Buying A Steel Guitar
By David J. Stewart | April 2011 | Updated September 2015
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. If you want a decent lap steel at an affordable price, there's the MORRELL LAP STEEL (made in the U.S.A.).
If you want a close copy of a 1932-1935 Rickenbacher Frypan, there's the Jerry Byrd Frypan from Fuzzy steel guitars in Japan. The guitars are heavy, around 8 pounds. I wish they had made them lighter, but I think the reason why is to prevent it from shifting off of the stand while playing it. Jerry Byrd himself helped design the Frypan model, so he knew what he was doing. If you buy one, GET THE STAND! The stand fits under the guitar in the case. Whether you get the case or not, THE CASES ARE THE SAME SIZE. You can also buy the guitar from Scotty's Music in St. Louis.
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 7/8" pedal steel bar, which gives me more to grip onto while playing the lap steel. Normally you wouldn't use a pedal steel bar to play lap steel. The reason why is because a good lap steel bar (like Dunlop) is indented at the rear, so your thumb can fit in there and perform bar-slants without the bar slipping out of your hand. Still, I do bar-slants often on my pedal steel, so I am used to handling the bar. Bar control is very important to mastering the steel guitar.
I'm recording the aforementioned Gospel song 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 the Band-In-A-Box file, here's the original source file for BIAB to work with it yourself.
Since new non-pedal steels range from $1000 to $4000 for a superb quality NEW guitar, you might consider buying a quality used steel guitar (if this link goes dead, type in lap steel or steel guitar at the gbase.com website). built between the 1930's and the 1960's. Jerry Byrd says that between 1935 to 1940 steel guitar was king!
Honestly, today's low-priced musical instruments have a lot to be desired of them. It's mostly junk made in China. This is not a negative reflection upon Chinese people; but rather, it's the old adage, “You get what you pay for!” I did find some good (and bad) values at Guitar Center.
Here's a link that will eventually go dead, but this B-6 Rickenbacker is an interesting deal, IF IT'S ALL ORIGINAL ELECTRONICS. Note that the ad says the knobs have been replaced, so it's not original. I have no problem with the knobs being replaced. I care about TONE! What concerns me a bit is that the ad says the pickup needs some adjusting, yet the ad says the guitar is in “great condition.” Ask the seller before you buy! The only pickup adjustment I know of can be made with a Phillip's screwdriver without disassembling the guitar. The screws are on each side of the Horseshoe Pickup and allow you to set the height of the strings. It's hard to believe that the seller wouldn't have made this simple adjustment themselves. It could be a bigger problem. Ask! I'm showing you this (even if the ad disappears), so you can learn what to look for.
Helpful Advice On Buying A Steel Guitar (Or Any Musical Instrument)
Here are some helpful things to ask the seller (and I've learned the hard way):
I've even had sellers outright lie to me and make claims that were blatantly false, that I learned later on after opening the case. All you can do is ask, but do ask. I bought an early model JCH pedal steel guitar through an individual in the Steel Guitar Forum. The seller never once mentioned that the guitar had a “known issue” with strings mysteriously raising while trying to get them to lower. I opened the case and read about the “known issue” in the enclosed paperwork. It took me a month just to get string 2 to lower a whole tone, and it's flaky at best. The seller also lied to me, saying that strings 5 and 6 would lower a whole tone, when I asked him. The guitar just can't do it mechanically. So learn from my losses. In this particular case, I trusted the long-term reputation of a forum member who was vouching for a friend. Beware of buying from an unknown person through a known person, because people are just too dishonest these days. That's why I highly recommend buying from a business, unless you really know what you're buying, and are willing to deal with the problems if the seller defrauds you. I mean, if you know someone who has replacement parts for a pre-WWII Rickenbacher (or post-WWII Rickenbacker), and are willing to pay for the work to be done, then you might want to take a chance on buying a sight unseen Ricky and trust the seller.
I bought a 1953 Ricky from Elderly Instruments. The tone control was dropping in-and-out when it arrived. I called the store in Michigan and they immediately knocked $200 off the price, which I accepted. I opened up the guitar and re-soldered a bad connection. The connection likely worked itself loose during shipment. I can only speak for myself, but I wouldn't think twice about going back as a customer. I was impressed.
The Bakelite Rickenbachers are considered the Roll's Royce of lap steel guitars, even today 60 to 80 years after they were built (but they MUST be made of the BAKELITE material for “THAT SOUND”). Fenders are classics, made famous by Santo and Johnny (listen to Santo on his Fender steel guitar play Sweet Leilani). Here's an awesome video performance by Doug Beaumier playing the instrumental song “Teardrop” along with a Band-In-A-Box track. “Teardrop” was originally performed in 1959 by Santo& Johnny.
National also made excellent sounding steel guitars for decades in Chicago. I love the National New Yorker shaped like the Empire State Building. It's really cool. I played one years ago in San Diego. 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.
The New Jersey Lightning lapsteel pictured to the right aren't available anymore. They're cheap, from Rogue, but pretty decent FOR THE PRICE (made in China). You always get what you pay for. A Japanese-made Canopus sounds and plays much better, but it'll cost you around $2,000. If you're a beginner, you should buy a relatively inexpensive steel guitar to make sure it's for you. Here's a really nice lap steel made by "Recording King" for under $200. The strings are mounted through the body, which is good for better tone. But again, you get what you pay for.
