How to Play the Lap Steel Guitar

T.J. Mimbs
Man playing steel guitar

The lap steel guitar is a unique instrument, and those who play it can only be thought of as unique themselves. While the theory behind playing lap steel is very similar to that of other types of guitars, a player must possess special knowledge and skills to achieve success.

Lap Steel Guitar Basics

The lap steel guitar is one of a few different types of guitars belonging to the "steel" family. Others include the resonator, console steel guitar and pedal steel guitar. The lap steel differs from these instruments in that it is meant to be played while resting on the player's lap.

Steel guitar slide

What differentiates steel guitars from standard acoustic and electric guitars is that they are played with a slide (or "steel") in the fretting hand, with which the player can create a constant range of pitches. Standard guitars can also be played with slides, but the construction of the lap steel proves to be especially advantageous. The strings are raised very high above the fret board, which in actuality has no frets. Therefore, the player relies on markings to locate pitches up and down the neck of the guitar.

Discover the Techniques

Before you jump in with the lap steel guitar, take a look at this video for the basic techniques you'll need to master. Then, follow the steps below to gain the skills necessary to play with confidence.

With this basic understanding in mind, the following steps should get you well on your way to learning how to play the lap steel.

1. Learn Music Theory

The vast majority of people seeking to learn the lap steel guitar will have already checked this step off the list. However, if you are one that is not familiar with music theory (chords, scales, rhythm, tempo, etc.), you will want to obtain a basic understanding of it before moving forward.

2. Listen to Popular Music with Steel Guitar Parts

Steel guitars have a very distinct sound along with a very distinct style of play. These are things that can't truly be grasped without listening to popular songs that employ a steel guitar's services.

  • A good song to start with is Sleepwalk by Santo and Johnny, which is one of the first popular tunes in the 1950s to showcase the Hawaiian-inspired style of play commonly associated with steel guitars.
  • Most people will justifiably associate the steel guitar with country music. Modern country music still commonly features a steel guitar in its arrangements, but a student may be better served by seeking out more classic artists, such as Hank Williams.
  • Jerry Douglas is without a doubt one of the best steel guitar players in the world. Mainly playing a resonator (also known as a dobro), any song he plays on will contain fantastic examples of the types of sounds the instrument can produce.
  • A song that showcases the electric lap steel specifically is Ground On Down by Ben Harper. This tune is played in more of a blues style, indicating the amazing versatility of the instrument.

3. Experiment With Tunings and Chord Configurations

Due to the design strength of lap steel guitars (the neck and body being one solid piece), they are able to be tuned into many different configurations. Most of these configurations are open tunings, meaning that if the guitar is strummed without fretting any strings, it will form a chord.

Some common lap steel tunings include:

  • Open G
  • Open A
  • Hawaiian A
  • Low Bass G
  • Open E
  • C6
  • G6

The lap steel produces the same chords as any instrument, namely A through G and their various configurations. The tuning of the guitar will ultimately determine the way a chord is played, and for each tuning there will be multiple ways to play the same chord. There are online chord locators available to aid you in finding these various configurations.

4. Learn Finger Picking and Chord Grips

Steel guitar picks

One of the most difficult aspects of playing the lap steel guitar is the finger picking technique. The vast majority of lap steel players will outfit their picking hand with a broad and flat pick on their thumb and smaller, more nimble picks on the rest of their fingers. Getting used to the feeling of these picks can be a challenge in itself. The fingers must be agile enough to move almost independently amongst the strings without plucking unwanted notes.

A lap steel player must also master chord grips with his or her picking hand. This is fairly different from a standard guitar, on which a musician usually plays chords by simply strumming the strings. Experienced lap steel players recommend spending five to ten minutes a day practicing these grips without even playing a chord on the instrument.

5. Learn Slide Techniques

Another challenging detail of lap steel playing is the various slide techniques required to play chords and phrases. One of the main drawbacks of a slide is the inability to play notes on many different frets at the same time, which fingers can accomplish relatively easily. Lap steel players compensate for this by playing chords in various zones and utilizing slide slants. A slide slant occurs when a player holds the slide at an angle in order to pick strings on different frets. It can be one of the most difficult concepts to grasp for a budding lap steel player.

Another distinctive slide technique is the glissando. This is the "swooping up" sound so often utilized in steel guitar playing. The trick is to learn how not to over-utilize this capability.

6. Learn How to Sweep Using a Volume Pedal

guitar pedal

Along with the glissando, the sweeping sound created by a volume pedal is one of the most notable sounds that comes from a lap steel guitar. The use of a volume pedal is not restricted to steel guitar playing (it is also heavily utilized with organs), but most if not all lap steel players will play with one. A student of the lap steel guitar must be able to draw a line in the sand between overusing the volume sweep and using it just the right amount.

More Resources

There are plenty more actions to be taken in order to become a well-versed player. Here are more resources that will help you along the way:

  • Lapsteelin' - An online resource from Mike Neer with video lessons and sheet music to play along with.
  • Brad's Page of Steel - A web page dedicated to all things lap steel including tablatures, tunings, and resources for all aspects of playing.
  • The Hal Leonard Lap Steel Guitar Method by Hal Leonard - This paperback book is a great tool for beginner players and comes with a CD loaded with 95 tracks to play along with.
  • Anyone Can Play C6 Lap Steel Guitar by Mel Bay - This is a DVD course full of lessons for the beginner.

Practice and Have Fun

The lap steel is by no means an easy instrument to play. Many different techniques must be employed in unison to properly produce its characteristic sound. The only way to master these is to practice constantly.

Don't be daunted, though. An important fact about the lap steel guitar is it is extremely fun to play. For those who enjoy applying themselves to challenging activities, you'd be hard-pressed to find one as rewarding as the lap steel. Once you've gained a working knowledge of the instrument, an entirely new spectrum of possibilities will be open to you as a musician. Not to mention, a host of new bands will be in need of your services.

How to Play the Lap Steel Guitar