Slide Guitars: What types are there and what defines them?

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Slide Guitars: What types are there and what defines them?

Bottleneck style slide guitar (demonstration courtesy of Devon Floyd, Halifax).

There are many types of slide guitars used for various styles and sounds, and the terms for these instruments often get thrown around without a clear understanding of what they mean. Here’s a guide to help you sort out some of the confusion.


Slide styles

There are two basic ways to play slide guitar, bottleneck and lap style.

Bottleneck style slide is played with the guitar held up against the body while holding the slide upright.

Lap style slide is played with the guitar laid flat, and the slide parallel to the floor.

Tremblay Guitars lap steel (left) and a Simon & Patrick converted lap slide (right).
A Tremblay Guitars lap steel (left) and a Simon & Patrick converted lap slide (right).

Guitars used for slide

The main consideration when playing in either style is whether the string action is high enough for you to move it around without it knocking against the frets and/or fretboard.

When playing bottleneck style the slide is pressed against the strings with as little or much weight as needed. In this case, all that’s required is a standard setup on a standard guitar, but with a slight raising of the bridge or saddle. It doesn’t require a specific type of guitar, or major readjustments.

On the other hand, with lap style, the weight of the slide bar is on top of the strings, which often requires raising the nut at the top of the neck. This conversion can be temporary, using a nut raiser (a curved and slotted piece of metal, also known as a Dobro nut) or more permanent, with the installation of a taller nut.

Setting up: note the taller nuts and saddles required for lap style playing.

Lap slide guitars (Acoustic, Square-neck, Weissenborn, Dobro)

Higher string action from nut-to-saddle is a feature of guitars designed specifically for lap style playing.

The general term for an acoustic guitar made for lap style is a “lap slide”. This includes converted standard acoustic guitars, square-neck flat tops, and Weissenborn guitars, which feature a cascading body contour and hollow design from body to neck.

This lap slide term technically includes square-neck resonator Dobro guitars, but most players consider playing Dobro a style and instrument unto itself.

Gretsch Electromatic Pedal Steel guitar
A smooth, yet sonic blast from the past. The Gretsch Electromatic Lap Steel reproduces the unmistakable rich tones of an electric Hawaiian guitar.

Steel guitars (Lap steel, Pedal steel)

The commonly used term for an electric guitar used to play lap style is “steel guitar.”

There are two main types of steel guitar: lap steel and pedal steel.

A lap steel (sometimes referred to as non-pedal steel) is typically a short-scale, simple bodied, square-neck electric guitar with six or more strings. It’s designed to be placed on the lap, or fastened to a series of adjustable table legs. Sometimes table-style steel guitars are referred to as console steel guitars. There are also electric guitar models based on the Weissenborn style, which also technically fit the lap steel category.

A Weissenborn inspired lap steel by ToneHound (left) and a GFI single neck pedal steel. (Photo: courtesy of Asa Brosius and Gig Street, Halifax)

Pedal steel guitars, in comparison, are as much a feat of engineering mechanics as anything else – an open bottomed unit with ten to fourteen strings on top, and a series of pulleys connecting the strings to foot pedals and knee leavers that raise the pitch of the open strings by specific intervals. There are also multi-neck pedal steel guitar models that allow for multiple tunings.

Hopefully this helps sort out some of the confusion about slide guitars, and encourages you to further explore the unique sounds they offer.


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