The Lap Steel: An Introduction
“What is that?”
This question is often directed at me when I perform with a lap steel. There are actually a few possible answers: not just the brand and model, but a few ways to name the contraption above my knees. It’s a Hawaiian guitar, though I’m not playing Hawaiian music. It’s a lap steel, though there’s almost no steel in the construction. It’s a slide guitar, though I’ve never seen Duane Allman play anything like it. I usually say, “It’s a lap steel”, though most people’s reaction indicates that I might as well have used a Martian word. This unfamiliarity is the result of the steel guitar being sidelined in American music for many decades. It was enormously popular in the 1930s and 1940s but gradually faded from view as rock and roll pushed new instruments to the fore. Its descendant the pedal steel has retained its popularity in country music, but even this is slipping as modern country edges ever closer to mainstream pop.
However, the lap steel has seen a small revival in recent years. A number of brands – most of them small shops or imports – have reintroduced the instrument into mainstream stores, and there are more choices for new lap steels than at any time in the last half century. The big name lap steel makers of old (well, those that survive) have largely been hesitant, fearing that the market still isn’t large enough to accommodate a new Gibson or Rickenbacker steel. Considering the small market values of vintage steels, it might not be economically feasible. Fortunately, though, these same low prices allow amateur and professional players alike to obtain high-end vintage pieces without breaking the bank.
History and terminology
Some terminology needs to be clearly defined when talking about these instruments. My goal here is not to provide a comprehensive history of the steel guitar, but rather to explain the terms that often confuse guitarists considering picking up their first lap steel. A steel, also known as a bar or a slide, is a long, convex object used to change the pitch of an instrument’s strings. It can be circular in profile or have finger grooves machined into its sides (the latter is known as a Stevens bar). Steels are traditionally made of – you guessed it – steel, but other metals, ceramics, bakelite and other synthetics have been used since the 1930s. Any instrument played horizontally with a steel is known as a steel guitar. Because this technique was developed by Hawaiian musicians, it has been known from the beginning as Hawaiian style. Its opposite (strummed with one hand and fretted with the other) is known as Spanish style, though the terms no longer have any direct connection to Spanish or Hawaiian musical genres. Catalogs frequently described “Hawaiian” guitars until the 1960s, when “steel” terminology began to predominate.
The first purpose-built steel guitars, which date from the 1920s, were ordinary acoustic guitars equipped with extra-tall nuts to prevent the strings from buzzing on the frets. Manufacturers eventually realized that the necks didn’t need precisely carved shapes if nobody was going to wrap their hand around the instrument, so from the 1930s most were built with square-profiled necks. Some builders took the lead of Hermann Weissenborn, who built single-piece guitars whose hollow necks were really just extensions of the body; these instruments were so unique and successful that that copies are generically known as “Weissenborns”. The next major innovation came from the Dopyera Brothers’ innovations of the late 1920s and 1930s. Their resophonic amplification systems created louder instruments of all sorts: mandolins, ukuleles, Spanish guitars, and tenor guitars, but most famously lap steels. They created the first metal-bodied lap steels, though many models are not actually made of steel. With their increased volume, resonator guitars came to be closely identified with lap-style playing and are regarded today as the classic acoustic Hawaiian guitars.
Resonator guitars reigned supreme for less than a decade before electrification began to dominate the Hawaiian guitar market. The first electric steels, produced by Rickenbacker, hit the market only five years after the first National guitars. It took several ideas for the idea of electric instruments to catch on, but by 1936 competition was starting to build among electric instrument manufacturers. The late 1930s saw a number of major innovations that are still commonly used today: solid bodies, multiple pickups, extensive use of plastics, extra strings and multiple necks all were incorporated into steel guitars before they found their way into Spanish-style instruments.
By the 1940s, a few distinct types of electric steel guitar had emerged. The most basic (and most common) was the lap steel, so named because it sits across the player’s lap. Larger instruments with legs, often with squared-off bodies and multiple necks, became known as console steels or table steels. The lines between a lap, console and table steel can be hazy, particularly since some small consoles can easily be played across the lap. What is certain, though, is that all three have no pedals. The pedal steel arrived as a mass-produced product in 1940 as the Gibson Electraharp, but it was effectively an upmarket version of the modifications that players had been making to their instruments for some time. The pedals on a pedal steel raise or lower the pitch of individual strings, allowing the player to change the tuning in the middle of a note. The pedals are part of the instrument and should not be confused with the separate volume pedals that are often used with all kinds of steel guitar.
