Acoustic Guitar Magazine
Acoustic Lap Steels: A guide to contemporary Weissenborn-style guitars
By Andy Volk
Two all-koa Weissenborn-style guitars by Bill Asher.
Taking inspiration from such prominent lap-slide guitarists as Bob Brozman, Ed Gerhard, Ben Harper, and David Lindley, more and more guitarists are adding the unique tone and gossamer sustain of an acoustic Weissenborn-style lap-steel guitar to their musical arsenals. Lap-style guitars first emerged in Hawaii in the 1980s, where players raised the action of their standard guitars, laid them flat on their laps, and learned to play melodies with a metal bar sliding along the strings. The yearlong Panama Pacific Exposition (held in San Francisco in 1915) introduced mainland America to Hawaiian-style playing and ignited a 30-year fad for Island music.
Although he was not the first to build a flattop guitar specifically designed for lap playing, Los Angeles-based luthier Hermann Weissenborn refined the concept in the 1920s. His unique integration of a hollow neck with an elongated body yielded responsiveness, sustain, and a glossy, shimmering tone that many aficionados describe in almost metaphysical terns, and original Weissenborns now command eye-popping prices.
Original Weissenborns were lightly built using Hawaiian koa for the entire body. They have unscalloped X-braced tops; wooden fret markers inlaid flush with the fingerboard; hide glue construction; and shellac finishes. The guitars came in four styles of increasing ornamentation from the plain Style 1 to the Style 4, whose ornate "rope" binding (constructed from alternating light and dark diagonal strips of wood) became a signature of the instrument. The enduring popularity of Weissenborn's design, and the high price of vintage specimens, has resulted in quite a few contemporary luthiers and manufacturers either copying or expanding on the basic concept. Let's take a look at what's available.
Off The Rack If you're on a budget or unsure exactly how deep you want to wade into acoustic lap-steel waters, several companies offer very affordable Weissenborn-style guitars. For example, George Boards imports two models built in China: an all-laminate model ($399.99) and a solid mahogany model ($599.99). The guitars come with a 24.75-inch scale (original Weissenborns varied from about 24.75 inches to 25 inches), closed-back tuners, and even optional electronics.
Gold Tone offers three budget-minded models: a laminate mahogany version (LM, $699), a solid mahogany model (SM, $899), and a solid Australian blackwood version (Style 4) similar to Weissenborn's original Style 4 specifications ($1,519). Gold Tone options include a soundhole pickup with an extended bar magnet capable of picking up the wider string spacing of Weissenborn-style guitars.
Superior's Hawaiian-style guitars, build by luthier in the mountain village of Paracho, Mexico, and imported by Berkeley Musical Instrument Exchange, are another lower cost option. Superior offers a spruced top model with palo escrito rosewood back and sides ($1,100) and a mahogany model with a Canadian cedar top ($1,025). Rope binding and an abalone rosette are available as options on both models.
Custom Made Lap Guitars Since the original's body shape, hollow neck, and aesthetics are a large part of the Weissenborn sound, contemporary lap-slide guitar builders typically offer a more limited range of variations and options than those available for standard guitars. Hawaiian koa is far and away the most popular tonewood for tops and bodies (in varying levels of figure and cost), followed by mahogany and rosewood, although other woods are often available. Custom lap-slide guitars typically include a scale length of around 25 inches, a bone nut, an aluminum or bone saddle, the choice of dot or Weissenborn Style 4 geometric position marker inlays, and a satin lacquer, gloss nitrocellulose, or (like the originals) shellac finish.
The salient aesthetic option unique to these instruments is the iconic rope binding Some players low it, and some don't, so most builders offer rope binding alternatives ranging from rosewood to abalone. Like many standard-guitar builders, Weissenborn-style luthiers are usually willing to discuss adding a unique inlay scheme to personalize an instrument. Lazy River Guitars (whose prices start at $1,500), for example, offers to inlay a customer's initials for $30 a letter.
Luthiers Bill Hardin of Bear Creek Guitars, Bill Asher and Tone Francis (whose instruments start in the $2,200-$2,800 range) are among several custom builders whose passion for unraveling the secrets of the original Weissenborns has enabled them to build very accurate reproductions both in terms of construction and tone. Asher developed his line of hollow-necks via meticulous study of a 1928 Style 1 owned by Ben Harper, while Hardin enjoyed access to Bob Brozman's collection of Weissenborns. Francis has also spent many hours measuring vintage instruments in an effort to create a flawless copy. Several builders make guitars that bow to tradition while breaking new ground. Instruments developed by the Breedlove Guitar Company and luthier Jayson Bowerman for fingerstylist Ed Gerhard can be ordered with the option of partial standard guitar-type frets to allow fretted bass notes in additional to slide techniques. Breedlove offers the guitar as its Acoustic Lap Steel (starting at $2,669), and Bowerman who now works independently, builds a similar guitar called the Weissenborn (starting at $3,440). New Zealand luthier Paddy Burgin offers Weissenborn-style guitars (starting at $2,440) made of Tasmanian blackwood, walnut, or mahogany that feature a deeper body and internal bracing designed to deliver greater volume and consistency throughout the guitar's range.
Others find inspiration beyond the rarified world of Weissenborn. Joseph Yanuziello's guitars (which start at $6,200) are informed as much by the sound of Martin flattops as by Weissenborn's Hawaiian guitars, while Michael Dunn's hollow-necks (starting at $3,800) reflect the originals remained through a fine-arts lens. Cole Clark's Violap ($3,020) uses the Weissenborn body shape and hollow neck (tweaked with f-holes and a choice of piezo and magnetic pickups) to enter electric lap steel territory.
A Brave New World Eight years after their heyday, Weissenborn-style guitars are hipper than ever ad guitarists have a wide range of choices across the price spectrum. Higher-end Weissenborns will get you to the slide-guitar tonal nirvana that's the hallmark of the hollow-neck design, while entry-level instrument make experimenting with the genre affordable. There's never been a better time to put bar to strings and discover for yourself the magic of lap-style guitar playing.
Andy Volk (volkmedia.com) is the author of Slide Rules: Tuning for Lap Steel, Bottleneck, Resophonic, and Indian Slide Guitar.