It takes a different level of masochism to decide that you’re going to become a pedal steel guitar player. The musical equivalent of patting your head while rubbing your stomach, or of flying a helicopter in formation. You are, at least, guaranteed that you’ll always be able to perform sitting down, since operating the instrument requires both hands, both feet, and both knees. There are no marching bands in the future of a pedal steel player. But – could we have real country music without them? Well, arguably yes, because the pedal steel guitar only came into existence in 1940 and there was plenty of country music prior to that date but you wouldn’t have the same distinct sounds that we’ve come to associate with some aspects of country and Americana music and a lot of the music we love would be a lot less interesting without this weird, and often wonderful, instrument.
The lap steel guitar first shows up as a Hawaiian instrument in the 19th Century, hence its alternate name, the Hawaiian Guitar. Lap steels are played by laying the guitar flat across the upper legs of a seated player and the pitch of the instrument is changed by pressing a steel bar against the plucked strings. It’s a little like fretting a guitar with a single finger (the bar) so the guitar has to be tuned to an open chord, making it difficult to change key on lap steel and this gave rise to the popular twin necked lap steel guitars that could be tuned to two different keys, making them a more versatile instrument. Although lap steels look like they have frets these are usually faux markers and the neck of the instrument is smooth, allowing the bar to glide across the strings producing the shimmering, swooping sounds associated with the instrument. Early Lap Steel guitars were simple wooden constructions but, as they gained popularity, many producers started to make resonator-style instruments, with a metal cone under the bridge to act as a loudspeaker. Lap steels were among the first guitars to be electrified, in the 1930s, simply so they could be heard above the other instruments in the band and their first association, outside Hawaiian music, was with Western Swing, with the likes of Leon McAuliffe, guitarist with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys being an early adopter of the instrument. As the lap steel guitar gained popularity and Western Swing gave way to the Honky Tonk country style, players were finding that they increasingly needed multi-necked instruments to cover all the different song keys. This is where the pedal steel comes in and starts to take over. Pedals were added to a lap steel guitar in 1940, allowing the performer to play a major scale without moving the bar and also to push the pedals while striking a chord, making passing notes slur or bend up, to harmonise with existing notes. This creates a unique sound that wasn’t possible on the old lap steel guitars and added a whole new dimension to the sound. Most modern pedal steel guitars still incorporate two necks but the combination of pedals and levers with these two necks, one the standard E9 neck and the other the wider-ranging C6, means that most keys can be covered without bringing more necks into play.
Early adopters and developers of the instrument include the likes of Zane Beck, the man who added the knee levers to the design, the great Buddy Emmons, who designed the split pedal for the pedal steel guitar and became known as the foremost player of the instrument in his day and Paul Bigsby, the man who would go on to invent the Bigsby Vibrato tailpiece, designed to be attached to a standard six-string guitar and give the player a chance to emulate some of the sounds associated with pedal steel but on the far more portable electric guitar.
In the modern era, many country and Americana bands have incorporated the pedal steel guitar into their work; it’s now an instrument used in a wide range of musical styles, such as Jazz and Nigerian Ju-Ju music, but remains intrinsically linked to country-related styles. Gram Parsons vision of “Cosmic American Music” always included pedal steel guitar, courtesy of Sneaky Pete Kleinow, acknowledged as the first player to use pedal steel in a rock setting, and a player like recent Unsung Hero, Bucky Baxter, was sought out by both Steve Earle and Bob Dylan for the quality of steel play he could bring to their work. When Mike Nesmith formed the First National Band, the first musician he set out to bring on board was Orville J. “Red” Rhodes, the man who played pedal steel for the infamous Wrecking Crew collective of L.A. session musicians. Nesmith would move through a number of different band line-ups and configurations throughout his solo career but Rhodes would be his right-hand man through all the band configurations. JayDee Maness in The Desert Rose Band, Hank DeVito in Emmylou’s Hot Band, Rusty Young in Poco, B.J. Cole in just about every British band that ever used pedal steel guitar as part of their sound. The list of recognisable names is impressive; and that’s without the occasional players who dabbled with the instrument from time to time – Jerry Garcia, David Lindley, Don Felder, Nils Lofgren, Bernie Leadon; even straight-ahead rock guitarists such as David Gilmore, Ronnie Wood, and Jimmy Page have all been known to try their hand at mastering this sonic superstructure!
In more recent years the Pedal Steel Guitar has started to break away from the country and roots music scene to move into strange, new directions, with artists like Robert Randolph using it to deliver blistering funk and R&B, or virtuoso Susan Alcorn using it to create jazz and tango compositions. But it will, always, be an Unsung Hero of Americana, the instrument that delivers that little bit extra to some of the best recordings in our favourite genre.