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advice on buying a lap steel?
MUFF WIGGLER Forum Index -> Guitars, Basses, Amps & FX  
Author advice on buying a lap steel?
i've been toying with the idea of buying a lap steel, but have no idea where to start.

i've played guitar for a long time and now mainly play ambient music, using a eurorack and some pedals to process and loop. i'm used to using open tunings and a a volume pedal, and sometime use a slide.

but i have no idea where to start with looking for a lap steel to buy - is there a good value model that people recommend to get started, or particular things to look for second hand?

not too sure on budget yet but would think <£400 unless it transpires that a bit more will lead to a big jump in quality, and happy to buy second hand.

Several posts here recommend buying an eight-string over a six. With the additional strings, you can minimize the number of slants you have to play to get your guitar to match the song's harmonies.

Have a look: ing-Guitars-In-Birmingham-UK/113681270251?hash=item1a77ee85eb:g:LfYAAO SwW09aWMNr

This purple-flocked used Framus eight is, uh, unusual-looking and half the cost: rple-flocked/123884051433?hash=item1cd8109be9:g:4M0AAOSwZvldX~Op
I don't know how it is in Europe, but here in the states you can find nice Fender 6 strings, vintage nationals, Gibsons for about $4-500 no problem. I lucked out a while back and got a 1950s made Fender dual 8 for about that. It's one area the vintage market hasn't sent skyrocketing in price like their guitar counterparts. You may have to replace a pot or be missing the decorative bakelite piece here or there, but they can be a good value.

I also have a Recording King 8 string, fairly recently built, upgraded with Lollar pickups, but I hate the thing. Something about it is just not comfortable to me. Maybe I just don't like hawaiian lap steels. seriously, i just don't get it

Vintage 8 strings seem to be harder to find than the 6 strings tho.

Watch out for it to be a gas catalyst, since I got the 8 string steel, I wouldn't mind an 8 string guitar for those low notes. w00t
I got a Joe Morrell model for under $200 used (or maybe B-stock) that I'm happy with--although I'm no lap steel player as such. The good thing about a lower end or vintage lapsteel is that you don't have to worry about some of the issues typical standard electric guitars--fretwork, neck warping, etc.
thanks for all the helpful responses!

drift - interesting to hear about the 8-strings, although I wonder if that creates more work for the right hand?

dkcg - it looks like vintage prices are a bit higher in UK than US, but used does seem to be the way to go.

GuyaGuy - I'd assumed that cheapish lap steels would be better quality than cheapish guitars, since they don't need fancy tonewoods or fiddly manufacturing - good to hear that this seems to be the case.
This post from a member of the Steel Guitar Forum didn't get any negative responses:

What I recommend for a beginner:

Hawaiian or country : 6 string C6

Western Swing : 8 strings A6

I haven't owned an 8-string so I don't know this, but a couple posts stated that if you think you'll go to an 8 eventually, it's better to start learning on an 8.

Maybe it was mistake for me to read this topic, now I'm thinking about owning one again hmmm.....
I picked up an 8 string 1956 Fender Stringmaster.
Unfortunately, the guy split it- it was one half of a pair, only because he said he had trouble selling them together.
He also had it repainted, and the guy did kind of a crap job on it.

Sounds great, though- easy to play "If Not For You."
Still learning!
I think we should do C6 first, there is lots of stuff, here is one example, my friend at Apknite introduced me this guy, he has some videos about it.
I just bought a Recording King RM-35 (it has a humbucker pickup) not sure if I’m going to keep it, still have a couple of weeks left for returns. I’m trying to give lap steel a shot as well
Can’t go wrong buying vintage. As mentioned you can find vintage Fenders, Gibson’s, Rickenbackers, etc. for a couple of hundred bucks and they all come with sweet, old pickups. That’s mainly what you’re hearing. It’s nothing more than a 2 by 4 otherwise. One of the few deals in vintage guitar land still out there...
I have a Morrell and love it!
Well, it's not exactly a lap steel, but a 'console non-pedal steel'...

