Ca. 1953 Trotmore Lap Steel

The history of Trotmore lap steels is short and confusing. No company literature survives because, technically, there never was a company to produce it. Photographs and recordings exist of the instruments when they were recently built, but the dates are often uncertain and sometimes contradictory. The earliest written description of them seems to date from around 25 years after they were built, and I’ve come across half a dozen different production totals.

It is clear that few were built, probably around a dozen. Most were single-neck steels with bodies cast from magnesium, like mine, but there was at least one double-neck and probably two wood-bodied instruments built. Most necks had seven strings, though some eight-string necks exist. The Trotmore name was derived from Ira Trotter and Grady Moore, the two men who constructed the instruments, but steel legend Jerry Byrd is known to have had a hand in their development. Byrd is by far the best-known player of a Trotmore steel, and he used it for several years in the early to mid 1950s on recordings and television appearances.

The idea behind the Trotmores was to create a steel that was the equal of Rickenbacker’s Bakelite and aluminum models. Byrd himself must have considered that goal to be met, since he switched from a Rickenbacker to his Trotmore around 1952. Certainly, the builders were unabashed fans of the horseshoe pickup design; there are small discrepancies that separate the Trotmore and Rickenbacker pickups, but to an untrained eye they could easily look identical. The tone of my Trotmore is fairly close to a pre-War A-22, but with slightly mellower highs and noticeably lower output (both of which might result more from aging magnets than the design of the pickup, for all I know). The casting itself is a bit cruder than Rickenbacker’s products, but not amateurish. It’s clear that plenty of thought went into the design, and the wide string spacing and 22.5” scale make it a very easy-playing instrument. Mine came with a well-built hard case that must have been constructed specifically for it, and a spare nut and bridge were included (but apparently not used). The original sale price was $175 for a single-neck steel, which was notably higher than the price for a similar Rickenbacker.

Remarkably, I can identify the original owner of this exact instrument. Charles Miller was a unique steel player: born without a right hand, he played steel left-handed by strapping the bar to his right wrist with a watch band. This is why the note letters are stamped next to the frets “backwards”. It’s also why Miller placed the tone control in its unusual position when he added it. Most Trotmore steels were originally painted silver, but a 1979 photograph shows Miller playing this instrument with its two-tone color scheme already applied. It is possible that he painted it brown to make it look like a conventional wood body; there is definitely a layer of greyish paint under the brown and tan. Inside the case I found a bar with a watch band attached to it – something I didn’t understand until I was shown the article about Miller.

The most likely date range I can assign to Trotmore steel production is 1952 to 1954. Relations between Trotter and several of his customers seem to have soured, so the project never took off. Today, the steels remain sought-after partly due to their rarity, partly due to their association with Jerry Byrd, and partly because they are excellent instruments in their own right.

 

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