Recommend a lap steel, or pedal steel guitar
November 8, 2004 5:08 PM   Subscribe

KrimmixPresentFilter: My husband (who does not visit Metafilter) is a musician and I'd like to get him either a lap steel or pedal steel guitar for Christmas. Since it would be rather obvious if I just randomly asked him what brands are good, etc., I thought that maybe some of the MeFiMusicians could help. If you were going to be given a lap or pedal steel, which one would you want?
posted by stefnet to Shopping (10 answers total)
I don't know too much about pedal steels but I believe that good ones are very expensive.

Although there are some new lap steels around, I think most people would agree that the best ones are made by Fender, Gibson, National/Valco/Supro (all the same company) or Rickenbacker, none of which have been made for forty years or so. Fortunately, they made thousands of them during the Hawaiian guitar craze so they're not that hard to find.

Brad's Page of Steel has lots of good lap steel info.
posted by timeistight at 5:27 PM on November 8, 2004

P.S. If I were being given a steel, I'd want a Fender Stringmaster with three necks. But I'm greedy.
posted by timeistight at 5:30 PM on November 8, 2004

posted by crunchburger at 5:31 PM on November 8, 2004

I'd want a Carter.
posted by eastlakestandard at 5:54 PM on November 8, 2004

Brad's a friend of mine, and he knows some shit. If you'd like me to write to him personally, I will.
posted by notsnot at 6:40 PM on November 8, 2004

I'd want an old Fender of some description. The older and ricketier the better, as far as I'm concerned - I'd spend dozens of happy winter nights tinkering with it.

Musical instruments are so personal, though. It's hard to say.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:25 PM on November 8, 2004

Email me! Pedal steels are very expensive. My current steel cost me $1700 and I got a bargain on it. Pro model Carters are about the cheapest new, non-student pedal steel you can buy and they start at about $2,000.

The single best resource for pedal steel information is the Steel Guitar Forum. Carter's site (linked to above) also has a tremendous about of information.

Do not under any circumstances buy (at this point) a pedal steel off of eBay. Most of the pedal steels on eBay are mechanically unsound and overpriced and not friendly to newcomers to the steel. For example, Sho~Bud Mavericks, a poorly built student model, regularly go for $7-1200.

If you go with a pedal steel, I would unhesitatingly recommend a Carter-Starter. It is a capable student instrument with the now standard three pedals and four kneelever and the E9 tuning. They go for approximately $500 used (I just sold one to a friend for $400) and $700 new. The advantage of this model is that it is well-built and reliable and will actually play in tune. They are not hugely sturdy and are definately a student instrument. However, when a player outgrows the limitations of the Carter-Starter they can be sold very, very easily and keep a good portion of their value.

As for the E9 tuning I mentioned earlier, there are two main tunings used for pedal steel, E9 and C6. E9 is the most commonly heard--it's the twangy, crying tuning most often used in country music. C6 tends to sound like Hawaiian music.

As for brands to recommend, your actual question I guess, it's difficult to say. Most pedal steels are built by hand in limited numbers. They're usually ordered custom from the builder. Used steels are kind of a crapshoot. Because the instrument is so complicated, it's very easy to find steels with broken, missing, or poorly adjusted parts that simply will not play in tune. And in your neck of the woods, you're pretty unlikely to find a mechanic who can keep a steel playing well. I do correspond with a few steel players in NY and they'd likely be willing to help you out in finding a local instrument that's in good shape and playable should you choose to go the used route.

For new instruments, it's important to bear in mind that pedal steels are more like computers than guitars. The technology continues to improve, as opposed to six-strings (or lap steels) where the design was basically complete fifty years ago. Therefore a new or new-used instrument is probably the best route to go. I personally play an older guitar (a mid-80s Sho~Bud Super Pro), but that's because I was able to find one that had been impeccably maintained and adjusted.

Carter (pro model Carters, the Carter-Starter is very different) and GFI are light and sturdy instruments. They play in tune, have an easy pedal action, and are sturdy. On the higher end of the spectrum are Emmons, Zum, and MSA. These instruments run around $4-5000 and have waiting lists. Anapegs and Excels are gorgeous but very hard to get ahold of. My personal dream guitar (this week) is a Fulawka. They're just beautiful.