It's a 1957 National 'Grand Console', and it has three 8-strings. And don't let the legs fool you. It's not a 'pedal steel', which is why it has three necks. (A pedal steel usually has a single neck, sometimes two, but never three.) It enables you to use three different tunings without having to retune, although sometimes you still have to retune for something 'odd'. I use an A6 tuning on the middle neck that provides major and minor chords, an E7 tuning on the far neck that renders major and seventh chords, and a 'Junior Brown' C13 tuning on the inner neck that gives major, minor, and seventh chords. Why the other two if the C13 provides all those choices? The range of the key you're playing in, mostly.

Someone asked about the advantages of eight strings. It's mainly in the selection of notes available to you. With a 6-string using an A6 tuning, you lose one of the E's: going from A C# E A C# E to A C# F# A C# E. With an 8-string A6 tuning, you have F# A C# E F# A C# E. That E to an F# right next door gives you a whole step jump from one string to the next, enabling you to play some rapid melodic stuff a lot easier. And you can do it, but you'd lose a lot of notes trying to use a 13th tuning on a 6-string. The Junior Brown C13 I use is Bb C E G A C E G. To get both the Bb and the A on a 6-string, you're going to lose a three-note major chord somewhere, maybe something like A Bb C E G C that would give you the A-minor, C7, and two inversions of the C-major. But if you can survive with only one three-note major chord, it can be done.

The main thing about 6-strings is that they're easy to find and often really inexpensive compared to 8-strings. And steel guitars began as 6-strings, only getting up to eight later. I got this off-brand 'Rogue' 6-string lap steel for $79 new, and I put strap pins on each end of it, letting me play it standing up.

Even though it only has six strings, it had three qualities that I really liked. It was cheap, inexpensive, and didn't cost too much. It has three legs that you can screw to the bottom of it if you want to play sitting without putting it on your lap, but it can get a little wobbly sometimes.

BTW, the 'standard' amp setting for a steel guitar is turn the treble all the way down, the bass all the way up, and put any mid's in the middle. And then put the reverb on about 7 (out of 10). I know it sounds crazy because one's initial thoughts are that a steel is a treble instrument. Well, I tried it otherwise and it sounded awful. Doing the above that the old-timers said to do actually worked. YMMV, though.

Also, if you really want to play around with the classic 'steel guitar' sound, get a volume pedal. Nothing fancy, just a plain old passive volume pedal will work just fine. Then adjust it so that it goes mute when it's turned all the way down. It will allow you to get those cool violin-like sounds out of a steel.

If you look between the inner and middle necks on the National, you'll see the bar I use. It's a solid steel cylinder with a round nose and a flat indent on the other end. That's the 'classic' steel that's been used for decades, but it's heavy and takes some getting used to if you don't want it flying across the room. But I've known of people playing with a spark plug socket before as anything long, round, smooth, heavy, and made of steel will work. (No. Don't go there.) But if you want to properly use a technique called 'slants', the flat indent is really needed.

I also play with three fingerpicks and a thumbpick which is a bit unusual. Most steel players only use two fingerpicks and a thumbpick. Some play with a flatpick, though, while a lot of people just use their bare fingers.

I've also used an eBow on a steel guitar. Working on a technique between the steel in the left hand and the eBow in the right, you can get some really wicked droning sounds or play seriously creepy melodic stuff. The eBow actually works better on the cheap 6-string than it does on the National. For one thing, I have to take the pickup covers off of the National, and the pickup magnets are deeper down on the National than the Rogue. And the eBow needs those magnets to work.

I've played steel for about twenty years, getting into it when some guys asked me to play in a country group after I'd only played jazz for quite some time. I've since migrated to Pink Floyd as well as combining it with my synth for 'unusual' stuff. It's an extremely versatile instrument, although the traditional method of playing has seen some ebb and flow lately. I'm glad to see people like Jerry Douglas and David Gilmour keeping it alive.
Thanks for the info on the scales/tuning. I usually end up with the CEGACE on my six, and basically the same with extra steps on my 8. Mainly because it's an easy tuning to remember for me.

