Instruments | Dobro | Stringed

During the 1830s, Mexican cattle-herders introduced the guitar to Hawaiians, who quickly incorporated it into their own music-making, typically tuning all the strings to the notes of a major triad.

Joseph Kekuku is credited with developing a technique of using a comb to slide up and down the neck to create glissandi. Clearly this was difficult to achieve holding the guitar in a conventional manner, so instead it was laid across the lap.

Lap Steel Guitar

As the Hawaiian style of playing increased in popularity, the guitars were increasingly made in rectangular form and the comb was replaced with a steel rod. When they began to be commercially manufactured in the 1930s they acquired the name ‘lap steel guitar’.

Since the playing style of the lap steel limits the performer to a few keys, players began using instruments with more than one neck in order to increase the number of pitches available without having to retune. Having multiple sets of strings soon became cumbersome, however, and makers in the 1940s began fitting pedals that would simultaneously alter the tunings of a complete set of strings.

Pedal Steel Guitar

The pedal steel guitar, as it came to be known, had two necks as standard, with eight sets of pedals and 10 strings on each neck, though as many as 12 or 14 is not uncommon. One neck is normally tuned to a chord of E9 (a combination of the notes E–G#–B–D–F#) and the other to a chord of C6 (a combination of C–E–G–A). Both the lap steel and the pedal steel are fretless guitars; the strings are stopped using a metal bar known as the ‘steel’ which, like Kekuku’s comb, is used to slide up and down them, creating glissandi.

Four legs normally support the guitar with the performer sitting on a stool. The right foot will be used to control the volume while the left leg controls the pedals using both the foot and the knee to move the pedals. The strings are plucked using finger and thumb picks – metal picks that are worn like thimbles.

Resonator Guitar

The early-twentieth century also saw the development of the resonator guitar. This technology used metal discs that acted in a similar way to the skin on a banjo, amplifying the soundwaves generated by the strings. The resonator guitars were somewhat louder than their wooden siblings.

The Arrival of the Dobro

In the 1920s, a refinement to the resonator guitar was designed in the United States by the Slovak instrument maker John Dopyera and his brothers. They used three spun aluminium cones as their amplification system. The new design became known as the dobro guitar, partly based on the brothers’ name and partly because ‘dobro’ means ‘good’ in Slovak. It has the characteristic guitar shape with a large, decorated aluminium disc where the sound hole would normally be.

The Dobro was developed in the same period as the electric guitar; the...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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