When Ben Harper or David Lindley plays slide, they inevitably choose to use a lap steel guitar. That throaty, moaning wail of notes from records like Harper’s, Burn to Shine and Lindley’s playing on Jackson Browne’s, Running on Empty has a notably different slide sound than when played bottleneck style.
Lap steel guitar is played with the strings facing upwards and with the strings raised, a steel bar held in one hand is used to stop the strings to form notes and chords while the other hand plucks the notes.
The picking hand may use thumb and fingerpicks for increased volume and a brighter and more articulate attack, although when amplified, bare fingers can offer greater nuance, as preferred by such players as Ben Harper.
The microtonal sliding between notes is similar to that in bottleneck slide guitar, as popularized by such luminaries as Sonny Landreth, Derek Trucks and Joe Walsh, but the tone from the heavy bar used on a lap steel is closer to that of its more complex cousin, the pedal steel guitar.
The shorter scale, cheaper materials and simpler design of lap steel guitars lend them a funky, old school vibe that fits a variety of music genres, including rock, blues, country, R & B, gospel, jazz, world beat and ethnic musics that operate on scales other than 12 tone Western scale, and of course, Hawaiian.
The lap steel guitar is an old instrument, dating back to the late 19th century. Joseph Kekuku, a 7-year-old living in Hawai’i, took a railroad bolt and found that sliding it across his guitar strings made a sound akin to a human voice.
He experimented with a pocket knife and other materials before settling on a heavy rounded bar, similar to what has become standard now. Kekuku became an international star and helped to popularize Hawaiian music at the start of the 20th century, appearing on stages across the USA and in films in both 1932 and 1951 (posthumously).
Lap steel became popular with Country and Western music during the Depression era and went on to becoming a fixture in the genre when levers and pedals were added to them in order to raise or lower certain strings while both hands were occupied.
As the pedal steel guitar is a special type of instrument that certainly is too heavy to be played on one’s lap in spite of its similarities to the lap steel, the primary types of lap steel guitars are either acoustically hollow or solid electric.
While a regular guitar can be played lap style, guitars that are designed to be played as lap steel instruments usually are a single slab if electric or if acoustic, have a squared neck in the form of a hollow block for resonance and strength to hold tuning with the raised nut and saddle elevating strings an inch or so above the fingerboard, which usually may have markers but no actual frets to speak of.
Acoustic lap steels are usually either a resonator type of instrument, such as a Dobro or a Tri Cone, or a Hawaiian type wooden instrument like a Weissenborn.
Resonator instruments are a separate genre that use one or three aluminum cones in place of a soundhole to amplify the sound acoustically, and are popular in blues and bluegrass music.
Dobro geniuses such as Jerry Douglas of Alison Krauss + Union Station, Mike Auldridge or Rocb Ickes or the late Bob Brozman and his metal bodied Nationals have recorded bodies of work that give strong examples of the range of tone and sounds that are capable with these instruments.
Many music critics have acclaimed Douglas, in particular, for developing a signature lyrical quality to his playing that plaintively complements the angelic vocals of Alison Krauss. The Nationals tend to have a faster decay but a cutting tone that make them well suited for blues and ragtime playing, where syncopation is key to the music’s rhythm.
While preferred primarily for slide playing, metal bodied Dobros have also found favor with some guitarists for their unique sound. Mark Knoplfler of Dire Straits used his fingerpicked Dobro for the title track from his hit record, Brothers In Arms.
Both Dobros and Nationals are marketed with both round neck and square neck versions, the latter designed exclusively for lap-style playing.
The Tri Cone, which is also metal bodied and sports 3 small cones instead of a single large one, ordinarily has a sweeter and more sustaining tone than a single coned instrument. Hawaiian stars such as Sol Hoopii and Blues legend Tampa Red were well known Tri Cone players.
The Weissenborn model is named after Herman Weissenborn, who built the most popular model of Hawaiian type acoustic guitar during the 1920’s and 1930’s Depression era.
Their bodies run practically the entire length of their fingerboards, and were often crafted from Hawaiian Koa wood, which is a highly prized tonewood with a sound somewhere between that of mahogany and maple and indigenous to the Hawaiian islands.
Current copies of the design are made by several manufacturers. Ben Harper is credited with almost single handedly reviving interest in Weissenborn instruments, which faded from popularity by the 1950s.
