Arlen Roth on Lap Steel vs. Upright Slide
As I ready myself, and keep preparing for my new SLIDE GUITAR SUMMIT album project, it seems like every song has the “lap steel vs. upright slide question” at hand. Of course, these are two distinctly different ways of playing slide guitar, and everyone seems to have their preferences for sure, but I find that either approach can work for me at any given time.
To be honest, I have always thought of the “lap” style of playing, which incorporates Hawaiian-style lap steel as well as Dobro-style to be the more “pure” approach to slide guitar. After all, it is nothing but slide, since the action is about a half-inch above the fretboard, and from that angle of playing, you can get many more interesting chord voicings since you can more easily tilt and “angle” the slide to reach notes on other frets. To try this same technique on what I call “upright” or standard slide, it takes a lot more wrist strain, and is just harder and more limited to attempt.
Still, there’s a kind of natural “grit” that occurs with “upright” slide while the “lap” approach is generally cleaner, smoother and possesses more sustain. I have even done some songs on previous albums where I “trade off” in a dialog between Lap Steel and regular slide, and it’s almost out of a deliberate need to show and explore the different tonal qualities that each style has.
They are both equally valid for sure, and I believe that if you’re into slide playing at all you should work on both styles and techniques. It’s good to have both at your disposal, and you’ll know when a tune requires one approach more that the other for sure!
Like when I recorded “Sleepwalk”, I used a lap steel to essentially make a “cameo” appearance, a la the original Santo and Johnny classic while then answering it and trading off with a nice, bendy lead guitar approach that really got all of its inspiration from lap steel, Dobro and pedal steel too! There are certainly times where many people can’t tell the difference, even though I can of course tell right away, since it’s ME!
It’ll be exciting to see how this project turns out. I usually tend to use the lap steel more than I ever thought, simply because of this purity of sound one can get from it, and in fact on many songs will probably use both approaches!! Should be a ton of slide fun!!
Gibson.com’s Arlen Roth, affectionately known The King of All Guitar Teachers, is music lesson pioneer and the quintessential guitarist. An accomplished and brilliant musician — and one of the very few who can honestly say he’s done it all — Roth has, over the course of his celebrated 35-year career, played on the world’s grandest stages, accompanied many of the greatest figures in modern music and revolutionized the concept of teaching guitar.