Early History of the Pedal Steel Guitar

Hello fellow players,

NOTE: Bobbe hasn’t been feeling well enough to do a newsletter today, so we’re sending a reprint of a newsletter from several years ago.

Best Regards,
The Staff

This special Bobbe’s Tips is for you hardcore steel guitarists and history buffs who like to remember the great guitars that brought us to where we are today.

I remember a story from the great Alvino Rey telling of the first time he played an experimental electric lapsteel guitar somewhere between 1928 and 1932. He practiced with the orchestra and everybody was amazed and happy about how well the steel could be heard.

Unfortunately, his amplifier was plugged into the lighting circuits so when the orchestra started, the curtain went up, the stage lights were turned down and so was the power to his amplifier. He was right back to square one. He learned a lesson that day.

His guitar of choice at the time was from the Rickenbacher Company, one of the first guitars with an electric pickup on it.

Now we move ahead to 1939. Many people and companies were experimenting with methods to stretch the strings to get different tunings to keep the guitars small instead of going to 3 and 4 neck models. A significant guitar was the Electradaire which had 3 rocking pedals, each with 3 positions. These pedals were actually electric switches that triggered solenoids under the guitar and raised and lowered the strings through an electrical changer apparatus.

Jumping ahead to 1946, we saw the birth of the Fender Guitar Company by Leo G. Fender who was inspired to build guitars by motorcycle genius Paul A. Bigsby. Bigsby had been commissioned to build steel and lead guitars by such notables as Merle Travis, Joaquin Murphy, Ernie Ball, Speedy West and the elite who’s who of the guitar playing professionals. Bigsby’s guitars set the standard in quality and tone from ’46 to at least 1958.

Of course, Fender was in on the end of the non-pedal guitar manufacturing and had one serious attempt at building a decent pedal guitar. This model was called the Fender 1000 and was brought to prominence by such players as Curley Chalker and Ralph Mooney.

In 1945, an incredible little pedal steel guitar was designed and mass produced by the Harlin Brothers of Indianapolis, Indiana. It was called the Multi-Kord and was truly a work of art for it’s day and time. This was the first 3 piece finger mechanism all pull steel guitar ever built. It was built very inexpensively. This means cheap body, legs, pickup, but strangely it did sound good. Many came with the mother of toilet seat pearloid finish. Most were six string and four pedal single neck versions with a few eights and even fewer double necks being built before production ceased.

The Multi-Kord is not a good guitar by today’s standards but definitely a significant guitar in the history of steel guitar. This was the first good working pedal steel guitar with a universal changer produced in significant numbers. This guitar remains the easiest steel guitar to change pedal setups on that has ever been made. The tuning possibilities on the Multi-Kord are limitless, unlike any guitar that has been made since. However, forget knee levers. The design of the body of this guitar does not allow for knee levers, not that anyone had them in that time period anyway. Remember, this is the birth of pedals. Knee levers didn’t come along for another 15 years.

Every pedal on the Multi-Kord could instantly be changed to raise or lower any or every string with just one pedal push. This means if you wanted to raise and lower every string in your tuning, you could make the change and tune it in less than a minute, almost as fast as you could think about it. Of course, the more strings you changed with the pedal, the harder the pedal was to push, but this rule applies to steel guitars today as well. I definitely consider the Multi-Kord to be the great-great-grandfather of today’s modern pedal steel guitar. Every design today is just a modification of this unique changer system built by these four brothers in Indianapolis.

The value of these guitars today? Pretty close to zero, right down there with the values of the Gibson Electro-Harps but possibly unfairly so, unlike Bigsby which has risen to it’s highly deserved place of honor in history.

A few of you will remember Gibson’s very feeble attempt at producing a workable pedal steel guitar. Even though they engineered and built many different models, all of which had the classic beauty that Gibson is famous for, none of these guitars ever worked well enough to be called real pedal steel guitars. These are only collectible today to look at and talk about, not to play. Since the Harlin Brothers held the patent on the good three finger design, Gibson was unable to design an effective changer that didn’t infringe upon the patent.

In 1949, Bigsby added pedals to Speedy West’s triple 8 steel guitar that worked very well. However, pedal steel guitar was pretty much still a novelty until Webb Pierce recorded “Slowly”, “More and More”, “In The Jailhouse Now”, “Wandering, Wondering”, “There Stands The Glass” and “I Ain’t Never”.

All of these were Number One tunes in the early to mid 50’s. The first song, “Slowly” was recorded with Webb by Bud Isaacs and his double neck 8 string, 2 pedal Bigsby guitar.

The rest of this great string of number one hits were recorded by Sonny Burnett on a double neck 8 string Bigsby steel guitar that Webb Pierce purchased from Carl Smith’s steel guitarist, Johnny Sibert. This guitar is presently being restored and is referred to as the Webb Pierce “More and More” guitar. The former Bud Isaacs guitar, the “Slowly” guitar is now owned by Jack Hamlett in Maryland.

These two guitars are probably the two most significant guitars in the history of pedal steel guitar. These are the guitars that first put the beautiful pedal steel guitar sound in the ears of the masses. Up to this point in history, every steel guitar player wanted pedals but from this point on in 1953, not only the players themselves, but the band leaders, club owners, producers and audience had to hear those pedals pushed.