He, in turn was influenced by his first exposure to Weissenborns at his parent’s music store and also considerably by David Lindley, a mentor and longtime family friend, who has used Weissenborns throughout his lengthy career as a studio session ace.
The commercial electric lap steel guitar actually predates the electric “Spanish” guitar by a few years. Rickenbacker, the company that would later become most famous for their 12 string electrics as popularized by George Harrison of the Beatles and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds in the 1960’s, marketed the A22 “Frying Pan” lap steel in in 1932.
Shaped somewhat like a toy banjo, it was called the Frying Pan because of its neck and round body. However, it was the prototype for an instrument that has changed very little in nearly 85 years. Six strings, a pickup, markers for the notes, tuners,
Six strings, a pickup, markers for the notes, tuners, bridge and nut all mounted onto a slab body. Current lap steels, for the most part, still adhere to that same design formula. Some are available with 8 strings or as double necked models for switching between different tunings.
Steel bars used nowadays are usually either cylindrically round bullet bars or finger groove topped Stevens bars. The bullet bars are easier to slant at an angle for unusual chord voicings, while the Stevens bar is easier to lift when jumping to different areas of the neck.
Amplification for lap steels is as subjective a subject as for any other electric guitars. Lap steel played cleanly exhibit a pristine string sound, such as the opening slide intro for the famous Looney Toons theme. With overdrive and a Univibe pedal or similar rotating speaker simulation phase pedal, a lap steel can deliver all types of vocal like sounds.
David Lindley’s playing with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and David Crosby and Graham Nash on their releases throughout the 1970s and 1980s are excellent examples of the depth and nuance of tone available from these relatively simple and crude instruments in the hands of a master.
Others to experiment with lap steel in their music include Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Freddie Roulette, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, and Nels Cline of Wilco.
Of course, Ben Harper is renowned for his electric lap steel playing, with not only his original tunes, but covers of everything from folk songs, reggae and even Led Zeppelin all performed on his Asher electric lap steels, using distortion, wah wah, and other effects.
Roots rock virtuoso Junior Brown approaches steel from a different perspective – he designed a custom instrument called the “Guit Steel” which combines a regular Fender Telecaster type guitar with a lap steel that is mounted on a stand so that he can nimbly switch back and forth between the two instruments with amazing dexterity.
This overview is going to focus solely on lap steel instruments that are relatively commercially available. As they are a niche instrument with a relatively small demand in the musical instrument business, finding a retailer who stocks them consistently may not be easy to locate.
Even large chain stores in major cities, such as Sam Ash and Guitar Center will often only have 1 or 2 models in the entire store.
Given that resonators and pedal steel guitars are completely categories that would require detailed overviews alone, electric lap steels and acoustic Weissenborn types will be covered, based upon the models commercially available at this time.
While some of the manufacturer names may be better known for their conventional guitar models, it is important to remember that their drastically simpler design makes lap steel guitars easier to outsource to foreign factories.
Their ability to keep costs low allows some boutique US manufacturers to not only play in, but stay in the game and carve out niche reputations for themselves.
After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.
|Made from poplar with a Kent Armstrong SpitFire single coil pickup||Out of stock|
|The maple body, which is a harder tonewood, contributes a brighter sound, that balances the lower midrange power of the Armstrong humbuckers||$329.99|
|Famous for their excellent sound and electronics,||Out of stock|
|The sound has a warmth and growl to it without losing the highs that sometimes occurs with humbucking pickups||Out of stock|
|Can be a great addition to one’s sonic pallette for the price of a dinner and a movie date||$129.99|
|An excellent instrument that harkens back to vintage instruments but without the maintenance problems||$239.00|
|Unusual shark fin on an axe profile is bound to attract attention||$199.00|
|Bears the traditional hallmarks of classic Gretsch lap steel guitars||$349.99|
|Sound that many rockers dipping their toe into the lap steel pool for the first time, will find to be familiar turf||Out of stock|
|Has a somewhat modern garage type of sound that is right at home with White Stripes or Black Keys tones||Out of stock|
|Built with a solid Sapele Mahogany top and laminated sides, the Teardrop’s hollow neck and deep body has a thunderous acoustic resonance||Out of stock|
|Microtonal possibilities give a player one of the best means to emulate a human voice on a stringed instrument||$576.75|
Based in Bristol, Tennessee, Joe Morrell has been involved in the musical instrument sales and distribution business since the 1960’s. A former professional country musician, Morrell started designing lap steel guitars in the 1970’s with the goal of providing affordable and excellent quality USA made instruments to musicians across the nation.
