Best Lap Steel Guitars

Updated March 2020
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

17 Models Considered
5 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
208 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best lap steel guitars

Last Updated March 2020

The Allman Brothers. Led Zeppelin. John Fogerty. Sonny Rhodes. All legendary artists with their own iconic sounds, but they’re tied together by their love of a common instrument — the lap steel guitar. Lap steel guitars create a unique, harmonious sound that’s perfect for rock, country, and blues, but they take a skilled player to wield properly. 

Lap steels differ from normal guitars in several ways. The most obvious is they’re played horizontally, either on the performer’s lap or supported by a console and legs. Also, instead of playing by pressing the strings down onto the neck (fretting), lap steel strings are raised much higher off the neck to accommodate playing with a tone bar. These bars, often called steels, are pressed against the strings and moved around to change pitch. They’re made from brass, nickel-coated brass, glass, or ceramic materials. 

Traditionally, guitarists start with conventional six-strings before moving onto lap steel instruments, but don’t let that discourage you from making the music you want to make. Lap steel guitars can be fantastic creative outlets for beginners, and if you stick with it, you’ll stand out as one of the few lap steel players around. 

Lap steel guitars are not usually tuned in standard tuning, E–A–D–G–B–E, low to high. Instead, they are tuned to an open chord, which sounds as if you are playing a fretted chord when you play the strings open. A common example is C6 tuning, C–E–G–A–C–E.

Key considerations

Style

There are three main styles of lap steel guitars: acoustic, national (Dobro), and electric. Each offers a completely different tone and playing feel.  

Acoustic lap steel guitars somewhat resemble a nylon-stringed Spanish guitar, but the strings are much higher than normal. Originally, these were called “Hawaiian guitars,” as Hawaiian artists popularized the lap steel playing style in the late 1800s. These guitars are played horizontally and offer warm, mellow, and extremely rich tones

National lap steel guitars (also known as Dobro guitars) stand out for their outward-facing resonator cone, which is made of metal and sits right underneath the strings. The resulting sound is loud, bright, and extremely sustainable for blues and folk music. 

Electric lap steel guitars come with built-in pickups and are designed to be plugged into amplifiers. They don’t require any hollow resonant chambers because of this, but some boast a hollow-body design anyway for a full tone. These instruments look very different than other types of lap steels or even traditional guitars, as they’re more rectangular in shape. It’s worth noting that this category also includes the console steel guitar, an electric, lap-played model fitted inside a housing. These guitars can equip multiple necks and are supported by legs. 

Wood type

Every part of your instrument plays a role in its overall tone, including the strings, hardware, pickups, and even paint. The wood it’s made from has the highest impact, as different woods vibrate differently and produce completely different levels of sustain, treble, bass, and mids. Maple, for example, is a great choice for guitar necks as it’s very strong, produces solid sustain, and looks beautiful when left unpainted. Mahogany elicits a warmer timbre with loads of bottom end, which is great for rock and blues. Ash is another popular one, as it’s lightweight, aesthetically pleasing, produces firm bass notes, and has plenty of bite in the midrange for lead lines.

DID YOU KNOW?

A close relative of the lap steel guitar is the pedal steel guitar. Like some lap steel models, pedal steel instruments are housed inside consoles and supported by legs. As the name implies, they feature pedals and knee levers to bend and slur notes.

Features

Extended range

A standard guitar has six strings, but lap steels are commonly available in eight- and 10-string layouts to extend the instrument’s range. Some console-mounted models have multiple necks with even more strings. Put simply, the more strings you have, the wider tonal possibilities there are, resulting in some incredible lead solos and dynamic rhythm lines. Playing difficulty increases with the number of strings, however, so a six-string model is usually recommended for beginners. 

Tremolo systems

Lap steel guitars do not commonly come with the tremolo systems found on standard electrics since using a bar already affords the player tons of opportunities to slide, blur, and bend notes together. They are out there though, notably on vintage instruments, and they allow you to add vibrato to open strings, a capability missing from most lap steels. If you’re interested in taking your sound to the next level, seek out a guitar with a tremolo system. Some players refer to these systems as “whammy bars.”

Cases

Guitars are a significant investment, so we always recommend purchasing a hard shell case to protect yours. Soft gig bags offer some protection from scuffs and scrapes, but if you plan on gigging or touring with yours, a solid case is definitely the way to go. 

DID YOU KNOW?

