About the Steel Guitar
I will provide a very brief history here and follow with a more detailed description on how the steel guitar works. There is elsewhere a great deal of published literature on steel guitar history.
The steel guitar was invented in Hawaii in the late nineteenth century, and was better known at the time as a Hawaiian guitar. There remains some uncertainty as to who the actual inventor was. The early steel guitars were simply traditional Spanish guitars with the strings raised off of the fret board, and were played with various types of “bars” made of various materials including steel, hence the name “steel guitar”.
The steel guitar was introduced into the (U.S.) mainland music scene in the early 1900’s and soon found it’s way into jazz. One of the first great recordings of jazz being played on steel guitar happened in Chicago in 1935 with Bob Dunn recording the song “Taking Off” with Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies. This was the first recording of electrified steel guitar, and proved beyond a doubt that the steel guitar was in its own right a sophisticated musical instrument, capable of playing complex jazz harmonies just like the horn section. In fact, on this recording, if you weren’t listening closely, you might mistake Bob’s playing for a one or two trumpets.
There have been many extremely talented steel guitarists who have played jazz music on the instrument since then. Many of them have influenced my playing. They are too numerous to mention by name for fear of leaving someone out.
As the steel guitar evolved, musically, the need developed to provide more tunings to accommodate the complex chord voicings used in jazz music. So to alleviate the need for triple, or even quadruple neck steel guitars, pedals were introduced in the 1950’s.
Hence the name, pedal steel guitar.
How does it work?
The steel guitar is very similar to the standard, or ‘normal” electric guitar, except that there are no frets. The string vibrates just like that on a guitar, and the magnetic signal is received by the electric “pickup” and transferred electrically to an amplifier of some sort. The string will be tuned to a certain pitch, say middle “C” for example. This pitch is adjusted by a tuning mechanism that increases or decreases tension on the string (otherwise referred to as “tuning up”).
So when the string is plucked, you will get that “C” note coming from the guitar.
The steel bar is used by placing it on the on the string, over the fret board, at certain points to produce other desired notes. What is happening here is that the length of the part of the string that is vibrating is being shortened, therefore raising the pitch of the sound when the string is played, or “plucked”.
The strings are usually played with finger picks on the right hand and the steel bar held with the left hand on the fretboard.
This is very similar to what a guitar player is doing when placing the hands on various positions on the frets of the guitar. The only difference is that with the guitar, the frets are all there on the neck of the guitar, and when the finger presses the string, the string touches the fret, essentially shortening the length of the string that vibrates. With steel guitar, the bar IS the fret, and the player is moving it