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Online Akustik Travels

Steel Guitar Story - part 5:
The Pedal-Steel Guitar

by Claude Samard Polikar

Photo by Will Carter for Pexels

Page 5 of 5

Moving on from the hawaiian guitar, the Dobro and then the lap-steel, we now have the pedal-steel guitar, that still intrigues and fascinates many guitarists. It is indeed a very unusual instrument and the last stop on our journey from Hawaii to Nashville, will tell us more about this magical instrument.

The competition that exists between different types of instruments is fierce. Some offer a very wide range of harmonics like the piano, others like the violin offer different modulations or pitch variations. Throughout the history of instruments, one will notice how these have managed to be improved thanks to the talented musicians that played them or to the technical enhancements that were developed on their behalf so they could play subtleties that were unheard of before.

The lap-steel was played, as the name clearly indicates, lying flat on the lap, first as a plain electric guitar, to which two additional strings were added, although certain chords were still difficult to play. This is how the lap steel with more than one neck and different tunings came about. Because of the additional necks, up to five, with each a different tuning in order to cover the range of chords played in Western Swing, the instrument soon became too heavy and was then set on a stand to be played in an upright position.

However this solution had too many drawbacks and lead to an apparent dead end situation. A few musicians made enough suggestions to the Gibson company who came out with the very first pedal-steel, the Electraharp, with one neck but fitted with eight strings and 6 pedals. Identical to the harp technique, the general idea was to be able to variate the pitch of certain strings at a fixed interval by using a pedal attached to a wire, or better yet to a set of thin rods, that would command the different string pitches. In order to obtain a precise pitch variation for all chords, the technique is implemented with stops based on a very well adjusted basic tuning. It simply turned into a new technique you had to learn to play.
Here's an example: you can easily pitch a note a semi-tone by carefully sliding the steel bar with the left hand, one bracket higher (just like with a bottleneck), and then, without moving the left hand, by pressing on the right pedal (the one pre-set to pitch a semi-tone higher). In both cases, you have to hit the string with the two finger picks and thumb pick on the right hand.


Emmons, Franklin, Mullen, Williams, Zum, MSA, ShoBud, Carter, WBS, Excel...took over where Gibson left off, to build pedal-steel guitars that became more and more sophisticated as they went along and some of the most talented performers, like Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green and Paul Franklin (Nashville's Ace Studios and Dire Straits) are able to really add another dimension to this instrument's potential.
Your basic pedal-steel is a single neck played sitting down, has 10 strings tuned E9 (the Nashville tuning) to play country and pop. It would have 3 pedals and 4 knee-levers that are used by spreading or joining the legs. They are used exactly for the same purpose as the pedals and were made to enhance the possibilities of this technique. If you ever come accross double-necked models, the second one is tuned C6, to play jazz or Western swing. There’s also the choice of a single neck 12-strings universal version, mixing both C6 jazz and E9 country tunings. Those 12 strings also have the advantage of being far less heavy to carry than a double neck with its flight case that could easily weigh 70lbs (30kg).