Many Fender guitars that didn’t have pedals originally, had their owners out in their garages hacking out homemade pedals so they could sound like the Bigsby’s on the records. Some quite possibly even came close.

Bigsby being a one man operation working in his garage at 56 years old, could not keep up with the sudden demand for his instrument and this is what opened the door for the Fender 1000, Sho-Bud, Wright Custom and Emmons guitars that followed. Bigsby guitars are the ultimate collectible steel guitars.

In 1958, several players who could not get Bigsbys because of the 3 year waiting list that Paul Bigsby had, bought a guitar called the Sho-Bud built by Shot Jackson and sons and promoted by Buddy Emmons at first, then Buddy Charlton in the mid-sixties.

The next very significant guitar that turned out to be the standard of the era and still endures in the hearts of many pros is the Emmons Push Pull guitar. The design work on this guitar started in 1961 with the first models being available to the public at the end of 1964. This is one company who’s first guitars are just as good as their last guitars. This company never made a bad one and set the standard of tone that most players say still stands today.

Now we have a new wave of steel guitars that have come out in the last five years or so. Since the development of computerized milling machines and lathes, parts can be made quicker, with greater precision and for less money, thus the quality of the newest steel guitars has risen to near perfection. This made way for light, compact, extremely high quality guitars with very acceptable tone at very acceptable prices such as the GFI-Magnum class of guitars.

Remember, this is about significant guitars in history and not about how good one guitar is compared to another. There seem to be as many guitar builders today as there are guitar players. Most guitars seem to be improved or copies of what we will call the standard design of steel guitars. I will define this as being multiple raise-lower changer guitars with raised aluminum necks weighing from 44 to 50 pounds without the case, most using chrome microphone stand legs and pickups from the two or three vendors of choice.

Most of these manufacturers aim at the Emmons All Pull LeGrande or the Sho-Bud SuperPro for what they want their final product to look and sound like.

So I will say significant guitars down through history are Rickenbacher, Electrodaire, Multi-Kord, Bigsby, Fender 1000 (and 400), Sho-Bud, Emmons and the new wave of GFI-Magnum class of guitars.

Now remember, there are many other fine brands of guitars like Mullen, Derby, Williams, JCH, Performance, Rittenberry, MSA and of course the incredible reproduction of the Emmons Push Pull, the Promat. I’m sure there are many others including some homemade brands that range from pretty good to astounding, but I wouldn’t call them milestones in the evolution of guitars like the ones mentioned in this newsletter.

Check out our monthly specials at www.steelguitar.net/monthlyspecials.html and we’ll try to save you a lot of money.

Your buddy,
Bobbe Seymour

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8 Responses to Early History of the Pedal Steel Guitar

  1. Mike Freas says:

    Are there any books written covering the development of the Pedal Steel Guitar and it’s history? I haven’t found any. This article is the most informative that I have found. Maybe you should write a book! I would buy it!

  2. John says:

    Hi, I live in the UK where pedal steels are few and far. Are there any references, books etc, or drawings of the Korg changer system. This would be my first steel guitar build and the Korg seems a good one to build. Importing a complete steel is very expensive, but I guess importing some parts would be more afordable, where would I find some?
    regards John

  3. Frank Shortt says:

    This is more a question than a comment. A few years ago I purchased a pedal steel electric guitar at a garage sale. It turns out that the man who invented it was John W. Novak, a machinist in Spokane, Wash. He named his guitar the Kavon Ampli-Tone. His daughter and elderly mother assured me that the father and husband had made at least 2 of these guitars and mine is #003. They told me also that he was approached by Fender to come to southern California to design pedal steels for Fender. He declined and chose to stay independent, probably a mistake. This steel has 4 fretboards and is made of a maple-like wood with beautiful chrome parts.
    Have you ever heard of this instrument?
    Frank Shortt, Retired Chief of Operations, San Jose, Ca. School Dept

  4. Bobby Lee says:

    I have never heard of this machinist. Sorry.

  5. Preston says:

    Howdy! I love this article. Thank you for writing it. I’m wondering about the pedal steels made by Mooney. About what year did he make them? Ect…. I’m considering a major purchase in the near future. I’d like a pedal steel guitar with a little provenance or edge to it. Thanks again

  6. Roy Matthews says:

    i have been playing a multikord 6 for 12 yrs with the strokin dixie band and others as lead guitar i played a little slide guitar and like open e tuning so rather than retune or swap guitars i put my multikord higher so i could stand and play with my guitar hanging. with very little mod. I mounted one of the pedals on top to push instead of pull the changer. works well. tuned from E to A. play it as a lap steel for slide guitar sound and use lever for pedal steel effect. I have not changed this setup since 03 it has not failed and stays in tune

  7. norman fleury says:

    does anyone know the steel tune buddie emmons and hal rugg are playing live at the bell cove very good pickin

  8. RICK SHERMAN says:

    Hi, can you tell me how the Steel Pedal Guitar gets from Hawaii to California to Texas and when?
    Does anyone know when the steel pedal guitar got to Texas, specifically Dallas?
    I see that Bob Dunn played it in Milton Brown’s Western Swing Band and recorded in 1939 and Maurice Anderson was born in Dallas (1934).  But I can’t pin down more of the instrument’s Texas roots, specifically in Dallas.

    Cordially, Rick Sherman

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