Pedal Steel Guitar
Pedal steel (ZumSteel D10)

The pedal steel guitar is a console type of steel guitar with pedals and levers added to enable playing more varied and complex music which had not been possible with its non-pedal predecessors. Pedal steel is most commonly associated with American country music. Like other steel guitars, it shares the ability to play unlimited glissandos (sliding notes) and deep vibratos--characteristics in common with the human voice. The added pedals allow the performer to push the pedals while striking a chord, making passing notes slur or bend up from below into harmony with existing notes. This creates a unique sound that has been particularly embraced by country and western music--a sound not previously possible on a non-pedal steel guitar of any type.

The instrument is built on a table-like frame and played while seated. The word "steel" comes from a piece of polished steel, also called a "tone bar" that is held against the strings and moved horizontally to change the pitch. Moving the bar while playing gives the gliding, or portamento notes and chords, that are so characteristic. Pedal steels often have two separate sets of strings, or "necks", which basically create two different instruments that are tuned differently and operated by separate pedals. The two are rarely, if ever, used in the same song. The reason for two necks is because each neck has different voicings, each with its distinctive nuance, chosen for any song at the performer's preference. The neck closer to the player is a C6 or "Texas" tuning, an older tuning with a wider pitch range, heard more in Hawaiian and western swing music. The neck further away is an E9 or "Nashville" tuning, currently more widely used and more associated with country music. Each neck typically contains ten strings. The instrument has no frets, only markers on the neck which look like frets, but serve only a visual guide for the performer.

As steel players of the early 20th century realized, playing the instrument using only the bar had significant limitations in playing different scales and chords and required advanced sleight-of-hand dexterity. As the instrument evolved in the 1950s it was fitted with foot pedals and knee levers to change pitch of certain strings, and to share some of the function of the bar to lessen its movement, or work load. The pedals change the pitch by stretching or relaxing certain strings using a mechanical linkage, giving the player infinitely more possibilities for interesting and varied music. The pedal system requires its own tuning mechanism, unseen and separate from the traditional tuners seen on top of the guitar at the end of the strings. The instrument is rarely, if ever, strummed.[1] It is typically played by plucking the strings with the dominant hand, using picks on the thumb, index and middle fingers. A volume pedal is used for sonic effects by altering the attack or decay of sustained notes, e.g., to simulate a violin sound, and is typically operated by the player's right foot (see photo).[2] The pedal steel guitar does not have a resonant chamber-- its sound is produced by the vibration of its strings over a magnetic pickup, thus creating an electrical signal which goes to an amplifier and loudspeaker.

From its first use in Hawaii in the 19th century, the steel guitar sound became popular in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. This popularity led to the invention of electronic amplification in 1934, so the steel guitar could be heard equally with other instruments. This spawned progressive improvements in design, leading, chronologically speaking, to the Hawaiian guitar also called a lap steel; the resonator guitar called a Dobro; and console steel, all of which represent milestones in the current pedal steel guitar's lineage.

Playing the pedal steel guitar has a unique physical requirement, the simultaneous and coordinated use of both hands, both knees, and both feet. All steel guitars, with or without pedals, also require:

  • the skill to play in tune with the bar without the aid of frets
  • the ability to stop notes manually for staccato passages to keep the notes from running together
  • dexterity in picking certain combinations of strings (called grips) to pluck with the dominant hand using finger picks.

Early history and evolution

The instrument's ancestry is traced to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 19th century after the Spanish guitar was introduced there by European sailors.[3] Hawaiians who perhaps did not want to take the time to learn how to play a Spanish guitar, re-tuned the instrument so it sounded a major chord. This was known as "slack-key" because some of the strings were slackened to tune to a chord.[3] 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. To make playing easier, they laid the guitar across the lap and played it while sitting. The problem with playing an ordinary Spanish guitar this way was that the steel tone bar strikes against the frets making an unpleasant sound unless played very lightly--this was corrected by raising the strings higher off the fretboard with a piece of metal or wood under the strings, and over the nut.[3] This technique became popular all through Hawaii.[3]Joseph Kekuku was a Hawaiian from Oahu who became proficient in this style of playing around the turn of the century and popularized it-- some sources say he invented it.[4] He moved to the United States and became a vaudeville performer and also toured Europe.