The exception is pedal steels, which I think is a big waste of money to buy used and cheap, because it'll still cost you over $1,000 used and $3,000 new. A crappy pedal steel will frustrate you because mechanically it won't work right, but a crappy lap steel just won't sound as nice. So, and it's just my opinion, if you want to play Hawaiian music or lap steel, get an inexpensive lap steel. Although I ignorantly started with a $79 Rogue piece of junk from China, I don't recommend buying it. The legs dry-rotted and literally broke into pieces in my hand after one year.
For lap steel, I recommend something around $200 and up, nothing cheaper. You will get what you pay for. The more expensive steel guitars have better tone. The nut and bridge are better quality. The tone knobs are better quality. If you're going to buy a pedal steel guitar, please buy NEW my friend, because otherwise you WILL GET OTHER PEOPLE'S PROBLEMS. If you're just getting started learning lap steel, there are literally millions of old steel guitars floating around from the 1930's to the 1960's. If you want new, the more you spend the better the quality. I really liked the New Jersey Lightning (pictured above), because it had felt glued underside to keep it from slipping off your lap. Strings mounted through the body. Unfortunately, it's been discontinued. Please don't misunderstand, it's a cheap China import, but for the price you can't beat it. Most people can't afford a $2,000 lap steel.
Here's what I did on my New Jersey Lightning (which I recommend that you do on any steel guitar that covers the bridge and prevents you from muting the strings with your palm)...
(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. To
the point, most manufacturers who make steel guitars don't really play them, so
they don't know what to build. If you are serious about playing non-pedal steel
guitar, then you need to spend some money. You won't go wrong with Canopus,
Rickenbacker, a Jerry Byrd Frypan, or a Fender Stringmaster. It depends on what
you're looking for. Ultimately, Jerry Byrd is correct when he teaches that a
true musical artist can play any instrument beautifully, regardless of the
brand; and someone who is not an artist cannot, no matter how great of an
instrument it may be. According to Jerry Byrd in his autobiography, it doesn't
matter which brand of steel guitar a new player uses, because at that point they
need to learn the basics.
Human Temperament And Perception Of Tone
It's the darndest thing, but I've proven it true with myself. I can hate a guitar or amplifier one year, and love it the next. When I first received my Roland MobileCube (not the MicroCube), I hated it. The MobileCube is more compact and costs about 50% more. Then I saw a friend in Hawaii playing one and I was dumbfounded, because he sounded awesome! I hadn't used the amp in a couple years. Then I plugged it back in (it's also battery powered). This time I was amazed at the tone, and why I hated it years ago. I used it for public playing at the beach, since it is very compact, and it sounds great for Hawaiian.
Jerry Byrd experienced the same thing, which he dedicates an entire chapter to in his autobiography (if you don't have the book, and you are a steel guitar enthusiast, you are missing out by not reading Jerry's book. It's titled, “It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music.” I cherish it. There's a chapter on page 80-82 called “A Mystery.” Jerry had got a non-pedal (Jerry doesn't like that term, he prefers just “steel guitar”) ShoBud D-10, but absolutely hated the sound when he first got it. In his book, Jerry says that he had a decision to make about the guitar, because “if it had no tone, no soul, all was for naught.” He was so displeased with the sound that he “dropped it into its case” and was contemplating throwing the guitar into the Cumberland River. Jerry's says in his book (p. 81) that he told the guitar,
“Damn you, you've been fighting me long enough! When I come in here tomorrow, you'd better get with me or your ass is going into the Cumberland River on my way home! If you don't believe me, just try me!” —Jerry Byrd, “It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music,” © 2003, p. 81.
The next morning when Jerry opened the case, he said:
—Jerry Byrd, “It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music,” © 2003, p. 82.
“I set it up, plugged it into the amp, and as soon as I laid that steel bar on the strings I knew that it had completely changed. It had surrendered! The tone had completely transformed to a lovely, slightly reedy sound that I had never been able to achieve before. Other players have since told me that there has never been another Sho-Bud that has the sound mine does. I did nothing different. I changed nothing on the instrument, and of course I didn't change my playing technique. I have to believe that something spiritual took place, because how could something material change so completely?”
Miracle? Jerry Byrd thought so, and I have no reason to doubt him. From listening to his albums, who could disagree with him? Yet, in my heart I personally think it had more to do with human temperament, as I have learned with myself. I have sat behind steel guitars and despised them, thinking “This instrument just doesn't have it!” Then later I would sit behind the same instrument and wonder how I ever disliked it. I tend to always like other steel guitarist's sound better than mine. I think a lot of it also has to do with familiarity. I hear my own steel playing so much, knowing the songs very well, that I get tired of hearing the same rhythm tracks. I've tried to rotate my tracks, but there's only so many tracks available. Few steelers have the benefit and blessing of being involved with a band or regular music group (due to work, poor health, other players wanting to get paid, family, other musicians using illegal drugs, et cetera). In my case, it's my poor health. I'm in constant physical pain.
