DIY Acoustic Lap-Slide Conversion

Do you have an underutilized flattop lurking in your closet? If so, here’s how you can convert it into a lap slide guitar that’s perfect for open-tuned riffage. Requiring only a few basic hand tools, it’s a fairly easy project that costs less than 20 bucks, including a fresh set of strings. Toss in a grooved tonebar (the Stevens slide is a classic, and modern versions, such as Dunlop’s Ergo and Lap Dawg, or Shubb GS Steel are well worth the investment) and you’ll be in business.

If you decide the world of Hawaiian-style overhand slide isn’t for you, the conversion is quickly reversible. Chances are, however, you’ll dig having an instrument that opens the door to funky licks and grooves you can’t duplicate with bottleneck technique.

The photo below shows the slotted, arched extension nut and bone saddle blank you’ll need for this project. If your local shop doesn’t stock these items, you can get them from online luthier supply outfits, eBay, or folk-music stores. Prices vary—at stewmac.com, the arched metal nut costs less than $4 and the bone saddle blank is about $6. A bone saddle blank provides excellent tone, yet is easy to cut and shape. Bone blanks have a straight top, which puts the strings on a flat plane to correctly match the playing surface of your tonebar, and are almost a half-inch tall. Before you go dashing off to acquire these parts, a little homework is in order.

Arched metal nut and bone saddle blank.

Arched metal nut and bone saddle blank.

Bone blanks generally come in two thicknesses—1/8″ and 3/32″—so you’ll need to determine which size fits your guitar. First remove the strings and put the bridgepins somewhere safe. Next, carefully remove the original saddle. With a little coaxing, it should pop out, but if the saddle acts stubborn, pad your guitar top with a few hand towels, and use a pair of pliers to gently rock the saddle out of its slot. If the fit is really snug, use an object with a narrow, pointed metal tip (like a dental tool) to slowly pry the saddle up from one end of the slot. Save the original saddle in case you want to reconfigure your guitar for fretting.

Now measure the saddle slot width (see photo below). If the gap falls between 1/8″ and 3/32″, buy the thicker 1/8″ saddle, and plan to shave off a little width by rubbing the blank lengthwise along a piece of fine sandpaper.

Measuring the saddle slot width.

Measuring the saddle slot width.

Once you’ve got your saddle blank, you have to trim it lengthwise. Measure the saddle slot, mark the saddle accordingly, and use a small hobby saw to remove the excess length. Take your time and watch your fingers.

Trimming the saddle blank.

Trimming the saddle blank.

Saddle shaping comes next: To prevent the string windings from separating and the plain strings from snapping, you’ll need to put a gentle slope in the saddle’s rear (bridgepin) side. Start rounding the back edge with a small, flat file (an automotive ignition file is perfect for the job), and then smooth your work with fine sandpaper. You don’t have to remove much. The goal is to keep the saddle’s top perfectly flat and maintain a crisp right angle on the leading edge (which faces the soundhole).

While you’re at it, round off the two upper corners so they won’t poke your picking hand. The photo below shows a finished saddle: The strings climb across the slope and then leave the saddle precisely at its leading edge. These angles resemble the top of a capital “D”—perpendicular on the front and curved on the back.

The finished saddle.

The finished saddle.

Hey, we’re almost done. Now slap a set of medium-gauge (typically .056, .045, .035, .026, .017, .013) acoustic strings on your guitar. Tighten them a bit so they’re basically aligned, but leave enough slack so you can lift them up to slip the extension nut over the guitar nut. The metal nut will hang over the sides of the neck—that’s okay. Center the extension nut, drop the strings in their respective slots, and then add tension to both outside strings to hold the new nut in place.

The arched nut extends beyond the fretboard edges.

The arched nut extends beyond the fretboard edges.

Finally, tune up the guitar. Most lap sliders use open-D tuning (D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high), but open G (D, G, D, G, B, D) is another sweet option. Don’t worry if string tension shifts the arched nut slightly to one side or the other, that’s normal. Gently tap one side or the other of the extension nut so the strings run parallel to the fretboard.

After your guitar settles in and you sense it can handle a little extra tension, try increasing the gauges of the second and first strings—the two plain ones—to .018 and .014, respectively. This increased girth helps support the tonebar and adds more booty to your melody notes.

Need inspiration to tackle this project? Listen to these excerpts from two amazing lap slide players—Ben Harper and Kelly Joe Phelps.

Here’s the intro to Harper’s version of “Whipping Boy.” Harper is playing lap slide on a vintage Weissenborn hollowneck 6-string:

 

And here’s the intro to Phelps’ “Hobo’s Son.” You’re hearing him play a regular flattop converted to a lap slide guitar. Very different from the sound of a squareneck resonator guitar—the most common choice for lap slide. The tone is sweet and woody without the nasal “holler” of an aluminum cone.

