Buying a Lap Steel Guitar
By David J. Stewart
If you are serious about sticking with the lap steel guitar, then you should invest in a quality instrument. Some of the top manufacturers I am familiar with are CANOPUS, Jerry Byrd Frypans (and other models from EXCEL). There are several other manufacturers today, but I am not familiar with them. You really don't know what you're buying until you play it.
Here's an MP3 song of me playing What A Friend We Have In Jesus on a Jerry Byrd long-scale S-6 Frypan, with that old-timey style of single note playing and lots of vibrato. I prefer a larger pedal steel bar, which gives me more to grip onto while playing the lap steel. I'm recording with a USB interface directly into MixCraft software on my computer. I made the background track with Band-in-a-Box 2010.5. Here's the track for you to download and play along with yourself or record Enjoy! I shared this with you so you could hear the superb tone of the Jerry Byrd Frypan lap steel. If you'd like to have it, here's the original source file for BIAB to work with it yourself.
Since new non-pedal steels range from $1500 to $4000 for a quality guitar, you might consider buying a quality used steel guitar built between the 1930's and the 1960's. The Bakelite Rickenbachers are considered the Roll's Royce of steel guitars, even today 60 to 80 years after they were built (but they MUST be made of the BAKELITE material). Fenders are classics, made famous by Santo and Johnny (listen to Santo on his Fender steel guitar play Sweet Leilani). National also made excellent sounding steel guitars for decades in Chicago. I love the National New Yorker shaped like the Empire State Building. If you can afford new, then you at least know what you're getting and I'd recommend new. CANOPUS is the premier name in Hawaiian guitars, but you'll pay $2,200 for a S-8 with legs. You get what you pay for. Please don't hold me to price quotes for any guitar as these are all old quotes and continually change with the fluctuating dollar value.
A Jerry Byrd Frypan runs about $1,400 ($1,700 with the legs and case). Always buy the legs and case because the all-aluminum guitar weighs 8 lbs. and will aggravate your legs after extended playing. Besides, the case with the legs is the EXACT same size as the case without the legs. The Jerry Byrd Frypan is a wonderful instrument. Also, I highly recommend that you don't swap out the stock pickup for something else as some players hype. The stock pickups sounds more than nice, it is GREAT!
I prefer the 24 1/2" long scale. The original 1932 Rickenbacher Frypans were models A-22 and A-25, corresponding to their length. I use a BJS birthstone stainless steel pedal steel guitar bar (3 3/8" x 15/16" to play my long-scale, so I can easily do any bar slants that a smaller bar couldn't. I like the feeling of a bigger bar, which is what I became used to playing pedal steel since 1992. It works GREAT for lap steel.
If you're just getting started learning lap steel, here's a fantastic lap steel at an affordable price (pictured to right). It has felt glued underside to keep it from slipping off your lap. Strings mount through the body. The sustain is awesome. It was $199 the last I checked, but was $399 at one time...
(Note: I removed the chrome plate over the bridge so I could do palm muting (just remove the 2 small Philip's screws). I highly recommend that you do the same, or I wouldn't recommend nor buy the guitar. You've got to take the chrome plate off or it restricts your right hand from playing properly and you won't be able to obtain a good tone. Besides, with the cover off, your hand is perfectly positioned away from the tone and volume control. With the cover in place, as you can see, your right hand is already past the controls, thus rendering them useless).
There's just 2 Philip's screws to remove. The pickup is chrome anyway, so you don't need the cover. It looks very nice without the cover and feels much more comfortable being able to place your hand over the bridge or close to it. That chrome plate is terrible. You can hear and watch me play the Jersey Lightning Lap Steel in this video of E MAMA E.
I left the round wound strings on the guitar that came with it and they sound great; but note that the 6th string is about .065" and won't tune up to C# (C6th + A7th) without likely breaking. So you might want to replace the bottom string(s) with slightly smaller gauges.
There are $79 to $99 Artisan or Rogue lap steels, which include the legs and a gig bag (a nice deal); but you won't get anywhere near the quality of sound that an aluminum Frypan or a Rickenbacher Bakelite will give you. The tone is just not there. If you can find any old Bakelite Rickenbacher, buy it! The Silver Hawaiian is pretty, but they don't sound as nice as the Bakelite material. They lack depth of tone. For a sound comparison between the $79 Artisan and the $1700 Jerry Byrd Frypan, listen to some of the musical pieces on this page. People at the beach listening to you won't know the difference, but YOU WILL. It's harder to play good if you don't feel good about the instrument your playing. Yet, due to the possibility of theft, rain damage and being bumped around, you may feel more comfortable bringing a cheap lap steel to the beach or park. I think it's good to have several different steel guitars for different occasions.
