In our never-ending quest to become better players, it sometimes makes sense to put down the guitar and pick up another instrument. I’m not talking about detouring into the world of oboe or harpsichord—got a decade or two to spare?—but rather exploring guitar’s close cousin, the lap steel.
If you’re a “steel-curious” guitarist or bassist (FYI, John Paul Jones plays wicked lap steel) looking for a reason to take the first step, this lesson is for you. We’ll cover the essentials of bar control and muting, grapple with playing in tune, drill down on slurs and vibrato, and even try some slant-bar techniques. You’ll hear each example demonstrated on an early-’50s Fender Deluxe 6, and you can download a PDF of the music to work on at your leisure.
Whether you use it as a source of spooky colors in the studio or drag it onstage for wailing solos, adding lap steel to your arsenal can yield huge musical dividends. It doesn’t cost a lot to take the plunge (check out “Got Steel?”), and no other new gear is required—your pedals and amps will sound as awesome with lap steel as they do with your guitar.
Keep It Simple
Non-pedal steel guitars have either six or eight strings that are played in a mind-boggling number of tunings, and some lap steels even have two or three necks to accommodate multiple tunings. Although those multi-neck creatures are a ball to play, we’ll keep things straightforward in this lesson and focus exclusively on the most basic of all steel guitars: a single-neck 6-string.
Choosing a tuning is tricky because it often comes down to what style of music you decide to play. For example, most Western swing players use C6 on a 6-string neck, while Hawaiian players may prefer an A6 tuning. Open E tuning is a favorite among blues and rock steelers (as well as such bottleneck greats as Derek Trucks), and that’s what we’ll explore in this lesson.
But don’t stress about specific tunings in the early stages of your steel development. The key is to start somewhere and branch out with other tunings as you gain confidence. The essential techniques we’ll cover here will serve you well on any steel in any tuning—even if you eventually wind up behind a behemoth doubleneck 10-string pedal steel.
Open E Tuning
Before we begin grappling with bar control, muting, and intonation drills, let’s tune up. From low to high, open E tuning is E–B–E–G#–B–E. You’ll notice that in open E, the 6th, 2nd, and 1st strings are identical to standard guitar. A-ha! This 50-percent common ground will help you navigate the neck if you’ve never played in open E before.
Tip: If you have a tuner that offers alternatives to equal temperament, try tuning to open E using just intonation (aka JI). Some steel guitarists swear by JI for playing fretless in an open tuning.
Get a Grip
Steel guitar is all about the tonebar, which is also known as simply a “bar” or sometimes a “steel.” Bars come in different sizes and materials, but traditionally steelers use a metal cylinder with a rounded tip or “bullet nose.” Most modern bars have a concave thumb grip on the butt end, and you’ll see how handy that is when you try slant-bar moves later in the lesson.
The basic grip: The bar sits in your left-hand palm, nestled between the first and second
fingers and supported by the thumb.
Hold the bar in your open left-hand palm, nestled between your first and second fingers and supported by your thumb. Cupping the bar with these three digits, turn your hand over and place the bar gently but firmly on the strings, perpendicular to them and parallel to the fret markers (Photo 1). These markers map the locations of chromatic notes up and down each string—no mystery here, if you play guitar or bass.
The bar gets supported in three ways: By your thumb, which rides up off the strings while gently squeezing the front side of the bar, your index finger which rests on top of the bar, and by your pinky, ring, and middle fingers that sit lightly on the strings behind the bar and provide back pressure against your thumb.
Here’s our basic bar grip as seen from the headstock side of the neck. Notice how three digits trail behind the bar, resting lightly on the strings. In addition to providing extra bar support, they dampen unwanted noises as you move
along the strings.
Though they’re handy visual references, fret markers don’t tell the whole story. Because your viewing angle shifts as you move the bar up or down the strings, you can’t really see where its miniscule contact point sits relative to the fret marker. Experienced steelers play by ear, not by sight. (Learning to trust your ears to guide your left hand while executing split-second moves is a skill you can bring back to guitar.)
Muting—the Key to Steel Bliss
When you first start running a tonebar along the strings, things can sound pretty gnarly, but that’s where muting comes in. No, let me describe it differently: Muting is crucial to mastering steel, and each hand plays an important and unique role.
In our basic grip, three digits trail behind the bar, and they do double duty. In addition to providing bar support, they glide lightly along the strings dampening unwanted noises as you move around the neck.