A lap steel guitar can be an intimidating instrument to play. Your finger strength and left-hand dexterity aren’t as important anymore. Rather, the precision and feel become the most important aspects of your playing.
While owning one of the best lap steel guitars won’t guarantee you an edge, it will help you understand the instrument better.
My Best Lap Steel Guitar Picks on a Budget
Some very minor differences in build, strings, and electronics can make or break a lap steel guitar. That’s why for this article I’ve carefully chosen my top picks for beginner players and professionals.
Table of Contents
1. Rogue RLS-1
Available in three colors and complete with important gig and practice accessories, the Rogue RLS-1 is a good buy for any beginner and professional lap steel guitar player. In particular, I like how well the tone of this guitar lends itself to multiple genres.
You’ll notice Hawaiian nuances, the ease of creating blues tones, as well as the ability to create rich and bright country sliding licks. There’s not a lot more you could ask of a lap steel guitar. Especially one as affordable as the RLS-1.
With a hardwood body and neck, the guitar proves to be quite durable. It features standard position markers to allow beginner players to find their way around the board. It’s equipped with just a single coil pickup and individual tone and volume control knobs.
The stainless steel pickguard and the chrome hardware provide a nice look and help improve the overall durability. What I like most is that a stand is included as well as a rugged gig bag.
2. SX Lap 2 Ash
The SX Lap 2 Ash comes with 36 frets and a detachable lap steel stand. The maple fretboard is very comfortable to play on and easy to maintain. I also like the Swamp Ash body for its durability and pristine finish.
The tuners, volume and tone controls, as well as other hardware are made of diecast chrome. It provides a nice contrast while also ensuring durability. The chrome tuners also offer better tuning stability, which is always a plus, especially for beginners.
In terms of electronics, the guitar doesn’t have anything out of the ordinary. A standard pickup model was used, the P90. It has a good balance but not a lot of power and will rely heavily on having the right amplification.
That said, the string action on this lap steel guitar is very good out of the box. You won’t have to deal with unwanted vibrations and string rattling. The latter of which can be quite common on the low strings.
The factory tuning is Open G. This makes the guitar already calibrated for blues, rock, and country music.
The use of the Art deco control plate gives the Gretsch Electromatic lap steel guitar a very interesting look. Apart from being eye-catching, it comes with a unique tone too. Its richness is due to the nuances of Hawaiian electric lap steel guitars.
The other tone-defining features are the single-coil pickup and the wide tonal range adjustment. Both the tone and volume controls are chromed for added durability and to improve appearance. I like that the guitar also comes with unique position markers.
Yet one more thing that sets it apart from others. And, with the first five markers being bolded and larger, it should be much easier for beginners to find their way around the guitar.
The fingerboard is sleek and beginner-friendly. It actually plays as well as the glossy finish would imply. I also like that the tuners seem to do a good job of maintaining Open D and Open A tunings, even through intensive playing.
The standard strings are Fender 12-52, nickel plated steel strings. They wouldn’t be my top pick. However, they’re long-lasting and good for practice purposes.
If you’re not a beginner and you want your lap steel guitar to stand out, then I suggest something like the Vorson SL-100E. This lap steel model comes with two pickups and a scale length of 22.5”.
It’s a lot more versatile than cheaper models, especially because of its use of two FP-90 single coil pickups. There’s also a three-way pickup switch. This will allow you to play any position in a band. Plus, it will make it easier to record rhythm and solo parts.
The mahogany body looks good and has a very professional finish. It’s also a bit heavier and denser than in other models. This translates to a higher tonal quality, as well as more longevity.
The open headstock design looks great but I don’t see the SL-100E tuners as being the best. Not in terms of tuning stability if you go outside Open D and Open A tunings. That said, having access to active electronics will allow you to play this guitar with effects for more impactful solos.
I also like the use of bar inlays as position markers. They’re bigger, offer better visibility, and can really come in handy if you’re playing fast licks. The guitar also comes with tone control knobs for each pickup It really helps with achieving balance, clarity, as well as more oomph when you need it.
5. SX Lap 3
The SX Lap 3 comes with 36 frets and a regular guitar body. It’s more beginner-friendly in my opinion, and makes for a better transition instrument for experienced guitar players.
