Invented in Hawaii in the late 1880s, the steel guitar lends its distinct and beautiful sound to a variety of music styles today. This instrument features a unique playing style that was originally developed on a wooden six-string guitar, held across the lap and played by running a steel, or slide, over the fretboard of the guitar, producing the instantly recognizable sustained and sliding tone of the steel guitar. The name of the instrument refers to the steel that is used to play it, rather than the construction materials; steel guitars, their strings, and the steels used to play them come in a variety of materials and designs. Though the steel guitar was originally associated with Hawaiian music as its place of origin, musicians working in a wide range of different tunings brought the sound to many popular genres, notably country western.

Steel guitars, also called lapsteels because of the way they were traditionally played, come in many different configurations and styles, the most notable differences being whether it is hollow or solid body, and whether or not it has pedals. Electric steel guitars are usually solid body, while acoustic resonator steel guitars rely on their hollow body to produce sound, and sometimes have electric pickups for additional amplification. Pedal steel guitars are electric instruments with a versatility in their sound and tuning that makes them a popular choice for skilled country musicians. The complex design of the pedal steel guitar makes use of foot pedals and knee levers to manipulate the tuning of the strings, allowing the player unparalleled control. Pedal steel guitars have 10 to 14 strings and sometimes as many as three necks to allow alternate tunings.

Though virtually any guitar can be held across the lap and played with a slide in the steel guitar style, the name ‘steel guitar’ is reserved for instruments that were specifically designed for that style of play and often have a different look. Traditional guitars played in the steel guitar fashion are often referred to as ‘slide guitars’. Because it was invented in Hawaii, it is often called a Hawaiian guitar, but in Hawaii that term refers to slack string guitar, played in both configurations. Whatever you call it, the steel guitar produces a beautiful and recognizable sound that has been enriching many different styles of music for over a century.