The future of the steel guitar

For decades, there has been one musical instrument that, when you hear it, causes you to think, “Ah, a country & western song.” That instrument is the pedal steel guitar (hereafter simply referred to as the steel guitar). There is truly nothing else that sounds like it. There’s no other instrument quite so closely associated with one particular genre of popular music. The steel guitar can cry like no other instrument, and that cry has emphasized the sorrow of countless sad country songs, even more than the fiddle.

In the last decade or so, there has been a paradigm shift in country music. The traditional “sad song” is becoming less and less common while the fun, upbeat, “positive” song is on the rise. As the sad songs have faded away, so has the steel guitar. That trademark weeping sound is being heard less and less.

It also seems that fewer and fewer musicians are learning to play the steel guitar. Watch country singers performing live, and look at the members of the band. In almost every case, it seems that the steel guitar is being played by the oldest member of the band, if there even is a steel guitar in the band. Why? My best guess is that, as country music is being influenced more and more by rock, there is more and more demand for showmanship. A steel guitar, because of the fact that it’s played sitting down, prevents the player from strutting about the stage or interacting directly with the audience. There is very little body movement involved in playing the instrument. You can’t pick up the steel guitar and wave it around while you play it. And so the steel guitar position in a country band now seems to be reserved for players who are left over from a generation of performers who simply stood on the stage and sang their songs, letting the music speak for itself without the need for flashy theatrics and pyrotechnics.

So I ask you, Doper country fans: Is the steel guitar on its way out? Will we even be hearing its cry ten years from now? Or will there be a resurgence of interest as a future generation of country musicians dust off the old records and say to themselves, “Hey, that sounds really cool. What is it?”

I take it you’ve never seen Robert Randolph and the Family Band?

To say nothing of bands like Bright Eyes (check out I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning), and Iron and Wine, as well. The pedal steel is gaining a pretty good following in indie music now, and I love it. Really has a great sound.
Just remembered: Doesn’t Ben Harper also play the pedal steel?

Just remembered pt. 2: Yes! He does! And they say he’s really good at it!

You hear a lot more pedal steel in alt-country, jazz and world-influenced music. It’s just too great a sound.

If all you know is “sad and crying”, do yourself a favor and go get a Speedy West CD. He’s a Western Swing player from the 50’s, but really it’s more like Western Bop, just him, Jimmy Bryant, a bass and some drums. Fast, sweet and HOT.

It’s not just that. These “positive, upbeat” songs are mostly crap, I think, and a lot of radio country is only country music by virtue of the singer’s southern accent. If you took away the accent, it’d just be really horrible, generic pop music. Gone are the fiddles and the original Scotch/Irish roots of American country - they have been replaced by musical mediocrity like most of rock music.

You need to listen to Alan Jackson’s “Three Minute Positive Not-Too-Country Up-Tempo Love Song.” And then you need to listen to They Might Be Giants’ “She’s an Angel” which is the best song from the 1990s to use the steel guitar. It’s amazing.

Robert Randolph. Damn. The guy’s a wizard and a must see.
Also, Ben Harper.

It’s not dead yet, brother.

I’m not much of a country music fan but geez, you gotta have the steel guitar. And (as others have said), it doesn’t have to be used for the sad songs. (I associate it with both the happy and sad country songs).

And let’s not forget our friends in the 50th state. When I was young, I remember many people referring to a steel guitar as a (an?) Hawaiian guitar.

I’ve never heard it called a Hawaiian guitar. That’s interesting.
I knew some guys in Knoxville who, while the lineup of their band oscillated (including the lead singer’s dad, who was an excellent lead guitar player), occasionally had a guy who played exclusively lap steel. It was a really unique sound when they played together. Loved it.

Well the steel guitar is used extensively in Hawaiian music.

AND it seems the steel guitar originated in Hawaii.

Gee Phase42 said “There’s no other instrument quite so closely associated with one particular genre of popular music.”
It seems as if the same instrument is closely associated with two (rather unrelated) genres of music huh?

Here’s an interesting link:

If Bad Religion could add a pedal steel to a punk rock song (“Man With A Mission”), the instrument will continue to find a place in music for the foreseeable future.

The Pedal Steel made it’s way to Africa as well, perhaps most notably in King Sunny Ade’s band.

I’ll echo what mojave66 said, you hear a lot of steel guitar in alt-country.

Check out **Son Volt **(who I just walked in the door from seeing live at The Fillmore in SF tonight.) They rocked, in that alt-country kind of way. :slight_smile:

Definitely not on its way out.

Hey, I just saw Robert Randolph playing with The Dixie Chicks last night on that Katrina Relief telethon. He kicked major ass!


Zane Beck was a patient of my father’s back in the 70s/80s. He lived in Scranton, AR. My dad took me out to his house/shop one time. He was a gracious, unassuming man who seemed to have time to talk with whomever drifted across his doorstep. I didn’t know who he was at the time; my dad just said he played on a bunch of records. So, I meet him, and he’s just this old dude wearing bib overalls and a feed store hat, like a lot of men where I come from dress. I was nonplussed until he sat down and played a bit on a new steel guitar he had just got for his shop. Holy shit, that was good! I mean he veered between country, Hawaiian and jazz (!) with total grace and ease.

Um. Jazz? See below.

I’ll check him out. But jazz? Western swing contains jazz, but it’s not jazz. Who’s using steel in, like, jazz jazz?

Speedy West. Great name. I gotta hear this cat.

Before electricity, all guitar played in the lap (with a steel bar) was called Hawaiian guitar, or steel guitar. As opposed to playing the guitar upright, and fretting the strings, which was called Spanish style guitar.

After electricity came along, the term ‘steel guitar’ gradually came to refer to electric lap-style guitar, with or without pedals. Western Swing music was the setting for some great early electric steel (both with and without pedals). This style heavily influenced the now-familiar Nashville steel guitar sound.

People still played acoustic lap style in Hawaiian, blues and early country music. Later, the resophonic lap guitar (aka Dobro) really took off in bluegrass.

To the OP: I am more versed in acoustic steel guitar than electric. I believe the repertoire for this instrument will grow dramatically in the next few decades. Rob Ickes and Mike Auldridge are good examples of this – they play everything from bluegrass to bebop and bossa nova.

As noted above, Robert Randolph (and others, such as the Campbell Brothers) are doing very interesting things with pedal steel in the “Sacred Steel” genre.

There are a number of reasons why lap guitar players tend to be older. First, it can take a long time to get good at it. Second, it lends itself to sitting down, as opposed to moving around the stage like we all did when we were young and limber. Lastly, fretting a guitar requires more strenuous use of the hands than using a steel bar – I know a number of guitar players who gradually shifted to steel as arthritis and rheumatism encroached on their hand strength.

Doug Jernigan

Wow - thanks for all the names! I’m definitely gonna check out some of those. (Hmmm… I actually replied earlier, but I don’t see it here. Squirrels must have eaten my post.) Anyway, I’m glad to hear that the steel is still being used extensively, even if it’s not making it into “radid country” songs so much these days.

Anybody know the name of George Strait’s steel player? I always thought he was very good.

Erm, that should have been “radio country” …

The guy who played on the Bad Religion track, by the way, is Greg Leisz, who has done session work for tons of other artists, including Matthew Sweet.