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Online Akustik Travels

Steel Guitar Story - part 1
A Round Trip To Hawaii Via Nashville

by Claude Samard Polikar

Page 1 of 5

Here’s a little guided tour of what is known as the "slide guitar" family, aka the hawaiian, lap steel, Dobro and Pedal Steel guitar.

Let’s take some hawaiian sun to shed some light on a family of instruments that are used to create those "slide" sounds, more commonly called "hawaiian guitars". For a European musician, Hawaiian music stands for sliding "hoola-hoola" effects, used to illustrate commercials and cartoons. And you can just picture a musician performing these with some kind of bottleneck, although you're not quite sure what the instrument actually looks like.

Now another big "slide" effect representative would be found in Blues music. We're more familiar with this type of sound introduced during the great Blues Revival of the sixties with your Dobros and bottlenecks although the true relation between Eric Clapton's Dobro and Sol Hoopii (an Hawaiian local star) is yet to be defined. How is it that Hawaii has come so close to the Mississippi Delta? How come one musician will play the bottleneck in a "classical" stance and another with the instrument set on his lap using a metal rod (steel bar)? What is a lap-steel? How can one reproduce these sounds and riffs realistically on a regular guitar? These are just a few of the questions we will attempt to answer in these few pages.

In the past century, Europe had taken in a lot of American "home-made" styles, although hawaiian music hadn't come accross so strongly. Hawaii may be a part of the U.S. and in the hearts of most Americans, it’s the 50th State, a bit like how the French relate to the Antilles or to Tahiti.

Remember the French have been through their own kind of exotic fad. They've also had their own sources of inspiration! Josephine Baker and her "Negro Review", in the twenties and thirties when the songs were basically about Colonialism in Africa, Indochina, with orchestrations written with a "tropical" flavour, certainly with a few hawaiian effects built in for good measure.

At the turn of the century, the Americans naturally turned to Hawaii to get their fill of tropical delights. The popularity of the sound was perpetrated by some great musicians who used their technique and influence to incorporate this sound to typical American musical styles like Blues, Western Swing, Bluegrass and Country Music.

Photo by Maxim Fiyavchuk for Unsplash

Before we begin this series of exercises, we need to state a few basics :

  • Steel guitar = When one refers to a Steel Guitar, one is more likely to be thinking of the steel rod than of the actual metal body of certain resophonic instruments like the Dobro or the National
  • Lap steel = a Guitar played by laying the instrument on your lap. This was the first electric guitar. Generally comes with 6 to 8 strings.
  • Pedal Steel = The most recent and the most sophisticated instrument. This instrument was first built in 1939, and played sitting down using thin metal rods attached to pedals in order to alter the octaves of certain strings. It's the Country Music sound with 10 or 12 strings, and one or two necks.
  • Dobro = the name comes from the Do in Do-pyera, (name of the instrument's creator) and from the Bro in brothers.
  • National = another brand
  • Resophonics = means an instrument with a built in resonator, such as the National, the Dobro but also the Brazilian Del Vecchio.
  • Weissenborn = In 1915 this American stringed instrument maker began surfing on the waves of Hawaii and built a guitar that would suit the growing demand. Made of Koa, it is the most significant model of guitar played laying on your lap.

But before we begin to look into the various slide methods used to play Blues riffs and the Pedal Steel guitar, we will first go back to the birth of Hawaiian guitars and the historical landmarks it has left in the American culture. Two musicians have significantly contributed to the lap playing method's popularity: Jerry Douglas and his Bluegrass riffs, then Ben Harper who takes his Weissenborn to the limit on Hip-Hop sequences.