If you go mail order for a new or used pro steel, which you will likely be necesary, I like Scotty's out of St. Louis. They're quite helpful over the phone as well, it's likely worth giving them a call. I've never bought a guitar from them, but they've got a great reputation and have done right by me when I ordered an amp and stacks of other incidentals. Dealing with Carter, and Ann Fabian in particular, is always a joy. There is another prominent steel guitar dealer on the web with whom I and others have had terrible luck. Scotty's and Carter will do you right, however.

In summation, buy a Carter-Starter. Every other option is too complicated or expensive to do without involving your husband, IMHO. Also, remember that in order to play a pedal steel, you'll need picks, a bar, and a volume pedal (Goodrich!). Without these items Christmas morning will be way less fun.

And all of this advice applies only to pedal steels. If you go with a lap steel, it's all out the window. I'm going to a take a break and then add another post about non-pedal guitars.
posted by stet at 7:45 PM on November 8, 2004

ikkyu2: I'd recommend anyone but you stay away from the Fender pedal steels. They are more about tinkering than playing. Really distinctive tone, however. If one is a player who wants the common tone one hears on records, a Fender won't give it to you and the mechanical limitation of the instrument are such that some of the most common pedal steel licks are impossible to play on the guitar. Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers has used his Fender to great effect however.
posted by stet at 7:50 PM on November 8, 2004

Best answer: As for lap steel, the older the better pretty much. Current models that I like are the Bill Asher Ben Harper model. It's got a chambered wood body and six strings. I've spent a couple of hours playing one and loved it. They are ~$1400, I think and maybe that's too much to spend. Chandler makes a nice six-string that's very similar to the Asher for around $350. Sierra, who's been going in and out of business for a while, makes amazing lap steels, but they're spendy and difficult to find.

On the other end, there are a ton of six-string, 40s-50s lap steels floating around for $200 or so. Most of them were made in the same factory and then re-branded, so don't be too concerned about the name on the headstock. I just sold an old Magnatone for $75 to another friend. It was alright, but not earth shaking. Currently, I play a Bakelite six-string that sounds great. I think it was made by Rickenbacker and re-branded, which resulted in a $1000 guitar being sold for $200. Go me!

There are bargains to be had in lap steels, but you have to play them to find out which ones sound good.

For more money, you get into Rickenbacker, Fender, and Gibson range. Bakelite Fryingpan Ricks are pretty much the holy grail of lap steels. If I found one of those in my stocking I'd be a very, very happy steel player. They are almost impossible to purchase, though. High demand and low supply.

Rickenbackers with a horseshoe pickup are great. They have a big fat tone and are well-built. It'd be hard to go wrong with one of these. Fenders have a thinner and twangier sound. They also seem to command a higher price. Gibsons are off and on. Some of them are great, some not so much. My stepfather owns a 40s Kalamazoo (built by Gibson) with a Charlie Christian pickup that's wonderful. Gibson BR-9s and such are rather sought after.

For all models, eight-string guitars command a much higher price and are much harder to find. Double or triple-necks are still more expensive and more difficult to find. Depending on your husband's playing, he may or may not be interested in the extra strings. If he wants to play jazz, I'd scare up an eight (or more) string guitar. If blues or rock are more his style, a six-string will be more than adequate.

For me, I play a 20-string pedal steel, a six-string lap steel, and am waiting on an eight-string Weissenborn-style acoustic lap steel. They're all good for different things.

Oh, if your husband is a Robert Randolph fan, he's started endorsing Harmos lap steels, which have an odd girder construction. They look kind of like a bridge support with strings. They're spendy, but very cool and I hear great things.

And eBay is as good of a place to buy lap steels as anything else. I still dislike buying musical instruments sight-unseen, but a lap steel hasn't got the problems with mechanics that pedal steels do and can be safely purchase.
posted by stet at 8:08 PM on November 8, 2004

Response by poster: Wow. That was EXTREMELY helpful. I think (and, really, knew from the beginning) that a pedal steel was out of my poor grad student price range. Also, we have no room for such a thing as the husband is an organ tinkerer.

He is the audio-maker and I am the visuals-maker, so I have an appreciation for the idiosyncrasies and preferences in equipment and I have a good notion of his taste in "regular" guitars. He's a complete gear head, but I think, armed with the knowledge from this post, I can at least find him something that would be good as a play-around instrument.

Thanks to everyone, especially stet!
posted by stefnet at 8:43 PM on November 8, 2004

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