steel-strung guitar

Also:       steel string guitar      Dreadnought      

Title: Cyril Pahinui: 6 and 12 String Slack key—Young Street Blues; Cyril Pahinui, slack key guitar. Label: Dancing Cat. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 08022 38010-2. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

The steel-strung guitar is a plucked box-lute chordophone initially developed and manufactured in the United States but has subsequently come to be distributed and manufactured elsewhere. It is basically a classical guitar, which is of European origin, but larger and with a more robust design to accommodate the higher string tension of steel rather than nylon strings. It was developed in the 1920s to provide a louder guitar (in pre-amplification times) for use in a variety of popular and commercial styles of music. The steel strung guitar, like its classical counterpart, is ideal for both song accompaniment and for use as a solo instrument, and it is used in a wide range of vernacular American musics such as bluegrass, country, and Hawaiian folk (listen to the audio example of Hawaiian slack key guitar).


Rosewood is used for the sides and back of the resonator of the steel-stung guitar pictured here, and spruce for its soundboard. Slightly larger than its classical counterpart, the resonator is more wedge shaped and internally has more and heavier bracing. A pick guard made of synthetic material is glued to one side of the soundhole to reduce damage to the soundboard from strikes by the fingerpick most steel-string players use to strum the strings. To compensate for the greater tension that steel strings exert on the string carrier, the joining of the base of the neck to the resonator must be particularly strong. The neck and peg head are carved from a single piece of hardwood and a thin and flat fingerboard or rosewood is glued to the top of the neck. The fingerboard extends beyond the neck, over the resonator soundboard up to the sound hole. Twenty metal frets are set in horizontal grooves cut into the fingerboard; the neck meets the resonator beneath the fourteenth fret, the final six frets are located over the resonator. Outfitted with six strings, the top two are wire and the bottom four have steel cores wound with brass. The bottom ends of the strings are attached to the tension bridge, which is glued to the surface of the soundboard. After running in a parallel plane over the bridge saddle and the fretted fingerboard, the strings pass over a nut (a raised bridge that separates the fingerboard from the tuning block) before being wound around the capstans of the back-mounted metal machine heads with their laterally-situated knobs. Although the instrument overall is larger and heavier than a classical guitar, the acoustically active length of the strings is the same at 25.6 in. (this keeps the gaps between frets the same, thus making it easier for a musician to play both types of guitars). 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The playing position and sounding techniques (plucked or strummed, fully stopped and harmonic notes) of the steel-strung guitar are shared with the classical guitar. In addition to being fully chromatic over a range of three-and-one-half octaves, from E2 - C6, and using the standard guitar tuning of E2 - A2 - D3 - G3 - B3 - E4 (interval pattern of P4 - P4 - P4 - M3 - P4), steel-strung players in a variety of genres have incorporated other tuning patterns as well. Players in some of these genres may also choose to wear a bottleneck on one of their left hand fingers to achieve slide guitar effects. As compared to the classical guitar, the steel-strung guitar produces greater volume.


A demand for a guitar with a more robust sound for use in dance bands and other genres of popular music in the first few decades of the 20th century stimulated makers to modify existing guitar designs. In 1916 the American company C. F. Martin (of Nazareth, Pennsylvania) was the first manufacturer to answer this need, and to this day instruments produced by this company are highly valued by performers active in a wide array of vernacular and commercial musical genres. Martin called this guitar model with a more wedge-shaped resonator, like the instrument pictured here, the Dreadnought, in reference to the American battleship design of the day. C. F. Martin, and other American and international manufactures, have continued to build such guitars up to the present day, and the name “Dreadnought” remains in common use.

Bibliographic Citations

Choelho, Victor Anand, ed. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dreadnought (guitar type). Wikipedia entry accessed September 30 2014.

Turnbull, Harvey, and Tony Bacon. 1984. "Guitar, 7" NGDMI v.2: 103-105.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: tension bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: machine head

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


41 in. length 15.7 in. greatest width 4.0 to 4.9 in. height of ribs

Primary Materials

string - wire-wound wire
string - wire
metal machine heads




Earth 1000N

Entry Author

Roger Vetter