Are you considering learning the technique of lap steel guitar if you’re already a 6-string guitar veteran?
I found my overall skills, music knowledge, and versatility as a guitarist sharpen when I picked up the quirky lap steel instrument, and I can guarantee it will do the same for you.
You will Learn…
This post will outline some of the common difficulties I found when first learning the lap steel guitar so you know what to expect.
I will also give 5 awesome reasons why regular players should learn lap steel and how it assists you in becoming a more complete guitar player.
So let’s dive right into the short answer to the question: “How hard is it to learn and play lap steel guitar?”
The Short Answer
Lap steel guitar can be challenging but rewarding to learn. The most difficult aspect is mastering the slide technique, playing notes in the correct pitch while muting strings. There are also no frets, just fret markers as a guide. Also, understanding open tunings and learning the fretboard only using slide amongst other aspects.
This Video Explains All (Watch Below)
The Basics of Lap Steel
So is the lap steel guitar easy to learn? This depends on many factors: how motivated you are, your current music knowledge, and your natural ability. Let’s get you familiar with the basics of the slide guitar if you didn’t know…
Finding Your Position
First of all, the main difference is that the lap steel guitar is held flat down on the lap.
It will feel weird and slightly confusing to play at first compared to the regular guitar. But as you progress, it will begin to feel more familiar and natural with time and practice.
Of course, the lap steel guitars can also be played on a stand, allowing you more choices to find the most comfortable position for you. I like playing on my lap; I just feel closer connected to the instrument and get my technique down better.
Either way, there is no right or wrong way when it comes to your preferred position, either on the lap or adopting a stand. The choice simply comes down to what feels more comfortable to you and your personal preference.
The Slide Technique
Essentially, the bar is like a slide and it can be made from glass or metal that you hold in your fretting hand. You move the bar up and down the neck, changing the pitch without even touching the fretboard.
The string action is much higher than on regular guitars, but all the frets are still marked, allowing you to have a visual representation of what notes you’re playing.
Playing Notes in the Correct Pitch
As mentioned above, the frets on a lap steel fretboard are marked for visual reference. However, the frets on lap steel are much smaller compared to regular guitars, meaning you have to slide with more precision to stay you in the correct pitch.
Secondly, the frets on lap steel are not barred like on a regular guitar. They are simply just marked, meaning it is difficult to tell when you are slightly off-pitch when sliding along using your slide.
You have no frets to help you “stay in the grid” when it comes to the pitch, and you’ll have to rely almost completely on your ears. This is probably the biggest challenge when it comes to lap steel guitars.
There is also ‘slanting’ the tone bar or slide in a diagonal position across the fretboard. This is how you play chords and different positions.
You will also have to establish a good solid grip and control over the slide for quick slides, moving across strings and using vibrato.
Another challenge here, which is pretty much the same one you stumble upon while playing standard slide guitar, is that you’ll need to know how to mute the strings.
Playing a melody might be difficult if you let all the other strings ring while you play. You’ll need enough practice and coordination between your left and right hands to make it all sound good.
Knowing all this stuff, you can see that it is a different concept, although you rely on some of the same principles of a regular guitar. Yes, it might be a little difficult at first and you might have some issues getting a hang of it.
Using a volume pedal with lap steel is also recommended as this way you’ll be able to do volume swells and reduce the pick attack. This is another one of the challenges of the lap steel and something you’ll need to work on to get a hang of.
Another set of challenges here are all the different tunings and learning this new fretboard.
Knowing that you can’t really play standard chords on it and that your performance on it consists mostly of playing melodies and licks the lap steel guitars mostly have different tunings compared to conventional guitars.
After all, you are limited to one straight metal or glass bar and can’t do any complex shapes on the fretboard.
This is why we need to implement some open tunings, which is often the case with classic slide guitars as well.
This way, you’re able to play a usable chord with open strings or at any position on the fretboard. However, for lap steel guitars we often use extended chord tunings, like the sixth chord.
This particular one allows you to get that desired “Hawaii” vibe. A common one you’ll find is the C6 tuning which is C-E-G-A-C-E from low to high strings.
Other tunings also include variations of 7th and 9th chords. Of course, you’ll need to get acquainted with these new tunings since they are significantly different compared to the standard E and some classic drop tunings for blues and country.
