Country Music's Pedal Steel Guitar: A Hawaiian OriginalPedal Steel guitar is as synonymous with country music as cowboy hats and tight-fitting jeans. Some say you really can’t have a true country band without a pedal steel guitar. The original idea for this instrument came not from Nashville though but from Hawaii. History
Also known for the ukulele, another popular variation on the guitar, Hawaiians are said to have had guitars since the early 1800s, brought to the islands by Mexican/Californio vaquero and Portuguese workers from the island of Madeira. The Hawaiians quickly adapted these European guitars to their own needs - creating their own unique tunings and inventing the "slack key" method of tuning which slackened the keys to change the tuning to a variation of an open chord. A man named Joseph Kekuku (actually Joseph Kekuku’upenakanai’ aupuniokamehameha Apuakehau) is said to have taken a Spanish guitar around 1889 and changed the strings from gut to metal and fashioned a cylindrical steel bar and metal finger picks to play on his lap. Legend has it he picked up a bolt lying on a train track and slid the metal along the strings of his guitar. The steel sound imitates the characteristic vocal vibrato which is prevalent in Hawaiian singing. In Hawaiian it is called “Kika Kila” which translates to “Guitar Steel,” and refers to the fact it is played with a steel bar and is usually played lying flat. Steel Guitar Comes to America
Many historians credit the Panama- Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915 to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal as the debut of Hawaiian music in the States. The legislature of the Territory of Hawaii appropriated over $100,000 for a Hawaiian Pavilion and the music from the islands was an instant hit. Hapa Haole (half white) songs which had Hawaiian themes and English lyrics were soon the rage - spreading dreams of Hawaiian vacations to the mainland and popularizing the steel guitar sound. It Got Electrified
As explained by Randy Lewis in The Steel Guitar a Short History: “With the introduction of amplification in the 30’s, the steel guitar (like the Spanish guitar) gained pickups and became the electric steel guitar. Since the acoustic body was no longer necessary and actually caused feedback problems, the steel guitar quickly acquired a solid body and became the first true lap steel. ” Lewis goes on to explain how multiple necks were added necessitating adding legs and making it a flat, console-type instrument. Where Did the Pedals Come From?
Paul Bigsby is said to be the first to make pedal steel guitars with pedals mounted between the front legs of the instrument. Zane Beck added knee levers which lowered the pitches of the strings they operated while the pedals raised the pitch. Bud Isaacs was the first to record a hit record with a pedal steel guitar: Webb Pierce’s song, Slowly. Country music would never be the same again. Pedal Steels for Sale
In 1955 Harold “Shot” Jackson teamed up with Buddy Emmons - who has been called the “World’s Foremost Steel Guitarist” - to start “Sho-Bud” which was the first manufacturer of pedal steel guitars. Sho-Bud has gone on to help define the “Nashville sound” and become one of the most desired pedal steels in the business. Not Just for Nashville
Though linked to Country music forever, the pedal steel has crossed all musical boundaries. Bands as diverse as the Eagles, the Black Crows, Yes and the Doobie Brothers have used pedal steel guitars in rock music hits for years. Robert Randolph of Robert Randolph and his Family Band is the first front man to play pedal steel in a blues/rock act and is gaining a large following for him and the instrument today. Michael Ryan