Steel guitars get their name from the steel bar used to play it. A tone bar is a hard object usually made of stainless steel which is moved over the strings. These guitars are relatively new musical instruments, as they originated around the 1890s in the Hawaiian islands.
Steel guitar entered the United State’s popular music industry in the early 20th century through Hawaiian music. It combined with jazz, swing, and country music and particularly influenced the Blues artist. You can also observe its influence as Rock music evolved in the U.S. In all probability, you became familiar with steel guitars through one of these music genres.
If you want to play, you may be wondering which guitar to choose. This article will look at the difference in functions and mechanics of lap steel vs. pedal steel guitars. You can then decide for yourself which one you should buy or learn.
A Brief History of Steel Guitars
Hawaiian music used “open-tuning” rather than standard guitar tuning by slackening strings. This helped them play major chords when all six strings were strummed. Hawaiian musician Joseph Kekuku accidentally discovered the sound of steel on an old Spanish guitar.
Kekuku further experimented with a pocket knife, steel comb, and a polished steel bar. He then started playing guitar on his lap rather than against the body using the steel bar. His musical tours in the U.S. and Europe helped spread the “Hawaiian style” internationally.
Electrification of these guitars in 1934 helped get rid of their resonating chambers. Removal of the resonating chamber from the Hawaiian guitar created the lap steel guitar.
Further improvement and evolution gave birth to the pedal steel guitar in the 1950s. They come with several pedals and knee levers that allow you to change the pitch of strings. This also gives the pedal steel players the freedom to play complex and harmonic chords.
Comparing Lap Steel vs. Pedal Steel Guitars
As the name suggests, a lap steel guitar is a guitar that is played by placing it on your lap. It is similar in structure to a conventional guitar, and it usually has six strings with fixed tuning, while most players prefer some open tuning.
They usually have a regular single-coil pickup or a P90 with volume and tone control. You can still find an acoustic guitar, but it’s better to get an electric one.
While pedal guitars may look similar to lap steel guitars, they are far more complicated. They usually have two necks rather than just one and can have 8, 10, or 12 strings.
Having multiple necks gives musicians the freedom of having different tunings on the same instrument. It also leaves room for playing very complex tunings.
What makes the pedal guitars unique is their pedals and knee levers. While playing the guitar, the pedals are pressed downwards, and the knee levers are pushed sideways.
These allow the players to mechanically change the pitch of the strings. Players can essentially alter the chords after plucking the strings and can also change them back. Usually, a single-neck guitar has 3-4 pedals, whereas a double-neck can have up to 8 pedals.
Knee levers can be used with the foot pedals to voice more chords and notes. For instance, you can engage two pedals and a knee lever in conjunction to create multiple raises and lowers simultaneously.
Normally there are four knee levers irrespective of single or double necks. Some pedal steels may even have less or more than four knee levers along with vertical levers.
Pedals and levers usually raise or lower the pitch of the chords by half steps or a whole step. Occasionally a combination may move the pitch by three half steps or even more.
Similarities Between a Lap Steel and a Pedal Steel Guitar
Even though lap steel and pedal steel guitars are very different, they host a range of similarities, including the following:
- The strings in both guitars are placed higher, so they don’t touch the guitar floor on pressing.
- Fret lines are marked in these guitars, but they are for reference only and don’t actually act as frets.
- Both guitars are usually played with a tone bar in the left hand while strings are plucked with the right hand.
- Finger picks are commonly used to play both guitars.
If you want to learn about the similarities and differences between acoustic and electric guitars, refer to this article.
Differences Between a Lap Steel and a Pedal Steel Guitar
The most notable difference between these two guitars is that a lap steel player can’t change the notes while playing a chord. It can be done with a pedal steel guitar with the help of pedals and knee levers.
Slanting the tone bar is used in string lap steel to change the pitch of the string played. Are you wondering if you can make lap steel sound like a pedal steel guitar? Check out the different ways here.
How Do Pedals and Knee Levers Work?
A pedal steel guitar may have up to ten pedals with a separate volume pedal, and it also can have up to eight knee levers. These pedals and knee levers are used to change the tone of different strings. A combination of pedals and a knee lever can allow a player to play a major scale without moving the bar.
Players can selectively set these pedals and levers to the desired string to produce the chord variations. For instance, the first pedal can change the B string to a C#, whereas the second pedal may make the G# string sound like A.
Similarly, players use the knee levers as well. For instance, the right knee lever takes the first string from an F sharp to a G# and at the same time brings the G# down to an F#.
The volume pedal is used to sustain the note that has been played and for a smooth transition between notes and slides.
You can check out the detailed functioning of pedal steel in this video.
How to Tune Double Neck Pedal Steel Guitars
A typical pedal steel guitar has two necks, and each neck has ten strings. The neck closer to the player, known as the jazzy western swing tune, usually has C6 tuning, also called the Texas tuning. The neck farther from the guitarist, referred to as country-style neck, has E9 tuning, also called Nashville tuning.
Strings of the front neck are tuned to B, D, E, F#, G#, E, G#, D#, and F# from bottom to top. Strings of the back neck are usually tuned to C, F, A, C, E, G, A, C, E, D from bottom to top.
To understand how chords change in the string of pedal steel guitars, look at this video.
Q: What Kind of Shoes Are Best for Pedal Steel Players?
Many pedal steel players wear boots for foot pedals, but it ultimately depends on your personal preference. Sneakers or walking shoes are also perfectly fine. You may find it difficult to adjust with other shoes if you have been practicing with something else.
Q: What Is a Console Steel Guitar?
Console steel guitars are electric guitars designed to be played in a seated position and stand on their legs. They usually have multiple necks but not more than four. All the necks are tuned differently.
Steel guitars are played with a tone bar typically made of stainless steel. The strings are plucked, and the bar is moved against the strings. Through this blog, we discussed the working, similarities, and differences of lap steel vs. pedal steel guitars.
If you want to learn how to play a steel guitar, you should also consider the cost and other technicalities. A pedal guitar is very tough to master and is also pricey.
You can buy a Hawaiian lap steel guitar for less than $400, while it would cost you at least $1,000 for a pedal steel guitar. Pedal guitars are expensive instruments with better models costing up to $4,000 or more.
If you want resources and guides for sound tips, follow this link.