Guide to Carter Steel Guitars

Kevin Ott
Double neck steel guitar.

For almost 20 years until it closed in 2010, Carter Steel Guitars was one of the largest and most successful pedal steel guitar manufacturers in the United States. Located in Mesquite, Texas, the company built its pedal steel guitars in their Texas shop. Its artisan-quality models became famous industry standards that landed its founder, Bud Carter, into multiple steel guitar halls of fame. Besides founding the company, Carter was also a virtuoso player.

A Brief History of Carter Steel Guitars

Bud Carter, a Korean War veteran and a Chevrolet car mechanic in Sullivan, Missouri, bought and played early models of the pedal steel guitar that were on the market in the '50s. They weren't very good, so he tinkered with them to improve their sound and playability by re-purposing whatever he had around into steel guitar parts, including carburetor parts, welding rods, and coat hangers. Soon the pedal steel guitar began to take over his life as the timeline below shows.

  • 1960s: After years of tinkering, Carter is able to get the pedal steel guitar he owns to stay in tune longer thanks to his unusual methods. His time and interest invested in the instrument accelerates.
  • 1967: Carter invents the Carter Changer, a pedal mechanism that would become the industry standard for the pedal steel guitar world. He soon begins designing steel guitars for established manufacturers.
  • 1985: Carter becomes the first inductee to the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
  • 1992: After years of accumulating experience in steel guitar design, Carter moves to Mesquite, Texas and opens Carter Steel Guitars with guitar and technology enthusiast John Fabian. The tech-savvy, insatiably curious Fabian learns computer coding and web design and launches an online store for the guitar company in 1996. He becomes one of the first companies to offer direct online orders to consumers for high-priced custom products.
  • 1990s-2000s: Carter steel guitars become renowned in the industry for their superb craft and sound.
  • 2008: Bud Carter retires and moves to Payne Springs, Texas. John Fabian continues running the company.
  • 2009: Carter is inducted to the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
  • 2010: John Fabian, who has worked tirelessly for Carter Steel Guitars, dies after a lengthy battle with cancer. His death brings an end to the company, and it officially closes and sells the rights to a steel guitar store in Canada, which plans to offer Carter parts and wholly intact steel guitars (if they're available) to interested buyers.
  • 2015: Bud Carter dies at the age of 83 in Texas after a bout with pneumonia.

Features of the Carter Steel Guitar

The pedal steel guitar's mechanics and electronics intrigued Bud Carter to no end. Foot pedals and knee levers create the haunting, bending chord sounds that make the unmistakable pedal steel sound, and many models of pedals can be chosen to create these sounds, from ten-string to twelve-string models to double-neck models in which the necks can be tuned differently to allow flexibility for keys and chord changes.

All Carter guitars have quality features such as:

  • Hard rock-maple bodies
  • Aluminum necks
  • Five knee levers
  • George L's pickups
  • Spurzel tuners
  • High-gloss finish

Bud Carter and John Fabian worked tirelessly to make these challenging instruments easier to play and more beautiful sounding, and they worked hard to educate people about playing technique whenever they could. After retiring, Bud Carter would take phone calls at home from amateur players wanting tips for playing better. The following models are a few of Carter's most popular.

Carter Starter

The Carter Starter was designed for young players or first-time pedal steel musicians who needed something simple but high-quality on which to learn the challenging craft. This simply but superbly designed steel guitar had just one neck and a few pedals and knee levers so not to overwhelm the player.

Carter D-10

The Carter D-10 was made for the immediate or advanced player as it has two necks (the "D" stands for double-necked) and ten strings on each neck. It also would usually have more pedals and levers.

Other Carter Variations

Other Carter models are variations on the basic ones or were high-end customs. Usually, the variations include changes such as twelve strings instead of ten, single neck 12-string instead of double, or more pedals added or more ergonomic features, such as a larger body resting on a pad. These other models include:

  • S-10: The S-10 has a single ten-string neck with three pedals.
  • S-10DB: The S-10DB has a single ten-string neck and three pedals but is on a D-10 body with a pad. The pad is there for comfort and ease of playing.
  • S-12: The S-12 is like the S-10 but has seven pedals and a single twelve-string neck.
  • S-12DB: The S-12DB is a single twelve-string neck with seven pedals on a D-10 body with a pad.
  • D-12: The D-12 has two twelve-string necks and eight pedals on a D-12 body.
  • The Limited Edition Line: This line included special Carter steel guitars with bird's-eye maple, abalone inlays, and Bill Lawrence XR-16 pickups. The D-10, S-10, S-10DB and S-12 were available in this fancier high-end setup.

No matter which model you play, every Carter pedal steel has the sweet sonority, sustain, and aching beauty that this video demonstrates:

Where to Buy a Carter Steel Guitar

There's no way around it: Carter Steel Guitars are difficult to find. It requires diligence, patience and the willingness to pay good money, about $2,000 to $3,000 (or maybe even higher if it's a custom model from its Limited Edition lineup). In addition, the pedal steel world is still a cottage industry and many transactions are done word-of-mouth or by meeting fellow players at conferences and concerts.

That being said, there are some places online that you can monitor for Carter steels:

  • Steel Guitars of Canada: This is the company that acquired the rights to sell Carter parts and guitars after the original company closed in 2010. Its current catalog does not show any whole steel guitars, but it offers many of the original Carter parts. It never hurts to contact them to ask if any wholly intact Carter steel guitars have come in.
  • The Steel Guitar Forum: This steel guitar forum is one of the most active steel guitar communities online, and there is a constant stream of users posting steel guitars for sale. Occasionally you will see a Carter surface here, such as this one, which the user is selling for about $2,450 cash only (which is fairly common for these transactions).
  • Vintage and Rare: This collector's site has a continuous revolving inventory of pedal steel-related items, as many as 40 items at a time, including a fair amount of rare pedal steels. However, even on a site like this it is challenging to find a Carter steel, but it's worth monitoring.
  • eBay: The steel guitar search results on this famous auction site will not often yield a Carter for sale, but it has enough revolving listings that it's worth bookmarking and monitoring occasionally.
  • Guitar Center's Used Section: Surprisingly, the used section on Guitar Center's site will occasionally produce a Carter pedal steel for sale. It does not happen often, but it's worth keeping an eye on their inventory.

The Carter Steel Guitar Legacy

Although it is a shame the Carter Steel Guitar company no longer exists, the company contributed volumes to the story of pedal steel guitars in America, from the first Carter Changer to its famous Carter Starter that has helped thousands of curious musicians get hooked on pedal steel.

Guide to Carter Steel Guitars