There are three types of steel guitars today. The first one is a resonator guitar, the second is a pedal steel guitar, and the third is a lap steel guitar. Each guitar is interchangeably used in different genres of music, although they are notably popular in jazz, country, folk, and traditional music.
Each guitar differs from one another as well. And in this article, we will talk about the difference between a lap steel guitar and a pedal steel guitar.
That being said, there are several factors that differentiate what a pedal steel guitar is, and what a lap steel guitar is. But the most notable distinctions between the two is their (a) build and (b) musical expression.
Essentially, pedal steel guitar comes with foot pedals and knee levers used and is supported with legs, while a lap steel guitar is placed on the lap and typically resembles a ukulele. And because the former comes with knee levers and foot pedals that is used to alter the pitch of the instrument’s strings, a pedal steel guitar allows players to express their music in a lot more ways compared to a lap steel.
But not only that.
Both guitars differ in the level of playability, sound, tuning, and even strings as well.
A Quick Guide to Lap Steel & Pedal Steel Guitars
Before we move forward and talk about the different aspects that set the two steel guitars apart, let’s discuss first what exactly lap steel and pedal steel guitars are.
Having said that, what exactly a lap steel guitar is?
Also known as the Hawaiian guitar, a lap steel guitar is a type of string instrument that is played horizontally and is placed across the musician’s lap. Its build and size resemble a ukulele but depending on whether it is an acoustic or electric lap steel guitar, the external appearance may vary as well.
In terms of playability, a lap steel guitar is played by pressing a steel bar against the plucked strings. A great difference from how a traditional guitar is played, which is pressing the strings against the frets.
Moreover, the steel guitar originated from the Hawaiian Islands and was popularized by Joseph Kekuku.
Pedal steel guitar, on the other hand, is a type of instrument that is—physically—quite different from other string instruments. Because instead of a guitar, it looks more like an organ.
Essentially, a pedal steel guitar is a console-type string instrument that has knee levers and pedals. The pedals and the lever are then used to alter the pitch of strings. Such ability to change the pitch then enables the musician to create and play diverse and more complicated music.
The pedal steel guitar is associated mostly with Hawaiian and American country music too.
What Makes the Two Steel Guitars Different?
As said earlier, pedal steel and lap steel guitars differ largely from one another despite being categorized as steel guitars. From their sounds to how they are played, the two instruments are not alike.
That said, here are the factors that set the two steel guitars apart.
- Sound. For musicians, the sound is a crucial factor when playing an instrument. And for pedal steel and lap steel guitars, the sound, as well as the timbre that both instruments make, are almost similar.In fact, if both steel guitars are played at the same time, it would be difficult for the listeners to recognize which sound comes from the lap steel guitar and which sound comes from the pedal steel guitar.
The difference takes place, however, when you start using the knee levers and pedals of the pedal steel guitar. And it is because, as mentioned earlier, levers and pedals are used to alter the steel guitar’s strings pitch. Changing it then allows the player to musically express the notes by creating new sounds.
- Build and material. As mentioned earlier, the most notable distinction between the two is their build. Pedal steel guitar comes with foot pedals and knee levers and is supported with legs. On the other hand, a lap steel guitar typically resembles a standard guitar and has the size same as a ukulele. Thus, in terms of size and weight, it is easier to carry a lap steel guitar than a pedal steel guitar.Moreover, a lap steel guitar has fewer strings compared to a pedal steel guitar. The former usually has six to eight strings while the latter can have ten—or even more than that—strings. In a way, this makes a lap steel guitar easier to learn compared to pedal steel.
- Tuning. Another factor that sets the two steel guitars apart is how the two are tuned. The lap steel guitar, for instance, is often tuned to an extended and open chord such as 6th, 7th, and 9th rather than the standard guitar tuning which is E-A-D-G-B-E.But among the said chords, the most used is the C6 (C-E-G-A-C-E). In fact, it is the most common modern tuning for a lap steel guitar and is the most accessible. The C6 chord is very versatile, and you can find a lot of learning materials available on the internet.
A pedal steel guitar, on the other hand, typically utilizes an E9 tuning. But in the case of double-neck pedal steel, musicians usually tune each neck to E9 and C6.
- Playing position. The two steel guitars also vary in playing position.As its name suggests, the lap steel guitar is played while resting on the musician’s lap. Although it can also be placed on a small stand. And because its size is similar to that of a ukulele, it is much lighter to carry than pedal steel. Hence, it is portable.
On the flip side, a pedal steel guitar needs a stand to efficiently make use of its foot bars and knee levers. It is larger compared to lap steel too. And, thus, may require more time to set up.
- Cost. All instruments vary in price. And the same goes with pedal and lap steel guitars. An entry-level lap steel guitar, for example, can cost you up to $100—or even more. Factors such as the brand, age, as well as overall quality of the instrument can influence its value.A pedal steel guitar, on the flip side, is a lot more expensive due to its size as well as the additional mechanical and musical—the pedal and the lever, to be exact—options. Entry-level pedal steel can cost you between $300 to $1,000 while a professional set is often sold from around $2,500 (used) to $4,000 (brand new).
In music, instruments play a vital role in what a specific genre of music sounds like. Rock music, for example, is to electric guitars while jazz is to piano and trumpet. It is why learning the differences between two or three instruments of the same category is crucial for musicians.
That said, in conclusion, we learned that a lap steel guitar and a pedal steel guitar vary primarily in build as well as musical expression. And that the level of difficulty on how to learn the instrument, the sound, design, tuning, and even playing position also make the two steel guitars unique from another.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.