Best Lap Steel Guitar – Review of Top Hawaiian Guitars

Best Lap Steel Guitar – Review of Top Hawaiian Guitars

Whether you want to start your guitar journey off a little differently or just want to expand your musical repertoire, a lap steel guitar can be great to have. This remarkable instrument may be best known in Hawaiian music, but lap steels have made memorable appearances in blues, country, and western records.

However, if you're new to the world of these interesting instruments, you may be uncertain of how to choose the best lap steel guitar for you. To help you get started, here are our top nine picks.

9 Best Lap Steel Guitar

Make

Model

Rating

Price

Full Review

Gretsch

G5700 Electromatic

Cell

SX

LAP 3

Cell

Epiphone

Electar

Cell

Rogue

RLS 1

Cell

Recording King

RG-32-SN

Cell

SX

Lap 2 Ash 3TS

Cell

Morrell

PLUS Series

Cell

Imperial

Royal Hawaiian Limited Edition Weissenborn Style

Cell

Gold Tone

LS-6

Cell

Review of our Top Picks

Best Aesthetic - Gretsch G5700 Electromatic Lap Steel

Important Features

  • A solid mahogany body gives you a warm, rich tone and lots of sustain
  • Gretsch single-coil bridge pickup has plenty of character and just a bit of bite
  • The 22.5" scale (28 frets) gives you plenty of space to play
  • Distinctive art-deco looks will please plenty of players

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Considering its quality, this lap steel guitar is still fairly affordable
  • The solid mahogany body is a step above the cheaper woods used in many lap steels
  • Art-deco inspired design gives it some real character
  • Gretsch-designed pickup can hold its own in any mix

Cons

  • Some players might prefer a humbucker over a single-coil pickup
  • The plastic fretboard may not hold up as well as plexiglass

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

You may already know Gretsch for their hollow body electric guitars, but this company also makes an impressive lap steel guitar. This one has a solid mahogany body finished in a classic sunburst. The geometric fretboard inlays make it a real visual standout, too. This guitar also has a string-through-body design. You often see this on electric guitars, but on a lap steel guitar, it has the same effect -- you get even more sustain.

Like most Gretsch instruments, this one is also well-appointed despite being fairly affordable. You get high-quality touches like chrome-plated open-gear tuners, and the control plate's silver volume and tone knobs contrast beautifully with the guitar's darker finish. 

Our Star Rating

We think this lap steel has the best aesthetic on the list. We give it four out of five stars.

Best Beginner Lap Steel -- SX LAP 3

Important Features

  • The single-coil pickup is an easy and affordable way to play plugged in if you want
  • One-piece solid basswood design optimizes tone and sustain, and it eliminates any potential neck joint issues
  • The 36-fret neck gives you more space (and more notes) to work with
  • The body is shaped more like a traditional guitar, which may make the switch easier if you're new to lap steel guitar

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Unlike most lap steels, this one comes with a slide to help new players get started
  • The one-piece design is a great innovation when it comes to sound
  • Vintage-inspired silver tailpiece and tone knobs give it great visual character
  • It's very affordable, and its price point is accessible to most guitarists

Cons

  • The single-coil pickup isn't especially good, so you may want to upgrade at some point
  • Basswood is a somewhat bland tonewood, so you don't get the same rich tone you'd get out of wood like mahogany

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

If you're just getting into lap steel guitars, chances are good that you don't want to spend a huge amount. And while you may look askance at first at SX -- a brand that makes its guitars in China -- you might be relieved to hear that this is surprisingly good-sounding lap steel. Much of that comes from its one-piece design. The body and neck are made from a single piece of basswood. Of course, basswood isn't the greatest tonewood out there, but it does well enough -- especially on a guitar this affordable.

You also have a 23.75" scale length with a full 36 frets, making this a great choice for lap steel guitar players who want as much range as possible. We also like that it comes with both a slide and a gig bag, so you'll be able to take it on the go, too.

Our Star Rating

We think this is the best beginner lap steel guitar on the list. We give it four out of five stars.