The Hawaiian style of playing spread to the United States during the first half of the 20th century.[5] One influence was a radio broadcast called "Hawaii Calls" which began broadcasting to the US west coast in 1935, prominently featuring the steel guitar and songs sung in English. By 1952, the program was heard worldwide on over 750 stations.[6] One of pedal steel guitar's foremost virtuosos, Buddy Emmons (sample above), at age 11 trained at the "Hawaiian Conservatory of Music" in South Bend, Indiana.[7] The instruments, then referred to as "Hawaiian guitars" or "lap steels", spurred instrument makers to produce them and create innovations in the design to accommodate this style of playing.[8][9] The Hawaiian style was adapted to blues music. Blues musicians played a conventional Spanish guitar as hybrid between the two types of guitars, using one finger inserted into a piece of pipe or a bottleneck used as a tonebar while using frets with the remaining fingers.[3] This is known as "slide guitar".

Electrification of the steel guitar

Hawaiian lap steel guitars were not loud enough to compete with other instruments, a problem that many inventors were trying to remedy. In Los Angeles in the 1920s, a steel guitar player named George Beauchamp saw some inventions which added a horn, like a megaphone, to steel guitars to make them louder.[10] Beauchamp became interested, and went to a shop near his home to learn more. The shop was owned by a violin repairman named John Dopyera. Dopyera and his brother Rudy, showed Beauchamp a prototype of theirs which looked like a big Victrola horn attached to a guitar, but it was a failure.[10] Their next attempt yielded some success with a resonator cone, like a large metal loudpeaker cone attached under the bridge of the guitar.[11] Buoyed by their success, Beauchamp joined the Dopyera brothers in forming a company to pursue their invention. The new resonator invention was promoted at a lavish party and demonstrated by the well-known Hawaiian steel player Sol Hoopii. An investor wrote a check for $12,000 that very night.[10]

A factory was built to manufacture metal-body guitars with the new resonators. Money problems and disagreements followed, and the Doperyas won a legal battle against Beauchamp over the company, then went on their own to form "the Dobro Corporation", Dobro being an acronym for DOperya and BROthers. Beauchamp was out of a job. He had been thinking about an "electric guitar" for years, and at least part of the dispute with the Dopyeras was over him spending too much time on the electrification idea and not enough on improving the resonator guitar.[10] Beauchamp enrolled in electronics courses. For his first efforts, he made a single string guitar out of a 2x4 piece of lumber and experimented with phonograph pickups. He eventually came up with the idea of using two horseshoe magnets encircling the guitar strings like a bracelet, and six small metal rods wrapped with wire to concentrate the magnetic field (one under each guitar string).[12] When connected to an electronic amplifier, It worked.[10] He enlisted the aid of a skilled craftsman to fashion a guitar neck and body to connect to his device. The final construct, he thought, resembled a frying pan, and that is what the instrument was nicknamed. He applied for patent in 1934 and received it on August 10, 1937.[12] Beauchamp asked a nearby engineer named Adolph Rickenbacker to help manufacture the product and together they founded a company first named "Ro-Pat-In", soon changed to "ElectroString".[10] The guitar brand was called "Rickenbacker" because they thought the name was easier to pronounce than "Beauchamp" (pronounced Beecham) and because Eddie Rickenbacker, Adolph's cousin, was an American pilot and WWI flying ace, well-known name in the U.S. at that time.[10]

Unfortunately, in 1931, the great depression was at its worst, and people were not buying guitars; in addition, the patent office delayed in part because they had no category for the invention--was it a musical instrument or an electrical device?[10] Electrostring's competitors infringed on the patent, but the owners did not have the money to litigate the infringements. Beauchamp was ultimately deprived of economic benefit for his invention because his competitors rapidly improved on it making his specific patent obsolete.[12] Electrostring's most successful product was the Hawaiian guitar (lap steel) A22 "Frying Pan", the first electrified instrument of any kind [3]-- made with a metal body, smaller than a traditional Spanish guitar, to be played on the musician's lap. Two additional breakthroughs emerged: One, the guitar amplifier, which had to be purchased in order to use the invention;[13] and two, perhaps unrealized at the time, that electrified guitars no longer had to have the traditional guitar shape--this profoundly influenced electric guitar designs forever forward.[8]

Lap steels

The first lap steels had a smaller body, but instrument makers rapidly began making them into a flat block of wood with an electric pickup, the precursor of the pedal steel. 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.[3][14] He recorded with Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.[3] Brown has been called "The father of western swing" [15]

Console steels

The next problem to be dealt with was the need to play in different keys and with different chords on the steel guitar.[16] The only way to accomplish this at the time was the addition of a duplicate neck and strings on the same instrument, tuned differently. Players continued to add more necks, eventually getting up to four. This meant a bigger and heavier instrument, now called a "console" which necessitated putting it on a stand or legs rather than the performer's lap. Noel Boggs, a lap steel player with Bob Wills, received the first steel guitar made by instrument maker Leo Fender in 1956. Fender relied on prominent performers to field test his instruments.[17] Boggs was one of the first players to switch to a different neck during a solo.[3]Leon McAuliffe, composer of "Steel Guitar Rag" also played with Bob Wills, and used a multi-neck steel guitar. When Wills said his well-known tag line, "Take it away, Leon", he was referring to McAuliffe.[3] A Fender triple-neck console steel was heard in a number one hit song in the 1960s, "Sleepwalk", a steel guitar instrumental by Santo and Johnny, the Farina Brothers.

