I don’t remember what drove me to my first lap steel. Maybe I needed a new sound for a song my band was working on, or perhaps I just felt like my guitar playing was in a rut. Whatever the reason, once I discovered it I was instantly hooked.
I started with an old Electromuse (it looked like a boat paddle), and then had to figure out what to do with it, and so I commenced the seemingly endless quest for the right tuning, picks, bar, and tone. Now, this was before we all had the Interwebs at our fingertips (back when I’d visit the library once a week to review the three emails I’d acquired since last login), so how-to videos via youtube simply were not an option. I was left to my own devices.
I plunked away on my steel, but I was missing something. My sound was thin, and noisy, and out of tune…nothing like what I was hearing in my head. I chipped away at it without much luck, until I met Spider Webb Welten.
Willbern “Spider Webb” Welten owned a music store in Sparta, IL (also noteworthy as the film-shooting locale for some scenes from the original movie version of In The Heat Of The Night). Welton’s was a small, quirky store that shared its quarters with a wig shop/hair salon run by his wife, and it featured a few glass counters, about twelve guitars wrapped in plastic (for that cozy, backwoods, Invasion of the Body Snatchers ambiance), and some miscellaneous cases which, I would soon find out, housed lap steels and pedal steels.
Upon my first visit I took in the air, tainted with the chemical aroma of hair product, as a skinny, elderly man came out from the back and asked how he could help me. As soon as I told him I was looking for a set of steel strings, the old man perked up. ” C6TH, E9TH or both?” he inquired, and I could already tell I was in way over my head. “Uh…it’s for a lap steel?” The old man frowned and corrected me, “it’s not a ‘lap steel,’ it’s a straight steel, son” and he walked behind the counter and pulled out a pack of 6-string “straight steel” strings. Then he took out a card and scratched down A/C#/E/A/C#/E, with the words ” Top A Tuning ” underneath. As I paid for my strings, I asked if he had any other tips. In the course of the next hour, Webb pulled out three lap steels (straight steels), three pedal steels, an assortment of finger picks, and a magazine that had his picture on the cover. I realized that this was the guy, and I had happened to find him in middle-of-nowhere-southern-Illinois by complete chance.
Following are some of the tips that I learned from Spider Webb that day. These small nuggets of information that the steel guru shared have been invaluable, and I hope they will also help you on your journey to steel enlightenmen:
- Get some heavier strings. Most steels come with fairly light strings, but thin strings equal thin tone, and this is especially true for the lap steel (which is the name I still call it by…sorry Webb). I typically use a custom gauge that consists of .056-.016, and I feel they produce a nice, fat tone, whether played clean or overdriven.
- Use two metal finger picks and a plastic thumb pick. This is the key to speed and articulation, and will help you cut through a band better than simply using your fingers. I prefer a medium Pro-Pic that is heavy enough that I can barely bend it, and a heavy, large National thumb pick. I often use a lighter, blue Herco pick, which I also use for the banjo and the pedal steel, because I’m too lazy to carry multiple thumb picks with me, but the heavy Nationals give me a much fuller tone. Fingers without picks can give you a really great tone as well, so you may experiment both ways.
- Keep your fingers on the strings behind the bar. This was a huge eye-opener for me, as it allowed me to get a truly defined tone without any noise. It also helps to keep the bar straight and accurate for better intonation.
- Play on the line. This takes a little time to get used to, but you always want to keep your bar directly over the fret marker. Playing in the space will cause you to be flat.
- It’s not fine china, so don’t be afraid to use some pressure and push down on the strings with the bar. You will get a much better tone this way.
- Use a volume pedal. Starting with the pedal about 20-30% engaged will give you plenty of room to add sustain to notes when needed.
- Use vibrato the way a singer would. Play the note clear and solid, and then add a slow vibrato by rolling and moving the bar back and forth. This is one of the more difficult techniques to learn, and it takes some time to accomplish.
Here are a couple of videos of me playing the Airline Lap Steel Guitar, available from www.eastwoodguitars.com for only $349:
1) Hawaiian Tone
2) Kick Butt Blues Tone:
I’ve owned two of Eastwood’s Airline lap steels, and I believe they are the best steel on the market for the money. The Airline has plenty of string height at the nut, and a bit wider string spacing than other steels in the same price range. The body has plenty of mass and weight, giving the steel a great tone, both clean and driven. Add a bit of delay and fuzz for an over the top tone, or try some modulation effects or a POG for a cool organ effect.
Written by: Dave Anderson