My dual Fender Steel String Singer, I go nuts and use E13 (I think it was E13, been a while and I can't remeber), but end up using the neck based on CEGACE because I'm more familiar with that tuning.

Before I got my dual 8, I thought I wanted a pedal steel, but after researching what the levers do and the tunings involved, I stopped thinking about it. Especially after learning (well, sorta learning) the diagonal slide technique that does a decent fake lever slide. I'll leave pedal steels for the real masters of steel.
dkcg wrote:
Thanks for the info on the scales/tuning. I usually end up with the CEGACE on my six, and basically the same with extra steps on my 8. Mainly because it's an easy tuning to remember for me.

My dual Fender Steel String Singer, I go nuts and use E13 (I think it was E13, been a while and I can't remeber), but end up using the neck based on CEGACE because I'm more familiar with that tuning.

Before I got my dual 8, I thought I wanted a pedal steel, but after researching what the levers do and the tunings involved, I stopped thinking about it. Especially after learning (well, sorta learning) the diagonal slide technique that does a decent fake lever slide. I'll leave pedal steels for the real masters of steel.

Yep. Pivot a slant on a note properly, and you can get a very effective pedal steel sound. I use forward slants to get major chords and various intervals, and I use reverse slants mostly to pull a dominant 7th chord out of a major tuning. Reverse slants are hard to learn at first, but that little flat indent I mentioned on the steel gives you a place to put your thumb to whip in and out of reverse slants quickly by angling the bar in the hand rather than (horror!) bending the wrist.

I, too, have thought about a pedal steel, but it's a lot to deal with. The best thing about a pedal steel is that you no longer have to use slants. I've seen some pedal steel players throw a slant in on occasion when maybe it provided an interval that wasn't readily available from a pedal or knee lever, but not very often. The whole idea of changing the tuning on the fly intrigues me, though.

But the tone doesn't seem to be the same as a non-pedal steel guitar for some reason. I've never really heard that classic 'warm' tone of a non-pedal steel come out of a pedal steel. I think all of the mechanics involved in the bridge kind of sucks all of that warmth out of it. The sound of a good pedal steel guitar in the hands of someone who knows how to play it is really nice, but it's just not the same as Leon McAuliffe, Don Helms, or Speedy West grinding away back in the old days. There's a little bit of a raw edge to the tone that gets slicked down smooth on a pedal steel.

And, as I said, the technique of playing lap/non-pedal steel guitar has almost become a lost art if it weren't for people like Jerry Douglas, Dave Lindley, and John McEuen. Recently, there has been an upsurge of young people discovering the sound of the lap steel, and I think it's picking back up now. Fifteen years ago, I thought it was going to die out. Now, I don't think so.

As to non-pedal steel tunings, I've collected a list of forty-one 6-string and thirty-two 8-string tunings. Your C E G A C E tuning is #10 on the 6-string list, called 'C6 (Am7)', and is apparently pretty popular. But I rarely venture beyond a Major, a 6th, a 7th, or the 'Junior Brown' 13th. I've been able to play everything I've ever needed to play in one of those tunings. On dobro, I've usually use the standard G B D G B D tuning, sometimes use a D tuning - D A D F# A D, and if I need minor chords I'll start with the G tuning and raise the fourth string from a D to an E. (I use that to play 'Sleepwalk'.) On lap steel, I usually start with an A-Major A C# E A C# E (same intervals in A as the dobro tuning in G). If necessary, like on the dobro, I'll raise the fourth string from an E to an F# to get an A6 tuning that provides minor chords, too. (Electric 'Sleepwalk', like the original.) And from an A-Major tuning, I'll retune four strings to E B E G# B E to get an E-Major tuning ('Steel Guitar Rag') and modify that as needed to an E7 sometimes. A person can get lost in tunings when it's often not really necessary unless you're playing a song that just calls for a special tuning. There is a lot of Hawaiian music that uses a B11 tuning. Watching David Gilmour play 'One of These Days' etc,, I think he uses either a D-Major as above or an E-Major as above, I think more toward the latter. The fourth, fifth, and sixth strings playing 1st's and 5th's with no 3rd in the low register provides a really nice growl for songs like 'Days', while the 3rd in the upper register works nicely with Dark Side of the Moon songs like 'Breathe'. But I could be wrong because I'm only going by what I've seen and not any documentation of any kind.

