A guitar style that has faded in popularity since the 50’s, the best lap steel guitar still can light up a room! Rock n’ Roll and the invention of the electric guitar really dampened lap steels usage, but they have continued to make appearances in Western Swing bands. Occasionally you’ll even see a musician like David Lindley or Ben Harper use one today.
Many people may not even know what a lap steel guitar is, so we want to cover the different types of lap steels you may come across, talk about the c6 tuning that is unique to this instrument, and run through a complete buyers guide so you can make an educated choice when purchasing one!
First, let’s start with our picks for the four best lap steel guitars on the market today!
The 4 Best Lap Steel Guitars
SX Lap 2 Ash Electric Lap steel
The SX Lap 2 Ash Electric Lap Steel guitar leads off our list and is the only pedal steel guitar. This means it is a little larger than your normal lap steel guitar and has a stand equipped stock.
Thanks to this bigger size the neck has 36 frets and is made from American swamp ash with a rosewood fretboard. .
Our favorite part of this instrument is the P90 soap bar pickup. In combination with the adjustable bridge this pickup is able to produce an impressive range of sounds and tones.
This wouldn’t be our recommendation for a lap steel beginner because the longer neck can be quite a lot to handle. Also, we didn’t like the way that C6 tuning (more on that below) sounded with the stock strings, so we replaced them with a set of Morrell’s.
- 36 fret pedal steel guitar
- P90 Pickup
- Solid construction with American Swamp Ash
- Great Value instrument
- Need to replace strings if you want to play C6 tuning
Gretsch Guitars G5700 Electromatic
The Gretsch is the perfect guitar for an electric Hawaiian guitar. This standard sized , 28 fret instrument is also our choice for best lap steel guitar!
This Gretsch is made from solid mahogany finished with a black sparkle gloss urethane that pops!
Out of the box you get a single-coil pickup and controls for both tone and volume. The guitar has a lot of sustain and resonance with the body, giving the player a great tone as well.
If you’re an experienced lap steel player you’ll probably want a better instrument than this, but for beginner or intermediate level players there isn’t much this lap steel doesn’t have!
- Single Coil Pickup with no extra noise
- Master Volume and Tone controls
- Mahogany body and neck
- Gretsch quality instrument
- Best Lap Steel that doesn’t cost $1000+
- Shipping damage seems common.
Rogue RLS-1 Lap Steel Guitar
We’d recommend you steer clear of most budget lap steel guitars, not so with the Rogue RLS-1!
The hardwood body and neck are much better than what we’d expect to find on an instrument this price, and the telecaster pickup has a bit of a buzz to it, but that is fairly common with any single coil electric.
The biggest thing we noticed, and other reviews agreed, the legs a weak! Be very careful not to bump this thing while you are playing if you’ve got the legs extended.
It’s a budget option. No, it’s not as good of an instrument as the Gretsch, but budget options for most of the stringed instruments we cover aren’t nearly this good and when talking about guitars, they generally cost more too!
- Great Budget Lap Steel Guitar
- Telecaster style pickup
- Hardwood body and neck
- Good Volume and Tone Controls
- Will need upgrades
- Has a bit of a hum when plugged in
Recording King Lap Steel Guitar
The Recording King Lap Steel guitar looks like a ukulele, until you lay it down and show it’s true function! The natural look to the mahogany finish is understated but classic.
The P90 pickup is the same one that is equipped on the SX, and out of the three pickups on these instruments is our favorite. That being said, we prefer the humbukers on our electric guitars as well!
The solid mahogany body sounds as you’d expect, and the string-through construction is well done.
We noticed some bad shipping and damage reviews when we were looking around, but our instrument came to us in good condition. We did take it to our local shop to get it set up though. While we were there we replaced the cheap plastic volume and tone pots that came equipped.