While he makes both 6 and 8 string models with various features, the following are some of the more obtainable catalog listings:
Made from poplar with a Kent Armstrong SpitFire single coil pickup, Volume and Tone knobs, the 29.25” Plus model has a conventional headstock for tuners and 2 octave neck markers across a 20.5” scale.
The Kent Armstrong pickups are popular for their cutting, throaty high midrange tone. Left handed version available. Street price of $149.95
With the Pro, Morrell ups the ante considerably. Sporting a slotted headstock with vertical tuners for easier access similar to those on a pedal steel guitar, the pro has a slightly larger 31.75” length, a dual blade Kent Armstrong HR1R Hot Rails mini humbucking pickup, 3 octave neck markers across a 22.75” scale and a stainless steel bridge, all mounted onto a maple body.
The maple body, which is a harder tonewood, contributes a brighter sound, that balances the lower midrange power of the Armstrong humbuckers. Street price: $329.99. The softer and mellower poplar version of the Pro is available for $299.95.
Billy Asher is top CA boutique luthier whose lap steels and standard guitar models can be found in the hands of Ben Harper, Lindsey Buckingham, Jackson Browne, Marc Ford, Beck, and the Zac Brown Band, among others.
His instruments are highly regarded and fetch anywhere from $1500 to $5000 each on a direct order basis. However, he does have one mass produced import model, the Electro Hawaiian Junior Lap Steel, that is available at a more affordable $675 that allows players of more humble means to experience the Asher mojo.
Although it is considered Asher’s entry level model, the Electro Hawaiian Junior is built from solid mahogany, has 2 humbucking pickups, selector switch, volume, tone, an Asher Hipshot custom bridge and 22 fret lines across a 25” scale and a gig bag is included.
The longer scale length, which is comparable to that of a standard electric guitar, makes the transition for guitarists who play bottleneck slide easier when playing lap steel, as the intervals between notes is not as minute. As a result, maintaining proper intonation is easier.
Asher guitars are famous for their excellent sound and electronics, so an upgrade kit is available at separate charge to hot rod the Electro Hawaiian Junior to come closer to parity with its American cousins.
The kit consists of a pair of Jason Lollar Imperial humbuckers, an orange drop capacitor and 2 USA CTS pots.
SX, Hadean, Agile and Douglas are some of the brand names for imported instruments made in Korea, China, and Taiwan and are distributed in the US, with Rogue Music of NJ being a primary reseller.
Although quality control can vary, the majority of these instruments are well made and some are surprisingly good and better than some models by well known brands.
The lap steel models offered by these factories are sold under the SX brand. The SX Lap 1 is a mahogany slab with rosewood fingerboard, 36 fret lines, chrome tuners, a bridge cover over a wraparound Les Paul Jr. type bridge with adjustable saddles, 3 removable support legs for playing while standing, and a Stratocaster type single coil pickup. It comes with a padded gig bag.
The SX Lap 2, in my opinion, is the more interesting model. Made from American Swamp Ash (just like a 50’s Telecaster), it has a maple fingerboard and equivalent specs as the SX Lap 1, except that it has a P-90 pickup.
A single coil design with fatter magnets than those used by Fender, the P-90 was one of the original pickup models used by Gibson in the 1950’s, and have been used on the original Les Paul, Les Paul Junior and Special, Epiphone Casino, Gibson L5, Byrdland, and many other models.
The sound has a warmth and growl to it without losing the highs that sometimes occurs with humbucking pickups. The P-90 pickup is a personal favorite of mine for slide guitar sounds.
Since the SX Lap 2 and Lap 1 are both priced at $119.95, the versatility of tone is well worth the purchase if choosing between the two.
The Rogue RLS-1 is an entry level lap steel that is made in China on a mass produced OEM scale. Rogue is a house brand of Musician’s Friend.
The actual lap steel guitar can be found under several other brand names, such as Cozart, but they are the same model: generic unspecified wood slab body, 3 octaves of fret lines, a single coil Telecaster type angled pickup, 6 saddle bridge in a 21” scale package with gig bag. Some models include removable legs.
Apart from an awkwardly placed output jack which requires an angled plug to avoid blocking one’s picking hand when playing, the Rogue RLS-1 is a fun instrument that delivers very usable lap steel tones and has a funky vibe comparable to playing an old Teisco or Zim Gar electric guitar.
