Beginning Lap Steel


Hey Steve,

Really enjoyed seeing the gig at the Ardmore with Ron Holloway and Tim Carbone at the end of last year! I’m currently sidelined from playing fretted guitar due to tennis elbow and a couple other nagging overuse injuries. My physical therapist said it would be ok for me to play a bit of steel since it won’t be stressing the same muscles that I’ve injured. I’m wondering if you have any recommendations for a decent lap steel that won’t kill my wallet, and some idea of where to start learning?


Brice, Maryland

4 Thoughts on Beginning Lap Steel
    13 Feb 2022

    If you just want to play some slide with the guitar flat on your lap the cheap fix is Grover nut extender.
    I’m looking at one on Sweetwater right now for $6.99.

    I know there are quite a few new budget friendly lap steels, but I have no personal experience with any of them.
    That being said, I would not personally buy a lap steel with any kind of intonation adjustable six saddle bridge.
    I’d recommend a humbucking pickup too.

    Apologies if I just talked you out of a nut extender for your Tele.

    Getting started learning is probably a getting started listening issue.
    What kind of music do you like?
    What musical context to you hear steel in?

    If you can get that far, there will be artists, recordings, videos, etc. you can use as a model.
    At that point, specific questions about technique, tunings, set-up, string gauge, what kind of bar, should be pretty easy to answer and you can make adjustments from there.
    I’d be happy to help you sort thru all that, but you have to declare Buck Owens or Pink Floyd first to get the ball rolling.

      14 Feb 2022

      Hey, thanks for getting back. I’m currently borrowing an old Supro from a friend with one of those wraparound pickups where the strings go through it. I like a variety of stuff with steel – Hindustani slide, all the sacred steel stuff, King Sunny Ade’s steel player, Roosevelt Collier, straight up blues. Ideally I’d want to incorporate the sound into my own stuff with my band – which kind of loosely follows the small group improvisational thing – four of us – drums, bass, a keys/saxophone player, and mostly fretted guitar right now but hopefully in the future I can feature some steel playing every now and then.

      I’ve been fooling around with this tuning from low to high (B D E G# B E) that I found online and have really just been messing around trying to get a feel for the right pressure to apply to get the notes to ring clear and in tune with whatever I’ve been playing along with, mostly drones.

        15 Feb 2022

        OK, perfect!
        That’s the same guitar, same tuning, same influences, and same basic ensemble I use. .

        Don’t worry too much about “the right pressure” although I can understand how and why it’s a focus when you’re just getting started.

        I think it’s a great question tho, and you should get as many opinions as you can.

        You’ll get a range of opinions obviously, but that’s because the down pressure on the bar/tone production issue is objectively related to the weight of the bar, string gauge, and how the nut slots are cut.

        Say you lay the bar across the strings at the third fret.
        If the tops of the strings aren’t level in the nut, you’ll wind up using more pressure than you need to keep the bar from chattering on whichever string(s) are relatively lower.
        At the same time, pushing the bar down to get all the strings to ring clearly stretches them sharp!
        You’re stuck between using too much pressure and playing out of tune and not enough pressure to get a clear tone.

        Hopefully that set-up issue has already been addressed on the borrowed Supro.
        It’s easy enough to see tho, just confirm the string tops are level at nut and bridge, in a plane, so you’re not screwed before you start.
        Sometimes it’s just one string a couple gauges too large, so just look at it, and if it looks like one string is clearly proud of the rest, get a smaller diameter wire.

        The nut vs string gauge is one potential set-up issue, the weight of the bar relative to the string tension is another, but you’re starting into subjective territory, style and preference there, so you’ll just have to experiment.

        I started out more Dobro than lap steel in terms of bar and string gauge, 16 18 28W 38 49 64, and a Stevens bar, but I tuned up to F major because that’s where Lindley was tuned on steel in his electric band.
        The Stevens is kinda mid-weight as a steel, but it balanced nicely for me on the “oops, too heavy” strings.

        I’ve since adopted a much lighter bar, sometimes very light, and kept the strings relatively heavy.
        It’s a lousy Hawaiian sound, but it works for blues and funk with a little gain on the amp.

        Subjectively, in terms of style, or the range of sounds and effects possible on the lap steel, any pressure works for something, every gradation of touch is good.
        Particularly on that Supro pickup, if you get the pole pieces just right you can push down on the string to make the notes swell and change timbre as they get closer to the pole.
        You’ll hear it if you mess with it. All the Supro PU guys “milk the proximity” on certain strings in the higher register.
        The geometry doesn’t really work across the entire scale, but where it does, it’s a dramatic effect. Bloom, yowl, Timbral Shift, Spectral Glide, vowel sounds, etc.
        Some people think it’s a Dumble amp artifact, and it’s associated with those players, but it’s happening on the string regardless of the amp.

        So there’s an example of creative use of over pressure on the bar, literally dipping the string down toward the neck with the nose of the bar to make the pickup talk.
        If there’s a general rule for all things slidey, I’d take it from Ali Akbar Khan “play with a relaxed hand”. Enough said.

        Whatever you’re doing, be patient. It takes forever to figure out there’s no right way to do anything.
        Relax and have fun with it.

    15 Feb 2022

    Thanks, Steve! I’ll keep at it and when I’ve made a bit of progress I’ll reach out for a lesson! Got a lot out of the one we did last year, even if we couldn’t ever figure out how to save the recording.

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