Believe it or not, traditional guitars can be modified into DIY lap steel guitars. This is accomplished with something called a “nut extender,” which raises the strings high above the fretboard to accommodate lap steel playing.

Lap steel guitar prices

Lap steel guitars can be difficult to master, but thankfully, they’re priced quite well compared to larger acoustic and electric models. Low-volume, custom, and vintage models out there can cost thousands of dollars, but for the most part, lap steels reside in the $100 to $500 range. 

Inexpensive: For about $100, you can get your hands on a basic electric lap steel for country, blues, rock, and Hawaiian-style music. Don’t expect flashy designs and complex electronics in this category, but sometimes, a basic rectangular shape and a single pickup will do. Many products in this category are sold as starter packs as well and may include a gig bag and a stand. 

Mid-range: Spend $200 and you notice an increase in the quality of construction materials and electronics, and less of the buzzing and poor intonation of lower-quality models. Additionally, these models typically have a bit more design flair to them rather than falling back on the basic rectangular shape. 

Expensive: At $500 or more, you can find ornately-designed lap steel guitars, electro-acoustic hybrid models, console-mounted models, and the best of the best in terms of build quality and onboard electronics. 

Can’t find a bar? Look around — you may have a fitting replacement. Duane Allman famously used a glass pill bottle as a substitute, and Ry Cooder cut the necks off bottles of sherry. Blues guitarist CeDell Davis even used a butter knife.

Tips

  • Always store your lap steel guitar in a hard case to protect it from damage. Additionally, store it away from rapid temperature changes, as this can warp wood and cause corrosion to form on metal parts.

  • Your strings last significantly longer if you wipe them clean when you’re done playing. Doing this removes the moisture and oils transferred by your hands and reduces degradation. 

  • Lap steel guitars can be played with a finger pick or your bare fingertips. Picks are typically louder and brighter, while fingerpicking produces a more subtle, muted tone. Experiment with both styles to find your sound. 

  • Muting is a crucial technique to master when playing lap steel guitars. Muting involves holding the bar between your second and third fingers while supporting it with your thumb. You other fingers “follow” the bar up and down the neck, dampening unwanted noises or buzzing as you play. 

Other products we considered

Lap steel guitars have been around since the late 1800s, so it’s no surprise there’s an impressive amount of variety on the market. We were impressed by the simplicity and value of SX Lap 2 Electric Lap Steel Guitar. Its straightforward layout and mid-range-heavy ash body is a perfect fit for beginners.

On the acoustic side, Weissenborn Style Electric Lap Steel Hawaiian Guitar boasts a classic look and feel but features has an internal pickup system for amplified playing. 

Lap steel guitars have strong roots in Hawaiian music, and they are widely reported to have been invented by 17-year-old Hawaiian Joseph Kekuku in 1889. Today, acoustic Hawaiian models are still extremely prominent.

FAQ

Q. What type of bar should I use? 
A. The type of bar you choose depends on your chosen genre and playing style. Glass bars are actually made with pyrex the majority of the time, though tempered glass versions are out there. Glass bars provide a smooth, warm tone. By contrast, brass bars illicit brighter sound with maximum sustain, and they can be coated in chrome or nickel to boost crispness. Finally, ceramics can create a variety of tones depending on the glaze type and sit between glass and brass in terms of weight. Choose the bar with the best fit for your style.

Q. Is maintenance on a lap steel guitar different than on a traditional guitar?
A. Lap steel guitars require a bit more love and care than their conventional cousins. Changing strings can be more involved, as lap steels can have additional strings and even multiple necks. Guitars with steel resonators require different polish than wood models. Pedal steel guitars also require regular lubrication on their rollers and pedal assemblies, as well as regular adjustments to various strings and pull bars.  

Q. Do lap steel guitars require different strings?
A. Technically, a lap steel guitar can be played perfectly well with standard, roundwound strings. That being said, some players find the roundwound design to produce a disagreeable scratchy vibrato noise when played with a bar. As a solution, many lap steel players use flatwound strings, which have a smoother profile for less noise. They do produce a duller tone than roundwound strings, which presents a dilemma. Thankfully, semi-flatwound strings do exist, so it’s wise to buy yourself a set of each to see where your preference lies.  

The team that worked on this review
  • Andrew
    Andrew
    Writer
  • Ciera
    Ciera
    Digital Content Producer
  • Lauren
    Lauren
    Writer
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Melissa
    Melissa
    Senior Editor
  • Steph
    Steph
    Web Producer

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