Console steel becomes pedal steel

The expense of building multiple necks on the same instrument made them unaffordable for most players, and a more sophisticated solution was needed. Various inventors sought to design a pedal that would change the pitch of all the strings at once to emulate a second neck.[18] In 1939, a guitar called the "Electradaire" featured a pedal controlling a solenoid, triggering an electrical apparatus to change the tension on the strings.[19] This was not successful. That same year, Alvino Rey worked with a machinist to design pedals to change the pitch of strings but was without success. The Harlan Brothers of Indianapolis created the "Multi-Kord" with a universal pedal that could fairly easily be configured to adjust the pitch of any or all strings, but was extremely hard to push when tensioning all strings at once.[19]Gibson Guitar Company introduced the "Electraharp" in 1940, which featured pedals radially oriented from a single axis at the instrument's left rear leg. The most successful pedal system from the various contenders was designed about 1948 by Paul Bigsby, a motorcycle shop foreman and racer who also invented the commercially successful Spanish guitar vibrato tailpiece.[20] Bigsby put pedals on a rack between the two front legs of the steel guitar. The pedals operated a mechanical linkage to apply tension to raise the pitch or the strings.[21] This is not as straightforward as it might sound. The pedal mechanism itself has to have its own tuning system. As an example, assume the guitar is tuned perfectly using the familiar tuning pegs easily visible on the guitar. Then assume that the player pushes a pedal and the result is out of tune, but when he releases the pedal, it is in tune again. Underneath the guitar, a system of levers, springs and long rods is seen. At the player's right, on the end of the instrument, is an opening that exposes the ends of the rods, each representing a string. The player fits a small hex wrench that looks like a radio knob onto the rod controlling the out-of-tune note. While holding the pedal down, he turns the knob either direction to fine-tune the pedal in a process completely independent of the original tuning.[20] Bigsby built guitars incorporating his design for the foremost steel players of the day, including Speedy West, Noel Boggs, and Bud Isaacs, but Bigsby was a one-man operation working out of his garage at age 56, and not capable of keeping up with demand.[19] One of Bigsby's first guitars was used on "Candy Kisses" in 1949 by Eddie Kirk.[22] The second model Bigsby made went to Speedy West, who used it extensively.[20]

Bud Isaacs: the birth of a new sound in country music

In 1953, Bud Isaacs attached a pedal to a guitar neck to change only two strings, and was the first to push the pedal while notes were still sounding. Other steel players strictly avoided doing this, because it was considered "un-Hawaiian".[3]

When Isaacs first used the setup on the 1956 recording of Webb Pierce's hit "Slowly," he pushed the pedal while playing a chord, so 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 the steel bar. It was the birth of the future sound of country music and caused a virtual revolution among steel players who wanted to duplicate it.[20][16]

Also in the 1950s, steel player Zane Beck added knee levers to the pedal steel guitar. The player can move each knee either right, left or up (depending on the model) triggering different pitch changes. The levers function basically the same as foot pedals, and may be used alone, in combination with the other knee, or more commonly, in combination with one or two foot pedals.[23] They were first added to Ray Noren's console steel.[20] Initially, the knee levers just lowered the pitch, but in later years with refinements, could raise or lower pitch.

Buddy Emmons' contributions to pedal steel

When "Slowly" was released, Bigsby was in the process of building a guitar for steel virtuoso Buddy Emmons. Emmons heard Isaacs' performance on the song, and told Bigsby to make his guitar setup to split the function of Isaacs' single pedal into two pedals, each controlling a different string. This gave the advantages of making chords without having to slant or move the bar, e.g., minors and suspended chords. Jimmy Day, another prominent steel player of the day, did the same thing, but reversed which strings were affected by the two pedals. This prompted future manufacturers to ask customers if they wanted a "Day" or an "Emmons" setup. In 1957, Emmons partnered with guitarist/machinist Harold "Shot" Jackson to form the Sho-Bud company, the first company devoted solely to pedal steel guitar manufacture.

Emmons made other innovations to the steel guitar, adding two additional strings (known as "chromatics") and a third pedal, changes which have been adopted as standard in the modern-day E9 instrument.[24][25] He also developed and patented a mechanism to raise and lower the pitch of a string on a steel guitar and return to the original pitch without going out of tune.[26] The Sho-Bud instruments of the day had all the latest features: 10 strings, the third pedal, and the knee levers.

The modern pedal steel

A song played on a pedal steel guitar.

In the United States, as of 2017, the E9 neck is more common, but most pedal steels still have two necks. The C6 is typically used for Hawaiian and western swing music and the E9 neck is more often used for country music.[27] The different necks have distincty different voicings. The C6 has a wider pitch range than the E9, mostly on the lower notes.[28]

Certain players prefer different setups regarding which function the pedals and levers perform, and which sting tuning is preferred. In the early 1970s, musician Tom Bradshaw coined the term "copedent" (pronounced co-PEE-dent), an acronym for "Chord-Pedal-Arrangement". Often represented in table form, it is a way of specifying the instrument's tuning, pedal and lever setup, string gauges and sting windings.

There are proponents of a "universal tuning" to combine the two most popular modern tunings (E9 and C6) into a single 12 or 14-string neck that encompasses some features of each.[20] It was developed by Maurice Anderson and later modified by Larry Bell. By lowering the C6 tuning 1/2 step to make it a B6, many commonalities with the E9 tuning are achieved on the same neck and it is called the E9/B6 tuning.[29]

Pedal steel in other genres

The pedal steel most commonly associated with American country music and Hawaiian music but is heard in jazz, Sacred music, popular music, Nu jazz, Indian and African music.[30][3] In the United States in the 1930s, during the steel guitar's wave of popularity, the instrument was introduced into the House of God, a branch of an African-American Pentecostal denomination, based primarily in Nashville and Indianapolis. The sound bore no resemblance to typical American country music.[31] It was embraced by the congregation and often took the place of an organ. This musical genre, known as "Sacred Steel" was largely unknown until, in the 1980s, a minister's son named Robert Randolph, took up the instrument as a teenager, and has popularized it and received critical acclaim as a musician.[32] Neil Strauss, writing in the New York Times, called Randolph "one of the most original and talented pedal steel guitarists of his generation.[33]

The pedal steel guitar became a signature component of Nigerian Juju music in the late 1970s.[34] Nigerian bandleader King Sunny Adé features steel guitar in his 17 piece band, which, says New York Times reviewer Jon Pareles, introduces "a twang or two from American blues and country" [35] Norwegian jazz trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, considered a pioneer of Future jazz (a fusion of jazz and electronic music), released the album Switch, which features the pedal steel guitar.[36]

The steel guitar's popularity in India began with a Hawaiian immigrant who settled in Calcutta in the 1940s named Tau Moe (pronounced mo-ay). Moe taught Hawaiian guitar style and made steel guitars, and is believed to have been a force in popularizing the instrument in India.[37] By the 1960s, the steel had become a common instrument in Indian popular music--later included in film sound tracks. Indian musicians generally have not used pedals --they have played the lap steel while sitting on the floor and modified the instrument by using, for example, three melody strings (played with steel bar and finger picks), four plucked drone strings, and 12 sympathetic strings to buzz like a sitar.[38] Performing in this manner, the Indian musician Brij Bhushan Kabra adapted the steel guitar to play ragas, traditional Indian compositions and is called the father of the genre of Hindustani Slide Guitar.[37]