People come up and stand watching me play my steel guitar, some cry, and they say it sounds beautiful to them. That means so much to me. I want to express my heart to others. I have been offered countless jobs by people, and asked to play at public events, but due to my spinal cord problems (stenosis, radiculopathy, peripheral neuropathy) I decline. I am so glad that I am a born-again Christian, having the hope of God's promises for a new body (Philippians 3:21) and a better life in eternity (Romans 8:32; John 16:22, 33). It means a lot to me that Jerry Byrd credits God in his book for putting the desire in his heart to work at performing on steel guitar (Jerry hates the term “play”), and giving him the ability to do it (Philippians 2:13). Jerry is a blessing, still today!
So keep this in mind, what may be boring and mundane to you likely sounds very beautiful to others. Music is all about making an emotional connection with your audience. Jerry says if you perform to an audience of 3,000 people, just find one friendly-looking person on the front row, and focus all your playing on connecting with that one person. I like that advice.
I also went down to Guitar Center years ago and bought a Fender Twin Reverb (heavy) and took it home. It sounded dark and dreary to me, so I brought it back. I also took my pedal steel with me, so I could try several amps and not waste more time. I was very happy with the Fender Hotrod Deville 4-10. There's a little button on the amp that boosts the highs and it made my pedal steel guitar come alive. I loved it! The amp was stolen years later, and I never bought another one. If I did it would be the 2-12 (that is, two 12-inch speakers, verses four 10-inch speakers). It was a few years later that I learned both Jerry Byrd and Lloyd Green had used the Fender Twin Reverb during the recording careers (Lloyd much more than Jerry. Jerry used a Volutone in the old days. I'm not sure of all the amps Jerry used. I know Lloyd likes JBL speakers, and so do I. I think Lloyd also has a Hotrod Deville).
My point is that tone, playability and soul not only varies from player to player, but even from one day to the next as our moods change. Boy, being a musician can be tough! We're all the same as human beings when it comes to moods. Artists in particular tend to be temperamental, which is what draws them to their art (whether it be painting, musical instruments or whatever). So if you see a steel guitarist cursing and throwing their Boss DD-3 stompbox across the room, it's normal! You won't find a more emotional instrument than the steel guitar. Like Jerry says, music is an extension of one's personality.
So keep this in mind when you're considering buying an amplifier or steel guitar. You may hate it once you receive it, but love it tomorrow. Or vice versa. My point is be slow to make decisions. Be slow on what to buy, and don't be quick to condemn a piece of musical equipment, until you're sure it's not going to work for you. There are days when I can't stand my mica S-10 with an aluminum neck. It sometimes sounds muddles, and no matter how I set the controls on the amp, I just can't get enough treble. But then I'll play that same guitar at sundown and it'll sound GREAT! Why does that happen? I think it's all about our mood changes as human beings. Sometimes I feel the same way about my D-10 Sho-Bud. Learn what times of the day you feel best playing your steel. I generally prefer the evening, right after sundown. Don't ask me why, because I really don't know. My guess is that it's just more cozy.
I often don't like my sound from a small battery-powered amp (as
compared to the better tone in a larger amp), but that's all I can use at the
beach. Yet, at times it sounds great to me. When the wind is blowing during the
day, my ears have difficulty hearing a correct tone, but at sundown when the
local winds die down, I can hear and play better. I'm just sharing practical
advice from my own experiences as a steel player. Definitely ask round and get
all the opinions you can. Keep this all in mind before buying or selling your
equipment. There are about 50 things that affect tone. My wood body/wood neck
Sho-Bud sounds awful in my opinion through my Nashville 112 amp, but my
mica/aluminum neck Rittenberry sounds great. I use a very old Session 400 for my
Sho-Bud (with a JBL speaker). Even the direction that your amp is facing will
greatly affect your tone (of both yourself and your audience in relation to the
cone's projection of sound). We all live and learn. Don't be afraid to try
different things. As a general rule, you'd be wise to buy an amplifier designed
for steel guitar, but definitely try out some Fender reissues of older tube
amps, like the Twin Reverb.
You Get What You Pay For
There are $79 to $99 Artisan or Rogue lap steels, which include the legs and a gig bag, 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.
“One's music should be an extension of his personality. If it isn't, then you are lying musically, because you aren't expressing what you feel about the song and the word 'playing' applies. If music is an art form - and it most certainly is - then shouldn't you, as an artist, be making your own musical statement?” —Jerry Byrd, “It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music,” © 2003, p. 109.
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 gear (i.e., guitar, pickup, amplifier). 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. Note: If you do buy the Jerry Byrd Frypan, always get the guitar stand. The case is the exact same size, case or no case. The guitar is 8 pounds and you need the stand. Trust me! To buy the stand afterwards is like $700 according to Scotty. Get it with the guitar, and then it's half that price.
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. As they sit, volume pedals pots get scratchy. So if you can, rotate your volume pedals regularly. I have about 3 Goodrich pedals right now that need new pots.
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.
Keep in mind that I just like experimenting with sounds, so I wanted to butcher some cheap steel guitars to do it. I also have some expensive steel guitars that I wouldn't butcher. This is just for learning, to experiment with sounds, pickups and materials. If I had the money, I'd invent a lap steel that has an attached floor pedal, enabling the musician to raise and lower all strings (to alter the chords) to their preference. In other words, you'd be able to play a lap steel similar to a pedal steel. It would be light, convenient, inexpensive and quality made. I'm surprised someone has invented it yet. I'm sure the problem is lack of interest to justify making it. I think one of the saddest commentaries of our time is that young people are not exposed to the wonderful steel guitar in every school, in our culture, on TV and radio, et cetera. We've become an inferior society of perversion, noise, degeneracy and lack of true culture. Youth today are being subjected to Satanism in music videos, bathing in blood, perversion and filth. Back in 1935, steel guitar was king (as Jerry Byrd says in his autobiography), and every kid wanted to play one.