Best Value -- Epiphone Electar

Important Features

  • As a replica of a historic design, this one will be a great choice for vintage enthusiasts
  • High-quality humbucker reduces noise and delivers plenty of tones when needed
  • Plexiglass fingerboard is of higher quality and lasts longer than plastic
  • One-piece mahogany design is excellent for unparalleled tone

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Given the quality design, it's a surprisingly affordable lap steel guitar
  • The design is one-piece and it's a premium tonewood, which is somewhat rare among affordable lap steels
  • The humbucker pickup is ideal if you want to use effects or just cut down on noise
  • Attractive, vintage design is just eye-catching enough

Cons

  • Some players might prefer the sound of a single-coil to that of a humbucker
  • While it isn't overly expensive, this one might be out of reach for some players

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

If you prefer a lap steel guitar with some historical significance built-in, then the Electarmay will be for you. This one is modeled after Epiphone's "1939" Century Lap Steel, and even its appointments are time-period correct. Like the original 1939, the Electar has a single-piece mahogany neck and body, so you get warm, dark tones and ample sustain. Chrome hardware adds a high-quality touch, and like most lap steels, it has a 22.5" scale length with 28 frets.

Even the volume and tone controls have vintage circus-tent style knobs, and the vintage headstock logo completes the picture. Still, this lap steel guitar has a couple of key modern touches. It's equipped with an Epiphone 500B Blade humbucker, and the back and neck have non-slip padding to keep it comfortably in your lap.

Our Star Rating

We think this one is the best value on the list, and we give it five out of five stars.

Best Budget Option -- Rogue RLS 1

Important Features

  • Chrome hardware and stainless steel pickguard are surprisingly high-end touches for such an affordable guitar
  • This lap steel guitar comes with legs, so you have an alternative option to playing with the guitar in your lap
  • Widebody extends along the neck, giving you a built-in hand rest
  • Compared to many on the list, it's very affordable

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Hardwood body is built to last, as is the stainless steel pickguard
  • Telecaster-style single-coil pickup delivers great tone for a variety of genres
  • An affordable price means this is a great potential lap guitar for beginners
  • It comes with legs, unlike many lap steel guitars on the list

Cons

  • The manufacturer doesn't specify what tonewood is used, which often means it's a sub-par wood
  • The pickup isn't especially high-end, and it can get somewhat noisy

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

You may already know that Rogue is the in-house brand of Musician's Friend. And while Rogue instruments are designed to be very affordable, most of them are of surprisingly good quality. The Rogue RLS 1 lap steel guitar is no exception. Design-wise, it's a bit of an oddity -- the red sides of the body go up all along the neck, making the guitar have a triangle-like shape. (The scale length is 21", making it shorter than some lap steels.) However, if you want to rest your hand while playing, this is likely to be an asset.

The RLS 1 is somewhat unique in that it comes with legs. This way, you can try playing it in your lap and try playing it on your legs, then choose whichever method works best for you. The unique stainless steel pickguard and Telecaster-style bridge and single-coil pickup give it some pizazz, too. And it comes with a gig bag so you can easily take it with you, too.

Our Star Rating

We think this is the best budget lap steel guitar on the list, and we give it three and half out of five stars.

Best Electronics -- Recording King RG-32 - SN 

Important Features

  • All-mahogany string-through build gives you ample sustain and balanced tone
  • EMG Alnico P 90 pickup cuts down on hum and noise, and it also gives you a versatile tone that works for a variety of genres
  • Numbered volume and tone controls let you precisely tweak your sound
  • The vintage-style design makes this a very visually appealing guitar

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • This is very affordable lap steel given its quality design
  • The stunning Pearloid fingerboard looks great against the sunburst finish
  • EMG- designed P 90 is great for just about every genre
  • Open-geared tuners hold tune especially well, which is important in any lap steel

Cons

  • Some players may prefer the sound of a single-coil or a humbucker to the sound of a P 90
  • In some cases, this model is prone to minor quality control issues

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

Recording King may not be the most recognized guitar manufacturer out there, but they make respectable instruments that are surprisingly affordable. We think this one may be another good lap steel guitar for beginners -- it's surprisingly affordable given its build quality, and the body looks a little more like a traditional guitar than some lap steels do.

