There are many instruments that bear a resemblance to the pedal steel – there’s the Japanese yamoto- goto, known as the ch’in in China (where it originated), and various southern Indian instruments such as the gottuvadyam and vichitra vena. It’s unlikely that there’s a direct link from the pedal steel to these instruments however.
The forerunners of steel guitar
Before both Spanish and Portuguese sailors brought the guitar and the braga to Hawaii, there were no sophisticated stringed instruments on the islands. It is likely that the actual inspiration for the technique of using a steel bar to stop the strings instead of pressing them to the frets with fingers comes not from the Spanish or Portuguese sailors but German or Scandinavian sailors who were trying to imitate the sound of the dulcimer of their homeland, an instrument that does use a bar of wood or metal to fret the strings. No-one will ever know for sure who first slid a metal object on the strings of the guitar and liked the sound so much he decided to work it up as something more than a party trick. Some say Joseph Kekuku (none louder than Kekuku himself), others credit a gentleman called James Hoa. The time of this event is generally understood to be about 1880, give or take ten years. The importance of the event is, in any case, the development of the technique rather than who invented it.
The electric steel guitar
Kekuku certainly played a large part in popularizing the sliding steel guitar technique and the technique spread throughout the islands and to the USA. The pedal steel, however, is an electric instrument and the missing link that turned on the power was the invention of the very first electric guitar by Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp in 1931. It has become known as the “Frying Pan” because it looked a little like one and it was designed to be played on the lap in steel guitar style. The target audience was the growing number of Hawaiian style guitarists who had picked up on the steel guitar technique.
Pedals and levers
A source of frustration, ingenuity and eventually innovation was the basic harmonic limitation of the steel guitar. As it was tuned to a chord and played with a straight bar everything was fine until you wanted to play a chord that was inaccessible with that straight bar. For example, if you’re using a G major tuning, how do you play full minor chord shapes. Most players used complicated and difficult slanted bar techniques or a range of tunings on bulky guitars with three, or even four necks, or both; but some began experimenting with methods of changing the tuning of certain strings on the run using mechanical attachments to stretch the string. It’s this piece of lateral thinking that resulted in a historic recording session in late November, 1953. Webb Pierce recorded a lovely tune called Slowly and his steel player Bud Isaacs used a single pedal as an integral part of his melodic playing. Steel players everywhere reached for their toolboxes and began examining their wives sewing machines as a source of parts to pilfer. The pedal steel as we know it had been born.