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. Fender has no loyalty to their customers as far as I'm concerned. What would it hurt allowing a patent for horseshoe pickups? The world's musicians are missing out because of Fender. Instead, they sell cheap garbage imported lap steels from China, that sound like CRAP!!! It's really pathetic what Fender has done, pursuing greed instead of quality! All they care about is money, which is shameful.
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.
If you love lap steel and you've never played a Rickenbacher (or
Rickenbacker) with a horseshoe pickup... YOU ARE MISSING OUT MY FRIEND!!!
Personally, I hear no difference between the 1 1/2" verses the 1 1/4" horseshoe
pickups (and I have both).
If you buy a
Rickenbacher with horseshoe pickups, you DO want to remove the pickup and
send it out to be REMAGNETIZED (or REJUICED), to make sure you have the best
tone. Check online for service shops.
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. There are many wonderful older steels, millions of them in fact, from the 1920's to 1950's. It is sad that our American culture has lost the beauty of music compared to 75 years ago. Most people haven't a clue what true quality of tone is. Digital has ruined music! Check local pawn shops, music stores and the trading times for old steel guitars for sale. You'd be surprised what you find. Gibson steel guitars have a unique sound. I have an old Artisan lap steel. Sears& Roebuck used to sell them. It's nice and compact, but lacks the tone of a Rickenbacker. National made some great steel guitars. I once played one at Guitar Center in San Diego, California, that was shaped like the Empire State Building. Pretty cool! There's tons of old steel guitars online.
If you need a steel guitar lap steel stand, you can buy a nice one for about $225. I've tried alternatives that didn't work so well. You could build something, but it needs to be practical if you plan to transport it. 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. Music stores are pretty good at knowing what guitars are worth. The average person wouldn't hear any difference between guitars, but musicians will. The most important thing is the tone that YOU WANT TO HEAR. Do you like your sound? Jimmy Day used to say all that matters when you get alone behind closed doors in your room is if you like what you hear from your guitar.
When I mentioned at a concert in Hawaii years ago that I was playing a $79 Artisan steel guitar, Alan Akaka kindly asked me how I felt playing a $79 guitar? I saw his point. I went and bought a $2,100 Canopus like he plays, and I am glad that I did... the tone is sweet! I had played pedal steels since 1992, but I didn't start playing lap steel until 2007. It took me time to learn that there were drastic differences in tone between non-pedal steel guitar models. Like most music enthusiasts, I've never had a lot of exposure to being around other steelers and bands, so I did the best I can with what I knew. Although I'm light years ahead of new players, I'm still learning continually about tone, music and equipment. So now I have a sincere desire to help other steel players learn right away what took me over 20 years to learn.
You can sit or stand while playing, but I like to sit when I use the foot volume pedal. I never liked using my hand to work the volume control knob. It's just something that I've never gotten used to. I agree with Jerry Byrd that the foot volume pedal is the way to go. But you'll be amazed watching Bobby Ingano (one of my favorite artists) use his volume control for everything from volume swells to violin sounds on his Frypan.
I've owned both the 6-string long-scale and an 8-string short-scale. The Frypan guitar pictured on the left (in the photo to the right) is called a "long scale" model" and is 24 1/2" inches long.
The long scale is my favorite as it produces a sweeter, pretty, richer tone due to that extra 2 1/2 inches of string length. I also like the long slides.
The short-scale is still awesome in tone, but the long-scale is just a little richer. Honestly, if I were to record a side-by-side comparison, I doubt if you'd notice the difference, but you can feel it slightly while playing.
The stock pickups are great, don't change them!!! Although they're not original horseshoe pickups (it is cosmetic only), the stock pickups are really great and I think you'll agree. The cases are the same size, whether you get the stand or not, which fits under the steel.
I think a musician who likes to play fast songs mostly would get frustrated on a long-scale, although it can be done. But if you like laidback slow songs like Lovely Hula Hands, and don't do a lot of bar slants, then why not get the sweetest tone possible with a long-scale? That's how I look at it.
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 tone is still great! It's a good all around choice. The neck width is identical on both models (whether 6 or 8 string), but the strings are farther apart on the 6-string.
I would recommend the short-scale for most players, simply because it is easier to do bar slants and you still have a superb tone. If you generally play slow, then I'd say get the long-scale. If you play Hilo March and similar faster songs often, then I'd say get the short-scale.
If you're not sure to get 6 or 8 strings, I'd go with 6 strings, simply because they'll get in the way and annoy you if you don't normally incorporate them into your style of playing. Someone who uses 8 strings wouldn't play anything else. So if you're not sure, you probably have already developed a 6-string playing style. The extra strings simple extend your chord voicings.
~Please note that this is all my personal opinion as a musician, and not sanctioned by the Fuzzy Steel Guitar company. Good luck and God bless!