We especially like that, just like some other lap steels on the list, the Recording King RG 32 is made of solid mahogany and has a string-through design for better sustain. The sunburst finish contrasts beautifully with the Pearloid fingerboard, too. The neck has a fairly average scale length of 23.5". But what we like most about this lap steel guitar is the fact that it comes equipped with a P 90 pickup. This pickup may not be ideal for everyone, but it delivers a thick, versatile tone that makes this lap steel guitar great for a variety of genres. (If you're unfamiliar, the P 90 pickup is the pickup used in the Les Paul, among other guitars).

Our Star Rating

We think this lap steel has one of the best and most versatile pickups on the list. We give it four out of five stars.

Best Extra Features -- SX Lap 2 Ash 3TS

Important Features

  • Tonewoods used are surprisingly good for such an affordable lap steel
  • Quality die-cast chrome tuners are built to last, and they look nice, too
  • The stand is removable, so it can be played in your lap or upon your legs
  • Relatively wide string spacing (3/8") is comfortable to play even if you have large hands

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Swamp ash body gives a relatively bright tone that's different from that of many other lap steels
  • This lap steel guitar comes with both a stand and a high-quality padded gig bag
  • It's very affordable, making it within reach of many players
  • P 90pickup plus volume and tone controls let you dial in the sound to fit a range of genres

Cons

  • SX is a Chinese brand, and some players see it as being unreliable
  • This model seems to be prone to quality control issues

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

This is another model from SX, a maker of affordable lap steel guitars. The SX Lap 2 Ash 3TS is well-appointed lap steel with a lot of features that most on the list don't have. It has a body made of American swamp ash, which you don't often see. This is a great wood if you want something a little brighter than mahogany, and American swamp ash also has a beautiful grain. It also has a rosewood fretboard, which is a relative rarity in the electric lap steel guitar market. Most options have plastic or plexiglass fretboards.

This one also has a longer scale length and more frets than many guitars on the list. The scale length is 24.75", and there are 36 frets -- perfect for the player who likes lap steel with extended range. It has an SX P 90 pickup, and it comes with both a stand and a padded gig bag.

Our Star Rating

Since this model has a handful of features you don't often see on lap steels, we think it has the best additional features of the bunch. We give it three and a half out of five stars.

Most Durable -- Morrell PLUS Series

Important Features

  • It's made in the U.S., which often translates to superior quality and workmanship
  • The thick poplar body has ample sustain and can stand up to abuse
  • Black finish and shark-tooth inlays give this lap steel metal-inspired looks
  • Protective felt backing reduces the risk of the guitar slipping out of your lap

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • For a U.S.-made lap steel guitar, it's surprisingly affordable
  • The unique aesthetic may appeal to players who want something different
  • Poplar body offers a departure from other lap steel guitars
  • Chrome open-back tuners help it reliably stay in tune

Cons

  • Some players may not like the sound of poplar compared to ash or mahogany
  • The single-coil pickup can be prone to excess noise

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

When you look at the price of this electric lap steel guitar, you might think it's an inexpensive made-in-China model. However, This lap steel, like all Joe Morrell lap steels, is made in the U.S. It's the most durable model on the list for a simple reason -- the poplar body is thicker than that of most other lap steel guitars. This thicker body offers more than just durability, though -- the thicker slab of wood translates to better resonance. Poplar is known for having a fairly bright tone with a bit of bite, and it's often used in less-expensive metal guitars.

This may be part of the inspiration for this one's aesthetic -- the shark-tooth fretboard inlays are reminiscent of shredder guitars. There's a two-octave fretboard that gives you plenty of room for tonal experimentation, and the volume and tone controls let you get a range of sounds out of the single-coil Kent Armstrong pickup. 

Our Star Rating

We think this is the most durable lap steel guitar on the list, and we give it four out of five stars.

