I’m getting a lap steel guitar soon. I can’t wait. In the meantime, I’ll share some information regarding steel guitars.
A steel is a name for the metal slide used when playing guitar horizontally, e.g. on your lap. Thus, any guitar that can be played with a steel bar is a steel guitar. The name steel guitar has nothing to do with what material was used to build the guitar. In fact, the first steel guitars were made from wood and originated in Hawaii. Although the term steel is from the metal first used for slides, they can be made from other materials such as Nickel-plated brass.
An early commercial wood body guitar for playing in the lap was the Weissenborn. One of the features of Weissenborn guitars is a hollow neck which adds to the unique sound. Reproductions of Weissenborn guitars are currently being made by several companies including Gold Tone and Imperial Guitars.
John Dopyera invented the resonator guitar and the first model he built was a tricone. George Beauchamp and John Dopyera founded the National Guitar company. They made both round neck tricones and square neck models for playing lap steel. The early square neck tricones had hollow metal necks with brass bodies plated in German Silver.
Tricone guitars have three spun aluminum cones to amplify the sound non-electrically. The second type of resonator guitar to come out of National had a single cone with a biscuit bridge. The cone faced into the body the same as with the tricone. National made square neck models of this design too, but all biscuit bridge resonators made today are round neck guitars. The round neck, biscuit bridge resonator guitar is great for playing slide (I once owned a National Style O) but isn’t a lap steel guitar.
The third resonator design invented by Dopyera has become the most popular style of acoustic steel guitar. It was made when John Dopyera and his brother started a competing company to National. The company’s name came from Dopyera Brothers and was called Dobro. Their dobro guitar design uses a single cone that faces out instead of in. The bridge has eight legs and looks like a stylized spider web. It is called a spider bridge.
Gibson once made Hawaiian acoustic lap steel guitars. But if you want to play slide on a conventional-looking wood body guitar you either need to customize it yourself or get a luthier to build one. Many decades ago I played around with turning my acoustic guitar into a lap slide by purchasing a nut raiser to bring the strings farther from the fingerboard.
The first commercial electric guitar was the frying pan design from Rickenbacker. The same George Beauchamp who founded National Guitar with John Dopyera, teamed up with Adolph Rickenbacker to make the first electric lap steel guitar. Rickenbacker had supplied the metal bodies for National Guitars.
Electric lap steel guitars and pedal steel guitars, though related, are not the same. Pedal steel guitars use foot and knee pedals to change the pitch of strings so the guitar can play a wider range of chords. Lap steel guitars can only play chords from the same fret or by slanting the bar over the strings—but once the guitar is tuned, the tonality of the chords is limited.
A standard electric lap steel guitar has six strings. But there are also eight and ten string designs and some of these are combined in double and triple neck models to allow for different tunings and more chord options.
The scale length of resonator guitars including Dobro spider-bridge models is the same as standard guitars or about 25 inches. Most (but not all) electric lap steel guitar have a shorter scale length of between 21.5 and 23.5 inches. One reason I’ve read for the shorter scale is to make it easier to play slant chords. However, some current makers, such as Asher, have a 25 inch scale.
Although I’ve ordered a commercially made lap steel guitar made by Recording King, an electric steel guitar is fairly simple. It’s just a slab of wood, metal bridge, and nut, tuners, a pickup, pots, jack, and wires. I no longer have a shop but I had considered building one from scratch. You can find DIY designs for lap steel guitars on the internet. If you enjoy woodworking and guitars it might be a good project while in isolation—or anytime.