Pedal steel guitars remain one of the more unique instruments to date. But even rarer are true masters of the instrument. I put together the list below to celebrate pedal steel players that have “wowed” me over the years, and to share their amazing music with other guitarists and music lovers.
If you like what you read, you can also check out my list of the best pedal steel guitar songs.
Here are the 12 best pedal steel guitar players of all time:
Sonny Curtis was the pedal steel guitar player for George Jones for 17 years. Here’s the funny bit: in his high school years, Sonny Curtis absolutely loathed the sound of a steel guitar. He had no interest in playing it. But an encounter with steel guitar player Bobby Irwin turned his life upside down, and he started enjoying the guitar’s sound after practicing with it for a long time.
Sonny’s first professional gig was in a Wellston bar with Bobby Bare. Bobby soon released “The All American Boy,” a hit single, and went on tour. Their debut appearance was on Jimmy Dean’s television show in New York City in 1964 (ABC).
Robert Randolph is a pedal steel guitarist who trained himself in the House of God Church. He made prominent use of this instrument when he led the Robert Randolph and the Family Band. This is an American gospel band that NPR has described as having an irresistible rock demeanor.
Robert was included in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, showing how good he was at this instrument. His band released six studio albums and was nominated for the Grammy awards four times.
Jerry Garcia was not only known for being a steel guitar player, but he was also a renowned songwriter and singer in the Grateful Dead. He was in this band for 30 years and played the guitar for a few of their well-known songs, such as ‘Dire Wolf’ and ‘Pride of Cucamonga.’ He also collaborated with Crosby Stills + Nash in their hit song ‘Teach your Children.’
Garcia was also known for his varied musical prowess, especially his ability to play a wide range of instruments and maintain long riffs with the Grateful Dead. Garcia believed that creativity relieved stress from his playing and let him make decisions in the spur of the moment that he would not have made otherwise.
Mike Daily had always wanted to learn to play the steel guitar. It was one of his biggest aspirations. He got started doing so early, and then came into the limelight as he started to play for George Strait. For the past nine years, Travis Tritt has also benefited from Daily’s unique pedal steel sound.
Daily also spent two decades as Hank Williams, Jr.’s musical director. Mike Daily’s latest CD, Renascence, highlights the steel guitar’s versatility with unique tracks featuring performers that excavate distinctly nontraditional sounds.
Steel guitarist Donald “Don” Hugh Helms was well known for his work with Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys. In 1984, he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Helms played steel guitar on more than 100 Hank Williams songs, including ten of the country singer’s eleven number-one singles.
“After the beautiful tunes and Hank’s low voice, the next thing you think of in those songs is the steel guitar,” Bill Lloyd, curator of electric guitars at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said of Helms. “Tuneful, forceful, and full of attitude, it’s the archetypal honky-tonk steel sound.”
Tom Brumley was a pedal steel player and steel guitar maker from the United States. He spent two years in the United States Army, based in Germany, and chose to pursue a career as a musician at that time. He worked at his father’s music publishing house following his military duty.
In the 1960s, Brumley was a part of the “Bakersfield sound” thread of country music. After obtaining the development rights to Zane Beck’s original pedal steel model in the 1960s, Brumley created the ZB Guitar Company. Brumley then moved the company to Texas, close to his house in Kingsland, where he ran it in his later years.
Brian John Cole is a British pedal steel guitarist who has worked as a solo performer. Cole’s fascination for the pedal steel guitar grew into a passion when he bought his first instrument, a Fender 1000.
In his spare time, he began to perform in bands and got actively involved in the music scene. Cole sprang to popularity in the early 1970s with the band Cochise. Since then, he has served in various styles extending from popular pop and rock to jazz and varied experimental music, never forgetting the instrument’s country roots.
Cole has played with renowned artists over the years, such as Albert Lee, Elton John, and Humble Pie.
Paul Franklin has been on over 500 tracks as a studio musician in Nashville. He was named Best Steel Guitarist by the Academy of Country Music. He is credited for introducing numerous musical advances to the country music scene. For example, the Pedabro: a Dobro with pedals that can be used to play like a pedal steel guitar.
Franklin played steel guitar on Gallery’s top-five hit “Nice to Be with You” from 1972. Throughout his career, Franklin has collaborated with other several well-known artists.
Denny Hemingson belongs to the city of Sioux. He has been a member of Tim McGraw’s band since 1994. Hemingson is a guitarist who grew up listening to a combination of top 40 and rock ‘n’ roll — Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix — before discovering his passion for country music while working the local nightclub circuit.
After graduating from high school, he moved to Minneapolis, Hawaii, and eventually Nashville to pursue a full-time music career.
Doyle Grisham is best known as Jimmy Buffett’s pedal steel player. Grisham was born in the Texas town of Temple. Carl Smith and Webb Pierce were early inspirations to him. He began professionally playing guitar at the age of fifteen. He learned he could make more money playing music than pursuing his dream of becoming a teacher while attending Temple Junior College.
Doyle assisted Jimmy Buffett during the “Beach House on the Moon” recording in 1999, and Jimmy was overheard saying, “I’ll have Doyle performing with me shortly.” That is precisely what occurred.
Bruce Bouton is a Nashville studio star known for his instrumental work. He toured with Mel Tillis and Foster & Lloyd after five years with Ricky Skaggs (you’ve heard his steel solos on Ricky’s hit singles like Heartbroke, Country Boy, You May See Me Walkin’, and Highway 40 Blues).
He’s been focusing on session work for the past decade.
Most steel players consider Jerry Byrd more influential than any other performer. He nearly single-handedly defined the early Nashville steel sound and developed a particularly unique technique. This includes the signature vibrato and luscious tunings that became the most-copied method for playing Hawaiian music.
Traditional Hawaiian music has been a lifelong passion for Byrd, but he also plays across several genres, including jazz (as you can hear above).