WUMB February Program Guide

Dixie Bee Line Attends the Birth of the Pedal Steel Guitar

So last month we discussed the Hawaiian steel guitar in early western swing music. Today you will also hear that referred to as Lap Steel, Non-Pedal Steel, or Straight Steel. There seems to be some confusion about the word “steel”, but that ONLY refers to the heavy metal bar used to select notes on the neck of the guitar. Unlike the regular “Spanish” style guitars, the strings never touch the neck of the guitar.

This month we’ll talk about the pedal steel guitar, which to a large extent did eclipse the “straight” steel. This new beast is a mechanical marvel; temperamental at best, untamable at worst. This contraption is a steel guitar, but it contains (depending on the model you choose) foot levers to stretch the strings into different notes. The effect of this is that you need to move the bar much less, because you can change the pitch of the strings to make different chords… with your feet! But since it stretches the strings to do this, you know what you get? Twang! Yes, that’s the twang in country music in a nut-shell. Now more modern incarnation of this instrument contain “push-pull” mechanisms to both stretch and/or slacken the strings, they contain more foot levers, knee pedals, and more. They’ve come a long way.

So the first commercial country song made famous with this instrument was the 1953 version of “Slowly” by Webb Pierce. The guitar was a “Bigsby” model, they were a famous guitar parts producer, as well as makers of instruments. While it’s entirely possible that there were other songs done with pedal steel, this is pretty nearly true. In any event, it’s my narrative, and I’m sticking to it 😀

Take a listen to ol’ Webb:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=si2JCfCqJu4

In case you’re interested, here is one great player’s suggested tunings for the four necks
Closest: C6th w/3 pedals E on top
E7th w/2 pedals raising to A6th E on top
C#min no-pedals/chromatics on bottom
E6th w/1 pedal

This affords me all three of Speedy Wests’ tunings and Bud Issac’s original “SLOWLY” tuning.
Bud Issacs:

Here’s a very nicely done blog post on the “Bigsby”
https://uniqueguitar.blogspot.com/2015/11/paul-bigsby-his-guitars-and-inventions.html

Well, I hope you found some interest in this little country music history lesson. For a big ol’ dose of country music history, please join me any Saturday night from 9pm to Midnite Eastern Time, right after Holly Spins the Blues, for three hours of vintage hillbilly music.

Please write to me! Jon.Gersh@umb.edu

See you? Sincerely,

~Jon G.

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