Reading the tabs for lap steel guitars is pretty similar to the conventional guitar tabs – you have the easily recognizable diagram of strings and fret numbers.
However, in the lap steel tabs, you’ll have to do slides, or glissandos, from one note to another presented in the tab.
Some tabs may show that with a symbol, some may not, but it’s something you’ll need to be aware of while reading lap steel tabs.
Reasons Why Regular Guitar Players Should Learn Lap Steel
Trust me when I say, this small instrument brings hours of fun and enjoyment. And with time, practice, and dedication, your musicality will improve just like any instrument.
Now, if you’re primarily a guitar player, there are some great benefits from learning how to play a new instrument, especially if it’s something transferable as is with a lap steel guitar.
1 – Mastering the Slide Technique
The great thing about learning how to play lap steel guitar is that you’ll get the chance to get more familiar with playing slide. Now, with this technique, you’re not limited to just frets and semitones and you get that perfect glissando.
Not only will you get a perspective from another angle, but you’ll also get more into the “soul” of guitar and more easily recognize subtle nuances in tone and pitch.
2 – Train Your Ears for Perfect Pitch
With years of playing under your belt, you will become more effective at hearing notes that are too flat or sharp by a few cents from your ideal note.
With more experience, the correct pitch will come more natural to you, which can be transferred to your regular guitar playing.
Essentially, using the lap steel removes the ‘stabilizers’—the stabilizers being the frets of a normal guitar. The lap steel gives you the ability to master the correct pitch by just using your ear.
After getting more versed in lap steel playing, you’ll get a better hold of the intonation and you’ll have more control not only over classic slide playing but also of your bends and vibratos in conventional playing.
3 – Become a Versatile Guitar Player
Aside from carrying over this technique to a regular guitar, you’ll also open up new horizons by experimenting with this new instrument.
Also, you’ll be trained to play lap steel, something that might come in handy if you want to do session work one day. After all, not that many people know how to play lap steel guitar.
Essentially, having more knowledge and more skills is like having more tools in your guitar playing toolbox.
4 – Perfect for Country, Blues, Hawaiian, and Ambient Players
Are you a prominent player in either of the genres mentioned above?
The lap steel is a great instrument to improve your slide playing within these varied musical genres, which again is easily transferred to your 6-string guitar playing, giving you more versatility and skills as a guitar player.
Learning a different instrument in a familiar genre gives a new perspective on guitar playing and how your instrument will fit in with the different textures of this musical style. It gives you the ability to get creative and master this genre with a new instrument.
5 – Experiment and get Creative
As a guitar player, it is always recommended to experiment with different styles, different gear and a new way of thinking and playing the guitar.
Not to mention that the lap steel guitar can bring many hours of fun and enjoyment while also making you a more rounded and complete player.
Best Lap Steel Guitar for Beginners
Lap steel guitars can range hugely in price. For a beginner, it’s best to purchase an entry-level model ranging from $100 – $300 depending on your budget.
The reason is that you don’t want to shell out on an expensive instrument if you are unsure if you will stick with it for the long run.
Once your experience and skills advance, you can then splash out on a more affordable guitar. When learning a new instrument, don’t overcomplicate it, you just need to start learning and playing.
Recommended Beginner Lap Steel Guitars
Here is a solid list of recommendations for your first lap steel. These selections are based on positive reviews and feedback on guitar forums and review sites; they are worth considering for your first instrument.
- Rogue RSL- 1
- Recording King RG-32
- Harley Benton II Slider
- Epiphone Electar Century
- Mahalo Surf Lap Steel Guitar
Of course, at the end of the day, you’re free to go with any lap steel guitar you feel like. But just like with the regular guitar, the most important thing you need to do remains the same, and that is to practice.
Learning to play an instrument is the most challenging and most satisfying thing one can do. It may take some time, patience, and strong will, but seeing the first results will push you to go further.
If you already play an instrument and want to learn how to play something else, it might be a bit easier since you’re already familiar with some basic music theories.
To a lot of people out there, a guitar is an instrument of choice. But if you’ve already acquired some knowledge and skills for it, you might want to expand your horizons and try out something new.