The acoustic lap steel – a very interesting challenge

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If you feel your guitar-playing is stuck in a rut, it might be a good idea to broaden your horizon – either by immersing yourself in a new genre, or by taking up a different string-instrument.

For some time I have been interested in lap steels, and for some reason – probably due to their their special sound – especially in Weissenborn-type, acoustic lap steels.

About 100 years ago a Californian luthier (of German origin), named Hermann Weissenborn, came up with an idea to make the then-popular acoustic lap steel guitar louder: Weissenborn simply extended the body into the neck, all the way up to the top nut. As the neck was sort of redundant on a lap steel anyway, the luthier figured, he might as well use it to further amplify the instrument’s voice.

Although the new instrument worked very well, Weissenborns were supplanted relatively quickly by even louder designs, such as resonators and electric steel guitars. Over recent years interest in Hermann Weissenborn’s invention has been growing slowly but steadily, thanks to this guitar’s idiosyncratic looks and sounds being featured by such musicians as Ben Harper and Xavier Rudd.

Thanks to this renaissence, new and affordable Weissenborn-copies are readily available for the beginner. Most of these guitars are built in China to the distributors’ specifications and then branded with the respective company’s logo.

There are also a few luthiers out there who build high-quality replicas of Weissenborn-type lap steels for the connoisseur – check Google (”Weissenborn guitar”).

At the moment of writing no Finnish distributor is importing Weissenborn-style guitars, so I got some support for preparing this article from Germany: Bediaz Music are a small, specialised company, dealing mostly in acoustic lap steels – starting with vintage Weissenborns and modern boutique-versions – but the guys are also importing their own range of affordable Bediaz-branded instruments.

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Bediaz Weissenborn – full front

I decided to get acquainted with a Bediaz Black Gloss, the company’s most affordable model (289 €).

This is a copy of the guitar-shaped Weissenborn, but Bediaz also offer Teardrop-models, as well as deep-bodied and/or wider alternatives.

Bediaz Weissenborn – back angle

At this price point you cannot expect solid-wood bodies. The Bediaz has a body build from laminated mahogany, and sports a gloss black finish.

Only the guitar’s headstock – which is glued into the hollow neck near the first fret – is a solid piece of wood.

Bediaz Weissenborn – neck

Affordable doesn’t mean cheap, though:

The Bediaz displays a very clean build (for the most part), and looks rather fetching with its luscious finish and the stylish, contrasting maple binding.

The fret lines seem to be maple, too. There were a couple of slightly wobbly-looking fret lines, but this is a mere cosmetic glitch on a lap steel, and nothing to worry about in this price range.

Bediaz Weissenborn – headstock

The silkscreened silver logo also isn’t the crispest either, due to some bleed, but this also is a very minor cosmetic niggle, which surely won’t spoil our fun.

A chunky bit of bovine bone has been used for the Bediaz’ tall top nut.

Bediaz Weissenborn – tuners

Tuning is simple and steady, thanks to the modern sealed tuning machines.

Bediaz Weissenborn – soundhole

Stylishly understated white rings make up this instrument’s rosette.

Bediaz Weissenborn – interior

The Bediaz also displays rather clean workmanship on the inside – something which isn’t always a given in this low price bracket.

Bediaz Weissenborn – bridge

A Weissenborn-bridge is a steel-string bridge’s taller sister. On the Bediaz it has been crafted from a sandwich of two pieces of rosewood.

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This is what a Weissenborn can sound like in the right hands:

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Playing a lap steel guitar opens up the gates to a new kind of playing-experience, and forces you to readjust your approach.

In a certain way, a lap steel is much more restricted than a standard (Spanish) guitar, as you’re always tied closely to your chosen tuning, with the bar giving you only a little room for breaking out of the key you’re in. If you’re in an open major-tuning, for example, achieving minor chords requires you to apply string muting, if you want to go somewhere else than the parallel minor tonic chord (like: Em –> G).

On the other hand, the tone bar frees you from the constraints of the traditional western 12-semitone scale, making it possible to find notes outside our usual major/minor-tonalities. This is one of the reasons why acoustic lap steels are gaining a growing following among Blues-guitarists and World-musicians.

Playing in tune and hitting the correct pitch takes a lot of practice on a lap steel, though. I, for my part, am still on the way there…

😉

Bediaz Weissenborn – beauty shot

Due to their hollow neck Weissenborn-type guitars are a little more delicate when it comes to the rigours of string-pull. High-pitched open tunings should only be attempted with lighter gauge strings. It’s best to start your Weissenborn-journey with lower tunings, such as open D (D-A-D-f#-a-d), open C (C-G-C-e-g-c), open G (D-G-D-g-h-d) or DADGAD. Many lap steel buffs also use their own – often ”secret” – tunings to fit their own signature sound and style.

Click HERE for more information, or try Google.

The Bediaz Black Gloss has a nice fresh and open tone with a charmingly raunchy mid-range. For a standard-depth acoustic Weissenborn-copy the sheer volume on offer is a positive surprise.

Tonebars

A lap steel’s sound is also defined by which tone bar is used, and the bar also has an influence on the guitar’s playability. I have taken my first steps using a classic bullet-shaped tone bar – the sound was good, but I found the bar hard to hold. I have since switched to a Shubb SP-1 bar, which I find much easier to hold and manoeuvre. Other players swear by much lighter ceramic tone bars, so check them out as well.

Bediaz Weissenborn – back beauty

While I don’t kid myself into thinking I might become a great lap steel guitarist, I still find playing the Bediaz-Weissenborn very refreshing and fun.

The affordable Bediaz-guitar makes it easy to start your own path down a new road – it’s a pretty and well-sounding instrument. And once you progress you can always step up to an even better model.

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Here are two tracks I recorded on the Bediaz:

The Bediaz Weissenborn-copy even made it onto a song demo already:

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I’d like to thank Bediaz Music for their vital support in making this article happen!

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