History of Lap Steels
Lap steel guitars were originally called Hawaiian guitars as the playing technique was invented there in the late 1800s.
The Electric lap steel guitar was the first commercially successful solid body instrument.
A lap steel guitar’s strings are raised at both the nut and bridge ends of the fingerboard, typically to about half an inch. The strings are too high to contact the surface of the neck, so frets, if present, are only for reference and are often replaced by markers. Lap steels typically have six 6 or 8 strings.
The electric lap steel guitar typically incorporates the entire neck into the solid body of the guitar, providing extra strength to allow a greater variety of string gauges and tunings.
The lap steel guitar is typically placed on the player’s lap, or on a stool in front of the seated player. When playing with stand-up musicians, such as in a bluegrass band, it has become an alternative for the player to also play standing up; supporting the guitar with a guitar strap around the neck, with the guitar suspended horizontally, resting against the stomach area.
The player holds a metal slide called steel (or tone bar) in the left hand, which is moved along the strings to change the instrument’s pitch while the right hand plucks or picks the strings.
The steel guitar, when played in Hawaiian, Country, Bluegrass, or Western Swing styles, is almost always plucked using a plastic thumb pick affixed to the right hand’s thumb, and metal or plastic “finger picks” fitted to the first 2, 3, or even all 4 fingers of the right hand.
This allows the player greater control when picking sets of notes on non-adjacent strings. Some blues players, forgo the fingerpicks and thumbpicks, and use their bare fingers and thumb instead. On the other hand, a minority of blues players, and many rock players, use a conventional flatpick.
It is widely reported that the lap steel guitar was invented by a man named Joseph Kekuku in 1885. It is said that, at the age of 7, Kekuku was walking along a railroad track and picked up a metal bolt, slid the metal along the strings of his guitar and was intrigued by the sound. He taught himself to play using this method with the back of a knife blade. Various other people have also been credited with the innovation. The instrument became a major fad in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. The instrument became especially popular in Hawaii.
It was electrified in the early 1930s, and in 1932 the first production electric guitar was introduced, the aluminum Ro-Pat-In (later Rickenbacker) This made the so-called “Hawaiian” guitar the first electric stringed instrument (a few years before Les Paul and Charlie Christian modified their instruments).
The earliest documented performance with an electrically amplified guitar was in 1932, by Gage Brewer. The Wichita, Kansas-based musician had an Electric Hawaiian A-25 (frypan, lap-steel) and a standard Electric Spanish from George Beauchamp of Los Angeles, California. Brewer publicized his new instruments in an article in the Wichita Beacon of October 2, 1932 and through performances that month.
The first electric instrument on a commercial recording was made and played in 1935 by Bob Dunn, a musician in Houston, Texas who played in the Western swing band Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. Dunn owned a music store that bore his name in the Houston area.
The lap steel, Dobro and pedal steel guitar are associated most closely with Hawaiian music, country music and bluegrass, though some players have used them in rock music, jazz, blues, and other musical genres.
The Lap steel guitar is usually tuned to an open chord, often an extended chord like a 6th, 7th, or 9th.
The earliest Hawaiian lap steel tuning was A low bass, E A E A C# E.
Blues and Rock players tend to favor one of two tuning families: open G/open A, or open D/open E.
Open G is tuned D-G-D-G-B-D; open A raises each of those notes a whole-step (2 frets) to E-A-E-A-C#-E. During the 1920s and 1930s, much of the sheet music written for lap steel utilized open A tuning as the de facto standard tuning for the instrument. Other tunings such as E7 ( B D E G# B E ), C#m (B D E G# C# E), and many other tunings were developed.
Open D is tuned D-A-D-F#-A-D, and open E is a whole-step higher: E-B-E-G#-B-E. Joe Perry of Aerosmith uses Open E on his electric lap steel. David Lindley is another player who uses transposed variations of these tunings.
Bluegrass and Country Dobro players using a square-neck instrument tend to favor an altered G tuning, often called “High-G”, where the 6th string is tuned up to “G” instead of down to “D”, and the 5th string is also tuned up, to B: G-B-D-G-B-D. They also sometimes raise it up to “High-A”: A-C#-E-A-C#-E. These are examples of tunings possible on a lap steel that could cause serious damage if attempted on a round-neck resonator or standard guitar.
Many Western Swing lap steel players, and some Old-Time Country lap steel players, use a C6 tuning. There is no “standard” C6 tuning; one popular one is C-E-G-A-C-E. This tuning is a good one for learning Don Helms’ lap steel melodies from old Hank Williams records, although Helms used a lap steel with legs (a “console steel”), with two necks having 8 strings each; Helms actually used an E13 tuning, which adds the 7th (D) and the 13th (C#) to the E tuning, making it B-D-E-G#-B-C#-E-G#, low to high. An extended C6/FMaj7 is used by Western Swing pedal steel guitarists on their 10-string pedal steels. This tuning, C-F-A-C-E-G-A-C-E-G, is difficult to achieve on the 6-string steel but a subset thereof is achieved as previously mentioned. A6 is a commonly used alternate for C6 and was used by greats such as Billy Hew Len, Leon McAuliffe, Herb Remington, etc.
The E7 tuning is used by many players, especially those who begin learning with the Mel Bay Steel Guitar Method instructional books. The E7 tuning in those books is spelled either B0-D-E-G#-B-E or with the 6th string lowered to the tonic E: E-D-E-G#-B-E. Note the similarity of this second tuning to the open E tuning above: the only difference is the 5th string, which is lowered from the tonic E to the 7th note in the key of E, which is D.
There are many other tunings used by players. Pedal Steel guitarists switching over to lap steel often bring over a modified version of the 10-string E9 tuning that is the standard for Country pedal steel; pedal steels, and a few non-pedal “console steels” actually have multiple necks, each in a different tuning, and very often on a pedal steel the 2 main necks will be in E9 and C6 tunings. As noted under the C6 tuning, an A6 tuning is also used.