Friday, January 19, 2007

Starfire Lap Steel

This isn't my first lap steel (I've had a couple of others: a wonderful old 1950's 6-string Supro and a somewhat newer 6-string Magnatone which was OK but not great) and, since I'd let those go due to circumstances, I decided I wanted another and went searching.

Ebay was full of gems at decent prices ($250-$400--and sometimes less if you're lucky and patient--will get you a very nice vintage 6-string machine) but I wan't looking to spend quite that much and I'm not always patient.

I spent some time researching the Artisan models and they're well-regarded especially considering they're very inexpensive, but two objections were commonly noted: string spacing (too narrow for some tastes), and--worse--the output jack for the cable to the amplifier is in a brain-dead stupid location that requires a 90 degree angle plug for comfortable playing. (You can read more about the Artisans here, or just Google, or check Ebay) Neither of those Artisan design shortcomings is a total deal-breaker but I was looking for a longer scale and a better jack placement.

I came upon the Starfire at $169 USD in a Buy-It-Now deal.

The jack is in a smart, logical and out-of-the-way place. And it's long scale (about 24")...

...and it has decent tuners, a decent humbucker pickup (lotsa old laps have single coil "buzzers") and 3/8 inch string spacing, which is often preferred.

The Starfire lap steel has no vintage mojo at all (and it has no fret markers either, which is odd, but a few kids-type numbered stickers took care of that--and look cool).

Bottom line: this is a very serviceable, very playable lap steel. The tone and volume controls and 3-way switch (which seems to be a coil-splitter) all work just fine and I can get growly overdriven dirt or Hank Williams clean extremely easily through my playing rig. (Truth in advertising: the tone pots were a little loose on mine when it arrived; 2 minutes with a small wrench and small philips screw-driver fixed that right up).

Is it the best-made lap steel I've played? Nope--but it's much better than the Magnatone as far as I'm concerned and has none of the Artisan shortcomings. Gene Jones, a great steel player, played this little example on an Artisan, so y'don't require a top-flight machine to make good music; you just require practice and taste.

I do know I'll want another lap steel and the next will likely be an 8-string jobbie because 6 string laps have some inherent limitations, but I think this Starfire will do nicely and I don't have any hesitation suggesting that a beginner lap player take a serious look at a Starfire as a really decent starter.

If you're not familiar with lap steel, YouTube for "lap steel" and you'll see and hear a wide range of styles and sounds. Lap steels are very flexible, a natural second instrument for guitar players, and a fine addition to the usual guitar/bass/drums band line-up.

I heard a story that Ry Cooder was once asked how one learns to play electric slide [steel] guitar. He said words to the effect of: "get a guitar, get a slide, get an amp. Go into a small room and turn it up very loud. Then practice until you can stand it".

Which I'm gonna do.

When I can stand my own lap playing again, I'll probably post a sample.


Scrapnqueen said...

Hi, Ron. I've been up past bedtime, doing a search for bloggers from my town. I figured I can't be the only one in PR! I found a few, but was delighted to come across a fellow musician! Hey, do you play the banjo? I heard someone in my neighbourhood practicing banjo outside last summer.

Anyhoo, nice to "meet" you. Beautiful "new" lap steel you've got there. Maybe I'll see you around town. (Nice to get those good eBay deals, eh?)

Talena Winters

Billoc3 said...

Hi Ron, nice post. I have been searching for a new lap steel and came across the starfire buy it now on ebay so started searching for customer feedback and found your page. I appreciate your comments, I am leaning more toward this one now. I have an old Kalamzoo 1935 that I play with but dont like to take it out of the house. This one may be the thing I am looking for.

ps. funny its almost a year to the day you wrote this. Hope you are doing well.

Ron said...

billoc: I like mine just fine. I noticed the same company now has a double-6 with single-coil pickups, and I'd love having two necks. Maybe check that out; I'm sure it'd also be decent. Singles are more prone to noise than humbuckers, but the plus is clearer, more expressive highs and lows. Then again, Pagey always used Gibsons live but Zep 1 is a telecaster album. Singles will do ;-)

Lemme know how it works out.

francesco said...

hi from Italy. I just bought my first lap steel starfire and it sounds good. I would ask you if you think the height of the bridge is not too high! I mean the strings are not even with the neck they have degrading height form the bridge to the pick up.
Sorry for my English

Ron said...

Hiya Francesco! No issue with your english, it's fine by me--and much better than my italian.

On my Starfire, the height actually increased a bit towards the nut (at the tuning peg end) but I don't think that's much of an issue when playing slide/steel, either way.

What counts as far as I know is the height above the pickup (only that it not be way too low), and the height above the fretboard (which has to be high enough that the slide doesn't weigh the strings so much they touch the fretboard when playing).

I've noticed strings at varying heights above the fretboard on lots of lap steels, and all of them were easily and well playable.

In short, I'd say "don't worry about it".