Lap Steel Guitars
As one of the first commercially sold solid-body stringed instruments in history, the lap steel guitar has played a prominent part in the history of music since it was introduced. Derived from the guitar, its unique slide-based playing technique has helped make waves in every genre of music from country, bluegrass, and even contemporary rock n' roll. While not as prominent as the electric guitar, its influence on popular music cannot be denied.
Prominent musicians of our time have recognized the musicality possible with lap steel guitars. These players include John Lennon, David Gilmour, Jeff Buckley, Jordan Rudess, and John Paul Jones just to name a few. These influential musicians also happened to shape the sound of rock n' roll as we know it today, lending to the often misunderstood tenure and longevity of this specialty stringed instrument.
History of the Lap Steel Guitar
The lap steel as many know it today had its beginnings in Hawaii as somewhat of an indigenous instrument, and was discovered by a Hawaiian schoolboy named Joseph Kekuku. The story has it that he walked along a railroad track one day, and picked up a small bolt lying by the side of the tracks. He slid this bolt along the strings of the guitar, and was intrigued by the sound. He soon integrated other metal objects into his playing, such as the back of his knife blade.
Other people have also been credited with the invention of the lap steel guitar, and it is still not clear who truly came up with the idea. One of these people is Gabriel Davion, an Indian sailor who moonlighted as an occasional musician. Another person credited with the invention of the lap steel guitar was James Hoa, another Hawaiian who was also part Portuguese.
Musicians in the United States soon took notice of the instrument, and spread throughout the country in the early 1900's. By 1930, it was used prominently by many music groups at the time, and the country's fascination with the lap steel guitar grew even deeper. Record companies at the time not only put out large volumes of Hawaiian music at the time, but American music that utilized the lap steel guitar.
This popularity experienced by the lap steel guitar also gave notice to many flaws in the design, such as the instrument not being heard over other band instruments. A commercially available solution to this problem became widely available in the 1930s from a company that would later be known as Rickenbacker. The patented A22 lap steel design was the first amplified electric guitar to be mass produced in history, pre-dating the Gibson Les Paul. This design from Rickenbacker was also colloquially known as the “frying pan” due to its long neck and round body.
Other instruments to follow in the footsteps of the lap steel guitar were the Dobro and pedal steel guitar, which are still closely associated with Hawaiian, bluegrass,s and country music today. This is not to say that they are strictly limited to those genres; contemporary hard rock, blues, and jazz players have also taken notice of the lap steel guitar and the unique sounds it produces, as well as the other instruments derived from the lap steel guitar.
Method of Operation
True to its name, the lap steel guitar was typically played while on the player's lap. Stands and mounts also exist for this instrument should the player be more comfortable playing the instrument while it is slightly elevated, or while standing up. The metal slide which is what the “steel” refers to in the lap steel guitar name is used in the left hand, and is moved along the strings on the neck to change the instrument's pitch. The right hand is then used to pick or pluck the strings to make music.
The plectrum, or pick, is usually affixed to the picking hand thumb, and sometimes to the other 4 fingers of the hand. The other picks affixed to the hand can offer more control when playing larger amounts of notes at a time, especially with country or bluegrass. Sometimes, a player can chose to pluck the strings with the bare hand in order to achieve a lighter attack on playing the notes.
The unfretted design of specialty lap steel guitars often make the need for a good slide or steel more important. However, designs made on instruments derived from the original lap steel guitar such as the Dobro and resonator guitars have made fretted string instruments capable of being played with a slide, and is sometimes more desirable with people more used to a guitar's profile and playability.
Famous Players of Lap Steel Guitars
Early adapters of the lap steel guitar such as Harmon Davis have helped to propel the lap steel guitar into popularity not just with Hawaiian, country, and bluegrass but with other genres of music as well. A good example of this would be John Paul Jones, famously known as the bassist of hard rock legends Led Zepplin, as well as his recent works with Them Crooked Vultures, where he plays along with contemporary rock legends Dave Grohl and Josh Homme.
John Lennon also used a lap steel on some of the Beatles records. Players such as Joe Perry from Aerosmith also saw the potential of the lap steel guitar in modern rock recordings, and utilized it to full effect in some songs.