I love the old guitars, especially the 7-string NATIONAL lap steels once made made in Chicago, which are shaped like The Empire State Building in New York. Really nice! They have musical notes for fret markings. I've always loved designer fret boards, especially with different colors to help identify frets while playing.
Those Annoying Dots!
I hate a fretboard that just has a bunch of dots. It's difficult to find the proper fret when you're moving quickly in a song and you've got nothing to go by except dots. It's because the people building steel guitars in most cases aren't genuine players. Oh sure they may play a little, but I'm telling you after 20 years of playing to buy a steel guitar that has anything besides dots. My Jerry Byrd Frypan is great because it uses Jerry's name for fret markings. I've got a "D" on the 3rd fret and a "D" on my 15th fret. I've got an "R" on my 5th fret and an "R" on my 17th fret. It matters not if a guitar uses shapes, colors or numbers, just so long as they're not all identical, because then you have no real accurate point of reference.
I have a 1937 Silver Hawaiian that is annoying to play because it only has dots. I'm thinking of changing the fret markings with some kind of stickers. On pedal steel guitars, ShoBuds are great and most other guitars to be honest. It appears that the annoying dots mostly appear on lap steel guitars. My advice to you is to buy a guitar that sounds good first, but do consider the fretboard. I would avoid dots if that's a concern to you. Try to play it, maybe it won't bother you. It does me. I dislike dots.
There's nothing worse than a guitar with just dots, which, sad to say, are the most common. Inlay is a rare art that is time consuming and hard to find these days on lap steels. Dots are cheap, plain and simple. I saw a beautiful guitar by George Boards with palm trees for fret markers. It doesn't get any better than that for a Hawaiian steel guitarist.
What is Tone?
It is what ultimately reaches the listeners ears.
Don't forget this... GOOD TONE COMES MOSTLY FROM GOOD TECHNIQUE! I'd say this is the most important factor in shaping tone.
I'd say the second most important thing is your guitar. You WON'T get a superb tone from anything imported from China. You just won't, because it's all cost-produced, mass-marketed, garbage. I promote the Jersey-Lightning, which is made in China, because you can't beat the price for the quality you get. But please keep in mind that it's a great deal for a $200 guitar. That doesn't make it a great instrument! There's a big difference! The $1700 Jerry Byrd Frypan is a GREAT instrument, and you can hear it in the tone. Superb! (never change out the stock pickup because it is the best you'll get!)
The tone of a long-scale 24 1/2" Jerry Byrd Frypan is MUCH better than a Jersey Lightning!
Compare for yourself...
$199 Jersey Lightning | $1700 Jerry Byrd Frypan
E MAMA E using the Jersey Lightning | WEAR A LEI using the Jerry Byrd Frypan
Compare the differences and you'll learn quickly why the Jerry Byrd Frypan is much sought after.
Beyond a good steel guitar and good technique, there are dozens of factors that affect tone. There's nothing worse than a scratchy volume pedal. Buy the new 500 K High Life Pots from GOODRICH and you'll be good to go. I've had to rebuild quite a few volume pedals because the old pots were terrible and only lasted 6 months if that.
Here's some advice on tone from the master of tone himself and my friend, Lloyd Green...
“The reason tone is so important is because I think ultimately that’s what is the emotional connection when you’re playing music to what people are hearing. If they hear good tone, there is something that strikes a resonant note in the soul. You can be playing the greatest stuff in the world, but if it doesn’t have good tone, there’s something that’s not making a connection. I think that’s what people really hear first. —Lloyd Green, interview 2001, Steel Guitar Rag magazine
Modifying Some Cheap Lap Steels
Some musicians are hot-rodding those $99 cheap Chinese import steels. On the $79 Rogue, I'd replace the single-coil pickup with something better. The stock pickup is really cheap. I'm not a pickup expert, so I'm not sure which pickup to use. I put a Seymour Duncan in my Artisan (same as the Rogue lap steel) and it sounds a lot better. I just randomly picked a pickup, for no particular reason, and it sounds nice. I was mostly concerned about just finding something that would fit through the chrome cover without requiring modification of the cover. You don't want to grind the cover hole larger for the pickup, because all the chrome plating will peel off and it looks ugly.
