The experience of playing the lap steel guitar shares similarities to other instruments such as pedal steel and slide guitar. The lap steel is its own beast, however, and the following tips and videos will help you understand exactly how chording works on a lap steel.
How Lap Steel Chording Is Different
Similar to playing with a slide or playing pedal steel, the lap steel uses a bar that slides across the strings. Use the following techniques:
- Hold the bar in between your thumb and middle finger.
- Put your index finger on top of the bar, which helps you guide and control it.
- The ring and pinky fingers always rest on the strings behind the bar to help you stabilize the bar as you slide around.
- Like the technique described in the slide guitar link above, you keep the bar directly over each metal fret marker instead of pressing in between the metal bars as you would with normal guitar playing.
- You keep the bar perfectly parallel with the frets and never slant it.
- For your picking hand, you use a similar classical/jazz-style claw fingerpicking technique described in the slide guitar link.
A common tuning, the C6 tuning, uses the following tuning for strings:
- E - top string
- C - second string
- A - third string
- G - fourth string
- E - fifth string
- C - sixth string
Tuning is a major difference of lap steels in contrast to other guitar styles. The bar limits what you can do on the fret board, so lap steel tunings are geared to have chords built into the tuning of strings to make it easier to play chords.
How to Play Chords
Lap steel tunings like C6 are useful because they have a minor chord shape and a major chord shape built into the tuning.
To play a C major chord, simply pluck the lowest three strings (C, E, G) in open position without using the bar to press on any frets.
Using the same lowest three strings, place the bar on the fifth fret metal bar and pluck the three strings for an F major.
From the F major position, slide the bar up two frets higher to the seventh fret and pluck the same three strings.
The next two minor chords will use the top three strings, the three highest sounding strings (A, C, E). To play an A minor chord, simply pluck the top three strings in open position without using the bar.
To get a D minor chord, place the bar on the fifth fret and pluck the same top three strings. The following video demonstrates these different chords.
Chords in Open G Tuning
Some lap steel tunings do not have minor chord shapes built into the tuning as C6 does. The alternate tuning of open G has this dilemma. It uses the following tuning for strings:
- G - top string
- B - second string
- D - third string
- G - fourth string
- B - fifth string
- D - sixth string
As you can see, it contains two major triads played in the lowest three strings and repeated in the highest three strings, but no minor triads.
Ways to Get Minor Shapes in Open G
If you want to get minor shapes and other chords in open G, the way around this dilemma is using the bar to press on some of the strings but leaving other strings untouched and open so you can pluck them as open strings.
- G minor: Shift your bar forward so that it covers the top three strings of the lap steel but leaves the bottom lowest string (G) open and untouched. Move the bar to the third fret and pluck the top three strings while also plucking the open bottom string with your thumb.
- G major 7: Use the same technique as the G minor but move the bar up to the seventh fret but leave the bottom G open. Pluck the top three strings and low open string to get the G major 7 chord.
This video demonstrates these principles on the lap steel.
As you get accustomed to the basic chording techniques above, you will have more than enough chord possibilities to play songs. However, when you start to get bored you can move to advanced techniques such as forward and backward slants. John Ely's steel guitar page has an excellent tutorial on slant angles, and the following video demonstrates how they work on lap steel.
In addition, the more you play the lap steel, the more familiar you will become with where different notes and chord possibilities lie on the fret board. The following video maps out the fret board in C6 to help you learn the instrument.
Fat Cat in the Lap
To borrow from another genre, great jazz players are called 'fat cats.' Though lap steel music doesn't use that term, the better you get on this soulful instrument the more you'll feel like a fat cat of steel strings. The lap steel can be one of the most addictive guitars to learn because it's small, convenient and easy to hold and tune. It's a fat cat purring in the lap.