36 frets offer amazing tonal range, so you can use this guitar for both rhythm and solos. The neck-through build provides good resonance as well as durability. In a way, this also helps with tuning retention.
The volume and tone controls seem to be very sturdy. I like this as too often you’ll find flimsy controls that you have to be careful when turning. The gauge of the stock strings is 11-52. Given the gauge and the factory setup, I would recommend the Lap 3 if you favor open E tuning.
That said, changing the strings will allow you to experiment with other tunings too such as C6, G, and even A major. Just don’t expect that to happen until after you change the factory strings.
One more important aspect is the guitar’s light weight and thinner build. In my opinion, this also makes it much more suitable for teens and even kids that want to learn the instrument.
One of the main highlights of the RG-32-SN is obviously its string-through body. This type of design makes for superior tuning retention. However, it also makes retuning and changing the strings a bit trickier. Especially for beginners.
That said, the overall quality is premium. Starting with the solid mahogany body, the smooth fingerboard, the chrome hardware, and ending with the P-90 pickup. And, it’s not just your average pickup either.
The electronics on the RG-32-SN are done by EMG. This brings a whole new level of raw output as well as tonal clarity. It’s also my opinion that the EMG P-90, the real one and not replicas anyway, will provide better support for effect pedals.
Since the guitar clearly handles overdrive and distortion better, you can use it as your main in live gigs. You can also use it for professional-level recordings. Although it’s a bit heavier, Recording King did a good job of prioritizing sustain and tonal clarity. Both aspects that should compensate for a heavier instrument.
Is the Lap Steel Guitar for You?
Apart from being played differently, it’s also not used as much for soloing as a standard guitar. Therefore, the lap steel guitar sound is most often used for melodic phrasing and highlighting, and adding nuances.
It rarely takes center stage. So is this the instrument for you? Well, I think that if you’re already passionate about using a guitar slide, then this is a must-have instrument in your arsenal. It can also offer you a challenge, as even transitioning from an acoustic or electric guitar can be difficult at times.
What You Need to Know About Tunings
Unlike most guitars that tend to come in standard E tuning (EADGBE), lap steel guitars are designed for open chord tunings. Therefore, you’ll see them come in Open E, Open G, Open A, Open C6, and so on.
It’s a bit unfortunate that not all manufacturers will indicate what tuning is best-suited for their guitars. But here’s what’s really important for you to know.
Open A and Open G tunings are most popular among blues, rock, and country musicians. If you’re a fan of these styles then it’s best you find yourself a lap steel that excels in those tunings.
By excelling, I mean having proper string action and tuning retention to handle Open A and Open G tunings.
Accessories – What’s Important and What’s Not
Unlike traditional guitars, lap steel guitars don’t come with many bells and whistles. The most you should hope to get out of a decent bundle is a stand and a gig bag. Of course, stands aren’t always included as they’re not ideal for all lap steel types.
What’s even more important is to not get distracted by accessories either. It can take you many tries to find a lap steel finger slide that fits you playing style, technique, or genre. And, most stock or factory strings will also need replacing sooner or later.
Best focus on the quality of the wood, the electronics, even the hardware. That’s not to say that a lap steel bundle with a padded carry case or a hardcase gig bag won’t be worth paying a bit extra for. At least not if you plan on traveling or touring a lot.
Do You Need More Than One Pickup?
In my opinion, a single-coil pickup is more than enough to get the trademark lap steel guitar sound. Provided, of course, that the pickup is of good quality. I recommend the P-90 or very similar pickups to stay true to the lap steel sound.
But this doesn’t mean that all lap steels feature a single pickup. As you can see, I’ve also included one in my top favorites that features two. Having two pickups can add a lot of versatility and even help give you extra volume when your guitar needs to cut through the mix.
At the same time, I wouldn’t recommend paying extra for the additional pickup unless you’re playing live, recording, or pretty much making a living with your lap steel guitar. This is a design feature that won’t alter the tone too much.
Playing on a very good guitar amp may be more than enough for you to stand out when needed.
My Final Thoughts on Lap Steel Guitars
Are lap steel guitars for everyone? I don’t think so. But they’re a very important part of American music culture and in many situations, indispensible to achieving a very particular sound.
I recommend only looking at the best lap steel guitars, whether you’re just starting out, or you’re an experienced guitar player. One that adds another dimension to your music.