The pedal steel guitar was created back in the 1950s by attaching pedals and levers to a console steel guitar. The pedal steel is still a standard in country music to this day, but as we’ll see below it’s also been heard outside of Nashville on a few occasions.
Other genres have embraced the steel guitar, including icons like Jerry Garcia, the Rolling Stones, and other bands outside of the traditional country music scene. Below I share what I think are the best songs in country and other genres that use a pedal steel guitar.
I strongly encourage all true country music lovers to go through this list, but also to keep an open mind as the songs on this list come from a variety of genres. The main ranking factor was the beauty of the pedal steel guitar itself, not what genre of music it’s being used in.
With that said, let’s jump right into this list of the 15 best songs with pedal steel guitar:
Teach Your Children – Crosby Stills & Nash
Graham Nash wrote this song. The lyrics are about his tumultuous connection with his father, who served time in prison. Nash wrote the song while high on hash, according to the 2019 book Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
One day in the studio, he taught it to the rest of the band. Jerry Garcia performed the pedal steel guitar element of this track. He’d only been playing steel guitar for a few months. The Grateful Dead were producing their acoustic records Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty at the time, and Garcia played on this album in return for harmony lessons.
Highway 40 Blues – Ricky Skaggs
“Highway 40 Blues,” written by veteran composer Larry Cordle, is about “that little state highway in Kentucky,” not Nashville’s Interstate 40, as most people assumed. Ricky Skaggs, a childhood friend and neighbor of Cordle’s had already made a name for himself in the music industry, and he assured Cordle that he would record “Highway 40 Blues” someday after hearing it. That’s precisely what Skaggs did.
When Skaggs released “Highway 40 Blues” as the third single from his first platinum-selling album, Highways & Heartaches, in 1983, he shot to the top of the charts once more. The incredible pedal steel guitar playing of Bruce Bouton was another reason for the song’s success.
He Went to Paris – Jimmy Buffett
Jimmy Buffett is best known to the general public for the hit song “Margaritaville” and the restaurants that bear his name, and his sense of humor and irony in his songs. But what many people don’t realize is that this guy is a very competent and often earnest songwriter who has written hundreds of original songs.
His songwriting talent was evident as early as 1973, when he wrote “He Went To Paris,” a story song about a Spanish Civil War veteran and one-armed pianist he met named Eddie Balchowsky. This song featured the steel guitar in a very somber manner, which connected with the song’s saddening message.
All My Ex’s Live in Texas – George Strait
July 11, 1987, was a momentous day in George Strait’s career: it was the day his single “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” reached No. 1 on the charts for the first time. At the 1988 Grammy Awards, the song was nominated for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Mike Daily played the steel guitar for Strait, and in this song, he brings a very upbeat tune. You can clearly hear the guitar playing an entertaining and lively sound while Strat sings his heart out. The guitar portrays that this song is meant to be something to enjoy.
Dire Wolf – Grateful Dead
Jerry Garcia sings of waking up to find a dire wolf, “six hundred pounds of sin,” at his window in “Dire Wolf.” He invites the wolf inside and encourages him to play cards with him. He finds the cards are the same as he cuts the deck at the Queen of Spades. The Queen of Spades is never explained in the song; however, Dead lyricist Robert Hunter once remarked that it is the “card of death,” implying that every card in the deck is a card of death.
In short, the storyteller is dead, as the song suggests early on (at least that’s my interpretation). Garcia began his pedal steel career with John Dawson and played it in most of his songs, including Dire Wolf.
Just to See You Smile – Tim McGraw
Tim McGraw performs the song “Just to See You Smile,” but it was composed by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin. The song was the third single from McGraw’s fourth studio album, Everywhere, which was released in August 1997. It also held the record for the longest run of any country single in the 1990s.
The pedal steel guitar in this song begins right off the bat. The guitar has a sweet tune, which gives a nice feeling to the overall theme, and immediately establishes the song as an upbeat country classic.
