"Lap Steels are inspiring instruments--challenging to play but worth the effort because they produce the most amazing soulful sounds."

-Bill Asher

 

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LAP STEEL 101

Many people have heard the sounds of a Lap Steel guitar, and maybe didn't even realize! Lap Steels can be heard in many classic Hawaiian melodies, country songs, and more recently in movie sound tracks, TV commercials, and a variety of musical genres such as rock, gospel and world music.

Some may have never even seen a lap steel. So for those of you who are wondering, here is a little bit of information weve put together...

So lets start with the basics: what is a lap steel? The term lap steel is pretty much self-explanatory. It's a guitar (electric or acoustic) that is held on your lap and is played by running a steel bar across the strings to change the pitch. The strings on a lap steel are raised slightly higher above the fret board than a regular guitar, and instead of steel frets, it has fret lines for positioning. Lap steels are usually tuned in one of several "open" tunings rather than standard guitar tuning, which gives the player the opportunity to create their own.

Many new to lap steel guitars may also wonder what's the difference between a lap steel, slide guitar, steel guitar and pedal guitar?Here are some basic guidelines:

Lap steel guitar: a square-necked acoustic or electric guitar that is held on your lap and played by running a steel bar across the strings to change the pitch.

Slide guitar: usually referred to as a method of playing a standard guitar in its usual position (not on the lap) and is played with a piece of metal or glass, usually a tube worn on one finger.

Steel guitar: a general term used to describe a guitar whose steel strings are "twanged" while being pressed with a movable steel bar for a glissando effect.

Pedal steel guitar: a stringed instrument with feet that is played while sitting down, much like when one is sitting at a table. It usually has pedals at the feet used to control and bend harmony and pitch.

There are many other styles and variations of steel-string guitars. Brad's page of Steel is a great place to find out more!


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A LITTLE BIT OF LAP STEEL HISTORY[Did you know...the very first electric guitar was a lap steel?]

Lap Steels have been around for quite awhile...legend has it that back in 1885, an 11-year-old Hawaiian school boy named Joseph Kekuku was walking along railroad tracks when he picked up a metal railroad tie and began sliding it along his guitar strings - creating that characteristic singing voice of a steel guitar that we are familiar with today. He was so intrigued by the sound, that he began exploring his newly discovered method on his guitar by experimenting with other objects. Using the back of a knife blade (we don't recommend trying this at home), little Joseph Kekuku began teaching himself to play.

For the next 7 years he learned how to master producing the unique and sweet sounds with a hair comb, a tumbler and finally, a smooth steel bar that is still widely used today. Little did he know that his imaginative methods would spark a revolution in guitar technique and instrument design.

In the years passing, Joseph Kekuku began spreading and teaching the then radical techniques of playing a lap-style guitar.

Some say however, that it wasn't until the San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, that this Hawaiian style of playing guitar really took off - reaching even more musicians and guitar players who became intrigued and fascinated with this soulful and expressive musical instrument.

The lap steel became tremendously popular on the mainland U.S. and continued to thrive in popularity until the 40s. The introduction of electrical amplification in the mid 1930's had a great impact on the history of lap steel guitars. Rickenbacher's aluminum "Fry Pan" electric steel guitar became a huge success among professional musicians of the time and some herald it as one of the most fertile periods in the history of steel guitar design.

Although the roots of the steel guitar had been somewhat established in Hawaiian music by the 1900's, and later in country music as well, there was a lacking of teachers to educate others how to play lap steel. Early legendary steel players were in so much demand to play and record that they had no time to teach others. By the 1960's the art and technique of playing Hawaiian steel was almost lost.

A few dedicated musicians, however, fought to keep the art of lap steel playing alive. Jerry Byrd, a Country Music Hall of Famer, Barney Isaacs, Billy Robinson, David Lindley, Greg Leisz, Cindy Cashdollar and more!

Lap-style guitar can be heard today in so many different types of music ranging from country, hawaiian, rock, blues and American Roots.

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WONDER WHO'S PLAYING A LAP STEEL TODAY?

 

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LAP STEEL LEARNING RESOURCES
www.guitarseminars.com
The International Guitar Seminars is a wonderful way to learn from some of the best players out there. Check their site for dates and locations.

*** More lap steel learning links to come soon!