Happy lap sliding! ♦

Baby Blue

Late summer 1964, Köln, West Germany.

I was taking a Friday evening stroll through the city streets when I saw it: a blue sparkle electric guitar calling my name from behind a music store window. As a 13-year-old boy, I’d seen electric guitars played onstage and been thrilled by their reverb-drenched twang, but this was the first time I’d come face to face with one. It was the most beautiful instrument I’d ever seen. A blue guitar that sparkled. Mouth slack, I stared until my parents dragged me away.

That weekend I walked around in a trance. I already owned a nylon-string acoustic and was making headway with my chords and fingerpicking—this was the folk era, so I was listening to Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and Lead Belly, and learning songs like “In The Pines” and “Nine Pound Hammer”—but until encountering that blue guitar glinting in the window, it never occurred to me that I could actually go electric.

After brooding for two days, I finally came clean to my folks: I wanted an electric guitar. I couldn’t think of anything else.

Okay, we have to put this in the context of the times. No one in my school had an electric guitar. I’d briefly met a guy in his early 20s who purportedly had one, but that was it. Electric guitars were rare in the early ’60s. And adults suspected—rightly so, it turned out—that the electric guitar was about to transform society in ways they didn’t want to contemplate. Electric guitars spelled trouble. I might as well have announced a desire to join the circus or sweep floors in a brothel. (Learning to play “The House Of The Rising Sun” had already given me that idea.)

After a long discussion that involved me making elaborate promises about my grades and attitude, we agreed that Andy could get an electric guitar. When we returned to the music store, the blue sparkle beauty was gone. (At that time, I had no knowledge of makes and models, so the only way I could identify the instrument was by its color.)

I was crushed.

No worry—we’d find another blue guitar, my parents assured me. And we soon did, a baby blue Kent. True, the color didn’t have the wicked allure of blue sparkle, but I saw the opportunity to get an electric guitar, so I ran with it. That turned out to be a wise decision because I didn’t see another blue sparkle guitar for many, many years.

Here’s a picture of a Kent just like mine, which I now know was a PB-24-G model made by Hagström, a Swedish company.

blue Kent PB-24-G
Photo credit: Haskin’s Hagstroms.

Mine was identical to the guitar on the left. Covered with blue vinyl and topped with a molded lucite pickguard, my Kent sported a cheese-grater “soundhole” grille, two pickups, four switches, a volume knob, and a vibrato bar.

Here’s a crisp photo of a red 1963 PB-24-G:

red Kent PB-24-G
Photo credit:  Vintage Guitars of Stockholm, Sweden.

I didn’t know electric guitars required an amp. When I got home gripping the new baby blue 6-string, I managed to figure out how to plug it into my old Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder—which had a tiny built-in speaker—and start making noise. It was glorious. Flatwound strings and glowing tubes … my fate was sealed.

Grundig reel-to-reel

Photo credit: Bassboy.com.

I used that Kent/Grundig rig when I demonstrated electric guitar to my seventh-grade classmates in a show-and-tell. Luckily for me, the Kinks had just made distortion cool with “You Really Got Me.” (In Germany, circa 1964, we got a weekly dose of English music via the BBC Top 20 and heard cutting-edge invasion music before it was released in the US.)

Eventually, I joined a band and got a real guitar amp, a Dynacord Jazz 2×10 combo. So cool—20 watts of tube power! Wish I still had it.

Dynacord Jazz

Photo credit:  Orchester Electronic.

As I trawl the data stream, fishing for images from these early days of my musical odyssey, I’m happy to see I’m not the only one who still has fond memories of discovering guitar. Many others remain inspired by the sounds and sights of their first encounters. Motivated by a passion for the instrument, rather than financial reward, they build elaborate temples to the goddess of twang.

For example, here’s a wonderful site devoted to guitar tunings—dozens and dozens of ’em, including tunings used by Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Sonic Youth. The site is created and maintained by Warren Allen, a guitarist whose passion for tunings is so great, he needs to share it with the world. Cool!

Warren Allen’s Encyclopedia of Alternate Guitar Tunings

Another amazing find is the Atlas of Plucked Instruments. The level of historical detail about plucked instruments from around the world, ancient and modern, is truly mindblowing. This too is a labor of love from another guitarist, Henny de Bruin.

Atlas of Plucked Instruments

The other day, I heard Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and thought about my old Kent, and how completely and irrevocably it changed my life.  Still making music, Baby Blue? ♦