The pedal steel guitar is a type of electric guitar that uses a metal slide to stop the strings, rather than fingers on strings as with a conventional guitar. The pedal steel is placed horizontally on a stand, with the strings facing up towards the player, and is typically plucked with fingerpicks. The instrument's pedals are used to change the pitch of its strings while being played; the action of the pedals may either be fixed, or may be configurable by the player to select which strings are affected by the pedals. The pedal steel, with its smooth portamenti, bending chords and complex riffs, is one of the most recognizable and characteristic instruments of American country music.
While there are some fairly standard pedal assignments, many advanced players devise their own setups, called copedents. The range of copedents that can be set up varies considerably from model to model. Aftermarket modifications to make additional copedents possible are common.
The pedal steel was developed from the console steel guitar and lap steel guitar. Like the console steel, a pedal steel may have multiple necks, but the pedals make even a single-neck pedal steel a far more versatile instrument than any multiple-neck console steel.
A pedal steel guitar is typically rectangular in shape, and has no resonant chamber or conventional guitar body but only one or more guitar necks. These are mounted on a stand and equipped with foot pedals and usually knee levers. Many models feature two necks, the nearest to the player most often using a C6 tuning and the farther away using an E9 tuning. The most common configuration is one or two necks of ten strings each, but eight-string and twelve-string necks are also popular, and even models with 14 strings on one neck can be found. Three-neck instruments are less common than those with one or two, but are not unknown.
The pedals and/or knee levers (engaged by moving the knees left, right or vertically) on the underside allow the performer to tighten or relax one or more strings in combination, changing the instrument's tuning during performance.
The pedal steel guitar is the latest development in a story that started with the invention of a technique of playing used in Hawaii in the late 1800s, wherein the strings were not fretted in the normal manner by the left hand, but rather by sliding an object such as a comb or the back edge of a knife blade along the strings above the neck of the guitar. Several people have been credited with the innovation.
The Hawaiian style of playing was very popular in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. To increase the volume of the guitar, a resonator cone was added by the Doypeyra Brothers to create the resophonic guitar.
By the 30's, the hollow guitar body was abandoned for a flat slab of wood or metal and the addition of an electric pickup; this was the lap steel guitar. It was the first electric guitar to achieve commercial success. Several pioneering manufacturers of the electric guitar were first famous for their work on the then more popular electric steel guitar, among them Adolph Rickenbacher, Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender.
The limitations of chord shapes imposed by the use of the steel slide (or "tone bar") led to the addition of multiple necks, resulting in the console steel guitar. The Gibson Guitar Corporation used a system of pedals to change the tuning of the strings on one of their console steels beginning in 1940. This instrument, the Electraharp, had a cluster of pedals radiating from its left rear leg that operated similarly to the pedals on a harp. Alvino Rey was an early player of the Electraharp.
In about 1950, Paul Bigsby began making custom pedal steel guitars that featured pedals mounted to a rack between the front legs of the instrument. Speedy West got the second of Bigsby's creations, and used it extensively in his work with Jimmy Bryant. Zane Beck began adding knee levers to console steel guitars, and in 1953, added a set of four knee levers to Jimmy Day's console steel. Beck's knee levers lowered the pitches of the strings they operated, which was an action opposite of what the pedals accomplished.
Around 1953, a console steel player named Bud Isaacs attached a pedal to one of the necks of his guitar. The function of the pedal was to change the pitch of two of the strings, whereby Isaacs would have two of the most common steel guitar tunings available on one neck. When he used this pedal to change his tuning while sustaining a chord during the recording of Webb Pierce's hit "Slowly," he touched off a revolution among steel guitarists.
The steel guitar seems to have an unusually high number of mechanically inclined players, and a period of extensive tinkering followed Isaac's initial idea. Two of these tinkering musicians were Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day, and their playing and mechanical innovations alike have done more for the development of the pedal steel guitar than any other contributors.
Emmons and Day split the function of Isaac's pedal into two separate pedals and added two strings to fill in the gaps in the E9 tuning, bringing the number of strings to ten. Although Emmons' and Day's setups do the same thing, Emmons and Day used the opposite of each other's pedals to raise the strings. To this day, when one buys a pedal steel, the manufacturer will ask whether the player wants an Emmons Setup or a Day Setup. Emmons incorporated a third pedal to his setup, based on a change Ralph Mooney had used on his instrument. Emmons joined forces in 1957 with another steel-playing machinist named Harold "Shot" Jackson and formed the Sho-Bud company, the first pedal steel guitar manufacturer. Sho-Bud guitars incorporated all the innovations that had taken place during the 1950s, including Emmons's third pedal, Beck's knee levers, and ten strings. The single-neck pedal steel guitar was now standardized with three pedals and (up to) four knee levers.
Both lap and pedal steel guitars were closely associated with the development of country music and western swing. The pedal steel's liquid, yearning sound has begun in recent years to be coveted by many modern musicians, beginning in jazz and blues. In particular the rising popularity of alternative country has brought the instrument's beautiful sound to a much wider audience, and it has been used in many different musical genres. Jùjú music, a form from Nigeria, uses pedal steel extensively.
A Concerto for Pedal Steel Guitar and Orchestra has been written by Los Angeles composer Michael A. Levine. It was premiered on April 16 2005, in a performance by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, with Gary Morse (of Dierks Bentley's and Dwight Yoakam's bands) as soloist, and Paul Gambill conducting. The piece is believed to be the first concerto ever written for the solo steel guitar.
A performer typically sits on a stool or seat at the instrument. The right foot usually is used to operate a volume pedal. The left foot is used to press one or more of the instrument's foot pedals. The knees are positioned under the instrument's body so that by moving them left, right or even vertically, they can push levers that hang from underneath it.
The strings are positioned high above the neck of the instrument. Rather than being pressed to a fret on the neck, the player's left hand holds a polished metal bar called the steel on the strings. The steel can be slid up and down the length of the neck, while still touching (effectively fretting) the strings. This raises and lowers the pitch of the notes heard when the strings are played. If the bar is kept perpendicular to the neck (in the orientation of a fret), all strings touched have had their effective length changed equally. The right hand plucks the strings, usually with a set of thumb and finger picks.
The pedals and knee levers raise and lower the pitch of certain strings "on the fly" while the instrument is being played. The exact action of these pedals and levers—which strings are affected—can be set by the player to their preference.
Characteristic effects are obtained by changing pitch of one or more strings while other strings' pitches are static or change at differing rates. Melodic lines are composed primarily of dyads (two-note chords). In the E9 tuning, many characteristic idioms involve tonic-dominant and tonic-subdominant harmonic relationships.
Mastering the pedal steel guitar can take time due to its harmonic complexity and unusual physical technique required. In country music, where the pedal steel guitar is most commonly used, talented players are highly esteemed.
For a table of several tunings of the pedal steel guitar, see copedent.
Most pedal steel guitars are produced by smaller makers, and many are custom-built to player order. While there are dozens of manufacturers of pedal steel guitars (past and present), the list below represents the larger manufacturers and notable smaller manufacturers.