Pedal Steel Guitar 101: An overview of the pedal steel guitar. From history to tuning, this is as podcast like article to get you up to speed.
Pedal steel guitar is a console version of the lapsteel guitar. It has a long neck and usually 12 strings, but can have more. The strings are arranged in 6 courses, 2 strings for each course. Originally, all strings were metal, but now there are also pedal steels with nylon strings (called ‘gut’ strings).
The action is set very low to make the strings easy to press down onto the frets. The strings are suspended over metal ‘tone bars’ which run at an angle from under the bridge to the tuning pegs. The angle helps sustain of the sound and give it more volume than a conventional guitar has. Pedal steels typically have a resonator body (like a dobro), though some are acoustic like a regular guitar.
If you’re interested in learning about the pedal steel guitar, this is a great place to start.
I’ll cover all of the basics: what it is, its history, how it’s tuned, and some of the more common techniques used to play it.
What is a pedal steel guitar?
Pedal steel guitars – also known as console steel guitars – are electric guitars that are played while sitting down. They have legs, or a stand of some sort, so they sit on the floor. Pedal steel is an instrument that’s very different from anything else out there. It can’t easily be described in words, but I’ll try nonetheless!
So what is a pedal steel guitar? Well basically it’s an electric guitar with pedals and levers that can be used to change the pitch of each string. The main difference between a normal electric guitar and a pedal steel one is that the latter has pedals and levers attached to it which allow you to change the tuning of its strings without having to physically touch them. For example, if you play an ordinary electric guitar using standard tuning (EADGBE) then your lowest note would sound like this (plays E). However if you were playing with open G tuning (DGDGBD) then your lowest note would sound like this (plays D).
Pedal steels are most often used for lap-slide guitar techniques such as playing slide solos on top of chords and bass lines that are played by other musicians in the group – though some players use their feet instead.
Pedal steel guitar is a type of steel guitar that is typically played with a bar while the instrument’s pedals and knee levers change the pitch of certain strings. The word “steel” comes from a piece of polished steel held against the strings, which both lowered their pitch and gave the instrument its distinctive sound.
The pedal steel guitar is also known as the console or non-pedal steel guitar; its close relative, the console steel guitar (also known as Fender Rhodes), uses push-buttons instead of pedals.
The first pedal steel guitar was built in 1939 by Paul Bigsby for Merle Travis. It was a 2-neck 8 string instrument with a solid body and no pedals or levers.
The first commercially available pedal steel guitar was built in 1951 by Mullen, Gretsch and Sho~Bud. They were all 3-neck 10 string instruments with 1 knee lever.
The first production console pedal steel guitar was built in 1952 by Sho~Bud with 5 knee levers and a patented moveable bar.
Today there are many types of steel guitars: single neck 6 string, double neck 6 & 8 string, triple neck, and quad neck console guitars. There are also the Sho~Bud Super Pro, the Oahu Tonemaster, the Fender 400 Pedal Steel, and other “conventional” style instruments that have a solid body or small box, with pedals and/or levers that change the pitch of one or more strings when the bar is moved over the fretboard during playing.
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 antecedent steel guitar designs. Like other steel guitars, it shares the ability to play unlimited glissandi (sliding notes) and deep vibrati—characteristics in common with the human voice. Pedal steel is most commonly associated with American country music and Hawaiian music.
The pedal steel evolved from the console steel guitar and guitar-organ collaborations of the 1930s and 1940s. The earliest hybrid instrument was the Frying Pan, or lap plate steel, a 12-string neck fitted to a resonator filled with wires, magnets, and horseshoe pickups to amplify its tones. The Frying Pan was designed so that its resonator could be rotated, using metal rods connected to pedals later on referred to as knee levers. As a result of its rotary mechanism it was nicknamed the “Sleeping Fanny”.
In 1939, Jerry Byrd acquired a Bigsby unit, which he installed on his lap plate. He adapted the knee levers from a car parts supplier in Detroit to operate the tuning slides that were part of the Bigsby package; this was his first use of pedals
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 antecedent steel guitar designs. Like other steel guitars, it shares the ability to play unlimited glissandi (sliding notes) and deep vibrati—characteristics in common with the human voice.
A pedal steel guitar player uses one or more metal bar “slides” to press down on properly tuned strings, changing their pitch so that each string plays a separate fixed note, while the other strings continue to play unaltered notes. The pedals and knee levers add chromatic notes to the scale of the instrument which can make it a very versatile instrument that allows the player to play chords and progressions in all keys. Another feature of the pedal steel guitar is volume dampers or “mutes”, which are levers that when activated stop certain strings from sounding to create unique rhythms and effects.
The pedal steel evolved from the console steel guitar and Hawaiian lap steel guitar. Like the console steel, a pedal steel may have multiple necks, but where a console steel has one or two, usually a wider “vocal” neck with 24 narrow strings tuned in unison pairs (E6 tuning), plus an optional “