Although I changed out the stock pickup with something better, it's just a standard pickup for an electric guitar; but it doesn't sound anywhere near as nice as a Rickenbacher's horseshoe pickup. Unfortunately, Rickenbacher is hording the patent and won't allow anyone to build horseshoe pickups. Cole Clark was building them for awhile, but suddenly stopped.
The last thing I changed on mine was the nut. I just laid an aluminum nut over the wooden nut to prevent string "twang" (some of the guitars come with a plastic nut which doesn't cause twang as does the wood. The string digs into the wood, which causes it not to play correctly). But, this is what you get for a $99 steel guitar. Still, it's a great deal considering that you get a workable guitar with the legs and a gig-bag. Note that some steels don't come with legs, so you have to make sure when ordering if it has legs. Without the legs it will be difficult to play the "lap steel" because it doesn't have any felt or non-slide material on the underside as most of the more expensive guitars have. It will slide off your lap. So I'd recommend the legs definitely for the $99 steel guitar.
There are a lot of old lap steels available for sale, millions in fact. Before television became very popular, families used to sit around the radio and listen to Hawaii Calls or the Oahu Radio Show and every parent wanted their kid to have a lap steel (and every kid wanted one). Children are extremely impressionable and it's tragic that all they hear is garbage these days (I don't even dare call it music). I highly recommend that you buy an old used lap steel if you can find one. Even the not so great guitars were much better quality than the brand new cheap junk they sell today. Besides, why not own something unique. If you want superb tone, then you need a Fender, Rickenbacher or a name brand besides Rogue made in China (which is bottom-of-the-rung quality).
Albeit, to be quite honest, I really like the tone of the Rogue Jersey Lightning lap steel I mentioned at the beginning of this page (but you MUST remove the chrome cover obstructing the bridge and pickup). The cheap Artisan and Rogue lap steels for $79 don't obstruct the bridge and for that reason they are better than more expensive lap steels which DO cover the bridge. The $199 to $399 Jersey Lightning (prices have been fluctuating) is a MUCH better lap steel in my opinion than the cheaper $79 to $99 lap steel they sell. The Jersey Lightning comes with a humbucking pickup which is incredibly nice to be honest. I actually ordered a $159 Gibson Gold-plated 1957 Classic pickup, an exact sized replacement for the stock pickup which comes from the factory in China on the Rogue steel.
Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if Gibson guitars buys their pickups from the same factory in China. Other than the extra cable shielding on the Gibson pickup, and the gold color, I couldn't really tell much different in sound. In fact, I like the stock Rogue pickup BETTER, as the '57 classic sounds like the signal is being run through a compressor (that is, a tight, restricted sound). The harmonics sustain is much better on the stock pickup. SOOOOOO, if you have a Jersey Lightning lap steel, be proud of it and leave it alone, because you've got a fantastic pickup in there from the factory... no kidding! Felt on the underside is a big plus, which even much more expensive steels don't have. Although the guitar is super light at only 3 lbs., I think it would have a much better tone if the body were a lot more denser of a material (which is why the Rickenbacher Bakelite's sounded so good). You'd think that someone today could recapture that original sound without breaking the bank to buy one.
Older Steels are Much Better Quality Than Steels Built Today in China
Of course, Ricky's are tops! They don't make them anymore, so you have to find a used one. They stopped manufacturing them in the 1950's. Bakelite is the same as bowling ball material. So remember... BAKELITE! They sound awesome! But make sure the seller doesn't brag about replacing any parts when selling it. Replaced parts means lost original sound and you won't like what you hear. You want all original, or no sale. If the volume and tone pots have been replaced, DON'T buy it!!! It won't sound as good as you should expect. Newer is not always better. Replacing the pots ruins the sound!!! And if the seller says they're not sure if the pots are original... they're likely not!
A lot of musicians buy a dozen lower-cost lap steels over time (and there's dozens of brands available up on the market today); but I think it's best to invest in a more expensive guitar that has a reputable sound. CANOPUS is an excellent steel guitar manufacture from Japan, as is Excel in Japan. You get what you pay for usually. Ebay is a risky place to do business, and even in the Steel Guitar Forum there's a few dishonest sellers.
