The instrument shown in the above photograph is a double-neck steel guitar with eight pedals and seven knee levers. (You are viewing it from the back side -- where the player sits.) Each neck has ten strings. The front (or upper) neck is usually tuned to an E9 chromatic tuning and is generally used for country songs, although it is not limited to that genre. The back (or lower) neck is usually tuned to a C6 tuning, giving the player the ability to play a lot of chords and voicing used in jazz and popular music.
The instrument in the photograph was built by GFI Steel Guitars in Mesquite, Texas. This instrument's owner is Mr. Charles Tilley, President of the East Texas Steel Guitar Association, who gave permission for his pedal steel guitar to be shown here. Mr Tilley also owns an Excel pedal steel guitar similar to the one owned by Roy and shown elsewhere in this website.
By clicking on the two links below, you can hear the two pedal steel guitars being played by their owner, Mr. Tilley.
Most people who are not either musicians or fans of country, western, bluegrass or gospel genres of music would probably not know what is meant by the term “pedal steel guitar.”
In summary, the “pedal steel guitar” is simply a technological outgrowth of the so-called “Hawaiian steel guitar”.Below is a short history of how and why the original Hawaiian steel guitar evolved into the modern pedal steel guitar.
More than a hundred years ago, some guitar player in Hawaii found that the guitar could be laid flat in the lap of a seated person and various notes and chords could be made by sliding a piece of metal (usually steel) up and down the strings.This allowed the player to create a unique sound, not unlike the sounds produced by a regular guitar, but with the transition from one note or chord to the next occurring in a smooth, sliding motion.The guitar played in this way became known as the “Hawaiian Steel Guitar” – so named because of the steel bar used to make the various notes and chords.
Now, fast forward about a hundred years to the “big band” era of the 1930’s.A famous steel guitarist named Alvino Rey was the bandleader of a relatively large popular-music orchestra.Someone discovered that they could wrap a small copper wire around a magnet and place it near the steel strings of a stringed instrument, thus creating a “microphone” of sorts that could electronically amplify the sound of a steel-stringed instrument.Mr. Rey added this feature to his steel guitar, thus allowing it to compete (in terms of loudness) with the brass, woodwind and percussion instruments in his band.So, with the advent of the electromagnetic pickup, the instrument became known as the “electric steel guitar.”
The instrument in this configuration became very popular in the genre of country and western music.The instrument could make beautiful sounds, but it had one severe limitation: since the steel bar used to play the instrument could not be bent or warped to raise or lower single notes within a chord, the player was stuck with a very limited number of chords.To broaden the usefulness of the instrument, players began using steel guitars with more than one bank of strings, with each bank or “neck” tuned differently.Manufacturers made electric steel guitars with up to four necks.While these expanded the number of chords available on the steel guitar, the instruments having multiple necks were quite heavy – and they still did not allow the full range of chords that could be made on other instruments such as the keyboard instruments and the regular (so called “Spanish”) guitar.
A number of players recognized that it was possible to build a mechanical system into the electric steel guitar that could add tension to a string, thus raising the pitch of the string, or, conversely, could relax the tension in a string to lower the pitch of the string.This principle had been known for years and had been used almost exclusively by Alvino Rey.A country singer named Webb Pierce recorded a song named “Slowly” in the 1950’s and his steel guitarist, Bud Isaacs, added a single pedal to his steel guitar allowing him to change the tuning of his steel guitar from an “E” tuning to an “A” tuning.The distinctive and unique sound Mr. Isaacs made by depressing the pedal while the strings were sounding, captured the attention of many steel guitarists.It seemed that every steel guitarist began experimenting with similar pedal arrangements.Steel guitars with up to ten pedals started to show up just about everywhere one could find a country or western band.The use of multiple pedals opened up the possibility of many, many chords that previously were impossible to produce on a steel guitar.Then players started to use various pedals in combinations, adding even more chords to their repertoire.Ultimately, steel guitar designers and manufacturers began adding knee levers to make combinations more easily achieved.Today, pedal steel guitars are readily available with up to ten pedals and up to nine knee levers.A common configuration is one with two ten-string necks, eight floor pedals and five knee levers.The two ten-string necks are set up with a standard “E9-chromatic” tuning for country sounds on one neck and a standard “C6” tuning for the more sophisticated jazz sounds on the other neck.Some players prefer the so-called “universal” tuning where anywhere from 12 to 14 strings on a single neck combine the main features of the E9-chromatic tuning and the C6 tuning.
The pedal steel guitar is one of the most challenging instruments to learn.The player has to use both feet, both knees and both hands, and must have a good knowledge of chord construction and analysis.
Steel Guitarist formerly with Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys