What Is a Pedal Steel Guitar?

Learn what a pedal steel guitar is in this Howcast video.

This is a Pedal Steel guitar and why’s it called a Pedal Steel guitar? Well, first of all, it’s not a Steel Pedal guitar. The pedals are not made of steel. Originally, steel guitars were simply what you see at the top here, with nothing else. Just a neck, tuning pegs, a pick-up, some strings. The simplest possible iteration of an instrument really, and it was played with a tone bar, usually a fairly heavy piece of stainless steel, sometimes a jackknife or bottle, whatever was handy. And you would play it in open tuning, and it was popular in the 20’s, especially in Hawaiian music and that type of thing.

There were limits to what you could do with this however, because if it was in just one tuning, and you had only six or eight strings, they didn’t even have ten strings so much in those days. You ran out of keys that you could play in.

The Pedal Steel guitar came along when people wanted to try to get more flexibility out of the steel guitar set-up. Hence, the pedals. You’ll see these rods coming down here connecting to pedals down here. And what happens is that the pedals, the energy you put into pressing the pedals down, are also applying pressure to the knee levers here. I don’t know if you can see them on either side. These raise and lower the strings by pre-set intervals.

So, a quick look at the guitar. You’ve got the tuning pegs, as you would with the guitar. This is the nut here, and if you can see, these are little rollers here, so that if a string is being raised or lowered, it slides easily and doesn’t get stuck. This is the neck. The frets are painted on. As you can see the action is very high. These frets are not functional, they’re purely guidelines. You are the fret, with the tone bar. So you play. Try to stay in tune with the band.

Over here, you’ve got a pick-up. This is what makes the sound come out of the amp. And here’s your bridge, which is also called the changer. You’ll notice also, like these individual rollers, you’ve got individual components here, and what they do is roll with the effect of the pedal, activated by the pedals and many levers, and they will either release the tension or increase the tension on a given string or pair of strings, or even sometimes as many as three strings. In fact, sometimes they will lower one string and raise another.

The pedals can allow you to play a chord, this E chord, and then when you hit the pedals, suddenly it becomes an A chord. There’s universal possibilities depending on what the individual pedals, knee levers do, and which combinations of strings you hit, and where on the neck you’re situated. And that’s the basics of a Pedal Steel guitar.