Lap steel guitar. Hawaiian guitar. Lap slide. Weissenborn. Not a pedal steel. If you have landed on this page I assume you too have an interest in this instrument. Here follows my personal story with the lap steel, and some musings and gear geekery.
In 2005, in Brighton, England - where I lived at the time - an elderly, slightly drunk gentleman on a bus started talking to me about lap steel. He had spotted my guitar cases, and started waving his hands across his lap, stating how much he liked the "Hawaiian" guitar. This led me to buying an old lap steel on eBay (a 1947 National New Yorker) and the lap steel has been a huge part of my life ever since.
When I think how many doors this little instrument has opened for me, how many great people I have met because of it, I can do nothing but be grateful for boarding that particular bus, and not another one 5 minutes earlier or later.
Everyone and their uncle plays guitar. But the lap steel is an oddity. "What's that?" people often ask about my baritone Weissenborn, which kind of looks like a boat. And I am lucky that I quickly found my own voice with this instrument. Most people play country, blues, Hawaiian, Western Swing on a lap steel. I discovered this G-minor tuning that somehow felt like home and I started making up my own style of lap sliding songs, at a time when I was fed up with bashing my head against the wall in the fickle music industry with my old band Frock. I started making music for the right reasons again, not caring what anyone thought of it. Then some people liked it, which was nice and encouraging, and my life in music took off again.
What's so great about the lap steel then? For me, it is how expressive it is. How sensitive to the touch. How evocative it can sound. And I love the old instruments, the first baby steps of the electric guitar back in the 1930s, when the lap steel was the guitar. The first ever electric guitar was the Rickenbacher frypan, patented in 1932. I have two lap steels from the 1930s myself, both stunning instruments, and very much art deco in their design - a 1937 National New Yorker (inspired in design by the Empire State Building, and with extra pickups hidden under the fretboard) and a 1939 Vega console (which has a sort of humbucker pickup which sounds great, many years before Gibson made the "first" humbucker). Great instruments from back when things were made to last. And affordable today, in comparison to vintage "regular" guitars, as the lap steel is not as widely popular today as it was from the onset of the Hawaiian music craze in 1915 and until the pedal steel moved in and took over in country music.
And the acoustic lap steel. How raw, earthy and growly it sounds. That was what really hooked me, the 1930s Oahu student model acoustic steel I found on eBay for $81. The neck was warped like a banana, but it sounded (still does) fantastic. That got me into the Weissenborns, and to eventually asking Paddy Burgin in New Zealand to build me a baritone one back in 2008, with the same scale length as a cello.
And the people! Guitarist can be a very competitive bunch, while lap steelers seems more likely to be gentle, sharing, generous creatures. When I got that first lap steel in the post back in 2005, and opened the parcel, that was the first time I picked up a lap steel guitar. And I knew no one who could teach me how to play it. So the internet, and the Steel Guitar Forum in particular, was where I started to gather information about tunings and techniques, shared generously by players (mainly in the USA but from all over the world), some of whom had played since the 1930s. And when I started to share some recordings and videos of my playing, the support and encouragement from the lap steel community was enormous. Some of my best friends I have met via a shared interest in lap steel. And things like nervously sitting in with US band Hazmat Modine when I had only played steel for 2 years, realising that James Williamson of Iggy & The Stooges had bought my first lap steel album and getting to meet him and to see The Stooges play numerous times (not to mention James guesting on a Kinbom & Kessner recording!), getting to play the Barbican in London with award-winning, now sadly deceased, Aboriginal Australian artist Gurrumul, making music with the brilliant and sadly missed James Cruickshank - well, I've got the lap steel and that bus ride to thank for all that.
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