At a thrifty $79.95 street price, this can be a great addition to one’s sonic pallette for the price of a dinner and a movie date.
Recording King is a company that has taken its inspiration from classic American instrument designs and made some tweaks to accommodate the current market for their Chinese made instruments, which have garnered very positive reviews.
Catering to many musicians in the American genre, their banjos, resonator guitars, and acoustic guitars have become quite popular among professional and semi-pros alike. Artists such as Justin Townes Earle, Rob McCoury, Mark Spencer of Son Volt and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down are a few Recording King players.
The Recording King RG-31 is a well designed lap steel that tips a hat to classic lap steels of the 1940’s and 1950’s while using quality materials to maximize value. Sporting a solid mahogany slab body, the RG-31 has a pearloid fingerboard similar to the Supros and Electars of over a half century ago.
The 2 octave fingerboard markers, vintage style button tuners and string thru design, similar to the stringing scheme on a Telecaster, gives the RS-31 a different tone than some other lap steels.
The capper is an alnico P-90 pickup, which delivers a singing voice that can purr and roar at will. For $149, the RG-31 is an excellent instrument that harkens back to vintage instruments but without the maintenance problems.
Located in Meridian, Mississippi, Peavey is one of the world’s largest music and P.A. sound equipment companies. Next to Leo Fender, Hartley Peavey is probably the most innovative music gear person in history.
Holder of hundreds of patents, Peavey’s amplifier, P.A. and instrument designs and CNC manufacturing processes pioneered many of the breakthroughs that have since become standard in the industry.
While Peavey’s motto has always been “great gear at a fair price”, many top artists, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Michael Anthony, Hank Williams Jr., and Rusty Cooley, choose Peavey for its quality and reliability regardless of price.
One of the first P.A. and amp companies to design and supply gear specifically for the House of Worship market, Peavey amps are a staple with many church and worship leaders, especially in the gospel community.
Some of the breakout stars of the Sacred Steel tradition of church music, which uses steel guitars rather than organs, are the Campbell Brothers and Robert Randolph.
Hailing from NJ, Robert Randolph became a fixture on the jam band scene, playing his custom Fessenden 13 string pedal steel to audiences more accustomed to Phish or the Dave Matthews Band, and winning them over with his soulful vocals, churning boogie rhythms, and incredible virtuosity, reeling off Hendrix licks and complex chord voicings with a nonchalant grin.
His long experience with Peavey solid state amps prompted Luther Dickinson to obtain an old Peavey Artist amp for their project, The Word, just to nail the guitar sound heard on so many of the gospel and R & B records that influenced their writing.
Randolph’s first signature instrument is a collaboration with Peavey and is based on their Powerslide model. The unusual shape is ergonomically designed to be played either vertically or horizontally.
It has a slotted headstock with vertical tuners, a 2-octave neck and a variable coil humbucking pickup based on the Peavey T-60 guitar model.
Unique to the Randolph model are an extra single coil pickup at the end of the fingerboard, a belly rest, and upgraded hardware, all packaged in a specially designed gig bag, for $399.
The standard Powerslide is available for $299. Randolph uses his signature Powerslide in both the studio and onstage, and its unusual shark fin on an axe profile is bound to attract attention.
Another iconic guitar company, Gretsch is best known for its archtop electrics, that have been seen and heard both on record and onstage by players such as Chet Atkins, Neil Young, Brian Setzer, Billy Duffy, Stephen Stills, Randy Bachman, Pete Townshend, and countless others.
Originally founded in NYC by Fred Gretsch, the company continues to be managed by his heirs and is majority owned by Fender.
The Electromatic Lap Steel bears the traditional hallmarks of classic Gretsch lap steel guitars: plastic deco fingerboard with various triangle, square and diamond markers, an asymmetrical mahogany slab body, string thru design, a single coil pickup, and “G” arrow knobs.
As an import model, the current Gretsch Electromatic suffers somewhat from a solid but generic tone that may be unfairly compared to its vintage predecessors, but is certainly a serviceable instrument at $349.99.
Epiphone is another guitar brand with an illustrious history. Once a fierce rival of Gibson in the archtop guitar arena through both World Wars, Epiphone was a favorite brand of Les Paul, who urged founder Epi Stathopoulo to merge with Gibson in the late 1950’s.