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.
Miscellaneous About Pedal Steel Guitars
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 buying old garbage unless you are willing to spend double to fix the guitar up.
Now if you're a hobby enthusiast and have the time, money, patience and interest to rebuild your own ShoBud, it easy to do.I completely rebuilt my S-10 ShoBud, but then the guy I bought the parts from didn't keep his end of the deal, so I just gave him the $600 and let it go. After waiting a year for the parts and being told off by him for asking for a delivery date, I gave up. I'd rather just give the money to people who wrong me than keep a bad situation going. I think that's a proper Christian attitude. I won't fight with people over money. If you're not going to do the right thing, keep it, and I'll move on. Check online, because there are various sources of parts (they're not cheap) for your ShoBud. They're expensive because they all have to be handmade by a machinist.
Removing and installing a ShoBud cross-shaft - The cross-shaft in your ShoBud changer (the main mechanism where your strings are raised and lowered) comes out real easy. You first remove all the guitar strings to get the tension off the fingers in the changer. Then just take a brass drift (I used the thicker half of a Chinese chopstick) and gently tap the shaft out. It's only press-fit into the changer. There are no bolts or set screws holding it in place (at least not on mine). Look to see if there are any set screws on the changer. NEVER force anything. DON'T use a piece of hardened steel to pound on your cross-shaft, because like metals can reshape each other. The reason I said use a chopstick or brass (a softer metal) drift is because they are softer and will bend or break before reshaping your hardened steel cross-shaft. This is just some mechanics 101 basics that's good to know. Always pound on metals with softer metals or wood. You shouldn't have to tap very hard, but will likely need to give a good pound or two to get the shaft moving. It reinstalls in the same way.
Over time ShoBuds tend to wear on the fingers, especially pedals 5 and 6 which are often used. When a groove forms on the finger, your strings will catch and not return properly while playing. SO if you're having mechanic problems on an old ShoBud, that's likely your problem. Simply remove the strings, then remove the cross-shaft, then take out all 10 fingers and you'll see the area that has been worn and grooved. Now here's the trick! Put those worn fingers on strings 1 or 2, and swap those with 5 and 6. That's what I did on mine and it worked great! No more problems! I can't remember why it works, it's been awhile, but it works! Don't be afraid to pound out your changer's cross-shaft. It is easy and you'll feel victorious when you do! A couple pounds of tapping pressure did it.
Also, you can buy half-stop mechanisms, which you should install on your guitar if you don't have a good working half-stop on the 2nd string. That is a must for any E9th pedal steel.
If you really like the way an older ShoBud guitar looks, then I'd say go for it! 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 $1500 to $4,000, when you can buy a new one for $2500 to $4,500 (some new D-10 pedal steel guitars can literally cost $8,000). New is best unless you know what you're buying, which most people and newer players don't. I highly recommend ShowPro pedal steels because they have wood necks and wood bodies, just like the original ShoBuds. I really don't like mica bodies with aluminum necks, because they have more of a smothered feeling while playing (in my opinion). That would make sense, because they are smothered with Formica.
May I also say, if you do choose to buy and play a wooden guitar with wooden necks, you WILL DROP YOUR BAR AND DING THE GUITAR. It's just a part of playing the pedal steel guitar. I have dents and dings galore on my Pro II ShoBud, not intentionally. When I get into my playing, that bar always flies out of my hand and every time hits the guitar body just right, to make the biggest impact and the deepest dent. So don't get mad or frustrated, it is very normal and it adds life to the guitar. You bought it to perform, not to admire it for it's looks (well, sometimes). Mica is hard to dent, which is why some people prefer it. Black mica has the highest resale value. People love black, and so do I. It just looks really nice. White is nice too. I hate orange guitars. I once had a wooden puke purple MSA with a dead spot at about the 15th fret. I sold it at Scotty's in St. Louis at a convention. I was glad to see it go!
How To Try Avoiding Being Cheated
I've been cheated many times. No matter how hard you try to avoid being a victim, it will happen. I did business with a man years ago in Indiana who rebuilt ShoBud undercarriages. He had been in business for a long time, but then he got cancer and became bitter at the world for the last couple years of his life (I spoke with him, before he changed his phone number and went into hiding). So he started cheating people, taking their money, lying to their faces, and keeping their guitar and money. I sent him $1,300 AND MY $1,500 S-10 ShoBud that I had purchased through the Steel Guitar Forum (SGF). By the way, this dishonest guy was also advertising through the SGF. There's nothing wrong with the SGF (and I'm glad Bob started it), but people are people and you still have to watch your back in the forum. About a dozen people got cheated by this guy. The guy just kept it all... go fly a kite!
In frustration I told him I understood he was suffering cancer, so he could keep all the money. I told him I'd sent UPS by his house to get the guitar, even if it was in pieces, and I that was OK with me. He wouldn't even respond. I got his phone number from someone else in the SGF and he was startled when I called him. He made the exact same promise that he had made a year earlier, and then again six months after that... You'll have the guitar in two weeks! Well, it never happened and he changed his phone number again. When I posted my loss, pain and frustration in the SGF, one member was so rotten that he actually posted pictures of his rebuilt ShoBud, rubbing it in how nicely a job the man had done on his ShoBud (before he decided to become a lying thief.). People can sure be cruel.