If you need a steel guitar lap steel stand, you don't need to spend several hundred dollars for one. Amazon sells a projection camera stand that will do the job for about $150 bucks (it weighs 14 lbs). Keep in mind that this wasn't designed to hold a lap steel guitar and I'm just suggesting it as a possible alternative, since nothing else is available at present on the market that I am aware of. There's not much of a market for quality lap steels these days. Although there are some nice low-priced steels, NONE of them are truly high quality unless you pay a higher price.
You can sit or stand while playing, but I like to sit because I use the foot volume pedal. I never liked using my hand to work the volume control knob. I agree with Jerry Byrd that the foot volume pedal is the way to go.
The Frypan guitar pictured on the left is called a "long scale" model" and is 24 1/2" inches long.
The long scale is my favorite as it produces a sweeter, prettier, richer tone due to that extra 2 1/2 inches of string length. I also like the longer slides.
The Frypan guitar pictured on the right is called a "short scale" model" and is 22" inches long.
The short scale is by far the most popular, since it is easier to play faster songs with minimal bar twisting due to the frets being closer together. The Sound is still great.
Purchase these FRYPANS From Scotty's Music in St. Louis, Missouri
Scotty's my buddy in St. Louis! These are some awesome FRYPAN lap steels made in Japan, very similar to the first electric guitar ever built in 1935, an S-6 Frypan Rickenbacher, i.e. a "SINGLE 6-STRING." The original guitars are highly sought after are VERY expensive, selling in upwards of $7,000 if you can find one. These reissues by Fuzzy Steel Guitar in Japan are sweet sounding instruments for around $1500 instead. Jerry Byrd helped design and test these instruments.
The Fuzzy Steel Frypans are made of cast-aluminum. Instead of using a Horseshoe pickup for which Rickenbachers are highly sought, a standard pickup is used. Rickenbacher won't share their patent with anyone. The horseshoes are mere cosmetics on the guitar and not a part of the pickup itself as in the original horseshoe pickups were, which use the horseshoes as magnets.
*Note on the cosmetic horseshoes and the standard type guitar pickup. Although some steel players claim that only the original Rickenbacker horseshoe pickup will sound better in a Fuzzy Frypan lapsteel, I disagree wholeheartedly. I think you'd be making a BIG MISTAKE to change out or modify the guitar/pickup in any way. The pickup which comes with the guitar was specifically designed for that guitar, and it sounds better than great. You can hear the tone difference between the cheap Jersey Lightning verses the Jerry Byrd Frypan here on my Hawaiian Steel Guitar page (listen to 19-33 on the Jersey Lightning, and then listen to the rich tone of music clips 34 and 35). The difference is remarkable! You'll regret changing the stock pickup later on, I'm almost certain of it. I'd leave the Jerry Byrd Frypan lap steel alone from the factory. I like mine just as it came and you can't beat the tone.
Having said that, the old Rickenbacher (or spelled "Rickenbacker" after World War II) BAKELITE'S do have a distinct sound that is much sought after and unsurpassed, but the Jerry Byrd Frypan is in the ballpark certainly. I enjoy playing both, but I really like the Frypan because of how it looks. It is a conversation piece and excellent to take to any beach. I have the 24 1/2 long-scale which really has a beautiful sweet tone (I play through a Roland MicroCube battery-powered portable amplifier).
The Jerry Byrd Frypan guitar as is from the factory is superb and awesome. I recommend ordering the guitar through Scotty's Music in St. Louis, Missouri. They'll put the appropriate gauge strings on your guitar for whatever tuning you desire and send it to you in tune. I wouldn't mess with a thing. I'm only promoting these Frypans because they're really great instruments. I love aluminum Frypans. Trust me when I say that the first time you play one of these guitars, you will love the sound.
I like the 6-string, long scale neck, for my Hawaiian music tastes. I use a larger 7/8" x 3 3/8" pedal steel bar while playing the long scale Frypan, so doing bar slants at the lower frets is simple with a bigger bar. No program. And I still have that sweet sounding steel. I always use a BJS Tone Bar with a red birthstone at the tip. It just looks really nice, sparkling in the light while your moving the bar playing. They're stainless steel and won't rust over time like the Ernie Ball bars do in a short time. You get what you pay for here.
The Rickenbacker Bakelite guitars sound awesome because of the Bakelite material (bowling ball material) as well as the horseshoe pickups. It's the Bakelite and the old tone control as much as the pickup. DON'T change out the original tone and volume pot or you'll ruin your sound. Also, I personally wouldn't consider buying a Rickenbacher that doesn't have a tone control, because you can't set the tone control to that "sweet spot" at about 2 or 3 if you don't have a tone control. Make sure to ask if a case is included or you likely won't get one. Make sure the strings run THROUGH the guitar body and not the flange secured strings. Ask if the pickup is original. I bought a Ricky and someone had rewound the pickup with 42 gauge wire, instead of the 38 gauge wire it was supposed to have.
