the Pedal Steel Guitar (history)

  • An early triple-neck steel equipped with seven pedals. As the instrument’s technology advanced, builders added knee levers, allowing skilled players to simultaneously use their feet and legs to change string pitch.

    Pedal Pushers
    Lap steel players found their ability to shift from chord to chord was limited, and changing from major to minor, or from the I to the IV or V required skittering the bar across the neck. Players devised workarounds like angling the bar, using extra strings for extended tunings, and even bending strings behind the bar. Given these limitations, such players as Leon McAuliffe, Jerry Byrd, Joaquin Murphey, and Herb Remington worked musical miracles, but a more sophisticated solution was needed.

    To meet this need, in 1939 the steel guitarist, big band leader, television personality, and inventor of the “talking” steel, Alvino Rey, collaborated with a machinist to design an electric steel guitar with pedals. In 1940, the Gibson Guitar Corporation introduced the Electraharp. The initial instrument had a group of pedals fanning out from its left rear leg, like those on a harp. The pedals and mechanical system made it possible to alter various string pitches—with or without moving the bar—to smoothly transition from chord to chord.

    Mounted across a rack between the front legs of the instrument, the pedal system we know today was the brainchild of a man familiar to many guitarists: vibrato tailpiece legend Paul Bigsby. Bigsby was soon building these more complex instruments for such top players as Speedy West, Noel Boggs, and Bud Isaacs. In 1948 West asked Bigsby to build a three-neck, four-pedal model. His first recording with it was Eddie Kirk’s “Candy Kisses” in 1949. West later worked with Ernie Ford and Loretta Lynn, but is best known for the energetic instrumentals he recorded solo and with Telecaster wizard Jimmy Bryant.

    In 1952, Zane Beck—a steel player and builder who had backed Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, and Webb Pierce—began adding knee levers to console steel guitars. Unlike standard pedals, Beck’s knee levers lowered string pitch rather than raising it.

    It’s Crying Time
    Early pedal players avoided changing string pitch while notes sustained, considering it “un-Hawaiian.” But around 1953, a console steel player named Bud Isaacs attached a single pedal to one of his guitar necks and configured it to change the pitch of two strings at once. While recording Webb Pierce’s hit “Slowly,” he used altered his tuning while sustaining a chord, and the crying voice of the modern pedal steel was born.

    The pedal system we know today was the brainchild of a man familiar to many guitarists: vibrato tailpiece legend Paul Bigsby.

    On Isaacs’ instrument, an E triad was changed to A by raising G# to A and B to C# via a single pedal. In 1956 pedal steel legend Buddy Emmons, who played with everyone from Jimmy Dickens to Lenny Breau, heard “Slowly” while Bigsby was building him a guitar. Emmons had him construct it so one pedal raised B to C# while an adjacent pedal raised the G# to A. By splitting Isaacs’ single pedal, Emmons could not only perform the E-to-A move, but also play suspended chords, or shift between major and minor chords without moving the bar. Another legend, Jimmy Day (Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Willie Nelson), split the pedal as well. Though both players’ setups do the same thing, the pedals’ functions are reversed, requiring manufacturers to ask customers whether they want an Emmons or Day setup.

    More Innovations
    Seeking new sounds, Emmons constantly tinkered with his steel. One technical problem he was hoping to overcome was the difficulty steelers had playing a scale without moving the bar. Just before he went into the studio with Ray Price for the first time, Emmons came up with the concept of moving the 2nd and 7th scale degrees to a different set of strings. This allowed him to play cascading scales by using pedals rather than moving the bar—another major step in the pedal steel’s evolution.

    Emmons soon incorporated a third pedal, and in 1957 he joined forces with steel-playing machinist Harold “Shot” Jackson to form the Sho-Bud company—the first manufacturer solely dedicated to the pedal steel guitar. Sho-Bud instruments incorporated all the innovations developed through the 1950s, including 10 strings, the third pedal, and Beck’s knee levers. This standardized the single-neck pedal steel guitar as an instrument with three pedals and up to four knee levers.

    The pioneering Buddy Emmons engraved his signature on this 1980 Franklin S-12, serial number 023. Photo by Andy Ellis

    As Emmons and Day proved, the functions of the pedals and levers are often highly personalized. A particular tuning and pedal function setup is sometimes represented by a graphic table called a “copedent” (pronounced co-pee-dent). Coined by pedal steel guru Tom Bradshaw in the early 1970s, the term is short for “chord pedal arrangement.” A copedent specifies the tuning, string gauges, whether a string is plain or wound, and how the pedals and levers alter pitch.

    Degree of Difficulty
    These new mechanical additions opened up a world of harmonic possibilities and heralded the dawn of a new sound—and made the instrument extremely difficult to learn. Playing a steel requires both hands, both feet, and often both knees.

    When reading music, we guitarists are painfully aware that the same note can appear at different points on different strings. Imagine an instrument where—through the magic of pedals or levers—the same note can appear at up to four points on the same string. This economizes bar motion, but increases difficulty, due to an ever-changing relationship between the barring hand and the actual pitch.

    On a pedal steel, you can change the pitch of one or more strings while other strings stay the same, change pitches at differing rates, or change them in opposite directions—all while sustaining the harmony and adding consistent bar vibrato. Sound daunting? We haven’t even gotten to barring techniques like angling and bouncing, or damping strings to avoid unwanted overtones.

    Then there’s the volume pedal. Steel players constantly manipulate a volume foot pedal to eliminate string attack and create violin-type effects. (Hint to guitarists simulating steel licks: A volume pedal greatly increases realism.) And while markers indicate bar position, playing in tune requires years of practice and the ear of a virtuoso violinist.

    To further expand its harmonic potential, a pedal steel might have two necks, usually with 10 strings each, each with its own set of pedals, or a single neck with as many as 14 strings. Pedal steel players who use two necks typically tune the farther one to E9 and the nearer one to C6. The C6 neck is commonly used for playing jazz or Western swing. (See “Tune Up” sidebar for details.)