In recent years there have been some truly amazing YouTube videos out there with people playing lap guitar. Some of these videos are people playing ordinary guitars on their lap with a guitar, but some of them are being played on lap steel guitars. With so many people watching these videos, combined with the fact that so many people are looking for new and interesting guitar sounds and musical instruments, it is little wonder that more and more people are researching the best lap steel guitars and looking for reviews of these models, both new and vintage.
What is a Lap Steel Guitar?
We don’t normally have to explain too much about instruments we review, but a Lap Steel Guitar is a little different. Although the design is similar to a guitar in that there is a fretboard and usually six strings, there are some distinct differences. Obviously, the strings face upward instead of away from the player and are raised. In fact, the strings don’t usually come into contact with the fretboard due to the raised nut and bridge, so the frets are simply there for reference. Lap Steel Guitars aren’t always played on a lap, as some players use a stool or even inbuilt stand for their instrument.
The method of playing is different too, as a slide or bar is used on the strings, which are tuned to an ‘open’ style tuning. The C6 tuning is very popular, but there are many other open tunings to explore. Sliding the bar up and down the fretboard will create the bluesy sound we associate with the lap steel guitar. These guitars come in acoustic (with a similar acoustic as a classical or Spanish guitar), resonator or even electric models.
Vintage or New Lap Guitars?
This is a dilemma both beginners and experienced players find when they are deciding which lap steel guitar to buy. Sometimes vintage models can give a rich sound and let’s face it, a cool look, but they come with some downsides. A vintage lap steel is much more likely to break and have problems, require replacement parts and generally be a very awkward model in terms of maintenance. For beginner lap steel players I would recommend sticking to something new simply for ease of use. There is no real compromise in terms of sound either, with many of the new builds having an amazing tone.
The Best Lap Steel Guitars
Time to get to some reviews and establish the best models for your own individual needs. Some of the brands on offer here aren’t brands that traditional guitarists may have heard of. Although there are offerings on the market (or have been at some point) made by Gretsch, Epiphone, Gibson, Hofner and Rickenbacker, a lot of these are not in production at the moment, and may be left for the eBay and auction buyers out there.
Vorson SL100ENAT Review
A brand which isn’t a household name, but an awesome Lap Steel guitar, the SL100ENAT. A beautifully designed instrument, made of mahogany with a gorgeous open headstock design and a lovely rosewood fret board. The build quality is truly exceptional.
The Vorson SL-100E has two FP-90 pickups, one at the bridge, and there is a three-way switch allowing you to change between settings during performances. The electronics are good quality, and this gives a lovely sound when it’s clean, and equally brilliant audio when fed through a distortion or overdrive pedal for that true bluesy tone.
All Vorson lap steel guitars ship with a padded bag perfect for gigging and carrying to practices. It looks incredible and is one of the flagship models for a brand really leading the way when it comes to these types of instruments. Reliable and easy to use, this is a superb option and deserves its positive review.
SX Lap 2 Ash NA Electric Lap Steel Guitar
On the slightly cheaper end of the market, the SX Lap 2 Ash NA is a great model of lap guitar for beginners and those who are on a budget. What you get for your money here is truly incredible. As well as a sturdy Ash Steel Guitar, you get a carry bag and a detachable stand which ship with it.
The tone of the SX Lap Steel is solid and is great for feeding through an amplifier. It has tone controls and volume controls just like a standard electric guitar would and the P90 pickup provides a clear sound.
A huge amount of five-star reviews on Amazon back up our thoughts that this is one of the best quality lap steels available, and when you consider the price, quirky look and classy design of the product, most of the reviews talk in depth about the value for money found with the SX Lap 2.
Epiphone Electar Century Lap Steel Review
A brand which is known for making a lot of different guitars, Epiphone has a lap steel on offer too. The Electar is another very good offering, and though not the cheapest, this isn’t at the high end of the market either when it comes to cost.
A beautiful mahogany build on both body and neck and 28 frets lay the foundations of quality. It has a plexiglass fingerboard which plays really nicely, and Epiphone has really thought of everything as there is a padded bottom end so that it fits comfortably (and firmly) on your legs without falling off.
The pickups are Epiphone’s ‘blade’ model, a humbucker which gives an even, rounded sound with fewer extreme changes in sound as you slide and pluck your guitar. There are some really positive reviews of this product, and Epiphone seems to have hit something of a home run here. It looks, plays and sounds wonderful.
Top Tips for Lap Steel Players
If you’re new to lap steel, there are some key tips that you can remember to ensure you get off to a good start with the instrument.
- There are some wonderful books out there. Musicians tend to love to geek out over their favorite instruments and the techniques playing them, and there are a few offerings out there I would recommend reading.
- Strings and Tuning are absolutely vital. There are multiple tunings, and many different techniques for stringing your guitar, which will, of course, provide different sounds and different styles of playing.
- You can build your own. This isn’t appealing to everyone, but for some of us the idea of building a lap steel guitar is utterly thrilling, Amazon even has some kits out there to help you get started.
- Don’t be afraid to hunt on eBay, there are some beautiful vintage models out there, but be prepared to replace strings often and do quite a bit of maintenance. If you know what you’re doing, this should be no problem, and some of the garage sale finds can be gems.
The End Goal…
I may be guilty of making it sound a little like these are obscure instruments, and they are certainly not. Lap steel guitars have been used in so many different genres and by a huge amount of musicians as diverse as Ronnie Wood and Jeff Buckley and as famous as Paul McCartney! Wikipedia’s list of notable players shows just what an interesting instrument the lap steel can be.
It wouldn’t be right for me to not include some of the best lap steel guitar videos to include in this article. Some are played in the C6 tuning that is so common with lap steel, but some explore other tunings and styles. The Hawaiian history means that some of the videos out there have an almost ukulele feel to them with an acousticy feel, but the ones I really love are the blues style performances and even cover versions.
And of course, a Jimi Hendrix cover…
The guitar format for an instrument is unbelievably versatile, as proved by these incredible instruments. What is best for one person may not be best for another. Deciding on whether you want acoustic, electric or even a resonator and taking time to look through reviews for the qualities of each lapsteel can ensure that you get the sound you are looking for.