I've always found it humorous that David Gilmour would stand there talking about his steel playing, and he would point at what is obviously a single-neck 8-string Fender Stringmaster non-pedal steel guitar, not a pedal on it, and call it a 'pedal steel'. And I've heard a Sirius disc jockey repeat how Gilmour played the 'pedal steel', and I have never seen him play anything with pedals or knee levers. In one concert film, I think it might have been Pulse, he wasn't even playing an 8-string. I believe he was playing a red 6-string with three legs, if I remember correctly, very similar to the Rogue I have. But if he's ever played a true pedal steel guitar, I've never seen it. Oh, well. I guess if you're David Gilmour, you can call it whatever the hell you want! He could call it an Indian sarangi if he wanted, and it would still sound good because he plays very well.

But the same thing has happened to me, especially when playing the National three-neck. People see those multiple necks and say, "Oh, so you play pedal steel, do you?" Then I have to explain that it's not a 'pedal steel' because it doesn't have any pedals, and how pedal steels only have two necks at most, etc., and sometimes they walk away thinking I don't know what I'm talking about because all those necks has convinced them I must surely play 'pedal steel'.

Now with Steve Howe, he's played 'pedal steel guitar'. He started out on non-pedal steel but quickly went to pedal steel by the time Yes recorded Close to the Edge. I saw him going through all kinds of gymnastics on the Going for the One tour to go from kneeling to play pedal steel, to standing to play some guitar on a stand, and then back kneeling at the pedal steel. How he operated all that apparatus is just amazing. And I've read interviews with him where he said that he used a standard guitar tuning on the pedal steel! Like a lot of guitar players who play other stringed instruments, he uses a guitar tuning on everything. (Session guitarist Tommy Todesco did the same thing.) I have no idea how he does that, and I'd really like to know.

But I find steel guitar to be up there with modular synthesizer in capability of producing sound. You have all of the effects that can be used on electric guitar at your disposal, all kinds of tunings providing myriad intervals across strings, and then you have that bar sliding all over the place. O!, the possibilities! But it takes practice. It's best to learn to play single notes with good intonation and leave the sliding to times when it's appropriate, and keep vibrato to small movements. Frequent large bar movements will make you sound like a drunken sailor. Back when the lap steel was really popular, I think it was around 1950, someone said something like, "The steel guitar is the easiest instrument in the world to play... badly." But when played well, though, it's positively beautiful. I think a well-played lap steel can be just as sweet-sounding as a well-played violin.

Edit: Oh, and you're right, dkcg, lap steel and console steel guitar prices are usually reasonable. The 'vintage' market hasn't wreaked havoc on it... yet. As people get more and more interested in steel playing, that could change. I got my three-neck National for about what you were talking about, but the guy who sold it to me gave me a deal. I've seen a number of one- and two-neck Nationals like mine, but I've only seen one other three-neck, it was in a 'collection' on the Steel Guitar Forum, and it didn't have all the tuner and pickup covers like mine. (They break easily.) National only made three-necks for a couple years until the newly-invented pedal steels killed the market for them. I got mine from a dealer who sold a lot of instruments to famous players, and he told me that Dave Lindley particularly liked Rickenbackers and Nationals, and because I bought this one the second day he had it, he said, "Dave is going to be upset that he didn't get a chance at this National!" But a lap steel is basically a plank with a pickup on one end and tuners on the other, and often the 'frets' are just painted on. A person could easily build one with spare parts from an electric guitar and a two-by-four. But if you find any 'cheap' Rickenbackers or Gibsons from the 1930's or the 1940's in good shape, you let me know about it!
I've got that Rogue and I need to get it re-stringed and set up correctly. One of my pots fails from time to time. I use it for sampling and effects processing since:
a) I have no idea what I am doing and
b) I think it needs a tune-up bad.

