My relationship with lap steel guitars has been long and rewarding. I first bought a 1956 Fender lap steel on eBay years ago, when I was working on video-scoring project, and I was looking for an option for generating material in various tunings with nice sounding glissandi and swells. After a week or so of playing the Fender, I was really sucked into the harmonic and tonal flexibility of a lap steel guitar. Since then, I have owned four or five lap steels that have covered a wide variety of physical and tonal attributes. When I found out that Moog had developed their own take on a lap steel, I was very happy to check out what the wizards in Asheville had conjured up.
Moog started with a classic lap steel design and injected it with their well-known sound and design philosophy - their "Moog-y Goodness," a term coined by one of my colleagues to describe a Moogerfooger Ring Modulator [Tape Op #58]. And then they threw in a few extra goodies to boot. Moog, along with designer Paul Vo, first developed the E1 electric guitar [#88], and much of the E1's technology is carried over to the Lap Steel. The most interesting is an "infinite sustain" feature, or as Moog calls their own patented variation, the Harmonic Control System. The basic premise is the same as that of Michael Brook's Infinite Guitar, as a way of allowing an electric guitar note to be held and sustained infinitely (although the Moog system is not based on the Infinite Guitar). This functionality is applied to all of the guitar strings; it's a bit like having an Ebow on all of the strings with the result being an added dimension of expression and tonal color. But Moog has taken this premise and really expanded on it.
The physical design of the Moog Lap Steel is noticeably larger and heavier than my 6-string Fender lap steel. The Moog weighs in at 7 lb, in comparison to the Fender's slightly under 5 lb weight. All of the specs and design options can be found online, but it is sufficient to say that the quality of construction and materials is comparable to that of Moog's synthesizers and Moogerfoogers; these are solid, great sounding, unique instruments that are built to last. The Lap Steel has a visual and tactile aesthetic that really makes you want to grab, play, and tweak the thing - it feels good and comfortable. Indeed, the price point - a hefty $2895 for the base model - reflects this quality.
The Lap Steel has two Moog-designed magnetic pickups as well as a piezo one. A five-position pickup selector allows for variations in blend, phase, and the like. A classic Moog resonant ladder filter can be utilized in various configurations, adding even more tonal options. A proprietary foot-pedal controls harmonic blend and the frequency response of the ladder filter. It also includes a control-voltage (CV) input for patching in other devices to add more color. You could use the CV output of a Moogerfooger, for instance, to sweep the Lap Steel's filter.
Over the years, I have used a few of the various sustainer kits that are available for electric guitars, and I currently have one installed on a Stratocaster. The results have generally been good, but for me, these devices have always been peppered with tonal limitations and technical spottiness. The Harmonic Control System is touted by Moog as a "sustainer on steroids", and I have to agree with the hype in this case. Moog has really taken it up several notches in terms of the ability to control and affect the sustain. The system's three modes of operation - Full Sustain, Controlled Sustain, and Mute - are clearly explained on the Moog website. But even after watching the videos online, it's difficult to fully appreciate how expressive the Lap Steel can be until you get one in your hands.
Playing the Moog Lap Steel was an invitation to full-on tonal and harmonic bliss - from orchestral-sounding, filtered ambient washes; to dino-rocker riff-fests; to traditional-sounding country-ish stuff; to drum-and-bass guitar glisses and swoops; to multiphonic Theremin orgies. Whether I played traditional slide-blues or something really weird, the Harmonic Control System would always add a little special quality once I switched in the sustain.
After a month or so of having a whole lot of fun, I had to begrudgingly send the Lap Steel back to Moog. It's been gone now for a good while, and I had all but gotten it out of my system - until I opened up a session to do overdubs on a tune with a bunch of riffy-slide material played on the Moog. Using the same identical signal path, I played my 1956 Fender lap steel against the Moog track, and I was struck by how much beefier the Moog was in the lower-mids than the Fender. (I'm sorry, Leo, but it's the truth.) Now I need to find a gig that will justify the purchase of a Moog Lap Steel. I'm looking now.