Here's another guy who cheated me in the SGF while buying aused pedal steel...
I had bought a JCH pedal steel from a dishonest guy in Florida. I got it through the Steel Guitar Forum (JCH serial #1015).
First, the seller used the credibility of a SGF longtime member (I won't mention his name because everyone would know him). That misled me to trust the seller on the credibility of the forum member. I'll never make that mistake again! Beware of buying third party through a guy through a guy. So many people are liars, cheats and cons! Be careful about buying from anyone other than a reputable store or direct from someone reputable. Even though a SGF member may be reliable, the person he is vouching for may not be as honest as he or she thinks.
Second, the seller kept telling me the JCH is a collector's item, and it is, but in hindsight now I know why he kept saying that (buttering me up), because there were issues with the steel guitar that he never told me. When I opened the case, I saw two papers which said the guitar has known issues. The seller at no time ever mentioned that big detail. The "issue" is that when you go to lower a string, like the 2nd string, it mysteriously raises and it is very tricky to get the guitar to work properly. I literally spent 50 hours just to get the guitar to work properly. It's flaky at best. I don't know the complete history behind the JCH guitars, but if there were known issues in the earlier guitar models, I don't see why they would even bother to sell them. Since I don't know the full story, I cannot judge the matter. All I do know is that the guy selling the guitar should have mentioned this problem, instead of letting me find the disappointing paperwork when it arrived.
I specifically asked the seller if I could put Tommy White's setup on the JCH and he said "yes, no problem." Well, there's no way to lower either strings 5 or 6 a whole tone. Mechanically, the guitar can't handle it. The guy is a bold-faced liar! If you've bought many musical instruments online, then you've likely been burned a time or five also (like I have). I also gave the guy $3,800 instead of $3,600 for the guitar (D-10, black, JCH, with Bill Lawrence pickups), just to be nice. You know what they say about nice guys... they finish last! Still, as a Christian I'm going to be nice no matter what. The dishonest guy has to answer to God for cheating me, and I can live with that, because I did him right. The JCH looks and sounds nice, but mechanically has issues. The seller took advantage of my generosity on top of defrauding me. As a Christian I have alway, and always will, give every penny back of someone's money if they are not 100% happy with whatever I've sold them. I couldn't go pray to God if I did that to someone, cheating them. Not disclosing important information that would discourage a buyer is a form of lying.
In hindsight, I should have asked for more information FROM OTHER MEMBERS OF THE SGF, and not just trust the seller. Don't ever trust someone who has something to sell you. Do your homework. Beware of the pressure to buy-now-before-you-lose-out mentality, unless you really know what you're buying. Buying sight unseen is always risky. Try to buy local if you can, so you can take a drive and see and play what you're buying.
I was also crapped-on by a new steel guitar manufacturer...
If you're new to steel guitar, I recommend asking around. Specifically, ask about customer service. I have learned in the SGF that there are a bunch of praise-mongers, who worship performers and manufacturers, and it creates a deceitful inflated image of some of them; so that if anyone dares to criticize them, you'll be demonized and made to feel like garbage for doing so. In other words, there's so much hype praising certain manufacturers that it's hard to get an honest opinion in the SGF about them.
I even got shafted by a new steel guitar builder several years ago. I ordered a guitar for $3,800. I won't mention the name, but they are the number one guitar builder now (or close to it). I didn't want to wait a year, and asked if I could pay extra for someone's overtime to get the guitar sooner. The owner said sure, it'll cost you $400 extra. The builder was 6-weeks late, never contacted me, and later when I sent the guitar back and cancelled the credit card charge, he admitted that his chrome-plating equipment had broken. The company puts Bible verses on all their webpages, and when I mentioned this, he said they don't mix religion with business. I had pointed out that one of the reasons I did business with them is because they claim to be Christians, but weren't acting like it. I literally had to go to another steel manufacturer's website to learn how to use the split-tuning, because they didn't include any instructions. The guitar was missing changes I had specified. The builder didn't take the time to adjust anything and I had to actually get my tools out to adjust the half-stop on undercarriage.
The owner's punk grandson is a total irresponsible jerk. I had asked for a hat, but he said his overhead was so low that he couldn't afford to give me a $5 hat with the $3,800 guitar. What crap! When I asked them for my money back that I paid to get the guitar early (because they were 6-weeks beyond the promised delivery date), they refused. After I sent the guitar back, because of their sh*t attitude, they offered me $100 back, which was an insult considering that shipping alone (to send the guitar back to them) cost me $125 insured. The builder lied and claimed that the owner personally plays each guitar before leaving. That's not true. The owner had been friendly until I kindly complained about the guitar, then he blew me off and was nowhere to be found. They behaved like shameful crooked heathens, not honest Christians. Thankfully, the credit card company shoved the guitar sideways up their rear-ends and I got all my money-back. Serves them right!
My horror stories of being cheated (and some good advice so you hopefully wont be)...