*Note on setting the tone control knob. I turn the tone control on the guitar toward the muddy side at about 2 or 3 where Jerry Byrd liked to play. There is a sweet spot on any lapsteel at about 2 or 3 on the tone knob. Turn the knob all the way muddy, and then back it off until the muddiness is half gone, and leave it there. The tone is great!
*Note on buying the optional stand for Fuzzy Frypans. I highly recommend buying the optional stand so you can set the lapsteel on a stand while you're playing. It raises up to standing height too. The aluminum guitar gets very heavy on your legs after while and you'll be very glad you purchased the optional stand. The stand is chrome played and very pretty, with felt on top to protect the lapsteel. It's high class! The stand fits right into the case under your steel. The cases are all the same size, whether you buy the optional stand or not. You'll regret not buying the stand, I promise you. Spend the extra money now and you'll be happy later. It's cool how they managed to fit the stand right with the guitar in such a small case. Very nice! But you're looking at $1700 for the guitar with the stand and case. The cases are beautifully red-carpeted on the inside (at least the ones I've seen lately).
*Note on amps. Such a small amp is absolutely terrible for pedal steel guitar, because you need at least an 10" speaker for some low-end (most players prefer a 15" speaker, as do I). Albeit, for Hawaiian those little 4 or 5 inch speaker, loud-horn sounding amps are great. Jerry Byrd's favorite amp in the early years was a little tube amp called a VOLU-TONE, which sounded like a horn kind of (it's awesome for Hawaiian music). Keep your tone control closer to mellow for Hawaiian music (I set mine at about 2 or 3 on a scale of 10). Jerry started using a Fender Twin-Reverb in the 1970's with a 15" speaker.
I personally don't like the Twin-Reverb for pedal steel guitar. I prefer the Fender Hot-Rod-Deville, the 2 12" or 4 10" speakers is fine. I'd go with the 212 (2 12 inch speakers). There's a little "highs" button on the amp that you press and it brings the pedal steel alive. It's awesome if you've never tried one. You need to! For Hawaiian music I'd love the Twin-Reverb amp by Fender! Then again, Lloyd Green used a Fender Twin-Reverb amp head (no speakers) in the studio throughout much of his career, playing through one JBL 15" external speaker in a cabinet. Lloyd kept the other as a backup spare. For me, the Twin-Reverb is too dark, muddy, not having the brilliance of the Hot Rod Deville. Try the two amps and you decide. Go down to Guitar center and try them out! You'll love the Hot Rod Deville. Remember, push that "highs" button.
On the MicroCube, set the amp's tone no more than half way. The MicroCube's volume carries for a half-mile away it seems. People hear it from so far away when I play. They often say they thought it was a radio playing and are excited when they see a person playing live. I try not to use much "gain" to prevent any distortion of my music. I am always humbled and eager to answer questions and share the wonderful lap steel instrument with others. Youth in particular love music and always inquire about the steel guitar when I play at the beach.
Pedal Steel Guitars
I know this is off topic since were focusing on lap steels, but it's in the ballpark of buying a steel guitar.
Always ask for pictures before buying a steel guitar. Decline any offer where the seller displays blurry photos or it appears that the seller deliberately avoided a certain area of the instrument. Watch out when someone is reluctant to show you a picture of the undercarriage of a pedal steel, or won't show you the tuning key area. Move on! They want to sell you their garbage at a high price.
There's plenty of older ShoBuds that have already been rebuilt. Why buy an old guitar and then pay double to have it rebuilt? You could have just bought it already rebuilt if you waited for a bit. There's thousands of steel guitars for sale at any given time. Pass on old garbage unless you are willing to spend double to fix the guitar up. If you really like the way the guitar looks, then I'd say go for it, because that's important too.
The bottom line is that old pedal steels will likely have mechanical problems, because they're old. The seller may be sincere, but it's a lot of money to buy a used steel for $1700, when you can buy a new one for $2500.
I bought a Ricky once on Ebay which had been tampered with and I didn't know it. I sent the pickup off to Rick Aiello and he rebuilt it for me awesome! The pickup had 42-gauge wiring in it, but was supposed to have 38-guage, so I had it rewound. It sounds great now!
