steelguitars ATLAS of Plucked Instruments

guitars early
guitars modern
Europe West
Europe East
Europe South
Middle East
Central Asia
Far East
S.E. Asia
America N
America C
America S

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Here you can find the instruments that are normally played horizontally (front facing the sky) with a steel or (up right) with a bottleneck. However note that slide guitars are not special guitars, but a way of playing with a steel or bottle neck on a(ny) normal guitar.

On this page are :

acoustic steelguitars (or hawaiian guitars)
resophonic guitars (or resonator guitars, like dobros)
electric steelguitars (like pedalsteel guitars)
dulcimers (folk, fretted "steel" guitars)

See also the page India for some ethnic instruments played like a steelguitar: the veenas.

For lots of information and pictures of resonator- and steel guitars see folkwaymusic.


top acoustic steelguitars
hawaiian guitar
example : OAHU,
bought via internet from
Dan Yablonka, 2011

L=930 B=340 H=100mm
scale = 610mm

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hawaiian medley
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steelguitar rag

hawaiian guitar

In the 1890's people on Hawaii started playing the guitar in a different way, laying it flat on their lap, and not fingering chords, but shortening the strings with a straight (steel) object. As they already used an open tuning on a guitar, it was not difficult to play like this.
In the early 1910's Hawaiian music became a craze in USA and with it the hawaiian guitar became very popular, together with the acompanying small guitar: the ukulele (see AmericaNorth).

In fact any guitar can be used as an hawaiian guitar (although often it was a kind of spanish guitar model) as long as it has steel strings, which are tuned to an open tuning. The main difference with a normal guitar is a slightly raised nut, so the sliding steel does not touch the frets. Some instruments were made of the beautiful koa wood.

As you play the instrument horizontally, the round neck was not necessary, so often the instrument got a square neck - which was also good to avoid warping due to the high action of the steel strings.

The tuning is usually open, like :
E A e a c#' e' or : A c# e a c#' e' or : G B d g b d'.

The sound of the (acoustic) hawaiian guitar is not so strong, compared with resophonic guitars.

Note that nowadays on the Hawaii islands this instrument is hardly used anymore : they play the slack key guitar (a normal guitar in open tuning).

Weissenborn guitar
example :
bought from Bediaz
via eBay 2013

L=960 B=400 H=75mm
scale = 625mm

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weissenborn guitar

During the craze of the hawaiian music, the USA maker Weissenborn designed a special type of hawaiian guitar.

As an hawaiian guitar does not need a roundneck, his design has a square hollow neck, as an extention of the body, in an attempt to increase the sound volume. His instruments became rather popular among hawaiian musicians.

Although many of his instruments were quite plain (type nr.1), the usual decoration was a black/white rope binding around the edge of the body and the fingerboard (type nr.4).
The overall construction is like a normal guitar, but the (metal) frets are replaced by just inlay lines for orientation.

The sound is not so strong, compared with resophonic guitars.

 top resophonic guitars

A resophonic or resonator guitar is different from a resonator banjo, where the name refers to the round wooden back to increase the sound volume. Inside the body of a resonator guitar is a special thin aluminium cone to get more volume.

example :
Continental, bought 2000

L=960 B=360 H=80mm
scale = 645mm

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A tricone was the first type of resonator guitar. It was made in the 1930's by the National factory in USA, of thin shiny metal (nickel plated bellbrass), in a stylish art deco design. Tricones were made with different amounts of decoration : from style 1, which was plain, up to style 4, which had chrysantimums etched around the front, sides and back.

Inside the (lower half of the) body are 3 round aluminium cones, on which the bridge rests via a tripod. Reason for 3 small cones was that they could not make the aluminium cones big enough. The 3 cones (with the opening to the back) are covered with diamond shaped grilles. In the top half of the body are 2 large sound holes, covered with thin metal strips (usually part of the body). Pity the neck end does not follow the lines of the grills, but stops squarely.

The tricone was popular with both hawaiian players (they played it flat on the lap with a steel) as with (Delta-)bluesplayers (they played it normal, often with a bottleneck). The guitar therefore was available with either a square neck or a round neck (see also dobro).

You have to play quite strongly to get the proper sound out of it, so the use of finger picks is necessary.

For lots of information about these instruments see Nationalguitars.

Around 2000 the bellbrass tricones became popular again, but the original factories did not have the moulds anymore to make them. So small firms started making copies, and finally the National and Dobro factories started up their own production lines again. The Continental is a small workshop in Germany.

example : Johnson, bought from Thomann, 2011

L=1000 B=365 H=80mm
scale = 650mm

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The triolian is a type of resonator guitar made in the 1930's by the National factory in USA, when they managed to produce larger cones.

Although a number was made with a wooden body, it usually has a multi-hued painted steel body. In spite of the name, this type has only one (large) cone. Its opening is to the back, with a small round wooden "bisquit" on the front, on which the bridge rests.
The round cover plate has a decoration of 9 diamonds of pierced holes. On the top of the body are two stylised f-holes, like on a violin. Often the body is decorated with stencilled pictures of Hawaiian scenes.