I ordered a D-10 steel once. It was from a discount builder who basically throws a bunch of cookie-cutter parts together to make a guitar, but they were mechanically sound. I just didn't have the extra money for a more expensive guitar, so I thought. You're much better off waiting until you have the extra money to buy the steel guitar that you really want (they are all different, some drastically). Each new guitar is like a car, i.e., they all work basically the same, but they are all distinctly different. This is why many players, like myself, end up buying multiple guitars over the decades, wanting to try many of the different guitars. There's nothing wrong with that. I have sold some, and maybe will sell some others Lord willing in the future, but I am not in a hurry to part with them. Steel guitars are a lot of fun. Jerry Byrd is right that each guitar has its own personality, like people.
Anyway, I wanted the new wood-body guitar to look like my Pro-II ShoBud, and I sent a picture to the builder. When I got the new guitar, sight unseen, it looked like dog-crap-brown to me. I hated it. So I went to sell it used. The guitar was only a few months old. The builder wouldn't redo the color, although I offered to pay him. He refused to take it back at a discount, so he could build me a new guitar. I even offered to buy mica black the second time, so there would be no question, misunderstanding or dispute. The builder refused. He had my money and I had a guitar that I hated. The machined knee-levers dug into my legs. I asked the builder why he didn't offer the nice contoured knee-levers like Sho-Bud guitars have. He said he couldn't afford it. He paid a local machine shop to mass-produce cookie-cutter parts. Cheap, cheap, cheap!!! Please don't buy an inferior guitar like that!!! You really do get what you pay for. Knee-levers are important. I like pretty chromed knee-levers, but more importantly, I want comfortable knee-lever, that are fully-adjustable.
When I found a guy through the SGF to buy my eye-straining, dog-crap-brown, knee-gouging, steel guitar, the builder went ballistic, accusing me of trying to run his business and stealing his customers. Turns out that the man who wanted to buy my guitar was in the process of considering buying a new guitar from the same builder. How was I supposed to know? The guy bought my used-new guitar, at a steep discount for what I paid for it (I didn't care, I just wanted it gone), and the builder was upset. I had done nothing wrong.
There are various conflicting opinions as to whether a mistreated customer (and SGF member) should complain in the Steel Guitar Forum (SGF). I mean, isn't it a good thing to warn other steelers if a builder is incompetent or dishonest? Sure it is; yet, it could backfire on you because, like I said, there's so much hype in the forum about favorite builders that you may be ganged-up on quickly. Steel guitar manufacturers promote and praise themselves in the SGF, which greatly affects their business. I read last month (July 2015) that there's only 4 steel guitar vendors who will be attending the International Steel Guitar Convention in September this year. When I attended back in the 1990's, there used to be dozens. The reason why is the internet, specifically the SGF. It is MUCH more beneficial to businesses to have a few shills in the SGF to promote their business (and they do). Since most guitar owners think their particular steel guitar builder is deity, it can make it difficult to get an accurate perspective about a particular builder. So what happens is that the big name builders become like K-mart, having so many customers that they can crap on the little guy and get away with it. No matter how hard you try, you will be hurt at some point by people (likely many times), and that includes the small steel guitar industry. I have been mistreated, cheated and wronged dozens of times!
When I first started playing steel guitar in 1992, I was so naive that I didn't even realize the Session 400 amp I had been sold by a guy down in Tennessee (I lived in Chicago at the time) had an inoperative reverb. The dishonest shop owner charged me $500 for a very old Peavey Session 400 (it doesn't even have the Peavey logo). The amp worked about a month, so I sent it off to Scotty's in St. Louis for repair. They said it was the filthiest and most corroded amp they had ever seen. It cost me an additional $180 plus shipping to repair the amp. I found out shortly thereafter that I could have bought a brand spanking new Session 500 for the same exact price ($500). The guy cheated and took advantage of me as a newbie!!! He's dead now and in God's hands for judgment. Biblically, you cannot defraud others are get away with it (1st Thessalonians 4:6; Ecclesiastes 12:14; Romans 14:10-12; James 1:12; Matthew 12:36; Proverbs 24:12).
The same guy in Tennessee also cheated me on the purchase of a new S-10 steel. I had paid him $2,000 for the Session 400 and the S-10 guitar as a package. He charged me $1500 for a candy-apple red guitar that was crap. I liked the color but not the guitar. I won't mention the name of the builder, but he had just got started building steels and they weren't up to par. The fretboard was coming off the neck. The 4th string wouldn't return true. It came back sharp when raised. The cheap tuning keys were stripping. The undercarriage was bare wood. A short time afterwards I went to a Steel Guitar Jamboree in Knoxville, TN. The show was great. I met Jimmy Day there. It was 1992. I met Billy Robinson. I met Herby Wallace. They were great! I recorded the whole thing! But while I was there, I examined the steel guitars that the vendors were promoting. I saw a brand-new D-10 steel guitar by a professional company for only $1,700. The undercarriage was covered in black felt and looked orderly and immaculate. I was hurt. I could have had this guitar for $200 more? Wow! I filed a complaint in small claims court. Through a steel artist in Nashville, who knew the shop owner who took advantage of me, I was able to buy the guitar I wanted. Unfortunately, the shop owner was a butcher and rigidly fixed the 5th knee lever that I paid to have installed, so that it was completely non-adjustable (all vertical knee-levers are adjustable if installed properly). Since I have short legs, I literally had to tape a Styrofoam block under the knee so that I could reach it. I later sold the guitar.
