What Are Lap Steel Guitars?

Proper steel guitar string height

The sounds that emanate from a lap steel guitar have enchanted music lovers for more than 100 years. From Hawaiian cowboy folk songs all the way to the plaintive soul sounds of rock and roll, steel guitars add distinctive elements to nearly all music genres.

Get to Know the Lap Steel Guitar

In musical nomenclature, a steel guitar is both an instrument and a method of playing. At first glance most versions look like regular guitars, but subtleties in design and manufacture make the differences apparent. The steel guitar's most distinguishing feature is the height of its strings, which generally sit approximately half an inch higher off the fret board than traditional guitars and make the frets themselves unnecessary.

Different Types

Like most inventions, the original concept spawned several versions of different lap guitars played with a slide. These versions include:

  • Lap slide guitar - This is the first guitar designed specifically to play with cylindrical steel bars. Its defining characteristics include a factory raised nut or a nut extender.
  • Resonator guitar - This square or round necked instrument utilizes one or more metallic cones rather than a traditional wooden sound board.
  • Dobro - This is Gibson's resonator slide guitar that features a lone inverted resonator.
  • Electric lap steel - Originally offered as an electric Hawaiian guitar, Rickenbacker manufactured the first commercially viable solid body electric lap steel.
  • Pedal steel guitar - This is a console unit that uses foot pedals and knee levers as well as slides.
  • Console electric lap steel - The console version stands on four legs like a pedal steel guitar but does not provide knee levers or pedals.

Playing Position

Playing Dobro

Based on its name alone, it's clear that musicians typically play lap steels by placing them across their laps. Over time, guitar design evolved to extend play from the confines of a lap to flat surfaces located in front of the musician, or to stand alone versions of the instrument.

Playing Technique

Playing the lap steel is as simple as holding a slide against the strings with one hand while plucking with the other hand, yet it is as complicated as emotionally and instinctively knowing how to dance the slide across the strings in just the right way to hold an audience in thrall.

As far as nuance, coaxing the characteristic primal slurs and mournful blues from the instrument requires practice, experience and ever-evolving picking and sliding techniques.

Unique Lap Steel Guitars

New Models

The following manufacturers are producing brand new lap steel guitars that are a bit out of the norm.

  • CruzTone - This Santa Cruz company manufactures some really unique steel guitars with cool body shapes and vintage finishes. They're inspired by the old Gibson UltraTone lap steels and are available in six, seven or eight-string models.
  • Gosden Guitars - This British luthier makes some really cool lap steels with beautiful wood grains and electronics like you'd find in a standard electric guitar. These beauties are hand crafted from start to finish.
  • BlueStem Strings - These guitars are manufactured by Rudy Cordle, a guitar builder and experimenter with over thirty years of experience. His 2010 lap steel model is simple, elegant and very unique.

Vintage Models

There are so many vintage lap steels that it is difficult to make a list, but here are a few standards just to give you an idea.

  • Gibson EH-150 - This Pre-War lap steel from the 1930s features an aluminum body, a Charlie Christian pickup and two knobs for volume and tone.
  • Fender Princeton Lap Steel - Not to be confused with the Fender Princeton amplifier, this lap steel was manufactured in the 1940s and featured a single pickup, single knob and simple body styling.
  • Rickenbacker Frying Pan - Often considered to be the first electric guitar, this model got its name because of its unique shape that looks just like a frying pan. These are highly sought after collectible guitars.

A Brief History

The lap steel occupies an important place in the progression of guitar music despite the murkiness that surrounds its original inception. Created from a simple idea formed in the mid to late 1800s, the earliest steel guitar quickly became the model from which subsequent instruments emerged.

Origins Are Hazy

No evidence exists definitively proving who invented the lap steel, but it's widely accepted that Hawaiian musician Joseph Kekuku plucked a metal bolt from the ground and slid it across his guitar's strings when he was a child. Other theories credit Indian sailor Gabriel Davion, and Portuguese/Hawaiian James Hoa with inventing the instrument.

Popularity Rises

Throughout the early 20th century, using Hawaiian guitar techniques became increasingly popular in the United States. By 1930 major music publishers made this style of guitar methodology available to the public. Typically, lap steel, dobro and pedal steel guitars are linked to Hawaiian, country and bluegrass genres while resonator guitars appear most often in rock, blues and jazz. In spite of these associations, nearly all musical genres feature guitarists who occasionally indulge in lap and slide guitar playing.

Famous Lap Steel Players

The allure of the steel guitar has ensnared many well known guitarists from all walks of the music industry. With practice and passion, these players have fused their signature sounds with the unforgettable vibrato of the lap steel guitar, extending the reach of their music to people of all interests.

Robert Randolph playing pedal steel guitar; © Aphotogroove | Dreamstime.com
  • Bobby Ingano - Listen to this Hawaiian lap steel master play one of the best known songs to feature the lap steel, Sleepwalk.
  • David Gilmour - This video of Pink Floyd's Great Gig in the Sky features Gilmour's trademark guitar prowess.
  • Al Perkins - This consummate Nashville musician has played lap steel on numerous songs. Listen to him play Crossroads.
  • John Paul Jones - Of Led Zeppelin fame, Jones puts his own hard rock spin on the lap steel in this video of Nobody's Fault.
  • Ben Keith - Listen to Keith back up Neil Young on The Painter.

An Unusual Instrument with a Distinctive Sound

As unusual as a lap steel looks, compared to a standard guitar it's the sound of this instrument that truly sets it apart. Once you've heard the soulful yet melodic wail of a lap steel, you'll understand why this guitar has drawn such a following through the years.

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