Photo 9 — Photo by Andy Ellis
Installing the extension nut. Slip the extension nut in place and center it, drop the strings into their respective slots, and then add tension to both outside strings to hold the new nut in place. It will extend over each side of the fretboard—that’s okay (Photo 9).
Now choose an open tuning and bring the strings to pitch. Don’t worry if string tension shifts the arched nut slightly to one side or the other, that’s normal. Gently tap the sides of the extension nut so the strings run parallel to the fretboard.
Lap slide tunings abound, but a solid place to start is with open D and open G—the classic blues and rock slide tunings—referenced here to standard. It’s easy to transform both these major tunings to their respective minor versions: To turn open D into open Dm, simply drop the 3rd string a half-step from F# to F. Likewise for open Gm, drop the 2nd string from B to Bb.
Yay, we’re done—it’s time to play! For inspiration, check out “The Slide Guitar of Kelly Joe Phelps.” This short video offers highlights from a superb HomeSpun instructional DVD, and it’s a great way to glimpse the potential of lap slide and see how it differs from bottleneck.
Once your guitar settles in for a few days and you sense it can handle a little extra tension, try increasing the gauges of the 1st and 2nd strings—the two plain ones—to .014 and .018, respectively. This increased girth helps support the bar and adds more booty to your melody notes.
Photo 10 — Photo by Andy Ellis
Electric conversion. This is easy, and all you need is the metal extension nut and a tool to adjust your saddles if they offer individual height adjustment. We’ll start by restringing with heavier strings—a .012 or .013 set is ideal. As before with the acoustic, put on all six strings and add enough tension to align them, but leave enough slack so you can slip the arched nut over the original one. Follow the previous instructions for installing the nut. After it’s in place (Photo 10), tighten all the strings to eliminate any slack, but don’t bring them to pitch quite yet.
Photo 11 — Photo by Andy Ellis
Once the extension nut is secured by string tension, it’s time to focus on the bridge. Like a Strat, our project Kramer has individual height adjustment for each saddle. If your electric has a similar bridge, raise the saddles as high as they can go while still remaining stable. Keep the strings on a flat plane and use a ruler to check your work (Photo 11). As with the bone acoustic saddle, we want to create a level playing surface for the bar.
If you have a Tune-o-matic bridge or a similar unit with fixed saddle height, raise the entire bridge about 1/2" off the body. Keep an eye on the posts—they need to penetrate the bridge enough to keep it stable, so don’t crank it too high. Tune-o-matic bridges are curved to allow their saddles to follow the fretboard radius, and while this is great for fretting, it isn’t ideal for lap slide. However, it won’t be a deal-breaker because the strings will begin to flatten out as they head toward the extension nut.
Tip: If you decide you really love playing lap slide, you can carefully lower the center strings on a TOM bridge to put them on the same plane as the 1st and 6th strings. Using nut slot files, simply deepen the notches holding the center strings. Again, use a ruler to gauge your progress.
After raising the saddles or bridge, you’re ready to tune up and center the extension nut. Finally, raise your pickups a bit to bring them closer to the strings. Choose an open tuning, plug into a grinding amp, and let those licks flow. If you have adjustable pickup pole pieces, listen to the string-to-string balance and tweak accordingly. To see just how gnarly you can get on electric lap slide, watch Ben Harper destroy “Voodoo Chile” before a frenzied festival crowd.
Photo 12 — Photo by Andy Ellis
Bar mania! Tone bars come in different shapes, weights, and materials, including chrome-plated brass, stainless steel, glass, ceramic, polished stone, and anodized aluminum, and Photo 12 illustrates some of the many available options. At the center, surrounded by its modern variants, is the venerable Stevens bar. Preferred by most bluegrass Dobro players and many Weissenborn guitarists, it has a rounded playing surface and grooved sides (or “rails”) to facilitate gripping. The back row includes two bullet-nose chromed cylinders favored by pedal steel guitarists. To their right is a vintage Bakelite beauty dating from the Hawaiian guitar craze of the 1920s. Part of the joy of lap slide lies in experimenting with alternative materials, such as the polished agate bar on the left and the massive-yet-lightweight aircraft aluminum bar on the right.
A rule of thumb: The heavier the bar, the more bass and midrange you’ll get from your strings, but you lose agility with increased weight. Glass, ceramic, and polished stone bars are often lighter than their big stainless-steel counterparts, so they can be easier to move quickly along the strings. Glass may not sound as punchy as steel or brass, but it produces singing highs that work particularly well with distortion.
As with strings and picks, settling on a favorite bar requires a lot of trial and error and many hours of playing. But that’s the whole point, right? Just grab one and see where it leads you. A new sonic world awaits.