If you’re a country music fan, you’ve undoubtedly heard the unmistakable, tear-jerking wail of a steel guitar. Maybe you’ve even considered learning how to play it yourself. 

In this article, we’ll briefly go over the history of steel guitars, the different types, and what you need to get started with learning how to play. 

What Is a Steel Guitar?

Steel guitar is a stringed instrument known for its unique ability to create gliding notes and rich vibrato sounds. 

Unlike with conventional guitar, steel guitar players don’t press their fingers against the fretboard to play chords or scales but instead slide a stainless steel bar across the strings. 

Steel Guitar Origin

Steel guitar is believed to have been invented by Joseph Kekuku in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 19th century. He became known for playing his conventional guitar by laying it across his lap and sliding a metal bar along the strings. This technique gained popularity across the islands and eventually became a distinct characteristic of Hawaiian music. 

By the early 20th century, Americans became fascinated with the instrument, which they referred to as “Hawaiian steel guitar.” In the 1930s, the it became the first instrument to be electrically amplified and evolved into what we know today as lap steel guitar. 

Steel Guitar Types

Although technically speaking, any guitar can be played as a steel, there are two types of guitars manufactured for this specific purpose: lap and pedal. 

Lap Steel Guitar

The first iteration of steel guitars, this instrument has one neck and six strings and is played on the player’s lap. 

Pedal Steel Guitar

A lap steel guitar is quite limited because there’s no way to create different chords. In a way, playing it is a bit like playing a conventional guitar with just one finger.

The pedal was invented to solve this problem. It uses pedals and knee levers to bend and alter the pitch of strings. This way, players can create different chords with their legs and feet while playing melodies with their hands. 

Pedal steel guitars also tend to have two or more necks, each with 10 strings, to give players even more freedom and variety. 

Types of Steel Guitar Music

Though steel guitar is most commonly associated with Hawaiian and American country music, it can be heard across many other genres like blues, bluegrass, jazz, rock, and even pop.

Famous Songs With Steel Guitar 

To hear the instrument in action, check out some of these all-time fan favorites:

  • “Teach Your Children” – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
  • “Breathe (In the Air)” – Pink Floyd
  • “Tiny Dancer” – Elton John
  • “Tangerine” – Led Zeppelin
  • “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” – The Byrds
  • “Dire Wolf” – Grateful Dead
  • “Torn and Frayed” – The Rolling Stones
  • “Going in the Right Direction” – Robert Randolph and the Family Band
  • “Out on the Weekend” – Neil Young
  • “Crying Steel Guitar” – Tammy Wynette

How to Play a Steel Guitar 

What You Need

Tone Bar

A tone bar is a smooth cylindrical object that you’ll press against the steel guitar’s strings to produce sound. It’s typically made of stainless steel (hence the name), though you can also find ceramic or glass versions. 

Finger Picks

Though some steel guitarists prefer to play with just their fingers, most use a thumb pick and two or three finger picks to help achieve a brighter sound and more volume. 

Amplifier

Like with any electric guitar, you’ll need an amplifier to hear what you’re playing. Most players also add a volume pedal and a bit of reverb to their signal chain to achieve the unmistakable steel guitar sound. 

Tuning

The first step to playing is to tune your instrument. 

If you know how to play conventional guitar, you’re likely already familiar with the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning. However, because there’s no opportunity to press individual fingers against the fretboard to manipulate pitch and create different chords, steel guitars are usually played in open tuning. This means that when all the strings are strummed together, they produce a chord. 

You can tune it to any open tuning you like, but a few popular options are open G, open D, open E, and C6. 

Pedal steel guitar
Source: pixabay
A pedal version with a double neck.

How to Play a Lap Steel Guitar

To play a lap steel guitar, place the instrument on your lap. If you’re right handed, your right hand will be the picking hand and will rest just left of the guitar’s pickup, while your left hand will be the fretting hand and will hold the tone bar above the fretboard.

Use your thumb and third finger to hold the tone bar while you lift and slide it along the fretboard. Rest your index finger on top and use it to apply a small bit of pressure on the bar—you’ll know you’re not pressing hard enough if the strings start to create a buzzing sound. 

Keep in mind that when you’re playing individual strings, you should be pressing down on the top inch of the tone bar, so to play one of the lower strings, you’ll need to move the tone bar down to achieve the perfect pressure. 

To create the lovely vibrato sound you’ve likely heard from steel guitar, quickly move the tone bar from left to right once you’ve landed on the note. 

When it comes to your fingerpicking hand, its task is not much different from what it does when playing conventional guitar. Simply pick individual strings or multiple strings at the same time. You can also use your fingers or your palm to block the strings when you don’t want them to be sustained. 

How to Play a Pedal Steel Guitar

Playing pedal steel guitar involves all of the above techniques, but there’s something else to keep in mind—the pedals and knee levers. 

When you press a pedal or push a knee lever, it alters the pitches of particular strings by one or two semitones. You can use this to create new chords or even create sliding sounds, similar to what you would do with the tone bar. 

Paying attention to the pedals and knee levers, while simultaneously controlling the tone bar and fingerpicking can be challenging at first, but you’ll get the hang of it with practice. 

Get Started With Learning Steel Guitar

If you already know how to play conventional guitar, trying steel guitar can be a fun way to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Many guitar manufacturers offer lap steel guitars that are quite affordable, so go ahead and get your hands on one and start practicing! 

Learn to Play the Guitar

Learn Guitar: The Complete Beginners Guide

Written By

Sayana Lam

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