ve all heard country songs with that almost weeping sound emanating from the steel guitar. But apart from that, what do we know about the steel guitar? If you’d like to learn all about the steel guitar, read on, because in this article we’ll tell you where the steel guitar came from, how many types of steel guitar there are and a few interesting facts that you would probably never have guessed.

What Is A Steel Guitar?

Firstly, the steel is actually not the guitar, but the bar that slides along the strings to change the pitch. The instrument gets its name from that steel bar, so a steel guitar is any guitar that is played using a steel bar pressed against the strings.  

History Of The Steel Guitar

As Spanish ranchers moved to Hawaii at the request of the Hawaiian ruler Kamehameha III in 1830, they brought with them their guitars. Over time the indigenous population of Hawaii adopted the guitar and developed their own methods of tuning and playing the instrument. This is where slack key guitar originates and also steel guitar would not have happened without similar tunings etc.

The Hawaiians played their guitars in their own personal or family tunings which are closely related to open tunings but with each family having their own particular sound. The steel guitar was invented in 1885 by a Hawaiian named kekuku who apparently laid a guitar across his lap and moved the back of a steel comb across the frets. The Hawaiian guitar sound was created using a standard guitar and a steel comb. 

Kekuku toured all across the US for around 30 years with his traditional Hawaiian band. Once country music artists heard the sound, they started experimenting with steel guitars and the rest is history.

How Many Types Of Steel Guitar Are There?

Most people are familiar with what’s now known as the Hawaiian steel guitar, but that’s not its proper name. In fact there are four types of steel guitar used in the music industry. They are;

  1. Resonator
  2. Lap Steel Guitar
  3. Console Steel Guitar
  4. Pedal Steel Guitar

Resonator

The resonator was originally developed before the advent of electric guitars. Because the guitar couldn’t be heard above the sound of the other band instruments, the resonator was developed to increase the volume of the instrument. Once electric guitars became the go to instrument for band members that played guitar, the resonator went out of style.

But it soon got adopted by country, bluegrass and blues players. Resonators come in two different neck types, the rounder necked types are played like conventional guitars and the flat necked types are played like a steel guitar.

Lap Steel Guitars

Lap steel guitars also known as Hawaiian guitars, have no pedals and are traditionally played with the instrument resting on the performer’s knees horizontally. Using a steel bar to press the strings while plucking them to create the sound. There are no actual frets on a lap steel guitar, just markers where the frets would be.

The absence of frets allows the steel to glide along the unfretted board smoothly, and the markers allow the correct notes to be played. Available as both electric and acoustic, lap steel guitars have their strings tuned to many more alternate tunings than the traditional E, A, D, G, B, E of a standard guitar. These open tunings as they’re known allow for easy playing using the steel bar.

Console Steel Guitars

The console steel guitar is basically any type of electric steel guitar that is supported by a frame with legs, in a similar style to a console table. As the weight of the instrument is supported by a frame and legs, more necks can be used. The multiple neck type of steel guitar was developed in the 1940s because of the need to play in different keys using different chords than could be achieved on the lap steel guitar.

The console type of steel guitar commonly has eight strings and up to four necks. This limits the player to as many keys as they have necks. Which is why the pedal steel guitar was developed so they could change key without being limited by the amount of necks.

Pedal Steel Guitar

Also known as the Hawaiian steel guitar, this instrument was first developed in 1940. The pedals enable the performer to play a major scale just using the pedals and without moving the steel bar. The pedals are also responsible for that almost human crying sound that is now synonymous with country music.

To play the pedal steel guitar takes a great deal of coordination because as well as simultaneously using both hands and both feet, the player also operates levers using both sides of each knee. This is very similar to the necessary requirements for playing the reed organ. The first musician to actually bend the strings using the pedals when playing was Bud Isaacs in 1953.

It was at first, frowned upon by musical purists as it sounded “un-Hawaiian”. As country music artists adopted the pedal steel guitar the sound became more familiar. Pedal steel guitars are available with one, two or three necks but two necked pedal steel guitars are the most common.

Not An Easy Instrument To Play

Steel Guitar

Many traditional guitarists have tried to play the steel guitar and failed miserably. You employ very different techniques on a steel guitar compared to a regular guitar. Not least of all is the eight strings as opposed to six on a standard guitar.

Added to the way you change the note on the strings using a steel bar instead of your fingers. Plus the steel guitar has no frets, just markers where the frets should be, this means the player has to constantly be looking down at the steel guitar to play it properly. The steel has to be held in a particular way, in fact, it’s not actually held…

The steel bar is balanced on top of the strings and guided by the hand while exerting just enough pressure to create the correct note. This bar is used in a number of positions to create different chords. It is used flat across the strings, slanted at different angles, and even just with the point of one end.

To pluck the strings the player uses picks on the thumb and first two fingers. These picks come in various thicknesses and each player has their own personal preference. Even though they are made from metal, the picks do wear out after constant use and a new set has to be broken in to get them to the same point as the last set.

What Musical Genres Use The Steel Guitar?

The steel guitar is used in traditional Hawaiian music of course, but it’s also used in other musical genres including;

  • Country
    In the 1920s a cowboy movie star by the name of Hoot Gibson brought Hawaiian Sol Hoopii to Los Angeles to perform in his country band. By the 1950s with the introduction of the pedal steel guitar the Hawaiian sound became part of the Nashville sound. 
  • Blues
    Solo blues artists had been using the bottleneck slide guitar technique since the beginning of the 20th century. One of the first bluesmen to use the Hawaiian steel guitar was Tampa Red and his style completely changed the way the blues was played from then on.
  • Honky Tonk
    In the late 1940s the steel guitar was being used in the style of country music known as honky tonk. Artists like Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce and Hank Williams included steel guitars in their songs.
  • Swing (Western Swing)
    During the 1930s electric steel guitars were being used by jazz-swing musicians who developed their own sound that they named Western-Swing. Leon McAuliffe recorded Steel Guitar Rag which was an instant success. It was during this time that extra necks were added to create extra tunings.
  • Indian Music
    During the 1940s a Hawaiian named Tau Moe moved to India taking his steel guitar with him. He taught Hawaiian guitar style and made steel guitars. The steel guitar soon became a popular instrument in Calcutta (where he settled) and eventually all over India. By the 1960s the steel guitar was widely used in Indian popular music.
  • Gospel Music
    During the 1930s the steel guitar was introduced to gospel music, the tradition of sacred steel was created. In the 1960s the Cambell Brothers, a gospel band, took sacred steel to mainstream audiences. The steel guitarist with the band played with the Allman Brothers and various other rock and blues artists.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a steel guitar and a slide guitar?

The difference between a steel guitar and a slide guitar is that a steel guitar uses a steel bar to press the strings, and a slide guitar uses a bottleneck or steel tube to slide over the strings.

Is steel guitar hard to play?

The pedal steel guitar is thought to be one of the most difficult instruments to learn how to play.

How many strings are on a steel guitar?

The steel guitar used to have six strings but most have eight now for each neck. It is not uncommon to have two necks both with eight strings.

How is a steel guitar tuned?

The steel guitar doesn’t use regular guitar tunings. It is tuned in open tunings like open G etc.

What tuning does David Gilmour use on lap steel?

David Gilmour’s lap steel guitar is tuned with the G6 tuning (D, G, D, G, B, E).

Do lap steel guitars have frets?

Lap steel guitars don’t have frets, they have markings where the frets should be to indicate where to apply pressure to change the note on that string.

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