Early History of the Steel Guitar
The story of the steel guitar starts in Hawaii in the late 19th century. Hawaiians developed a style of playing regular guitar with a bar instead of fretting it with the fingers.
Players held a bar in their left hand to change the pitch of the instrument by shortening the length of the strings. Because of this, the standard guitar tuning had to be changed. With the new tuning, a player could find standard Major and/or minor chords by using the bar.
The style was called Hawaiian guitar and it became very popular in the United States in the 1920's and 30's. The designs of the guitar evolved to accommodate this style of playing. These new designs were called lap steel guitars because they were played flat and laid across the lap.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, George Beauchamp and Adolf Rickenbacker, were trying to develop a way to amplify the guitar electrically. The guitar was not loud enough by itself for large performances without amplification. So, in the early 1930's, they invented a "pickup" to pick up the sound of the strings and convert it to electrical signals which could be amplified. The Gibson Corporation also developed an electric pickup in the early 1930's.
The first electric pickup however went on a lap steel, not a regular guitar. The first electric lap steel was invented in 1931 by George Beauchamp. It was called the "frying pan" guitar because of its shape. It was played flat on the knees while sitting down, and in the Hawaiian style, with a bar. Throughout the thirties, others produced lap steels and the designs further evolved. Eventually, they were put on legs, but still played while sitting down.
In the early years of the steel guitar's history, it was found mainly in jazz, swing, Hawaiian, folk, and country music. The well-known players included Alvino Rey, Noel Boggs, Leon McAuliffe, Speedy West, and Joaquin Murphy. But these instrumentalists, as good as they were, found the instrument limited. For example, all that was possible were basic chords: Major, minor, an occasional 6th, etc. Human ingenuity was launched to solve this problem.
At first, console guitars were invented. These were traditional lap steel designs with multiple necks to accommodate different keys and tunings.
Up until the late thirties, harps were the only instruments that used pedals to change the pitch of strings. In 1940, Gibson Guitar Corporation took this idea and added foot pedals to the steel guitar so the tuning of instrument could be changed. Its purpose was to allow the instrument to be played in different keys and to allow a wider variety of chords. It was called the "Electra-harp" and was the first commercially-produced "Pedal Steel Guitar."
Throughout the 1940's, several companies produced variations on the pedal system by Gibson, among them, Epiphone Company, the Harlin Brothers, and Fender Corporation. In the early 1950's, Paul Bigsby was the first to put the pedals horizontally across the rack of the front legs. Zane Beck was the first to add knee levers to the instrument in 1952.
The first steel guitarists didn't use pedals of the instrument to its full potential however, using them for the most part to change the tuning to accommodate songs in different keys. Then in 1953 Bud Isaacs applied a pedal to change only 2 strings. The idea was to change the pitch while playing in the middle of a song. This sound, combining bar movement with pedal usage, was used on Webb Pierce's hit "Slowly." It was the birth of the modern Pedal Steel Guitar sound.
In the mid 1950's, Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day further improved this pedal system and style of playing. The sound they created would become the quintessential honky tonk sound of the 60's and 70's, and which is still used by many country groups today.
In 1957 Buddy Emmons teamed up with machinist Harold "Shot" Jackson to start one of the first major Pedal Steel Guitar manufacturing companies: Sho-Bud Pedal Steel Guitars. Other companies would follow. Fender came out with the Fender 1000 in 1957. It had 2 necks and 8 pedals. Today there are dozens of steel guitar manufacturers around the world.