Steel guitar is a type of guitar or the method of playing the instrument. Developed in Hawaii by Joseph Kekuku in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a steel guitar is usually positioned horizontally; strings are plucked with one hand, while the other hand changes the pitch of one or more strings with the use of a bar or slide called a steel (generally made of metal, but also of glass or other materials).
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).
The earliest use of an electrified steel guitar was in the early 1930s by Bob Dunn of Milton Brown and His Brownies, a western swing band. 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. 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:
- The slide technique of playing slide guitar is generally by using a steel bar. Resonator guitars, including round necked varieties, are particularly suitable for this style, yet are seldom referred to as "steel guitars", but rather referred to generally as a Dobro, acoustic slide guitar, or square neck resonator guitars. Dobro is also a brand name of one of the leading manufacturers of resonator guitars.
- A specialized instrument built for playing in steel guitar fashion. These are of several types:
Steel guitar refers to a method of playing on a guitar held horizontally, with the treble strings uppermost and the bass strings towards the player, and using a type of slide 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 the strings are much too high to be fretted. 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 or ring finger or pinky to accommodate this playing position. The slide is almost never slanted. Common bottleneck tunings are open D and E chords.
A steel guitar is one designed to be played in steel-guitar fashion.
Historically, these have been of many types, but two dominate:
- Resonator guitars, particularly the square-necked variety which can be played only in steel guitar fashion.
- Electric instruments, starting with electric lap steel guitars and developing through the console steel guitar to the pedal steel guitar.
Lap steel guitars
The lap steel guitar typically has 6 strings (and sometimes 8) 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.
There are three main types:
- Lap slide guitars, which are acoustic instruments but may have electric pickups for amplification in addition.
- Resonator guitars, which are also acoustic instruments but may have pickups for amplification in addition.
- Electric lap steel guitars, which are normally solid body.
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.
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.
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 8 to 14 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.
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.
Some cautions on terminology
The term "steel guitar" should not be confused with "steel-string acoustic guitar", which is a standard acoustic guitar that has steel rather than the nylon, catgut or brass/nickel strings used for classical guitar, and is built with extra bracing, a stronger neck, and higher-geared machine heads to compensate for the much higher tension of steel strings. The steel guitar takes its name from the type of slide used, not from the material of the strings.
Also, the term "steel guitar" does not describe what the guitar itself is made out of. Acoustic steel guitars used in Hawaiian music are made out of wood, and some resonator guitars are made out of steel or brass but aren't steel guitars due to the manner in which they are played.
The term "Hawaiian guitar" is often used for various types of steel guitar, but in Hawaiian music Hawaiian guitar means slack-key guitar, a way of tuning a steel stringed acoustic guitar which is then played in the conventional position.
See also: slide (guitar).
- Central Illinois Steel Guitar Association Information about central Illinois steel guitar players, events, and shows.
- Steel Radio A Web radio station dedicated to the steel guitar.
- Steel Guitar Forum A forum where steel players and enthusiasts get together and discuss steel guitar.
- Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association An organization which promotes the development of steel guitar with worldwide membership.