Classic Gear: Pedal Steel Guitar

Pedal Steel GuitarThe pedal steel guitar’s journey to Nashville began in the Hawaiian Islands. Islanders would take an old guitar, lose the frets, raise the strings, and then slide the dull edge of a steel knife to sound wavering chords up and down the strings. Further tinkering from the Dopyer Brothers led to the invention of the Dobro, the classic bluegrass instrument. The Dobro eventually morphed into the lap steel, which when electrified was one of the first electric guitars, and along with ukulele became one of the signature sounds of Hawaii. After Gibson added pedals to their lap steel, calling it the Electraharp, pedal modifications developed until the standardized pedal steel was born.

Unlike the lap steel, the pedal steel guitar is not limited in its voicings – it allows for an unlimited amount of inversions and chords. By depressing pedals and knee levers while playing, the pedal steel performer can raise or lower each string up to two steps. Combined with the crying slide of the steel bar used to fret the strings, this affords the pedal steel guitar its expressive and distinct whine that Lloyd Green would call “the other voice in country music.”

However, pedal steel’s use is not limited exclusively to country music. The pedal steel has been used in rock music by David Gilmour, Manassas, and Steely Dan. King Sunny Adé even incorporated the instrument into Jùjú music, bringing the story of the steel all the way to Nigeria.

Webb Pierce’s “Slowly” was the first record to feature pedal steel guitar. Bud Isaacs had attached a pedal to his console steel guitar that yanked the pitch of two strings, affording quick access to two common tunings. During the very first chords you can hear Isaacs bend a string up and back down (and then back up!), a resounding ‘hello’ from country music’s new signature instrument.

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Webb Pierce “Slowly”

Long time steel guitarist for Buck Owen’s Buckaroos, Tom Brumley was another celebrated player, who would go on to record with Rick Nelson, Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band, and plenty others. This tune, adapted from either an old Hawaiian lap steel rag, or the 1920’s “Guitar Rag” helped popularize the pedal steel in C&W circles, and is still performed today by most every steel guitar player.

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Buckaroos “Steel Guitar Rag”

Buddy Emmons, “the Big E,” wasn’t only one of the world’s greatest steel players, he also damn near invented the thing (when you order a pedal steel, you have to specify if you want an Emmons or [Jimmy] Day setup). A lap steel player early as age 11, Buddy went on to play with the likes of Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, and The Everly Brothers and formed the successful pedal steel manufacturing company, Sho-Bud. On his 1963 Pedal Steel Jazz record, Emmons set out to demonstrate the versatility of the instrument.

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Buddy Emmons “Gravy Waltz”

Even if you can’t stand Frank Zappa, this next track is worth a listen for what may be the hottest steel solo I’ve ever heard. After some characteristically bizarre orchestrated mayhem, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, legend of the steel (too many appearances to name), stretches way out over one of FZ’s most addicting grooves.

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Frank Zappa “It Just Might Be A One Shot Deal”

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  • Hear hear. That Zappa track is sweet if only because of the pedal steel solo. Right on.

  • phil spector

    for some more pedal steel music try those two groups :

    – The MISUNDERSTOOD with Glenn Campbell at the pedal steel (not the famous singer).


    – The NEWS “Hot Off The Press” excellent private press Lp


  • Len Liechti

    Great post. I love the sound of the pedal steel! I can play the basics on just about every other stringed instrument, but the idea of tackling the pedal steel scares me sh*tless. Chapeau to the gifted few who can make it talk. Sneaky Pete Kleinow is simply the best, because he takes the beast where nobody else thinks to go. His work on Gram’s The Gilded Palace Of Sin is simply the most revolutionary pedal steel work ever. Oh, and don’t forget Jerry Garcia, who taught himself the instrument: catch his glorious solo on CS&N’s “Teach Your Children”.

  • tony c

    So, did the instrument get it’s biggest push w/ American G.I.’s stationed in Hawaii??

    My dad was from that generation, loved country music, and always called it “Hawaiian guitar”, no matter the style.

    My favorite steel records are the honky tonk tunes from the 60’s: Jones, Buck, Paycheck (his best work), the Hag, etc.

    My old roommate bought a collection of 75+ LP’s from a store for like a $1buck each a few years back. Mostly Starday stuff. That label is THEE country label, methinks. Hillbilly Heaven.

  • Nik

    man, if any of you dig a righteous dose of strange with your pedal steel guitar, you have got to dig pete drake’s talkin guitar! aka the pedal steel behind dylan’s nashville skyline & harrison’s all things must pass. I absolutely love sneaky pete’s work with the burritos, but as for taking the instrument into weird territory…

  • Len Liechti

    Wow, that’s seriously leftfield. Is that where Joe Walsh got the idea from? And what’s even weirder is the bunch of marionettes on backing vocals. Nashville’s got a lot to answer for.

    On a more serious note, pedal steel enthusiasts should also search out the tracks laid down by ace pedaller Speedy West with Jimmy Bryant, the inventor of two-fingered tapping on the guitar, during the period 1950-60. Several fine compilations still in print. Fire on the strings, indeed.

  • Liberty

    Great post! Another Steeler i highly recommend is Mr. Joe Goldmark AKA the Kosher Cowboy. He has some great stuff put out on an independent label in San Francisco.

  • @Tony C.: I took a class on ethnomusicology (a LONG time ago, so don’t quote me on this), and the professor said that it was radio broadcasts of Hawaiian music that influenced the C&W musicians here on the mainland. But I bet you’re right too about the exposure of American GI’s to Hawaiian culture. According to Allmusic, Webb Pierce released “Slowly” in 1956.

  • Loved this post. Four phenomenal songs. Great job!

  • Anonymous

    I recommend Lloyd Maines’ playing on Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne, the title track’s great, but “High Water” is sublime

  • Don K

    Steel Gutar Rag is neither a “old Hawaiian lap steel rag”, or “the 1920’s “Guitar Rag””. It was composed (along with a number of other Steel GUitar classic tunes) by Leon McAuliff – the legendary steel guitar player in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys Band. Leon was one pioneers who brought the steel guitar into country music long before the pedelers you mention here got going! Please, at the very least give credit where credit is due!

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