A Guide to Lap Steel Guitar Tunings: Exploring Musical Possibilities

The lap steel guitar is an instrument celebrated for its expressive voice and haunting melodies. A crucial element contributing to its distinct sound is the variety of tunings that players can use.

Each tuning unlocks a different set of musical possibilities and flavours. In this blog, we’ll explore some of the most popular lap steel guitar tunings, their history, and the unique soundscapes they create.

Open Tunings

Open tunings are perhaps the most common in lap steel guitar play. In an open tuning, the strings are tuned to form a chord when strummed without using the bar. This allows for easy chord changes simply by moving the bar up and down the fretboard.

Open G (D-G-D-G-B-D)

The open G tuning, sometimes referred to as “Spanish tuning,” is favoured in blues and rock music. It provides a rich, resonant sound that has been used by lap steel legends and has become a staple for those genres.

Open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E)

The open E tuning is similar in structure to open G but pitched higher. This tuning is renowned for its clear, bright sound and is often used in Hawaiian music, country, and blues.

Open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D)

Open D, also known as “Vestapol” tuning, delivers a deeper, mellower tone. It’s a favourite among blues players and has a strong historical association with early American folk music.

C6 Tuning (C-A-C-G-C-E)

C6 tuning is a versatile and popular choice for western swing, country, and Hawaiian music. It offers a warm, lush sound, with the major 6th chord adding a jazzy feel. The C6 tuning has been integral to the development of the pedal steel guitar, which often uses similar tunings with additional levers and pedals for more complex chord changes.

A6 Tuning (C#-E-F#-A-C#-E)

A variant of the C6 tuning, the A6 tuning shifts the chord to a different key, providing a different range and tonal quality. This tuning is also favoured in western swing music and can add a distinctive sound to contemporary lap steel playing.

Other Tunings

There are numerous other tunings that lap steel players can explore, such as E7, A7, and D minor tunings. Each tuning has its own character and lends itself to different styles of music. For example, a minor tuning can evoke a somber or melancholic mood, ideal for certain blues or folk compositions.

Historical Context

The history of lap steel guitar tunings is deeply intertwined with the genres they have shaped. Early Hawaiian musicians developed tunings that complemented their vocal styles and traditional music. As the lap steel guitar spread to the mainland U.S., it was adopted and adapted by blues and country musicians, leading to the development of new tunings that suited their musical needs.

Impact on Sound

The choice of tuning has a profound impact on the lap steel guitar’s sound. It can determine the ease with which certain chords and scales can be played, influence the instrument’s resonance, and even inspire new ways of playing. The tunings create different textures and atmospheres, making the lap steel guitar an incredibly versatile instrument capable of a wide range of expressions.

Lap steel guitar tunings are a world of their own, each with unique characteristics that offer different musical expressions. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced player, experimenting with various tunings can open up new horizons in your playing and lead to exciting musical discoveries.

By understanding the history and qualities of these tunings, you can better harness the emotive power of the lap steel guitar and continue the tradition of innovation that has defined its legacy.

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