Also, NEVER buy a guitar from any builder whose website reads, “All Sales Are Final!” If you don't see it, still ask them if they have a return policy. Don't accept the line that says they'll fix any problems, or give your money back if the guitar breaks in half. Ask them, what if I just decide I am not happy with it and want to return it? I have no problem paying a 10% penalty for returning the guitar, because at least I have a way out if I'm not totally pleased. This is important, because you may hate the guitar. Any business that refuses to give your money back interprets to, “We are desperate for money!” and “We've had complaints in the past and people wanted their money back!”
It's important to play both a wood body with wood neck steel guitar, and a mica covered with aluminum neck guitar, before you buy one. They sound and feel very different. I like wood necks on a wood body. When you cover wood with Mica, it smoothers it, and that's what it sounds like. You can compensate with tone controls and effects, but I prefer to have natural wood and the brighter sound it produces. For me, I own both. I love my old D-10 Pro-II Sho-Bud with wood necks on a wooden body. I also have a newer S-10 Rittenberry, black mica with an aluminum neck, a very nice guitar. They sound and feel different, but I enjoy playing both of them. The pickups are different. It looks like a Jerry Wallace pickup in my Rittenberry, but I cannot remember, and it really doesn't matter because I like the sound. I have stock pickups in my Sho-Bud. I have a S-10 Sho-Bud on a single body with a Bill Lawrence pickup. I love the sound! But I agree with Lloyd Green that there's not enough guitar (as far as the actually body) on the single body Sho-Buds. It just feels lacking while playing. A single neck with a pad arm-rest on a double body (which Lloyd plays) is much more beefy, solid and has a good feel to it. I agree.
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.
I'm only sharing these true stories with you so that you may benefit from my pains. When it comes to money, people who stand to gain often turn into fiends. As a Christian I choose not to live that way. If you're not happy, I could never keep your money, knowing that you're cursing my name for it. I'm just thankful that these people wronged me, and not me them.
Back To Lap Steel Guitars
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 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. I wish Fuzzy steel guitars would have made their Jerry Byrd Frypan guitar about 4 pounds lighter with a felt bottom. Instead, their guitars weigh 8 pounds, and they get heavy after an hour on your lap. Get the optional stand!
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 at the bridge, 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. Listen to Jerry Byrd's albums. Import the songs into MixCraft (or a similar audio program) and slow the tempo in half (or more) to learn the licks. That's what I do.
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. Leonard Zinn has proven that. He plays wonderful Hawaiian style on the E9th, but he picks the strings after depressing the pedals. That's the trick! The pedal “twang” is for the Country music style, not Hawaiian.
As far as steel guitars, I personally prefer a lap steelwhich is resemblant of a brass section horn in an orchestra. Larger amps will always sound better. Small amps tend to have a louder-speaker tone, which is great for those old Hawaiian steel guitar sounds (like Jerry Byrd's ancient Volutone amplifier). 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. Albeit, I like to feel good about my playing, so I don't play publickly through cheap steels anymore. 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 felt satisfied playing a $79 lap steel for two years, because I didn't know any better. But then I had the opportunity to play a Bakelite Rickenbacher (I was blown away by the tone). I now have a 1936 bakelite Ricky with the 1 1/2" magnets. It is a wonderful instrument. In my opinion, there's no noticeable tone difference between pre-WWII Ricky's verses post-WWII Ricky's. The 1 1/2" and 1 1/4" horseshoe pickups sound the same to me.
You won't go wrong with a CANOPUS, but are very expensive (made in Japan). Older American-made Fender steels are nice, but it's harder to get good harmonics (according to some players I've talked with).
A Word About Steel Guitar Pickups
There is a SCIENCE to guitar 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. Also, different guitar materials sound better with different pickups. It is a science.
Bill Lawrence and Jerry Wallace know what they are doing (in my opinion) 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 them 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 guitars 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 all 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 S-10 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
- Beck Musical Instruments
- Excel Steel Guitars
- Fessenden Guitars
- Fulawka Steel Guitars
- Genesis Steel Guitars
- GFI Musical Products
- Jagiella Steel Guitars
- Justice Steel Guitars
- Lamar Musical Instruments
- Linkon Steel Guitars
- Lone Star Steel
- MSA Pedal Steels
- Moyo Pedal Steel Guitars
- Pedalmaster Steel Guitars
- Rains Steel Guitars
- Sierra Steel Guitar Company
- Show Pro Custom Steel
- Simmons Steel Guitars
- Stage One Steel Guitars
- Star Steel Guitars
- Steel Guitar Builder Forum
- WBS Steel Guitars
- Wilcox Steel Guitars
- ZumSteel Pedal Steel Guitars
- Allen Guitars
- Asher Guitars
- Benoit Resonator Guitars
- Bojorquez Guitars
- Burgin Guitars
- Clinesmith Resophonic Guitars
- CruzTone Steel Guitars
- Dynalap Steel Guitars
- Excel Steel Guitars
- Fern's Guitars
- Fouke Industrial Guitars
- Harmos Steel Guitars
- Johnson Musical Instruments
- Julian Tubb Instruments
- Lapdancer Guitars
- Lap King
- Manzanita Guitars
- Melobar / Smith Family Music
- MSA SuperSlide
- Remington Steel Guitars
- Shaw Guitars
- Sierra Steel Guitar Company
- Sterner Hand Crafted Guitars
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!