Lately I have been messing with it and an e-bow through a myriad of effects.

John Cipollina I am not. But for the 70-80 bucks it cost it is cool. It can tale a lot of abuse. Well made besides the electronics.
Wow, Savage! Thanks for that missive, i've been thinking of "that sound" and you just explained it. I think you could be a professional writer if you aren't already, Cheers Guinness ftw!
Thanks, bitflip. I do write professionally, sort of. I'm in IT, and I frequently have to do technical writing describing procedures. Here, I write too much. I should keep my posts shorter. But I don't come here so often anymore, preferring to play music rather than talk about it.

MindMachine, if you want to set up your Rogue yourself, it's not terribly difficult. The first step is setting the string length. Measure the distance between the nut and the twelfth fret, and then with the strings loosened, set each string to that length between the twelfth fret and each bridge piece. Unlike a fretted instrument, all the strings should be the same length, as long as the bridge pieces are the same distance from the twelfth 'fret' as the twelfth 'fret' is from the nut. You don't have to worry about string intonation beyond that like you would with a fretted instrument. The Rogue actually uses an electric guitar bridge. If it used a bridge designed for a steel guitar, it would just be a straight flat bridge anyway. Then tune it up for the next step.

The second step is setting the string height, which is a bit more involved but still not too bad. Kind of 'eyeball' the string height for each string and adjust them all evenly to the same height using the appropriate-sized hex wrench. That's a good starting place. Then with your lap steel playing through an amp, hold your bar across the second 'fret', but don't press the bar down. Just let it lay across the strings and hold it in place. Then pluck each string individually and listen to each note carefully. If one buzzes, rattles, or plays the open note, raise that string until it plays the second 'fret' note cleanly. (The second 'fret' is where problems are most likely to occur. Get it right there, and the rest of the fretboard should be fine.) Do that for each string until all the notes play cleanly, again, just holding the bar on the second 'fret' and not really pushing down on the strings. If after adjusting a string another string that played cleanly now buzzes, rattles, or plays open, you raised that string too much. Lower it until it plays cleanly as well as the other strings that played cleanly. After starting with the 1st string and working your way to the 6th, when you have all the strings playing the second 'fret' note cleanly, you have all the strings adjusted correctly. (If the 1st and 6th strings played clean to begin with, just adjust the 2nd through the 5th strings if necessary as they were just lower than the 1st and 6th strings.)

FYI, the only reason you need to adjust the string height at all is because the nuts are often not dressed very well on these inexpensive instruments. Mine was horrid! But it's a lot safer to adjust the bridge pieces than to try filing the nut and risk ruining it altogether. Besides, if you go through this process and it doesn't work out, a pro can fix it for you. Mess up the nut, and that may not necessarily be the case.

You can adjust the pickup to your liking, but keeping it as far from the strings as possible such that it produces a good even sound is best. You usually don't need a 'hot' output with a lap steel, and getting the pickup too close to the strings will cause the pickup magnet to dampen the string vibration and reduce your sustain. Just get it close enough to sound good and get your volume from your amp, not from the pickup being close to the strings. The main thing is to have each string play just as loudly as the others. You may have to set the pickup a little farther from the 6th string than the 1st to get the strings sounding even, as the low strings vibrate a farther distance than the high strings.

It's best to do such adjustments to an instrument when you're well-rested, relaxed, clear-headed, and have plenty of time. And then just take your time and be patient. If you find yourself getting tired or frustrated, take a break and come back to it later. After you get it adjusted, you may play it awhile and find something that you would like to be better, but if it's playing clear and clean, you probably have it. If you can get through the process, you can save you a little money rather than have a professional doing it.
Savage - thank you so much for taking the time to go through all of that. I'll re-read a few times and then over the holidays try what you said.

Incredibly generous.

Savage wrote:
Even though it only has six strings, it had three qualities that I really liked. It was cheap, inexpensive, and didn't cost too much.

lolspew QOTY!
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