Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing | From the world of Slide | Tom Doughty

Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing | From the world of Slide | Tom Doughty

Tom Doughty

Tom Doughty is possibly one of the most original, creative lap style guitars I have had the privilege to meet. Tom first started playing the guitar when he was a child. However in a road traffic accident in 1974, Tom permanently became a disabled person. His impairment also affected his fingers and prevented him from playing music. However, with tenacity and creativity, finding ways to work around his limits of hand movement, Tom has discovered how to return to being a musician. His soulful melodies and precise technique have been increasingly recognised and we are very honoured to host his column dedicated to lap slide guitars.

For more information about Tom Doughty, his gigs and music go to www.tomdoughty.com





In the Hawaiian heydays of the 1920s and 30s, Hawaiian style guitars easily outsold regular instruments. Following the Hawaiian music craze, most American instrument and several European builders were trying hard to encourage the public to take up the Hawaiian lap guitar, offering an array of instruments. On occasions companies would invent something ‘new’ and bizarre to offer the buying public. One such item I have in my collection is a 1920s Hawaiian Tremola, which is a cross between a zither, a one string fiddle and a marital aid (although never to my knowledge, used as such)! There’s a steel roller on a single string to provide the ‘tremola’ sound, which has to be heard to be believed. These particular instruments were sold door to door by salesmen whose job interview included taking one home and learning to play it. If you got a tune out of one, you got the job!

Back with the guitar, some companies, like the Oahu publishing company and the New Hawaiian Teachers offered a free instrument if you subscribed to their course of lessons. With such American ingenuity, the Hawaiian guitar became the major popular music interest of the 20s and 30s. With Hawaiian music and bands being used in films of the day and the ever growing bands touring musicians like sol hoopai, Hawaiian music reached a worldwide audience.

 

Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
A 1920s Weissenborn ‘Kona’. These guitars were originally made to be
convertible to and from lap playing by replacing the nut.
This model, made from mahogany, features a roundneck
but retains most of the weissenbourn Hawaiian shape.



 

 

 

 

 

Although authentic Hawaiian music is less popular nowadays, lap slide playing has continued to develop to embrace almost all genres of music from Indian raja to Jazz fusion, rock, folk, blues, country and bluegrass.  The instrument has proved its versatility everywhere and is developing a new following with more people taking an interest in playing this style. So here is a simple way to get started without buying a new instrument.

Guitar

These are my recommendations to obtain the best ‘converted’ acoustic lap guitar, but almost anything will work to a lesser extent. Aim for the following:

  • A  Flat Top guitar. Its is possible to play and convert an arch top but converting a flat top is the most straightforward way to start.
  • It is preferable to have a guitar with a wide and flat fingerboard.  The wide fingerboard makes slide playing easiest and the flat fingerboard is best when sighting the pitch using the frets on the guitar. As players become more proficient in using the slide or bar, the sighting of frets is less important. The ear becomes aware of the tiny adjustments required to obtain the right pitch, but initially, the eyes sighting the frets are the best guide.
  • Something with good string separation and sustain is also preferable but not essential. Often when a guitar is tuned to a chord, you discover resonances and overtones that aren’t present when in regular tuning. The first guitar I converted was a Yamaha FG260 12 string, from the 1970s.  I already used a lap Dobro but hankered after a 12 string lap guitar and the dreadnought body already had most of the requirements.  Playing lap with a 12 string is really challenging but the rewards are good when, on those rare occasions, you get it right. I use it regularly and it is featured on my first CD, ‘The Bell’ on ‘Banty Rooster’ a Charlie Patten song from the 1920s.



Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
A trusty Yamaha FG 260: I first converted this to six string lap slide.
The wide Fingerboard is ideal for slide. It also has good sustain and resonance.
I later went the whole 9 yards and added the other 6 strings,
a metal saddle and inverted the machine heads for easy reach.

Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
Current conversion using a home made brass nut for 12 strings.
Unlike regular guitars, It is important to make sure the strings
are flat and level on the top which makes for easier
playing of block chords when playing slide.
The slots in the nut however, should slope backwards
toward the head to prevent string buzz and maintain the correct break angle.