Tiny Dancer – Elton John
Some songs immediately influence listeners, and others take longer to establish themselves in public awareness. “Tiny Dancer,” is the former type of song, and it’s a piece that features Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and Elton John’s music. The song was composed in honor of Taupin’s first wife, Maxine Feibelmann, who was a “seamstress for the band.”
The strength of this song is unmatchable. B.J. Cole plays the steel guitar right when the chorus starts up and comes to its end.
I Don’t Even Know Your Name – Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson of American country music co-wrote and recorded the song “I Don’t Even Know Your Name.” It was the fifth and final single from his album Who I Am, released in May 1995.
According to Alan, the song was composed as a prank at the request of certain family members. He decided to write and record it while on tour in 1993. When he sent the demo tape to his brother-in-law, everyone wanted to hear the song, so he included it on his album. Brent Mason, a long-time session guitarist, based in Nashville, served as the guitarist.
Together Again – Buck Owens
A country singer and guitarist from the United States, Buck Owens wrote the song “Together Again” in 1964. Tom Brumley, a former Buckaroo, played pedal steel guitar on this tune. His keening steel guitar gave imparted real essence to this Buck Owens classic. The guitar is played throughout the song, giving it additional energy and a passionate tone.
The Country Music Television team considers Tom Brumley’s performance on “Together Again” to be one of the most delicate steel guitar solos in country music history. Jerry Garcia was motivated to pick up the guitar after hearing it. Now that’s pretty inspiring if you ask me!
Something to Think About – Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson, a veteran country music singer and songwriter, wrote and sang “Something to Think About.” Willie’s core feature that makes him so intriguing to fans is his honesty. He tells it like it is, both in his life and in his lyrics.
In that sense, his songs are valuable. They give us some insight into him, and we gain insight into ourselves. A similar thing happens in this song when Jimmy Day contributes his excellent steel guitar skills… As it plays throughout the song and keeps us listening to Nelson’s calming vocals, there is a sense of prominence and honesty that spreads far and wide.
Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That – Robert Randolph & the Family Band
Robert Randolph & the Family Band wrote and performed the song Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That. It was a single from their ‘Colorblind’ album. Compared to other country songs with steel guitar, this song has a unique beat and a much more “electrified” blues rock feel.
The steel guitar is played by none other than Robert Randolph, and the song has a rock and funk feel to it. It’s known for being an enthusiastic hip-hop song.
When Did You Stop Loving Me – George Strait
Monty Holmes and Donny Kees co-wrote this song at the time, but Tony Brown and George Strait also worked on the project. A lover is questioned about their relationship in the song’s lyrics, “When Did You Stop Loving Me?” It demonstrates that their relationship is no longer based on love. If only one person is nurturing the relationship, it will likely fail. Another of Mike Daily’s outstanding steel guitar performances was highlighted in this song.
South Dakota Morning – The Bee Gees
The Bee Gees were a musical trio comprised of brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, who started the group in 1958. The trio was most famous as a popular music act in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then as prominent disco music artists in the mid-to-late 1970s.
They were able to captivate the hearts of many fans and listeners with their three-part harmonies in their tribute song ‘South Dakota Morning.’ Alan Kendall, who played steel guitar on all of their songs, including this one, is responsible for the song’s success.
Family Tradition – Hank Williams, Jr.
The song is a declaration of defiance by Williams, not just in his personal life and living out the themes of his songs, but in terms of creative identity and direction. Considering his father’s point, the younger Williams claims that his father’s hard-living lifestyle is a “family tradition,” referring to the alcohol and drug usage that became linked with his personal life. It only gets better with Don Helms’ steel guitar abilities bringing life to the tune.
King of Broken Hearts – George Strait
Jim Lauderdale wrote this song, which he recorded on his debut album Planet of Love in 1991. “I was reading this book on Gram Parsons, and there’s this story by this girl, Pamela Des Barres, about how he was playing George Jones’ records for people who hadn’t heard him before, and he began crying, and he said that’s the king of broken hearts,” he explained. Since George Strait’s guitarist appears on this list multiple times, it’s safe to assume that he was a polished pro.