A short history  on The Steel Guitar

Some information on Steel Guitars

A steel guitar is any guitar played while moving a steel bar or similar hard object against plucked strings. The bar itself is called a "steel" and is the source of the name "steel guitar". The instrument differs from a conventional guitar in that it is played without using frets; conceptually, it is somewhat akin to playing a guitar with one finger (the bar). Known for its portamento capabilities, gliding smoothly over every pitch between notes, the instrument can produce a sinuous crying sound and deep vibrato emulating the human singing voice. Typically, the strings are plucked (not strummed) by the fingers of the dominant hand, while the steel tone bar is pressed lightly against the strings and moved by the opposite hand.

The idea of creating music with a slide of some type has been traced back to early African instruments, but the modern steel guitar was conceived and popularized in the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiians began playing a conventional guitar in a horizontal position across the knees instead of flat against the body, using the bar instead of fingers. Joseph Kekuku developed this manner of playing a guitar, known as "Hawaiian style", about 1890 and the technique spread internationally.

The sound of Hawaiian music featuring steel guitar became an enduring musical fad in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century and in 1916, recordings of indigenous Hawaiian music outsold all other U.S. musical genres. This 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 early acoustic instruments were not loud enough relative to other instruments, but that changed in 1934 when a steel guitarist named George Beauchamp  invented the electric guitar pickup. Electrification allowed these instruments to be heard, and it also meant their resonant chambers were no longer essential. This meant 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-like instruments in a metal frame on legs called "console steels", which were technologically improved about 1950 to become the more versatile pedal steel guitar.

In the United States, the steel guitar influenced popular music in the early twentieth century, combining with jazz, swing and country music to be prominently heard in Western swing, honky-tonk, gospel and bluegrass. The instrument influenced Blues artists in the Mississippi Delta who embraced the steel guitar sound but continued holding their guitar in the traditional way; they used a tubular object (the neck of a bottle) called a "slide" around a finger. This technique, historically called "bottleneck" guitar, is now known as "slide guitar" and is commonly associated with blues and rock music. Bluegrass artists adapted the Hawaiian style of playing in a resonator guitar known as a "Dobro", a type of steel guitar with either a round or square neck, sometimes played with the musician standing and the guitar facing upward held horizontally by a shoulder strap.


In the late 19th century, European sailors and Portuguese vaqueros, hired by Hawaii's king to work cattle ranches, introduced Spanish guitars in the Hawaiian Islands. For whatever reason, Hawaiians did not embrace standard guitar tuning that had been in use for centuries. They re-tuned their guitars to make them sound a major chord when all six strings were strummed, now known as an "open tuning". The term for this is "slack-key" because certain strings were "slackened" to achieve it. Steel guitar strings, then a novelty, offered new possibilities to the islanders. 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. It is physically difficult to hold a steel bar against the strings while holding the guitar against the body (hand supinated) so the Hawaiians placed the guitar across the lap and played it with the hand pronated. Playing this way became popular throughout Hawaii and spread internationally.

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. 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) was perhaps the most famous of the Hawaiians who spread the sound of instrumental lap steel worldwide. This music became popular to the degree that it was called the "Hawaiian craze" and was ignited by a number of events.

An advertisement for the Broadway show "The Bird of Paradise"

The annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory in 1900 stimulated Americans' interest in Hawaiian music and customs. In 1912, a Broadway musical show called Bird of Paradise premiered; it featured Hawaiian music and elaborate costumes. The show became quite successful and, to ride this wave of success, it toured the U.S. and Europe, eventually spawning the 1932 film Bird of Paradise.[Joseph Kekuku was a member of the show's original cast and toured with the show for eight years. In 1918, The Washington Herald 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".

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 guitar playing to millions of visitors. In 1916, recordings of indigenous Hawaiian instruments outsold every other genre of music in the U.S.

Radio broadcasts played a 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 featured the steel guitar, ukulele, and Hawaiian songs sung in English. Subsequently, the program was heard worldwide on over 750 stations. Sol Hoopii began broadcasting live from KHJ radio in Los Angeles in 1923. By the 1920s, Hawaiian music instruction for children was becoming common in the U.S. One of the steel guitar's foremost virtuosos, Buddy Emmons, studied at the Hawaiian Conservatory of Music in South Bend, Indiana, at age 11.

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.

In the early twentieth century, steel guitar playing branched off 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. The bottleneck-style became associated with blues and rock music, and the horizontal style became associated with several musical genres, including Hawaiian music, country music, Western swing, honky-tonk, bluegrass and gospel.


Modern country music and pedal steel Guitar

The original idea for adding pedals to a console guitar was simply to push a pedal and change the tuning of all the strings into a different tuning and thus obviate the need for an additional neck, but these early efforts were unsuccessful. Around 1948, Paul Bigsby, a motorcycle shop foreman, designed a pedal system. He put pedals on a rack between the two front legs of a console steel guitar to create the pedal steel guitar. The pedals operated a mechanical linkage to apply tension to raise the pitch of certain strings. 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 on a lap steel. 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. Almost simultaneously, an entire musical subculture took a radical stylistic tack. Even though pedal steel guitars had been available for over a decade before this recording, the instrument emerged as a crucial element in country music after the success of this song. When the lap steel was thus superseded by the pedal steel, the inherent Hawaiian influence was brought into the new sound of country music emerging in Nashville in the 1950s. This sound became associated with American country music for the ensuing several decades.