Photo by Andy Ellis
If you have a flattop acoustic or an electric 6-string gathering dust under the bed, here’s a thought: Why not convert it into a lap slide guitar? The project is simple and you can pull it off for about $25, including a fresh set of strings. Best of all, it’s completely reversible, so if you decide lap slide isn’t for you, no worries—you can return your instrument to its original state in a matter of minutes. But once you start exploring swampy lap slide licks and grooves—as well as the open tunings that make them possible—you may not want to turn back. And instead of acquiring yet another overdrive pedal, you might start collecting tone bars. (They’re very addictive, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.) We’ll dive deeper into bars in a moment.
Here’s a bit of background info, in case you’re new to the world of lap slide. This form of slide differs from bottleneck guitar in several important ways. For starters, the hand position for bottleneck resembles standard guitar—your thumb rests behind the neck and your fingers curl up over the strings from the treble side. And most guitarists are familiar with the hollow slide or bottleneck that encircles one of your fretting fingers.
Photo 1 — Photo by Andy Ellis
To play lap style, however, you lay the guitar flat and engage the strings from above using a solid cylindrical bar (sometimes called a “steel”) that’s gripped with what we’re used to thinking of as the fretting hand (Photo 1). Because the bar is heavier than a bottleneck slide, the strings are raised high off the neck—too high to allow any fretwork.
This overhand approach offers several benefits, including the ability to slant the bar to hit intervals that are impossible to reach with standard bottleneck slide. For example, with practice you’ll be able to use a slanted bar to play fluid major and minor sixths—a staple of Memphis soul, country, and blues. You’ll also be able to play blazing licks by rapidly alternating between “bar notes” and open strings, à la bluegrass Dobro. Here, speed comes from your wrist, not your fingers, and this opens up a host of possibilities for rapid riffage.
Almost all lap slide guitarists play fingerstyle—some with bare fingertips, some with fingerpicks—and like skilled bottleneck players, they use the picking hand for both plucking and muting the strings.
Photo 2 — Photo by Andy Ellis
We’ll draft two guitars to demonstrate the conversion process: a Fender Telecoustic with a wood top and one-piece fiberglass body, and an early-’80s Kramer electric with an aluminum neck and Gibson 490T humbucker. Photo 2 gives you an idea of what your guitar will look like after it’s transformed. Notice how high the strings are raised off the fretboard, and also how widely the strings are spaced at the nut. In fact, string spacing is virtually uniform from bridge to headstock.
Photo 3 — Photo by Andy Ellis
Flattop conversion. We’ll start with the acoustic guitar, which is a bit trickier than an electric. You’ll need two items for this project—an arched metal extension nut and a bone saddle blank (Photo 3). The extension nut sits atop the regular nut and jacks the strings up off the fretboard, and the tall bone saddle accomplishes the same task at the bridge. Your local music store might stock extension nuts, and they’re also available online. You can pick up the type shown here for as little as $4, and Grover makes a deluxe model for around $9.