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Origins and development of the Pedal Steel Guitar by Jim Hollingsworth

Jun. 26 2013, 10:16 am
When composer Hans Zimmer was creating music for the upcoming film Man of Steel he scored it for a unique and little understood American instrument: the pedal steel guitar. “It's a movie about quintessential American values so why not use a quintessential American instrument." To that end he selected a small group of eight of the leading pedal steel guitarists to perform the music. It is yet another example of how this unusual instrument continues to find a place in the modern world.

The origins of the steel guitar hearken back to the late 1800’s here in Hawaii. A native Oahu man named Joseph Kekuku was the first to play a guitar by sliding a knife blade along the strings as opposed to fretting it in the more typical fashion. The sound was in ways very similar to the glissando slides found in traditional Hawaiian singing. The style caught on, and when Hawaiian music became all the rage across the U.S. circa 1915 the steel guitar made it’s way to the American continent. The newly created phonograph allowed Hawaiian music and the instrument’s sound to reach into homes everywhere. In the next few years Appalachian country musicians and Mississippi blues players alike adopted the steel’s rich sliding sound. The popularity of steel guitar music led to the development of the resophonic (Dobro) guitar in the early 1920’s. Even the first electrified guitars were actually steel guitars because of their immense popularity in the 1920’s and 1930’s. By the mid 1930’s electric steel guitars could be heard on the radio playing everything from country to jazz. Banjos were beginning to lose ground in bands as the standard guitar rose to prominence, but the steel guitar held strong in spite of the “Spanish” guitar!
Each week a radio show tiled “Hawaii Calls” (1935 to 1975) was broadcast from Waikiki and prominently featured the electrified steel guitar. This classic slice of Hawaiian music history is forever bound to the instrument birthed here in the islands.

At the same time American swing jazz bands were employing steel players like Alvino Rey to play music parts that were originally covered by horn sections. These jazz players used the traditional Hawaiian C6 tuning (descended from the “C Wahine” slack key tuning) to play jazz lines similar to a horn player and punctuated chords that were eerily close to an entire horn section. Simultaneously, in the rural south American country music was beginning to emerge and again the steel guitar found a home in that style. The classic country music of Hank Williams, the Carter Family, Webb Pierce and countless others featured the steel guitar singing in a mournful and sweet tone. Country musicians in Texas also began to merge swing jazz with country fiddles and steel guitars to create another hybrid style – Western Swing. From the 1940’s to the 1960’s it was immensely popular across the nation. In less than 50 years the steel guitar had transitioned from a subtle folk instrument into a major force in many styles of American music!

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s several companies began to produce steel guitars with two or more necks that were tuned to different tunings to facilitate playing in different keys and styles. But a guitar with three or four necks had its drawbacks: they were expensive to buy, heavy to carry, and changing 40 strings on a regular basis was a serious financial concern. An upstart instrument builder in California named Leo Fender built the first three and four neck instruments. But Fender (and several others) felt compelled to build a guitar that could use pedals or levers to allow a single (or double) neck instrument to change from one tuning to another quickly. In 1953 Fender had released a single neck steel guitar that had 4 pedals that could be set up to change the pitches of strings at the player’s intent. The original concept was to use the pedals to change the tuning – not to feature the sound of the pitches shifting. But in 1954 a steel player named Bus Isaacs cut a recording with the famous country singer Web Pierce that actually featured the sound of the strings shifting as he moved the pedals. It was an instant sensation! Within days, every steel guitar player was looking to convert his or her non-pedal guitars into the new styled pedal contraptions. Three companies rose to prominence building the unusual new instruments: Leo Fender out in California, and Sho Bud Steel Guitars & Emmons Guitar Company – both out of Nashville, Tennessee. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s the pedal steel guitar sound became one of the key components of country music, as we know it today. The steel guitar has evolved into a very complex instrument and is being utilized in every style of music known. It has covered music ranging from the Beatles to Bach, rock to country to jazz to blues. And while many people don’t recognize the sight of a steel guitar when they see one, they immediately recognize it’s sound when it begins to play.

To explain how the instrument works is in ways very simple. It is akin to holding a rubber band with your teeth and stretching it as you strike it – the pitch goes up when it is stretched and drops when it is released. The pedals & levers found under the instrument effectively stretch & release the metal strings in a very concise and controlled fashion. By combining different combinations of pedals and levers the player can move the many different chord tones with a very fluid and sustaining sound. It is almost like a choir of strings singing all at once. Performing with the pedal steel involves the use of knees, hands, and feet. It also requires intense concentration given the number of functions that need to take place at the same time. (A modern pedal steel can have two necks with 10 strings each and 9 pedals & 9 levers actuated by both knees!) But despite its difficulties it is one of the richest most soulful sounds that can be created. It is well worth the effort required to perform on it. From humble origins in the Hawaiian Islands to stages across the world the pedal steel guitar sends out music with it’s rich soulful sound.

Author and Pedal Steel Guitar Player: Jim Hollingsworth