Lap Steel Guide: What You NEED to Know

by Lincoln Smith

Eastwood has offered several lap steel models over the years. It may look strange to a standard guitar player, but there's a whole world of music to be discovered in a lap steel guitar. In this guide, you'll learn a bit about the instrument, its many variants and uses, and its important place in electric guitar history...

Eastwood has never shied from exploring the world of electric stringed instruments. One of the most unique pieces of electric guitar history, and most important to its development, is the electric lap steel guitar.

To many listeners, the lap steel guitar sound may be most associated with Hawaiian music or the country music boom of the 1930s. Although some players may see the lap steel as an antique instrument of a bygone age, the instrument has existed in one form or another from dobros to pedal steel guitars, and remained a part of the conversation in the world of popular music - from Hawaii into the hands of players around the world.

Today, music is as diverse and experimental as it ever has been, and players are finding new life in the strings of the lap steel guitar - using it as a paintbrush on an exciting and broad canvas that is the cutting edge of music exploration. Guitar players: need something to push those creative limits? Then do we have the instrument for you.

WHAT IS A LAP STEEL GUITAR?

Let's start with the most important question. What exactly is a lap steel? 

The layperson may not recognize the instrument as a guitar at all. Rather than being held against the body like a traditional Spanish-style guitar, lap steel guitars lie across the lap of the player. Rather than pressing the strings of the instrument against inlayed frets, the lap steel is played with a polished steel bar, sometimes called a tone bar or slide. Where traditional guitars have a carved neck, the lap steel's fretboard spans what is often a single block of wood that also comprises the instrument's body. Today, after decades of evolution, you can find lap steel guitars with different tunings and string layouts, but the most common style has 6 strings and is tuned to a C6 open tuning.

Specific to electric lap steels is the inclusion of a magnetic pickup, similar to what you might find on an electric guitar. You can find examples with single coil pickups or humbuckers. It all depends on the tone that the manufacturer is aiming for!

Picture: Eastwood Ricky Lap Steel

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE LAP STEEL GUITAR

For a true profile of the instrument, we need to go back to the first days of colonization in Hawaii. Spanish style guitar was introduced to the islands as early as 1830 and was quickly adopted by the resident population. It was a Hawaiian innovation to retune these Spanish-style guitars to an open C6 tuning, also known as "Slack Key" tuning, or (surprise!) lap steel tuning.

In the late 19th Century, once the use of steel strings was popularized, Joseph Kekuku, on the island of Oahu, further innovated by playing a steel stringed guitar across his lap, pressing a railroad spike across the strings. Kekuku is now known as the father of Hawaiian lap steel guitar and was at the time considered to be the world's greatest solo performer on guitar.

This new sound - an acoustic lap steel - dominated American popular music through the first decades of the 20th century. Instrument manufacturers suddenly found themselves in a brand new field, ripe for innovation. With the invention of the magnetic pickup, we saw the introduction of large console steel and pedal steel guitars. Pedal steels quickly defined the sound of early country music.

We also saw the lap steel guitar lose the need for a large acoustic body. Manufacturers like Rickenbacker and Valco found new simplicity and mobility in building an electric lap steel into a small wooden-block body. In fact, the Rickerbacker "Frying Pan" is widely credited as the first commercially successful electric guitar, paving the way for the electric guitar we know of today.

Picture: Rickenbacker "Frying Pan" Lap Steel

WHY PLAY A LAP STEEL?

If you're a musician with years of experience, you'll be all too familiar with creative slumps. If you're caught in a cycle and sick of the same old sounds from your current instrument; a lap steel guitar can be the perfect tool to help your music brain think along newly inspired lines. Today, lap steel can be seen throughout almost any genre of music. It adapts perfectly to pedal effects and is the ultimate for ambient soundscapes.

Don't believe us? Order one, and if you're not in love with it after the first 45 days, you can return it no questions asked.

WHO PLAYS LAP STEEL?

As we've already mentioned, the history of the instrument is a long one, with many lap steel pioneers and lap steel players along the way.

Whether you know their names or not, you've certainly heard the stylings of Jerry Bird and Don Helms - pioneers of the Nashville sound and revolutionary lap steel players. Bird contributed to the music of Hank Williams as well as country music legends Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins. Helms took Bird's lead and ran with it. He used a Gibson lap steel through the '40s and '50s on recordings with Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn, and is credited as one of the founders of the "honky-tonk" genre.

Since country music turned the way of the pedal steel guitar in the '50s and '60s, lap steel went through a bit of a dark ages, but this was in no way a sign of lap steel obsolescence. The instrument brought back into the picture by the likes of the Byrds, Jackson Browne, David Gilmour, and many artists in the 70s who found that the portability and simplicity of the non-pedal lap steel just couldn't be beat. It's the perfect studio tool that won't take up too much space and still lend that classic slide sound.

If you're a Gram Parsons fan, you can find the instrument in use on the majority of his tracks from both his work with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as his solo releases.

Dead Heads will recognize the sound of the instrument from the studio recording of "Dire Wolf." R.E.M. also used the lap steel on their 1991 album "Out of Time."

Since the introduction of pedal effects, artist have been finding new life in the instrument. More recently, it's been used by Larkin Poe, Conner Oberst, and Ben Harper. 

Toronto artist Christine Bougie has made a splash recently in the world of lap steel guitar with contributions to artists such as Bahamas, The Weather Station, and Jason Collett, as well as several lap-steel-centric solo instrumental albums.

Countless musicians look to Eastwood when considering lap steel options, and we're proud to offer the instrument at several price points, all packed with the vintage vibe that these pieces of history-in-the-making deserve.

For those seeking a top-quality lap steel, we've recently introduced our Airline Lap Steel PRO, complete with our new Valco ‘String-Thru’ pickup - a faithful recreation of the original Valco lap steel pickups.

In true Eastwood fashion, we've taken the instrument even further off the beaten path with our 8-string Mando Steel model - perfect for exploring a chimey etherial 12-string slide sound that will catch any listener's attention in live or recorded applications.

Picture: Airline Lap Steel PRO

We're proud of our contributions to the modern music ecosystem and its demand for the lap steel's charm and timelessness. Everything we build is built to last and is designed specifically for the professional musician working on the stage or in the studio. We'd love you to check out our offerings on the Eastwood site and our full range of lap steel instruments.

What are you waiting for? It's time to flex those 'new instrument' muscles and plot a course of creativity with an Eastwood lap steel!

 


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