See also


  1. ^ Borisoff, Jason (September 27, 2010). "How Pedal Steel Guitar Works". Making Music Magazine. Retrieved 2017. 
  2. ^ Hempker, Bob (April 11, 2013). "Volume Pedal Technique". Steel Guitar Nashville. Retrieved 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Ross, Michael (February 17, 2015). "Pedal to the Metal: A Short History of the Pedal Steel Guitar". Retrieved 2017. 
  4. ^ "History of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar". Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association. Retrieved 2010.  Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association
  5. ^ Ruymar, Lorene (1996). "The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and It's Great Hawaiian Musicians/ Hawaiian Music's Conquest of America/ The Steel Guitar Did It". Centerstream. p. 48. Retrieved 2017. 
  6. ^ Ruymar, Lorene (1996). "The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians/Hawaii Calls". Centerstream. p. 46. Retrieved 2017. 
  7. ^ Betts, Stephen L. (July 30, 2015). "Steel Guitar Great Buddy Emmons Dies". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. ISSN 0035-791X. OCLC 693532152. Retrieved 2017. 
  8. ^ a b "Early History of the Steel Guitar". Steel Guitar Academy. Retrieved 2017. 
  9. ^ "Herman Weissenborn/History". Weissenborn. Retrieved 2017. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h "The Earliest Days of the Electric Guitar". Rickenbacker International. Retrieved 2017. 
  11. ^ Drozdowski, Ted (December 18, 2012). "How Resonator Guitars Work and Sound So Cool". Gibson Brands. Retrieved 2017. 
  12. ^ a b c "First-ever electric guitar patent awarded to the Electro String Corporation". A&E Television Networks. Retrieved 2017. 
  13. ^ Teagle, John (September 1997). "Which came first - electric guitar or amp?". Vintage Guitar Magazine. Retrieved 2017. 
  14. ^ Foley, Hugh W., Jr. "Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture/Dunn, Robert Lee (1908-1971)". Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved 2017. 
  15. ^ Ginell, Cary (1994). Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press. ASIN 0252020413. ISBN 0-252-02041-3. 
  16. ^ a b Brenner, Patrick. "Early History of the Steel Guitar". Patrick Brenner. Retrieved 2017. 
  17. ^ Meeker, Ward (November 2014). "Boggs' Quad". Vintage Guitar Magazine. Retrieved 2017. 
  18. ^ Anderson, Maurice (2000). "Pedal Steel Guitar, Back and To the Future!". Maurice Anderson. Retrieved 2017. 
  19. ^ a b c Seymour, Bobbe (April 30, 2012). "Early History of the Pedal Steel Guitar". Steel Guitar Nashville. Retrieved 2017. 
  20. ^ a b c d e f Winston, Winnie; Keith, Bill (1975). Pedal steel guitar. New York: Oak Publications. p. 116. ISBN 0-8256-0169-X. 
  21. ^ Ross, Michael (November 17, 2011). "Forgotten Heroes: Paul Bigsby". Premier Guitar Magazine. Retrieved 2017. 
  22. ^ "Eddie Kirk". AllMusic, member of the RhythmOne group. Retrieved 2017. 
  23. ^ "What's This Part? Knee Levers". Retrieved 2017. 
  24. ^ Hurt, Edd (July 30, 2015). "Remembering Steel Guitar Innovator Buddy Emmons". Nashville Scene. SouthComm. 
  25. ^ Stimeling, Travis D., Editor; Miller, Tim Sterner (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Country Music/Chapter 9. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190248178. Retrieved 2017. 
  26. ^ Morris, Edward (July 30, 2015). "Steel Guitarist and Inventor Buddy Emmons Dead at 78". Viacom. Retrieved 2017. 
  27. ^ Brenner, Patrick (2011). "The Open Tuning". steelguitaramerica. Steel Guitar Academy. Retrieved 2017. 
  28. ^ McDuffie, John Groover (October 28, 2010). "The Steel Guitar Forum/C6 vs E9". Steel Guitar Forum. Retrieved 2017. 
  29. ^ Bell, Larry. "The E9/B6 Universal Tuning". Larry Bell. Retrieved 2017. 
  30. ^ Fischer, John (January 27, 2016). "Hawaiian Steel Guitar". Tripsavy. Retrieved 2017. 
  31. ^ Stone, Robert L. (2010). Sacred steel : inside an African American steel guitar tradition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-0252-03554-8. Retrieved 2017. 
  32. ^ Hansen, Liane; Wharton, Ned (August 5, 2001). "Heavenly 'Sacred Steel'". NPR. Retrieved 2017. 
  33. ^ Strauss, Neil (April 30, 2001). "Making Spirits Rock From Church to Clubland; A Gospel Pedal Steel Guitarist Dives Into Pop". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017. 
  34. ^ "Juju and Pedal Steel". WordPress. Retrieved 2017. 
  35. ^ Pareles, Jon (May 15, 1987). "MUSIC: King Sunny Adé and Band from Nigeria". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017. 
  36. ^ Molvaer, Nils Petter (March 11, 2014). "Nils Petter Molvaer releases album Switch". OKeh Records. Retrieved 2017. 
  37. ^ a b Ellis, Andy (June 8, 2012). "The Secret World of Hindustani Slide". Premier Guitar Magazine. Retrieved 2017. 
  38. ^ Bhatt, Vishwa Mohan (August 28, 2011). ""Raag Kirwani"(song)". YouTube. Retrieved 2017. 

External links

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