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Resonator guitar played lap steel fashion.

Steel guitar is a type of guitar and/or the method of playing the instrument. The name steel guitar comes not from the material of which the guitar is made, but from the name of the steel, a slide held in the fretting hand.

Steel guitar can describe:

Contents

Technique

Steel guitar refers to a method of playing on a guitar held horizontally, with the strings uppermost and the bass strings towards the player, and using a type of slide called a steel above the fingerboard rather than fretting the strings with the fingers. This may be done with any guitar, but is most common on instruments designed and produced for this style of it.

The technique was invented and popularized in Hawaii. Thus, the lap steel guitar is sometimes known as the Hawaiian guitar, particularly in documents from the early 1900s, and today any steel guitar is frequently called a Hawaiian steel guitar. However, in Hawaiian music, Hawaiian guitar means slack string guitar, played in the conventional or Spanish position.

Bottleneck guitar may have actually developed from Steel guitar technique. It is similar, with the exception that the guitar is held in the conventional position, and using a different form of slide to accommodate this playing position.

Instruments

A Steel Guitar is one designed to be played in steel guitar fashion.

Historically, these have been of many types, but two dominate:

  • Resonator guitars, particularly the square-necked variety which can only be played in steel guitar fashion.
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Lap steel guitar

The lap steel typically has 6 strings and is tuned to either standard guitar tuning, or an open chord. It differs from a conventional or Spanish guitar in having a higher action and often a neck that is square in cross section. The frets, unused in steel style playing, may be replaced by markers.

There are three main types:

  • Lap slide guitars, which are acoustic instruments but may have electric pickups for amplification in addition.
  • Resonator guitars, which are also acoustic instruments but may have pickups for amplification in addition.
  • Electric lap steel guitars, which are normally solid body.

Early lap steel guitars were Spanish guitars modified by raising both the bridge and head nut. The string height at the head nut was raised to about half an inch by using a head nut converter or converter nut. This type of guitar is claimed to have been invented in about 1889 by Joseph Kekuku in Hawaii.

Some lap slide guitars, particularly those of Weissenborn and their imitators, have two 6-string necks, but electric and resonator lap steel guitars are normally single neck instruments.

Square-necked resonator guitars are always played in lap steel fashion, and so are specialised lap steel guitars. Round-necked varieties can be played in lap steel fashion, with some restrictions on the available tunings, but can also be played in Spanish position.

The Rickenbacker frying pan, an electric lap steel guitar produced from 1931 to 1939, was the first commercially successful solid body guitar.

Console steel guitar

The console steel guitar is an electric instrument, intermediate between the lap steel from which it developed and the pedal steel which in turn developed from the console steel. There are no pedals, so the player has only as many tunings available as there are necks.

The development of the lap steel guitar into the console steel guitar saw the introduction of amplification as standard, multiple necks, and additional strings on each neck, first to seven, and eight strings per neck is now common. One, two, three and four neck instruments are not uncommon. The two neck, eight string per neck configuration is particularly favoured in Hawaiian music.

The distinction between console steel guitar and lap steel guitar is fuzzy at best, and some makers and authorities do not use the term console steel guitar at all, but refer to any steel guitar without pedals as a lap steel guitar even if playing it in lap steel position would be quite impossible.

Pedal steel guitar

The pedal steel guitar is an electric instrument normally with 10 to 14 strings per neck, and sometimes two or even three necks, each in a different tuning. Up to eight pedals (not counting the volume pedal) and up to eight knee-levers are used to alter the tunings of different strings, which gives the instrument its distinctive voice, most often heard in country music.

The extra strings and use of pedals gives even a single neck pedal steel guitar far more versatility than any table steel guitar, but at the same time makes playing far more complex.

Steels

The type of slide called a steel which gives the technique its name was probably originally made of steel, or the name may come from the legend that the first steel was a railroad track.

Many materials are used, but nickel-plated brass is popular for the highest-quality slides, which are shaped to fit the hand and as a result have a cross-section not unlike a railroad track. Another traditional and popular variety is a cylindrical shaped steel bar that needs to be balanced between the thumb and the middle finger with the forefinger providing for varying degrees of pressure on the string.

Some cautions on terminology

The term steel guitar should not be confused with steel-strung guitar, which is a standard acoustic guitar that has steel rather than the nylon, cat-gut or brass/nickel strings used for classical guitar or standard acoustic guitar, and is built with extra bracing, a stronger neck, and higher-geared machine heads to compensate for the much higher tension of steel strings. The steel guitar takes its name from the type of slide used, not from the material of the strings.

The term Hawaiian guitar is often used for various types of steel guitar, but in Hawaiian music Hawaiian guitar means slack-key guitar, a way of tuning a steel stringed acoustic guitar which is then played in the conventional position.

See also slide (guitar).

See also

External links


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