The pedal steel would become an instrument in its own right, not just a variation on the Hawaiian guitar but a whole industry with its own terminology. As the pedal steel grew to become a staple sound in country music, the non-pedal steels faded slowly into obscurity. One major exception is the use of Dobros in bluegrass music, which ironically occurred after Dobro had ceased to produce guitars due to the introduction of “superior” electric instruments. For many years the spider-bridge resonator was known as a “Dobro” because Dobro made or designed almost all those guitars, but starting in the 1970s the number of manufacturers started to increase. While the Dobro name has been resurrected since the 1960s, the current brand makes only a small portion of the Dobro-type guitars sold. It is therefore important to realize that the word “Dobro” may actually refer to a modern guitar by Beard, Guild, Fender or myriad other brands.
Purchasing a lap steel
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I’m a fan of vintage lap steels. Not only are they (usually) far more affordable than vintage Spanish guitars, but they require far less work to be made playable. I have nothing against new ones, especially now that builders have started making a selection of very nice ones, but I am always keen to see an old instrument given new life.
In terms of setup and playability, an electric lap steel is fundamentally a simpler instrument than a Spanish guitar. The feel of the neck is irrelevant, if indeed you can even fit your hand around your steel’s neck. So is the action and even the straightness of the neck – plenty of old steels show a bit of neck bowing, but players seldom even notice. The fret size is non-existent most of the time; I’ve had a few early steels with actual frets, but naturally they’re completely devoid of wear. For playability, then, that leaves us with only two significant variables: scale length and string spacing. Both are similar in impact on Spanish and Hawaiian guitars. A longer scale provides a brighter, snappier tone and longer sustain, while a shorter scale provides a deeper tone. Most lap steels have a scale length around 23”, but a few are closer to 25”. A shorter scale allows for easier slanting of the bar because the frets are closer together, particularly on the low frets. String spacing can determine whether your fingers feel cramped and whether you can easily play chords across the width of the board. A wider spacing also allows for easier slanting because the bar does not need to be angled as much.
That brings us to the sound of the instrument. This is dictated by many of the same variables as on a Spanish guitar: the type of wood, the size of the body, the scale length, the hardware, and – of course – the pickup and wiring. Steel pickups have historically had similar output to contemporary Spanish guitars, meaning that early ones tend to be weaker than more recent ones. As with Spanish electric guitar pickups, there are single-coil and humbucking designs, adjustable and non-adjustable poles, and all variety of tones available. With a few exceptions, steels have a single pickup and therefore no selector switch. The volume and tone controls usually work the way you’d expect, though on some early electrics they are wired backwards from the norm.
If you come across a good-sounding vintage steel for the right price, then, there’s not much to worry about as long as the pickup and controls work. Scratchy pots are common on instruments that have sat unused for a long time, but they are easily fixed by turning the controls back and forth multiple times. Beware of chipped nuts and bridges, which can cause buzzing but can generally be overlooked if they’re not causing problems. Cheap steels can sound surprisingly good; many manufacturers, including Gibson, Fender and Valco, often used the same pickup on their cheap and expensive models. If your steel doesn’t come with a bar, you can sometimes find them at guitar stores and easily find them online.
The first Hawaiian guitars were given six strings just like their Spanish relatives, but these were tuned to an open major chord. This allowed for a more melodic harmony than the 4ths predominantly used on Spanish guitars, and it was so successful that bluegrass players still usually tune their Dobros to open G. By the time that electric steels became prominent, players had branched out into more complex tunings. 6th, 9th and 13th chords became common, and within a short time all conventions were thrown out the window. Today there are a few common tunings – C6, for example, is often used in instruction books – but it’s commonly accepted that lap steel players experiment and alter their tunings to suit the music.
A range of tunings allows for greater versatility, both by increasing the harmonic possibilities of the instrument and by allowing the player to move the bar less. Additional strings serve the same purpose, and it is very common to see lap steels with 8 or more strings (usually 10 on pedal steels). Steels with multiple necks (usually console or table steels with legs) allow the player to switch between tunings simply by moving to another neck. Steels are sometimes references by the number of necks (S for single, D for double, T for triple and rarely Q for quad) and the number of strings on each neck. Thus, a D8 steel has two 8-string necks.
A final word on tone
The sound you seek will probably be influenced by the type of music you want to play on your steel. Hawaiian players traditionally favor a rich, smooth sound, while country players usually go for a brighter, more cutting tone. Modern players might prefer to play rock or blues through an overdriven amp, in which case they gravitate toward hot pickups with a full frequency range. Of course, there are no rules in music except to play what you like.