Instruments | Electric Steel Guitar | Electric & Electronic

The electric steel guitar (also known as ‘Hawaiian guitar’ or simply ‘steel guitar’) is a solid-body, steel-strung instrument that relies on pickups and amplification to produce its sound.

It has its origins in the Hawaiian music of the late-nineteenth century and is similar in sound and playing technique to resonator guitars such as the Dobro or National.

Playing Technique

The steel guitar has two main variants – the lap steel guitar and the pedal steel guitar. Each instrument is played horizontally – in the case of the lap steel guitar, resting on the player’s lap. The instruments are, effectively, just the solid neck and head sections of a guitar (i.e., with no resonating body).

The action of the strings is raised higher above the fret-board than on a standard guitar and, rather than pressing the strings to the frets, the player alters the pitch of notes by moving a metal bar (or ‘steel’) along the strings with (usually) the left hand, while the right hand plucks the strings with thumb and finger picks. This produces a characteristic ‘crying’ portamento effect. Not stopping the strings with fingers limits the ability to play a diverse range of on-string chord types and the instrument’s use is, therefore, primarily melodic.

Pedal Steel Guitar

The pedal steel guitar is the larger relative of the lap steel, usually comprising one or two necks – each strung with 10 strings (though eight-, 12- and even 14-string models are available) – mounted on a stand. An assembly of foot pedals and knee-operated levers beneath the instrument enables the player to adjust the tensioning of the strings in performance, thereby altering the tuning of the instrument. Notable lap and pedal steel-guitar players include Jerry Byrd and B.J. Cole.

Introduction | Electric & Electronic Instruments
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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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