The duolian is a cheaper version of this type of resonator guitar, also made by National.
The trojan (or El Trovador) is another similar resonator guitar, but with a wooden body.
A more expensive version was the style 0, which had a bell-brass body and Hawaiian scene etchings.
Later cover plates had a so-called "chickenfeet" design (see picture right).

The triolian sounds a bit like a banjo, and it is quite loud. It is used both for bottle neck playing and for normal picking.

For lots of information about these instruments see Nationalguitars.

example :
Regal squareneck,
bought 1998

L=970 B=380 H=85mm
scale = 625mm

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The dobro is a type of resonator guitar which was designed in the 1930's by the Dopyera Brothers in USA - hence the name "dobro". The construction of the cone is different from the earlier made tricones and triolians (see above) made by National.

The cone of the dobro has the opening to the front, with a spider-like construction resting on the edge of the cone, and the bridge resting on the "spider". The cone is covered by a round metal plate with many cut-outs in 4 halfround patterns. Above this big cover plate are two separate round soundholes, which are covered with small grills. Between those grills are 3 small open soundholes.

As most players play the dobro laying flat (with a steel), it often has a square neck, and a high nut to get the strings high off the fingerboard. The tuning machines are often turned around (to the front) to make tuning easier.
However, some dobros may be made with a normal halfround guitar neck and a low nut (and real frets), to be played like an ordinary guitar.

Tuning is nowadays often : G B d g b d'.

The sound of a dobro is a bit nasal, and highly recognisable. The dobro is now mainly used in Bluegrass Music, and played with a steel.

For more information about dobros see : resoguit.

example :
Del Vecchio, bought from, Brazil 2003

L=1000 B=370 H=100mm
scale = 640mm

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Chet Atkins
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In Brazil the guitar factory of DelVecchio (or "Del Vecchio") made a local version of the dobro. This instrument was officially called the "Dinãmico", but players often refer to it just by the factory name. The factory in São Paulo had stopped (officially) making these instruments, but on its new website they are still mentioned : DelVecchio .

It is quite rare outside Brazil, but a famous player like Chet Atkins played on one. The fretting was usually not very well done, so they were known to be slightly out of tune on some notes.

Inside a DelVecchio guitar is a dobro-type aluminium cone with a wooden cylinder on which the bridge rests. The cone is covered with a round thin wooden plate, in which usually 5 small round soundholes, covered with metal grilles. Some instruments have 6 holes and up to 10 can be found. The type of the grilles varies, and sometimes they are made of plastic, or just a V-shape. In the top of the body are two (usually bigger) soundholes with similar grilles. Often beautiful Brazilian woods are used for the body.

Note that this resonator guitar is normally not played with a steel or bottleneck, but as a normal guitar. The sound is usually quite "dark" (not at all like the sound of Chet Atkins' instrument), but marvellous for single-note jazz picking.

A similar looking guitar, but with 5 double metal string courses is called a viola caipira or viola sertaneja and used for Brazilian country music. Nowadays the Brazilian factory Rozini makes both 6-string and 5-course versions under the name "Vibrante" (see Brazil).

A similar type resonator guitar is also made by McGill.

The example instrument was specially made for me. The wood is quite dark, making the instrument looks like it is made of bakelite. Probably there was a shortage of grilles at the time of building, as the 5th hole (on the top of the circle) is missing.

top electric steelguitars
frypan lapsteel guitar
example :
copy made by
bought second hand, Holland 2011
L=790 B=180 H=40mm
scale = 620mm
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Probably the earliest production electric guitar was a 6-string steel guitar, made in the 1930's by Rickenbacher from solid aluminium. As the shape (and material) resembled a fry(ing) pan, it got its nickname. It was played laying on the lap, that is why these steelguitars are often called lap steels.

The entire body is made from a solid piece of aluminium, making it very heavy (4 kg), but giving it a lot of sustain.

It has a horseshoe pickup, by which the strings go directly through the magnetic field, to the bridge at the end of the body.

The buttons of the tuning machines face upwards, for ease of tuning.

There are very many tunings in use for steelguitars, but a wellknown one is
the C6 tuning : c e g a c' e'.

Since the 1990's Jerry Byrd (and others) designed a remake of the aluminium frypan, with some models made with 8 strings. See for more info on this frypan : Fuzzy.

lapsteel guitar
example : Japanese lapsteel Diamond, bought in Rotterdam, 1970
L=850 H=140 B=40mm
scale = 525mm
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hawaiian style
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more necks
(lap) steel guitar 

The lapsteel (always electric) is usually just a solid big plank of wood with strings on it (6, 7, 8 and sometimes even 10) with some decoration to show the "frets" for orientation. The sound comes via the electric amplifier.

The shape often is indeed just like a rectangular plank, but you can also find vague (solid body) guitar shapes, or an art-deco type body.

Often the steel guitars are not really played on the lap, but they are mounted on 3 or more legs. And then sometimes 2, 3 or even 4 steel guitars are joined together - each one tuned in a different tuning, so the player can easily change from one tuning to another (although only rarely halfway during a song).

