The lap steel fretboard probably looks a bit foreign to a traditional acoustic or electric guitar player who encounters one for the first time. The action and notes are all different than they are on a standard guitar, and the techniques used for playing this instrument are drastically different as well. Read on to learn the basics of the lap steel fretboard.
Understanding the Lap Steel Fretboard
Listed below are the notable features that make the lap steel guitar's fretboard unique.
- Action - The action on a lap steel guitar is much higher than a regular guitar. The reason for this is that you don't need to press the strings to the fretboard to create notes on the lap steel; you rest the heavy bar on the strings to create notes. The high action ensures that the player won't rattle the bar against the fretboard when he or she slides the bar up and down the strings. This allows the bar and the strings to float above the fretboard and helps create that smooth, dreamy sound quality that this instrument is known for.
- Frets - The raised metal frets on a standard guitar allow the instrument to play different notes when the guitarist presses down on the strings. Since the lap steel doesn't require the guitarist to press the strings to change notes, the frets are only on the guitar as visual markers so the player can see where the notes are on the neck. To play a particular note, the guitar player slides the bar just above the fret for that particular note. Since metal frets are not technically necessary on a lap steel, some less expensive models don't have frets on the fretboard at all. Instead, they have lines painted where frets would be.
- Technique - A particular technique is required to create notes on a lap steel. As the name suggests, the lap steel is played sitting down with the guitar laid across the player's lap. The guitar is picked with the fingers of the right hand, and finger picks are usually used to create a crisp, clean attack to the notes. The left hand holds a heavy bar against the strings and slides that bar up and down. The bar can also be turned at an angle to coax different chord voicings out of the instrument. Lap steel players also operate a volume pedal in their rigs. The volume pedal is connected between the guitar and the amplifier, and it allows the player to swell the notes in and out in a way that further adds to the unmistakable sound this instrument produces.
Notes on the Fretboard
A discussion of the notes on the lap steep fretboard is complicated because, unlike a standard guitar, there is not a de facto tuning that all lap steel guitar players use. To further complicate matters, there are lap steel guitars with differing numbers of strings as well. In addition to the standard six-string model, many lap steel guitarists prefer seven-string or eight-string models that allow more intricate tuning variations.
The three main tunings used with six-string lap steels are Open E, Open D and C6. The tunings for these three tunings are as follows, with notes listed from the lowest pitched string to the highest pitched string:
- Open E - E B E G# B E
- Open D - D A D F# A D
- C6 - C E G A C E
For a very detailed listing of the myriad of tuning options available to all types of lap steel guitars, consult Brad's Page of Steel, a great resource for the lap steel player.
Getting the Hang of It
Getting comfortable with the lap steel fretboard is something that only comes with time. The action and tunings associated with the instrument are both very different than a standard guitar, and the technique used to play the instrument is also very different. The only thing you can do to get comfortable is to get yourself a lap steel and put in the time practicing it.