THE LAP-STEEL GUITAR
A true test lab of electromagnetic amplification, the first form the lap-steel guitar would take on is the very popular and often misunderstood Hawaiian guitar (known as lap-steel as it is played flat on the knees of the musician), which kicked off the ensuing research and development in this field. On top of being the first mass-produced musical instrument with an integrated pickup, this guitar is also the first to receive a solid body. This last radical version of the amplification of acoustic instruments will earn its prototype – which we owe to Adolph Rickenbacher (spelling later changed to Rickenbacker for the sake of assimilation) and George Beauchamp – the sympathetic and mocking nickname of “Frying Pan” – indeed, visually at least it seemed very similar to the cooking utensils! From then on, in the wake of Rickenbacher and Beauchamp’s endeavors, industrial builders gradually moved towards acoustic nothingness of the conventional guitar with metal strings: the traditional Spanish guitar became Electro-Spanish (hence the initials ES appearing on Gibson model names) then, with a solid body, will be electric solidbody guitar.
Some great names and virtuosos of the lap-steel and pedal-steel guitar include the pioneering American multi-instrumentalist and band leader Alvino Rey (1908-2004), his fellow countrymen Peter Drake (1932-1988), Lloyd Green (1937 ), the incomparable Speedy West (1924-2003) and Forrest White (1920-1994) who, before joining the workshops of Leo Fender (1909-1991) in 1954, was very popular with recording studios. We owe to him the final melodic line of the cartoon jingle “Merrie Melodies”! In France, the names of Gino Bordin (1899-2009) or Harry Hougassian (1933) stand out, both of whom played on a lap-steel made by Jacques Favino (1920-1999).
Essentially, every brand of guitar in the 1930s made lap-steels, so popular was the sport of string sliding! Credit given where credit is due, the pre-war Rickenbacker Electro A aka “Frying Pan”, Rickenbacker Silver Hawaiian, Rickenbacker model B, Rickenbacker model SD or simple Rickenbacker NS models from before the war are still sought after for their typical tone and sound quality. Likewise, the many lap-steels that emerged from Gibson’s workshops are still very popular, especially when they carry a “Charlie Christian” bar pickup like the Gibson EH-150, Gibson EH-100 or Gibson EH-185. Chicago’s multi-brand companies such as National-Valco, Harmony, Kay, Supro, Paramount were not left out and produced countless numbers of this type of guitar until the 1950s. In California, lap-steels would be the first musical instruments made by Leo Fender after the war. The first Fender Champs were rudimentary, but the production would quickly become more complex according to the demand of the musicians, thus the Fender Dual Eight Professional Console models, or Fender Triple Eight Console models will compete with the Gibson Console Grande models. Similarly, Gibson production can be compared to that of Fender’s as it offered until the 1950s inexpensive models such as the Gibson BR9 or the Gibson Skylark with a resolutely 50s style design!