Best Acoustic Lap Steel -- Imperial Royal Hawaiian Limited Edition Weissenborn Style

Important Features

  • The extra-deep body gives you an incredible acoustic tone
  • Rosewood fingerboard and rosewood-overlaid headstock add a visual touch that's also functional
  • It comes with a custom-fitted hardshell case for protection
  • It includes electronics for effortless plugged-in playing

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Solid top delivers great resonance
  • The beautiful aesthetic makes this lap steel guitar a great conversation piece
  • The included hardshell case adds excellent value
  • Top-notch electronics let you play amplified when necessary

Cons

  • Some players may find the deep body too bulky to handle
  • This is an expensive lap steel guitar, and it may be out of reach for some players

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

Thus far, we've focused on the electric lap steel guitar. After all, many lap steel guitars fall under this category. However, if you've been looking for an acoustic lap steel (with electronics if you want to plug in), this stunning model from Imperial Guitars may be right for you. This guitar has an extra-deep body for improved resonance, and the solid Sapele top will only sound better with age. The back and sides are laminated Sapele, but they nonetheless produce an excellent tone.

This lap steel guitar also has several stunning visual touches. The most noticeable is the Weissenborn-style rope binding. The rosewood fingerboard is another beautiful touch that's also comfortably playable. And if you want to plug in, the Fishman Presys+ system is ideal for any gig.

Our Star Rating

We think this outstanding model is the best acoustic lap steel guitar on the list. We give it five out of five stars.

Best High-End Lap Steel Guitar -- Gold Tone LS-6

Important Features

  • Top-notch Kluson-style tuners with chrome plating hold tune exceptionally well
  • Soapbar pickup is the same one that was used in 1950s Oahu Tonemaster lap steel guitars
  • The beautiful mahogany body is finished in a beautiful tobacco sunburst
  • It comes with a form-fitted TKL hardshell case

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • This lap steel guitar is designed to provide authentic vintage lap steel tone
  • Top-quality tonewoods, a bone nut, and vintage pickups work together to create a rich sound
  • Attention to detail is impeccable at every level -- this lap steel guitar is a real work of art
  • Vintage enthusiasts will appreciate how closely it resembles the Oahu Tonemaster

Cons

  • This is a very expensive lap steel guitar
  • Depending on what genre you play, you may want something that sounds a little different

Brief Review & Star Rating

Review

If you want a model that hearkens back to the heyday of lap steel guitars, this is a great one to choose. It's a replica of the famous Oahu Tonemaster, and the pickup and other specifications are true to the original. This lap steel guitar is made entirely of mahogany, and the traditional soapbar pickup delivers a crystal-clear vintage tone. Its aesthetic is unmistakably vintage, too -- the ornate tailpiece is balanced out by the simple Pearloid fretboard inlays. You get a 25" scale length with 19 frets.

Our Star Rating

We think this is the best high-end lap steel guitar on the list, and we give it five out of five stars.

What Should You Consider Before Buying a Lap Steel?

Tonewoods

As with any guitar, the tonewoods on a lap steel matter. As you may have noticed on the list, many lap steels are made with mahogany. This is a warm, rich-sounding wood that seems to enhance the sound of any lap steel. However, if you want something brighter, ash or poplar is a good choice. Occasionally, you may see lap steels made with basswood or other cheaper woods. These aren't necessarily bad, but the best lap steel guitars tend to be made with higher-quality wood.

Electronics

Unless you're going for acoustic lap steel, electronics matter. And you can find lap steels with all manner of electronics installed. Many come with single-coil pickups, which have a classic sound. If noise is a concern, you may want to go with a humbucker. And if you want a gritty sound that combines the best elements of single coils and humbuckers, a P-90 may be best. It's a good idea to listen to sound demos if you're unsure of the tone you want.

Playability

As the name suggests, lap steels are designed to be played on your lap, and plenty of modern lap steels have bonus features that make them especially playable. For instance, some have felt or another kind of backing that makes it less likely they'll slip as you play. A few even come with legs, which let you experiment with playing while standing up, too.

Final Thoughts

While we don't think you can really go wrong with any lap steel guitar on the list, we think the best lap steel guitar on the list is the Epiphone Electar. This guitar is based on a historically significant design, is equipped with excellent electronics, and is highly playable. Perhaps best of all, it's a great value that won't break the bank. If you have a little more to spend, we think the vintage tone and stunning good looks of the Gold Tone LS-6 may suit you. And if you want high-end acoustic lap steel, be sure to check out the Imperial Royal Hawaiian. Whichever you choose, remember to take your time and do your research, and you'll be well on your way to an exciting new musical adventure.

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