Modern pedal steels typically have 10 or 12 strings and come in single- and double-neck models. Photo by Andy Ellis
For many, pedal steel guitar is synonymous with country music. The instrument’s sinuous string bending and crying sound has long distinguished the songs coming out of Nashville and Bakersfield from pop, rockabilly, and blues.
Recently it’s become rare to hear pedal steel on mainstream country radio, though there are signs of a slight return. Meanwhile, pop, rock, and even avant-garde artists have embraced the instrument. Its expressive potential is still being expanded, and it’s been adopted worldwide in a variety of musical styles, from the African highlife of King Sunny Adé to the nü-jazz of Nils Petter Molvær.
The pedal steel’s history began before country music existed, far from the centers of hillbilly and honky tonk. It originated, pre-pedals, in the Hawaiian Islands. The 6-string guitar was introduced there by visiting European sailors in the latter part of the 19th century. The Hawaiians developed a playing style based on straight major chord tuning called “slack-key” because the strings were slackened relative to standard tuning.
Legend has it the guitar was first laid flat by a young Joseph Kekuku on the island of Oahu in 1874. As a boy, his shop teacher helped him fashion a cylindrical steel bar and metal fingerpicks. Kekuku developed a method of playing this new instrument—called “steel guitar” after the bar used to play it. He then taught it to his classmates, who carried the style to other islands. The method soon became popular all over Hawaii.
On a Hawaiian guitar, the player alters pitch by lightly pressing a metal or glass bar against the strings and sliding it around (rather than pushing strings down to the fretboard with fingers, as on the Spanish guitar). Some of these early acoustic instruments were built with a raised nut to hold the strings off the fretboard—usually about 1/2" above it—but sometimes a standard acoustic was converted to a Hawaiian guitar by raising the strings with an arched metal extender positioned over the nut. Either way, a Hawaiian guitar’s strings never touch the fretboard, and any frets or markers are purely for reference. The guitar is typically plucked using a thumbpick and metal or plastic fingerpicks. A few players—mostly rock musicians—use a conventional flatpick or bare fingers.
Developed by Hermann Weissenborn in the 1920s, the acoustic hollowneck guitar that bears his name is a close descendant of the Hawaiian guitar. Though almost forgotten for several decades, the Weissenborn has returned to the stage and studio, thanks to such lap-slide virtuosos as Ben Harper and David Lindley.
Sol Hoopii was the most famous of the Hawaiians who spread the sound of instrumental lap slide throughout the world. The earliest record of the Hawaiian guitar being used in country music is said to be when cowboy movie star Hoot Gibson brought Hoopii to Los Angeles to play in his band in the early 1920s.
The Hawaiian guitar sound was soon adapted to other genres. In the southern United States, blues musicians tuned a regular acoustic steel-string guitar to an open chord and used a knife, glass bottleneck, or sawed-off piece of pipe to glide along the strings. Hill country string bands began using a lap-played instrument that evolved into the Dobro when John and Emil Dopyera added a resonator cone to increase the guitar’s acoustic volume. (The word Dobro, a contraction of “Dopyera brothers,” also translates to “good” in the brothers’ native Slovak language.)
Despite their mind-blowing mechanical complexity, pedal steel guitars evolved from the humble 6-string lap steel.
Lap It Up
The first lap steel guitars had bodies similar to typical acoustic guitars, but by the ’30s the hollow body was replaced by a flat slab of wood or metal and electrified with pickups. These electric lap steels were originally marketed as electric Hawaiian guitars. These electric lap steels with their six to 10 strings are direct antecedents of the pedal steel. The lap steel guitar figures heavily in pedal steel history, as many bar/picking techniques and tuning variations were initially developed on this instrument.
The first production electric lap steel was introduced in 1932: the aluminum Ro-Pat-In (later Rickenbacker) A22 “Frying Pan.” This was the first electric stringed instrument of any kind. In 1935, when Bob Dunn went into the studio to play it with Western swing star Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, it also became the first electric stringed instrument on a commercial recording.
Western swing became an experimental laboratory for this new musical device. Musicians found it could provide horn-like punctuation and single-line solos, or join fiddles and guitars for three-part harmony. Extra necks were added for different tunings. Legs were sometimes added, raising the instrument off the lap and enabling players to stand. Legged versions were known as “console” steels.
Lap virtuoso Noel Boggs (who played with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Spade Cooley) was a close friend of jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. Boggs would transcribe Christian’s solos on such tunes as “Flying Home” or “Good Enough to Keep” to create arrangements for three guitars. He was one of the first players to shift from one neck to another in the middle of a solo, and was lauded for his ability to play piano-style block chords. Boggs began on a Rickenbacker, but when he met Leo Fender in 1946, he became the owner of Fender’s first steel guitar.
Another early multi-neck user was Leon McAuliffe, composer of the classic “Steel Guitar Rag.” During his tenure with Bob Wills, the bandleader’s cry of “Take it away, Leon!” was often heard.
The non-pedal steel had perhaps its most populist moment when Santo & Johnny—the Farina brothers—hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard hit parade with “Sleepwalk.” The brothers were from, of all places, Brooklyn, New York. Accompanied by Johnny on guitar, Santo played this chart-topper on a Fender triple-neck console steel.