’50s Flashback: Gibson’s Pedal Steel Guitars
An Excerpt From Chapter 7 Of The New ‘Gibson Electric Steel Guitars’ Book
Innovations On All Fronts (1955-1957)“One of the most exciting developments in Gibson’s history of electronic firsts”
The quest for extended harmonic possibilities revolved around two main types of instruments: the multi-neck console and the pedal steel – even if a few players like Jerry Byrd stuck to single neck lap steels. Although pedal steel guitars had been available for more than a decade, they emerged as a crucial element in Country music during the 1950s. Music experts pinpoint the actual dawning of Country’s modern era to the recording of the song “Slowly” by Webb Pierce in late 1953. The tune, which remained No.1 in the Billboard chart for several months in 1954, prominently featured Bud Isaacs on a Bigsby pedal steel. To the trained ears of professional musicians, it was clear that the effects and chord changes delivered by Bud Isaacs could not be duplicated on a conventional steel guitar. And many of them subsequently began modifying their instruments with pedal-operated devices for altering pitch while playing. A new wave of pedal steels
The demand for pedal steel guitars was great news for CMI/Gibson, given the paucity of manufacturers then offering this type of instrument. Paul Bigsby was unquestionably the maker of choice for all the top players, but his waiting list was a couple of years long. In this context, Gibson set out to enhance the post-war Electraharp by modifying its pedal linkages and also by introducing a six-pedal version of the model. In 1955 the original four-pedal Electraharp became the EH-630 while the newer six-pedal version was designated EH-620 – in which the initials EH stood for “Electra Harp” rather than “Electric Hawaiian”!
Whereas the previous variant had connecting cables channeled in the left front leg, the newer 620/630s were built with more rigid, externally visible rods. These rods helped improve the “feather foot touch” advocated in catalogs by making the pedals’ response – hopefully – less wobbly. The pedals were relocated on a bracket positioned between the two left legs, so that the pedal farthest from the player had the longest lever while the closest pedal had the shortest. The six pedals of the EH-620 were meant to deliver two more chords (E+7th and Bb9/F#m6) than the four chords available with the EH-630. These enhanced possibilities were immodestly translated into “unlimited harmonic progression in full chordal sounds” in CMI brochures. The two models were concurrently upgraded with a 3-octave fret-board featuring a “glare-resistant finish” and bigger dot markers, while the slimmer maple body adopted a scooped-out lower middle section. The final touch was a brown Royalite nameplate with gold lettering put on the front so as to make the brand and model more easily identified. All these changes helped the combined shipments of the EH620/630 grow significantly in 1956 to 112 units from 67 in 1955.
The installation of a novel pickup in lieu of the non-adjustable Alnico u
nit designed in 1945 also underpinned this improvement in sales. Although the “humbucking” pickup was originally developed for conventional guitars, an eight-string version was specially engineered for electric steels, which became the first Gibson instruments to take advantage of the new pickup design in 1956. Concurrently, the circuitry of the EH-620/630 (V2) was enhanced with two extra controls: a reversible “du-wah” effect (black button) synchronized with the tone control and an “audio cut-off” or kill switch (red button) for Speedy West type licks. Given their respective list price – $670 with case for the EH-620 and $570 for the EH-630 – the increased shipments of the Electraharp models were indeed very good business for CMI.
In 1956 Gibson’s offering was augmented with the Multiharp, which could be described as the fusion of an EH-620 with a Console Grande – resulting in a triple-neck console with six pedals. The middle 8-string neck was similar to that of the EH-620, while the two outer “passive” necks were meant for treble and bass settings. Taking into account the chords available with the EH-620, the Multiharp was promoted as “the equivalent of more than nine necks”. The argument was deemed so powerful that the first catalog entry of the Multiharp omitted to specify that the instrument was also equipped with the new humbucking pick-ups. All three necks were mounted with 8-pole humbuckers, with separate volume and tone controls for each neck, “du-wah” and “audio cut-off” controls and a four-way neck switch (1-2-3-All).
The Multiharp was built around a metal frame covered by a maple casing shaped like a reverse trapezoid prism, i.e. its bottom edges were shorter than the upper edges. The body received a lustrous ebony livery, possibly meant to streamline visually its large size – 36-3/8” long, 14-5/8” wide and 4-3/8” deep. For a better contrast the fret-boards were done in different shades of gold with a lighter hue
on the outside necks. At $895 (including case), the Multiharp instantly became Gibson’s most expensive instrument, at a time when the top Spanish guitar, the Super 400CESN, listed for $760! With such unprecedented features and price, the Multiharp was dubbed “one of the most exciting developments in Gibson’s history of electronic firsts”. Despite its price tag, it sold fairly well in its first full year, as no less than 44 units were delivered in 1957.
To capitalize fully on the momentum for pedal steels, the Multiharp would be followed in 1957 by a budget model, the EH-610, heralded as “the right answer for the student of 6 string steel guitar who wants to create all the fine sounds of a pedal guitar without getting into the 8 string tuning”. Built of laminated oak, the 6-string EH-610 was equipped with four pedals and a regular humbucking pickup – which explains why it is now difficult to find EH-610s with their original electronics, given the top money commanded by original “patent applied for” humbuckers! Although it listed in July 1957 for half the price of the 4-pedal Electraharp, the EH-610 never became a volume item, and it sold only marginally better than its bigger siblings, the EH-620 and EF-630. It nonetheless enabled Gibson to boast a range of four different pedal-operated steel guitars.