Maintaining its independence, Epiphone continued to design and sell some iconic instruments, including the Beatles favored Casino, the jazz favorite Emperor and Broadway, and its slope shouldered acoustic Texan.
Epiphone also made a significant number of lap steel models in the post W.W. II era until the late 1960s. After neglecting lap steels for decades, Epiphone has revisited its heritage with the Epiphone Electar Inspired by “1939” Lap Steel model.
Taking elements of their classic models, the Electar has a mahogany slab body in the same profile as the Electars of the past.
The Plexiglas fingerboard has Art Deco designs circa 1939 across 28 frets, the classic Epiphone Badge headstock insignia, vintage looking (but modern spec) 3 in a line tuners from WIlkinson, an aluminum nut and tailpiece, and a 500B bladed humbucking pickup with gig bag, all for $249.
The fatter humbucking pickup sound is a departure from the classic Electars, but is certainly a sound that many rockers dipping their toe into the lap steel pool for the first time, will find to be familiar turf.
Mike Robinson, President of Eastwood and Airline Guitars, created the company as a means to recreate certain forgotten vintage guitar models that he and many others missed and could not obtain due to attrition.
By updating these designs to appeal to modern players while capturing the mojo of the original classics, Eastwood has thrived with its reissue version of Mosrites Ventures guitars, non reverse Gibson Firebirds, Ovation Deacons, and Valco models favored by artists like Jack White, David Bowie, Bill Nelson, and others.
The Airline Lap Steel is Eastwood’s tribute to the National, Supro and Valco lap steels that used to be sold through Montgomery Ward in the 1960’s.
Shaped like a rocket with wings, it has a basswood body, a Hot Rail humbucking pickup, ceramic fingerboard, a 6 saddle Stratocaster style bridge, and 36 frets.
Oozing with old school vibe, the Airline has a somewhat modern garage type of sound that is right at home with White Stripes or Black Keys tones, at a cost of $399.
Imperial Guitars was founded by musicians with a passion for steel guitar. They offer both a line of resonators and Weissenborn style guitars. While all of their Weissenborn styles are painstakingly accurate, they are not easy to find.
The model that is particularly worthy of attention is their extra deep Teardrop model, which is inspired by an original Weissenborn model favored by Ben Harper.
The Teardrop is shaped less like a guitar and more like a cross between a lute and a bouzouki. Built with a solid Sapele Mahogany top and laminated sides, the Teardrop’s hollow neck and deep body has a thunderous acoustic resonance.
The signature Weissenborn rope binding and gold plated violin tuners offset the Rosewood moustache bridge and fingerboard, adorned with pearl diamond shaped markers. The Teardrop comes supplied with a Fishman pickup and Presys preamp for amplified playing.
At a bargain price of $539, the Teardrop invokes the sonic presence of the Weissenborn mystique at a very reasonable cost.
Gold Tone is a company based in FL that specializes in acoustic instruments for the Americana market. Their reissues and innovations of classic banjos, ukeleles, resonators, mandolins, and basses are well regarded, and their 6 string Banjitar is a best seller.
Gold Tone artists include banjo whiz Bela Fleck, Dan Weller of Florida Georgia Line, Roger McGuinn, Kaki King, Buddy Miller and Ben Harper.
The Gold Tone LM Weissenborn is a recreation of the classic Weissenborn style, including high gloss mahogany construction, hollow square neck, rope binding, ebony bridge, 18 frets, traditional inlays and Kluson style tuners.
Gold Tone is a stickler for tradition, and warns owners that it is designed and crafted to Herman Weissenborn’s original specifications, meaning that the guitar should only be tuned to open G (DGDGBD) or open D (DADF#AD) or other tunings that do not exceed 165 lbs. at A440 pitch.
Playing a Gold Tone Weissenborn model is not unlike playing a classic reissue of a Fender Jazzmaster or other semi famous guitar. There are elements of updating sub par materials or parts (like tuners) but care has been taken to be faithful to the vintage models as closely as possible.
At a price of $576.75, the Gold Tone is another company reviving a long lost jewel.
Playing lap steel requires a very different approach vs playing bottleneck slide guitar.
The weight of the steel, the height of the strings, and the physical mechanics of playing force you to rethink the instrument to play within the limitations of using the bar by choosing different chord voicings or partials to imply accompaniment to melody.
The microtonal possibilities give a player one of the best means to emulate a human voice on a stringed instrument.