Crash Course in the Pedal Steel Guitar

by Frederik Nielsen, Mar 12, 2018 . 4 min read

Crash Course in the Pedal Steel Guitar

Remember the electric hurdy-gurdy? Here’s another one of those. If you know your country music you will already know that the pedal steel guitar is like a steel guitar, but with bells and whistles (not literally – it does have pedals and levers, though).

So why is this interesting? Because, my friend, the humble lap steel guitar not only set the wheels in motion for the guitar amplifier you’re probably using; but also led to the creation of a cool instrument that changed country as a genre.

Long ago, on an island far away…

In the 19th century, Spanish sailors introduced native Hawaiians to their Spanish guitar, thinking it would go down well. Hawaiians, however, thought it was too moody and complicated for their taste; so they tuned it to play major chords. And, laid the guitar across their lap to make it easier to play. It turned out to be a hit in the US; and soon manufacturers mass-produced the Hawaiian version of the Spanish guitar.

Electrified!

The problem with the early version of the lap steel guitar was that it wasn’t quite loud enough to compete with instruments like brass and drums. George Beauchamp made it his mission to amplify the lap steel guitar, and together with violin repairmen John and Rudy Dopyera he managed to put a horn on it. So far, so good.

The partnership ended, however, and Beauchamp teamed up with engineer Adolph Rickenbacker to create… a frying pan. But check this out – because the A22 Frying Pan needed an amplifier to work, you can thank Mr. Beauchamp and Mr. Rickenbacker for starting the rock revolution.

From lap steel to console steel to pedal steel

Lap steel guitars had a regular guitar shape; until manufacturers caught onto the fact that this shape was a bit redundant now that it was in the lap of players. It was soon crafted in a rectangular shape instead – this made a bit more sense.

The next issue was that lap steel players wanted more versatility, so a clever cookie decided to add on an extra neck tuned differently. Two necks quickly became four; and the lap steel guitar became so heavy it needed its own stand – enter the console steel guitar.

Now the problem was affordability: too many necks, not enough cash. Because many players were unable to purchase the multi-necked wonder, several inventors (including Paul Bigsby) came up with the idea of installing a pedal that simply changed the pitch of the strings.

Pedal steel pioneers

Musicians are known for breaking the rules, and Bud Isaacs decided to do just that when he pushed the pedal while notes were still sounding. Rather than the world ending, Bud Isaacs started a new trend in country music: pitch bending.

Another pioneer was Zane Beck, the guy we can thank for introducing knee levers to the pedal (pedalever?) steel guitar. Similar to the pedals; the levers can control the pitch of the guitar and can be used either on their own or in combination with each other.

Today

The pedal steel guitar continued to undergo several transformations, including a third pedal, ten strings, and different types of necks. Far from being exclusive to country music and swing; the pedal steel guitar can be found in jazz, sacred, popular, Nu jazz, Indian and African music.

Want to make your own? Always an option – check the video below to see how! With the bells and whistles (pedals and levers), you’d probably be best off using a Roadie3 to make sure your pedal steel guitar sounds crisp!



Get our free Alternate Tunings Guide!
Submit

Check out some other similar articles

Take advantage of our biggest backer-exclusive discounts and get your hands on this next-generation automatic tuner. Back the Kickstarter campaign today and be the first to receive the Roadie 3.

John Lennon was one of the most beloved songwriters of his generation and was taken from us way too soon.

Frederik Nielsen
Nov 29, 2021 . 3 min read

It is quite hard to pick the best 8 Willie Nelson songs. He is such a prolific writer and has written a myriad of great songs over his long career.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Oct 29, 2021 . 6 min read

These four interesting facts about sting give us some insight into the life of this celebrated musician.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Oct 22, 2021 . 4 min read

Have you ever wondered what are the 5 most used types of guitars?

Rodrigo Sanchez
Oct 18, 2021 . 4 min read

These five interesting facts about Van Halen partly reveal a musician that was quite extraordinary.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Oct 8, 2021 . 3 min read

These five facts about jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny are quite impressive. They will shed some light on how a guitar prodigy from a small town in Missouri became the most successful and beloved jazz musician of his generation.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Sep 24, 2021 . 4 min read

You know the saying: “Give people their flowers while they can smell them” so, in this post, we’re going to look through some of the greatest jazz guitarists playing today…

Frederik Nielsen
Sep 13, 2021 . 3 min read

These 5 facts about Guns N’ Roses can help us understand why they became one of the biggest rock bands ever.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Jul 16, 2021 . 6 min read
We'll be bringing you recommended tabs and plenty of interesting quotes from guitar legends along the way!