Also, the Ebay seller never mentioned a case, so I assumed the guitar came with a case. Nope! The guitar came stuffed in between Styrofoam! These are the kinds of unethical games that dishonest sellers play.For pedal steels, buy a ShowPro! They have all wooden necks and bodies, which is unsurpassed in sound quality. Lloyd Green has endorsed these steels. Next to an old Pro II ShoBud that has "that sound," this is it! Most pedal steels are what I call "cookie-cutter guitars" (and ugly looking!). I like SHOWPRO because they have a wood body and neck.
The Best Lap Steel Guitars
It's solely a matter of opinion. I can't say which one is better than the others. I haven't played a GeorgeBoards steel guitar, but they intrigue me. I like CANOPUS, Bakelite Rickenbachers, Frypan aluminum lapsteel from fuzzy steel guitars (in Japan.
Let me stop here and say that there are MANY people building lap steel guitars who really don't know what they're doing, because they're not genuine musicians.
For example: Every lap steel ought to have some type of felt or non-slip material underneath to prevent the guitar from sliding off your lap. Hardly any lap steels have this anymore. My old AIRLINE lap steel (once sold by Sears, Roebuck, and Co.) has felt on the bottom. It is a nice feature to have.
Another example of poor workmanship is that darned metal or chrome plate that many steel guitar builders put over the bridge. It prevents the steel guitar player from muting the strings, which to me is the most notable technique and sound in Hawaiian music. If you don't mute your strings often, you're not a Hawaiian musician!!! You can hear me muting in the song The Hukilau Song at 35 seconds into the song. YOU HAVE TO MUTE OR ELSE YOU'RE MISSING SO MUCH about Hawaiian music as a steel guitar player.
At 1:26 in this song you'll hear me doing a scale run, another Hawaiian technique that you ought to learn.
That genuine “Hawaiian tone” is not in an instrument as much as it is in your hands and mind. You are the musician. Hawaiian music is NOT an instrument, it is a STYLE. I can play Hawaiian music on a pedal steel guitar as easy as a lap steel.
As far as steel guitars, I personally prefer a lap steelwhich is resemblant of a brass section horn in an orchestra. Albeit, smaller amps produce such a tone. I like the Bakelite Rickenbachers, but I can play Hawaiian to make people happy with a $99 Rogue lap steel from Musiciansfriend.com. Most people don't know this difference between a $99 lap steel or a $2,500 lap steel, I assure you. It's a matter of what you feel good playing. If you don't feel good about the instrument that you're playing, then you likely won't put your heart into your music. I can really enjoy playing a $99 lap steel, because that's what I played for 2 years before I ever knew about the Bakelite Rickenbachers. I now have a 1936 bakelite Ricky with the 1 1/2" magnets. It is a wonderful instrument; but I'm afraid to damage it, so I take the $99 Artisan or Rogue (there's a few different brands of the exact same cheap lap steel from China) with me when I travel. It sounds ok, but plays well.
You won't go wrong with a CANOPUS, but are
expensive. Fenders are nice, but
it's harder to get good harmonics from the players I've talked with.
I'm telling you, there is a SCIENCE to pickups. Most guitar manufacturers
simply buy the necessary equipment and wind their own pickups, but they do not
design nor understand what makes superb tone in a pickup.
A Word About Steel Guitar Pickups
Bill Lawrence and Jerry Wallace know what they are doing and make some of the finest pickups available today. As far as steel guitar, Bill Lawrence only sells pickups for 10-string pedal steel as far as I know (but call if you're interested). Bill Lawrence pickups are special indeed, and it's not just manufacturer hype. I've played steel guitar since 1992 and Bill Lawrence pickups have a wonderfully rich tone. It's a hotter pickups (meaning louder), but it also has depth of tone that I love. Granted, different guitar, and different materials (wood verses mica) will sound different with different pickups. It's best to ask the guitar manufacturer or other players what they like best. It's preference, like everything else; but I can say confidently that Bill Lawrence pickups stand apart from the rest IMHO. I know they sell many pickups for standard six-string guitars. I have a BL 710 in my ShoBud and love it. ShoBuds use the narrow-mount pickup. Emmons use the wide-mount pickup.
