The steel guitar, which originated in Hawaii, is a guitar that is played with a "steel" - a slide held in the fretting hand, which is used to create a constant range of pitches, as opposed to the comparatively fixed pitches available when fretting a string. The steel guitar is most notable for its use in traditional Hawaiian music and was made popular in the 1950s by the duo Santo and Johnny with the release of their hit Sleepwalk. Although this guitar is used most often in country, folk and blues music, it is also occasionally used in rock and roll music. While the name “steel guitar” is typically used to describe the method of playing rather than the type of guitar, there are certain guitars that are more suited to this style.
Resonator guitars, most often with rounded necks, are the most popular guitar to be played as a steel. However, any guitar with modified high action can be used. There are also guitars specifically made for this purpose such as lap steel guitars, electric console steel guitars and electric pedal steel guitars.
The lap steel guitar, usually tuned to standard guitar tuning or an open cord, typically has six strings. The frets are often replaced by markers, as they aren’t physically used in the steel style of playing. It has a higher action than a Spanish-style (fretted) guitar and usually has a neck that is square in cross section. If the neck is square, it can only be played in the lap style. However, if it is rounded (which limits tuning capabilities due to the increased string tension involved in nonstandard tunings) it can be played in the typical Spanish fashion. Because of its ability to be played in either manner, it is the type most often heard in rock music. Solid body, electric lap steel guitars are increasingly popular, and are built with a wider neck that blends into the body. This neck is squared, and makes electric lap steels unsuitable for Spanish playing, though exceptions do occur.
The console steel guitar is a specific type of electric lap steel, which usually has seven or eight strings versus the lap steel’s traditional six, and is frequently built with multiple necks for acess to additional tunings. The pedal steel guitar, unlike the lap and console guitars, is the most complex of the three and most often heard in country music. It typically has at least two, if not three, necks with ten to fourteen strings on each. It can have up to eight pedals eight knee levers that alternate the tunings of the strings. While all of these options allow the pedal steel guitar to have the most versatility of any other steel guitar, it also makes it much more difficult to play.
Electric steel guitars are often used played with the addition of a foot pedal that controls the volume of the instrument. Using the volume pedal in conjunction with the slide creates a distinctive "swell" that is a trademark of the electric steel. Santo and Johnny's Sleepwalk is a prime example of this technique, with both changes in volume and pitch audible within the first few seconds of the piece.
The steel guitar provides a distinctive sound to almost any style of music, to the point where many non-steel players often develop tricks to emulate the steel's sound. In recent years, steel guitar has seen a resurgence in popularity amongst pop singer-songwriters and other acts outside of their typical country, blues, and folk applications. More retailers are including steel guitars in their inventories, and with the range of resources available, it has never been easier to learn the instrument.
The following links provide more information on the steel guitar.