- P90 Pickup
- Solid Mahogany construction
- String Through Body Design
- Classic Look
- Volume and Tone Pots were super cheap
Types of Lap Steel Guitars
Just like with an acoustic or electric guitar, Lap Steels have a wide array of options. The most common difference is something we already touched on. The Lap steel guitar is actually different than a pedal steel, which has legs and is larger. The SX on our list is a good example of this!
Once we’ve made it past that, there are three main types of lap steel guitar you’ll likely run across!
Acoustic Lap Steel
Made of wood and is the earliest design, it was modeled after existing guitars in the 19th century, but was made to be played with the guitar lying flat. Most of these instruments will feature and adjustable bridge which raises the strings higher off the fretboard.
Electric Lap Steel
A pickup is added to these guitars, which allows more freedom in the design. This is due to the fact that a resonant chamber is not needed, like an acoustic guitar does.
With an electric lap steel guitar you will need an amp to produce sound though, which does increase the initial investment a little and should be factored into purchasing decisions.
Dobro Lap Steel
The Dobro style is designed with an inverted steel cone called a resonator fitted to make the guitar louder. These also tend to have a square head. If you want extra sound, but don’t want to play an electric, this is a perfect mix!
C6 Tuning and Other Variations
Tuning is an interesting point to touch on, as it does not use standard tuning like a normal guitar. Lap steel guitars are commonly shipped in Open G (D-G-D-G-B-D) but the most common configuration may be C6 tuning.
C6, from lowest to highest it is, E-C-G-E-C-A. The C6 tuning is very common with country or Western Swing styles of music, but we know several people who play in Hawaiian bands with this tuning.
We’ve also seen lap steels tuned to Open D, Open E and Open A. Occasionally you will see a lap steel tuned to “High G”, where the 6th string is tuned up to “G”, rather than down to “D”.
How to Play a Lap Steel Guitar
Lap steel guitars, as the name would suggest, rest in your lap face up as they are played. The strings are not pressed down into a fret when sounding a note though, the musician playing holds a glass or metal slide called a steel or a tone bar. This bar moves along the neck to change the instrument’s pitch as notes are strummed or picked with the other hand.
This slide type playing style is great for many forms of music and helps the musician switch pitch and notes extremely quickly! Occasionally you’ll see a stand up electric guitar employing this technique as well.
Lap Steel Guitar Buying Guide
So, the instruments on our list didn’t quite peak your interest. We get it. There are plenty of solid instruments that we didn’t have time, space, or budget to review! In this next section we’ll dive into what we are looking for when shopping for the best lap steel gutiar!
The tonewood is an important part of a lap steel. The wood selection is pretty wide, but mahogany is the common tonewood. Another option would be maple or ash.
Try to stay away from laminate wood, plastics, or composite materials. These might work with an electric lap steel guitar, but sound really bad acoustically and are generally low quality.
Along with tonewood, pickups can make a big difference in sound. A humbucker in a mahogany body will sound different to the same body with a single-coil or a P90. Ultimately, pickups come down to what the guitar will be used for.
This is one of the biggest differences between the instruments on our list and ones that cost 3-5x as much! If you want more information on pickups, our electric guitar buying guides are packed with information!
There are many styles for these guitars, with some of the most common being a full body acoustic shape, dobro and Hawaiian style. You also have your choice between lap steel or pedal steel!
Volume and Tone Controls
Electric or acoustic-electric guitars will have a knob for both tone and volume, and some may have knobs to control treble and bass. A three-way switch is standard for guitars with two pickups.
Is the Lap Steel Easy to Learn?
Learning to play a new instrument can be an enjoyable undertaking or even adventurous. This includes lap steel guitar. Things like chords, strumming and playing speed can be learning fairly quickly.
There is plenty that will come with time and experience though, learning what you can do with the different tunings is one thing players can always keep learning. It can be hard to learn certain techniques and players tend to struggle with slide, it is a particularly difficult method at times. The player must learn to mute strings at the same time as controlling the pitch. But overall, learning to play a lap steel guitar is a rewarding experience.
Last update on 2021-05-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API