Jerry Wallace builds steel guitar pickups for 8-string and 10-string. I have one in my 8-string Melelani Hawaiian lap steel and really appreciate it. The sustain is unsurpassed compared to all my arsenal of guitars, as good as my original Rickenbacher. The Jerry Byrd Frypan has great harmonics as well, but I get better sustain on my 1936 Rickenbacher and Melelani lap steels. If you want to play Song Of The Islands like Jerry Byrd (using harmonics for the intro), then you need plenty of sustain. I recently bought a great used S-8 lap steel that was built with gorgeous canary wood from South America. The guitar has a Jerry Wallace pickup in it, and the sustain is some of the best I've heard. It's awesome. You can hear me attempting to play some of Jerry Byrd's awesome harmonics from the terrific song... SONG OF THE ISLANDS!
Please don't misunderstand, the Jerry Byrd Frypan has sustain, and I'd buy the guitar again, God willing, if I ever lost it. I have the S-6 long-scale and that's exactly what I'd buy again. Albeit, I know that if I want to play Song Of The Islands anything close to what Jerry did, then I need my Melelani guitar or a Rickenbacher. I'm sure there are other guitars as well, but I haven't played many brands so I cannot say.
The Rickenbacher Bakelite has awesome sustain and harmonics.
The 24 1/2" long-scale Jerry Byrd Frypan guitar has a sweet tone, but it's harder to do bar slants. I use a pedal steel bar, but the bar slips out of my hand when I do reverse slants if I'm not extra careful. For this reason I recommend the short scale if you are undecided. Jerry Byrd preferred the 22" short-scale because it's easier to do bar slants.
Concerning steel guitars bars, I like the longer Dunlop bars (3/4" width), because they have a receded end that allows the thumb a place to grip while doing a reverse slant. Without a Dunlop bar and that receded area, the bar often slips out of my hand and I ruin recordings. The tone is a bit sweeter on a long-scale (with a 24 1/2" scale verses a 22" scale).
I think harmonics are easier on a short scale though, because you're hand doesn't have to be as accurately positioned on a shorter scale to get good harmonics. That's my opinion. The long scale is wonderful, don't misunderstand me. I have one and love it dearly. I play harmonics on it just fine. Also, the Frypans are HEAVY (weighing in at 8 pounds), so forget about playing a Jerry Byrd Frypan for 2-hours without the $400 stand that you can buy for it. It fits right in the same size case under the lap steel. Whether you buy the stand and legs or not, the case is EXACTLY the same size. The stand fits under the lap steel and the legs to the side in a small compartment made for them.
If you get an 8-string, 95% of everything you play will be on the first 6-strings unless you're a more learned musician. To me, the extra 2-strings get in the way; but if you like those big bassy low strings like Barney Isaacs Jr. and Kayton Roberts, then you definitely should consider an 8-string (although I sometimes set my 6-string's 6th string down to a low C and it does wonders).
Please understand that some of the popular music you've heard from Barney Isaacs Jr. was likely played on an old Fender 400 pedal steel guitar with 9 pedals (it uses cables underneath to work the changer, but the pedals are too TIGHT to press down for my comfort! There are no knees). That's just my 2 cents. Every steel player has a different opinion. Music is an art. It's something that you never stop learning. Guitars are like cars... they all get you from point A to point B, but the options are endless. I guess I'm just accustomed to 6-strings and don't care for 8. Albeit, 7 strings is nice compromise. Below is photod a Double 6-string non-pedal steel guitar. These aren't called lap steels, because they have legs to attach. Some of the more elaborate models are called console steels.
“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” — Albert Einstein
Pedal Steel Guitars
Non-Pedal and Resonator
It's Your Guitar, Don't Be Afraid to Customize it
I did something sacrilegious on my 1953 postwar Rickenbacker. I didn't like the white lines on the fret markers, so I went to Home Depot and bought some orange paint stripper, which is advertised as environmentally friendly. I tested a little bit first on the guitar and then waited 24-hours to see if my guitar would melt or blow up. It didn't. So I used paint stripper gel to remove all the white lines from my guitar neck.
Now I only have the white dots. It looks MUCH better in my opinion and I have no discoloration due to the paint stripper. I don't remember the name of the paint stripper gel, but I do know it was odorless and comes in a plastic orange container. I bought a small paint brush to apply the stripper onto the guitar neck. I also stripped the white paint off the side plates, white I think is ugly. I spray-painted over the bare metal with a clear-coat paint. It looks like knight's armour. I like it. The tone of the 1 1/4" horseshoe pickup is awesome!