Not always all the notes of a chord are in the straight line of the steel, so the steel often has to be slanted (both ways) to get the proper notes on different strings. It demands quite a lot of practice to get those notes in tune...

Another important part of the lapsteel (and even more so for the pedalsteel guitar) is the volume pedal. By lowering the volume at the moment of picking the strings, and then - when the sound of the strings decreases - the volume pedal is pressed in such a way, that the resulting sound stays on a more or less even level - often giving the impression of an organ.

For more information see Brad's Steel.

Note that the example has a built-in amplifier for use during practising.

pedalsteel guitar
example : Fender Pedal 800,
bought 2nd hand in The Hague, 1970
L=900 B=210 H=110mm
scale = 585mm
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The 2 kneepedals on this Fender pedalsteel guitar were designed by me, to add to the 4 floor pedals.
pedalsteel guitar 

On a normal (lap) steel guitar it is hard to play in tune while trying to make chords with a slanting steel, so people devised a way of retuning the strings (during playing) in such a way that chords would always fall in a straight line under the steel. Eventually this lead to quite complicated machine-like instruments : by using a number of floorpedals (pressed with the left foot) and some knee pedals (moved by the left or right knee : up, left or right) one or more strings are raised or lowered in such a way that plucking a full chord in a straight line under the steel is possible. The mechanism works via cables or via rods, invisible (for the public) underneath the (usually) metal body. The volumepedal is worked with the right foot. Because of all the materials, the instrument is really heavy (more than 12 kg)

Soon players discovered that it was fun pressing a pedal, just after picking the strings, which gave the pedalsteel guitar (together with the use of the volume pedal) its unique sound.
A particular playing technique is "blocking" : immediately after picking a string, the side of the right hand blocks the string, giving a short guitar-like string picking sound.

The pedalsteel guitar usually has 10 (sometimes only 8) strings and is tuned in E9 or C6. Some players use a double neck pedalsteel guitar, so they can use both types of tuning during the same session.
To combine both tunings nowadays also 12-string instruments are made, with 7 floor- and 5 kneepedals. The "copedants" (the set-up of tuning and specially which pedal moves which string) can be quite different between players.

E9 tuning for 10 strings : B d e f# g# b e' g#' eb' f#'
C6 tuning for 10 strings : C F A c e g a c' e' g'
Universal tuning for 12 strings : Bb Eb G Bb d f g bb d' f' g' e'

For more info see

top dulcimers
épinette des vosges
example :
bought via eBay, 2007
L=850 B=120 H=45mm
scale = 640mm
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example : bought in Budapest, 1985
L=810 B=110 H=50mm
scale = 660mm
bourdons :
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mountain dulcimer
example : bought 1980
L=830 B=155 H=40mm
scale = 640mm
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with roller
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with fingers

In folk music (both in Europe and USA) the dulcimer is used, which has a playing technique which looks quite similar to that of steel guitars. However it is always fretted. And usually only played acoustic, so unamplified.

A dulcimer or hummel is basically a long wooden soundbox with on top a fingerboard with frets and some strings. The frets are usually diatonic (not chromatic), so one can often play in just one mode / scale. The melody string is often double.

The dulcimer is played laying down on a table or on the lap, with the tuners on the left side.
The right hand often strums all the strings together, while with the left hand usually only the first string (nearest the player) is fingered. This fingering is done with a round bit of wood (a "noter") and for fun even the end of a wooden spoon can be used.

The other strings are just bourdon strings : they are usually tuned to the root of the scale and only played open.

Strumming can be with a finger or with a plectrum (or very traditional : with the back of a goose feather).

The European dulcimers usually have a fingerboard only under the melody strings.
The mountain dulcimers have ALL the strings above the raised fingerboard. Some players can manage to play "upside down guitar" by pressing down the strings on the fingerboard with separate fingers of the left hand, so actually playing chords.

The dulcimer is known in different countries under different names, which does not always reflect a special shape of the sound box. Most instruments are hand-made by local craftsmen, so may differ quite a lot.

France épinette des vosges *)
Holland/Belgium hommel / hummel *)
Norway langeleik *)
Germany scheitholt *), hummel *), kratzzither
Hungary citera
USA Appalachian or mountain dulcimer

*) these instruments all look very similar.

The number of melody strings can vary (1 to 3), but it is the number of bourdon strings that will greatly differ, like on the Hungarian cetera.

Strings on the examples :

France : épinette des vosges
2 melody strings, 3 bourdons

Hungary : citera
5 melody strings, 3 long bourdons, 3x2 shorter bourdons

USA : (Appallachian) dulcimer
2 melody strings, 2 bourdons

On some East-European instruments there is a second row of frets between the main frets, giving the full chromatic range (like on the citera).

For some information on the dulcimer see EverythingDulcimer, and for lots of different German instruments, see Museum (in German). And about the hummel see Ulricus (in German)

(from website Folknotes)

(from website Folknotes)


Left :

the USA mountain dulcimers often have the shape of an ellips (or teardrop) or a figure eight (or hourglass).
The example is a triangular dulcimer.



right :

German kratzzither (usually a dulcimer with a bulging soundbox, and raised fingerboard)

(picture from eBay)

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