Getting Started with Lap Steel Guitar

Episode Transcript

Today I am going to provide you with some information on how to get started with electric lap steel guitar.  I’m no expert lap steel player by any means, but I picked up the instrument about a year ago to use for a few songs that I play in my classic rock cover band, the Milk Fed Turkeys.  In trying to learn how to play this thing, I had to dig through a lot of videos and websites to figure out tuning, string gauges, and so on.  I’ve compiled all the basics here to get you started.

If you don’t already have one, you’re going to need a lap steel guitar to start.  I didn’t want to put a lot of money into this so on a whim, I ordered Rogue RLS-1 from Musician’s Friend.   It usually retails under $100 US.

I have to say, I was quite surprised as I really wasn’t expecting much from an instrument this cheap.  Once I restrung it properly, the guitar stayed in tune and the sound coming from the single coil pickups sounded just fine through my amps.  A lap steel isn’t as complicated as an electric guitar.  Essentially you have a solid block of wood with strings passing from your bridge to the nut of the instrument.  Intonation is a non-issue due to the fact that you are not fretting notes and the string saddle height can be adjusted easily to suit your playing style.

A set of thread-in legs come with this lap steel.  They are very cheap and poorly made.  It’s also inconvenient to take the legs out at the end of the evening.  I scrapped mine and bought a cheap $30 keyboard stand.  Alternately, you could bring a drum stool or sit on the edge of the stage and play it on your lap as it was originally intended.

You will want to restring your lap steel.  I tune mine in Open G.  The recommended gauges are 15 to 58.  Strings in this gauge set are difficult to come by.  My local music store didn’t carry them, so I ended up piecing them together from several sets of strings.  I have found a set of D'Addario's that will get you close to the recommended gauges. (see sidebar)

Recommended lap steel string gauge for open G:  .015p, .018p, .028w, .038w, .048w, .058w

You will also require a stainless steel slide bar.  There are a variety of these available and they range in price from $20 to $75.  When you buy one, make sure it has enough weight to it as this will make a difference in your playing.

As for the amp, that is a personal choice.  Lap steels sound great though a Fender Twin Reverb and awesome through a Marshall stack.  It really depends on what you are going for.  Mine is played through a PodHD500 into a Line 6 Bogner DT25.  If you browse the discussion forums, many people recommend a 15” speaker.  I haven’t tried that yet, but I’m willing to give it a go when I have a chance. 

Open G tuning = D-G-D-G-B-D

If you’re choosing to play in open G, the instrument is tuned.  D-G-D-G-B-D.  I removed my low D string as I found I wasn’t using it and it was getting in my way.  Keith Richards plays his open G guitars like this with the sixth string removed.  Now my lowest string is the bass note of my chord which is useful for guitar players when learning to play the instrument.

In order to identify the chords on this open G tuned instrument, I cheated by labelling the fret positions with masking tape.  Just remember that your open chord is G and it moves up half steps from there. 

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Major Chord Positions in Open G

  1. G#
  2. A
  3. Bb
  4. B
  5. C
  6. C#
  7. D
  8. Eb
  9. E
  10. F
  11. F#
  12. G
The Hal Leonard Lap Steel Guitar Method
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By Johnie Helms

To play a C major chord for example, position your slide roughly in front of the fret.  Use your ear to determine whether it is sharp or flat and adjust accordingly.  To play a minor chord such as E minor, position your slide at the bass note for the chord and play the bottom four strings.  Then slide down three half steps and play the highest two strings.

Now I’m no expert on how to play this thing, so I won’t go too far into technique.  There are tons of videos on Youtube to get you playing. But I will show you that it’s not too hard to get started.  When you position your slide over a fret, you are voicing individual notes in a chord.  You can easily riff by sliding into the notes from a step lower like this.

And that is your intro to lap steel guitar.  If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I will get back to you.  If you found this video useful, please subscribe and check back often as I will be adding more guitar related content including a deep dive into the Pod HD500 edit program and tutorials related to the setup of James Tyler Variax guitars.  Thanks for watching, and enjoy that lap steel!