 

Equipment

These are my recommendations to obtain the best ‘converted’ acoustic lap guitar, but almost anything will work to a lesser extent. Aim for the following:

  • A metal nut extender.  The most essential item, it raises the strings up and away from the frets and fretboard giving the bar an easy path over and in between the strings and prevents the bar from banging the frets.  Easily obtainable from music stores and internet auction sites for less than £10.00 including postage.
    Alternatively, you could make (or have made) a bone nut at the required height. I would recommend a minimum of ¼” and a maximum of ½” depending upon your choice.  Most ‘built’ lap guitars utilise a metal saddle insert which increases sustain and resonance through the guitar body. Stainless Steel is the preferred material and bicycle spokes are the common substitute.
    The metal saddle isn’t essential but it will make a significant difference to a guitar that lacks sustain and will increase the brightness of the sound too.  Unlike a regular nut, the strings for lap playing are flat on the top of the string. This makes it easier to block strings with the bar without pushing onto to the string too hard or causing the strings to buzz or rattle due to uneven height.


Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
The main components for the job.
The nut extender is essential and a solid one
rather than pressed is better as they can be filed
to suit and hold the strings well.
The brass nut on the left was with a 1920s Hawaiian guitar
made by Tabu in Hawaii.
The stainless steel rod to replace the saddle is desirable but not essential.
This is a plain, straight bicycle spoke.


Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
A view of the installed nut raiser on top of the original bone nut.
String height is About ¼”.

Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
Here’s the whole thing: It has a label depicting the ukulele player,
Paul Summers and was discovered in a house clearance
in Manchester some years ago.


  • A steel or tone bar. In the past these were lumps of metal as in the photo, but have developed in hundreds of types, makes and varieties. It’s about personal preference, but you need something comfortable to hold that allows the string to vibrate freely. Hard surfaces like metals, glass, ceramic and engineered plastic work best.  The most common types are the ‘bullet’, (so called because of the shape) and the ‘railroad’ type, which is an ergonomic design to provide comfort and ease of holding in the hand. ‘Bullet’ bars are supplied in various materials such as crystal glass, engineering plastic, chromed steel and stainless. Suppliers include Dunlop, Shubb, Bigheart, Diamond Bottlenecks and Tribotone. ‘Railroad’ bars are supplied by Dunlop, Shubb, Stevens and Tipton. Prices vary between £10.00 and £40.00.



Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
A selection of old and new tone bars, showing some of the
variety of bullet and ergonomic designs, using materials such as
glass, stainless steel, lead filled plastic from the 50s,
chromed brass and chromed steel.


Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
The usual, orthodox way of holding an ergonomic tone bar.

  • Picks: Most lap players use picks, but not all.  Again, it’s about preference and what style of music you want to play. Bluegrass players who mostly play in triplets predominantly use thumb and finger picks; playing blues on a resonator guitar can benefit from using picks because it ‘works the cone’, but many Hawaiian players use only a thumb pick and some use none.
  • Strings: It definitely helps slide playing to use a heavier gauge 1st and 2nd string.  I use 14 and 17 here which I think helps with touch, tone and sustain.  For the other strings, I tend to use a coated string which I think reduces unwanted sounds from the slide or bar, sticking to gauges from 0.54 down to 0.26.
    In the past I have used ‘Flat Tops’ which work quite well too, but some tone is sacrificed.  Plain Bronze or Phosphor Bronze work well too, but they do make noises where the slide moves over the windings. These sounds reduce as the strings become smoother by using the bar.
    In years gone by, players would rub the strings with very fine abrasive paper to smooth out the windings. There are several companies selling ‘Hawaiian’ strings but I find them a tad heavy for my style of playing and I always try and match the instrument to the string to find the best combination.


Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty
This picture shows the bridge and saddle of my 2003 Bear Creek ‘weissenborn’ copy using a stainless steel saddle to increase volume and sustain. Note: string gauges.

Example

Here’s an example of a recent guitar rescue and conversion.  Called a Masspacher Hawaiian guitar, but only to steal the name, this is a copy of the famous French Gelas brand and was a standard instrument in need of some repair and TLC.  Masspacher appears to be a music store, (similar to Barnes and Mullens), rather than a builder. I think this model dates back to the early 1950s.

Converting an acoustic guitar for lap style playing by Tom Doughty

The bridge remains unchanged but the zero fret was removed and a pressed nut extender installed to provide the high action. This guitar has a definite French gypsy Jazz sound which cuts through well and is an interesting set up for lap playing, but can be returned to ‘standard’ within a matter of minutes.

Conclusion

I still have the recurring dream that the world would be a better place if our respective Governments might present each newly born infant with the gift of a lap guitar and a tone bar, but in the meantime, its easy to convert a regular guitar….and I do believe it makes the world a better place.

What are you waiting for?

©2008 Tom Doughty
Reproduced with permission

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