There are probably hundreds of lap steel tunings being used by players today. The lap steel tuning database contains about 100 of the most common.
In earlier days, many musicians protected their tunings as trade secrets, sometimes going so far as detuning their instruments when they left the stage for a break, in case some sneaky lap steel player tried to “steal” their tuning. Thankfully those days are gone, replaced by a spirit of sharing. In that spirit of sharing, I created this web page that covers most of the 6, 7, 8 string tunings a lap steel player is likely to come across. I’ve also included a few 10 and 12 string tunings. There are some great links at the bottom of the page for anyone that wants to dive deeper.
Getting Started on Lap Steel
These five tunings for 6 string lap steel guitar are great starting points for anyone just beginning the lap steel adventure:
- C6 – C E G A C E – The C6 tuning is by far the most common modern tuning for solid body lap steel guitars. It is very versatile and there is a lot of learning material available online.
- Open G – G B D G B D – This “high bass” version of Open G is the most common tuning for Dobro style resonator guitars. If you plan on playing acoustic bluegrass, or you’re a fan of Larkin Poe and blues musician Megan Lovell, this is your tuning.
- Open G – D G D G B D (low bass) – This version of Open G is popular with musicians who play standard guitar as well as lap steel guitar. It is also popular for Weissenborn style guitars as there is less string tension than the Dobro tuning when using standard guitar string sets.
- Open D – D A D F♯ A D – Open D is a popular blues tuning, and one of my personal favourites. It is another tuning that works equally well on lap steel, standard guitars, and Weissenborn guitars.
- Open E – E B E G♯ B E – Almost the same as Open D, but tuned a whole tone higher. This tuning is popular with guitar players.
Lap Steel Tunings
All tunings are listed from low to high (thick to thin),
Lower case note name indicates a reentrant string.
6 String Lap Steel Tunings
Most Popular 6 String Tunings
- Open A – A C♯ E A C♯ E (high bass)
- Open A – E A E A C♯ E (low bass)
- A6 – C♯ E F♯ A C♯ E
- C6 – C E G A C E (probably the most popular modern tuning)
- Open D – D A D F♯ A D
- Open E – E B E G♯ B E
- Open G – G B D G B D (Dobro)
- Open G – D G D G B D (low bass)
Other Common 6 String Tunings
- B11 – B D♯ F♯ A C♯ E
- Bm11 – B D F♯ A C♯ E
- C6 – E C G A C E
- D6 – D A D F♯ B D
- D7 – D C D F♯ A D
- Dm – D A D F A D
- Dsus4 – D A D G A D (usually referred to as “Dad Gad”)
- E6 – E B E G♯ C♯ E (often referred to as C#m7)
- E7 – E D E G♯ B E
- E9 – D E F♯ G♯ B E
- G6 – G B E G B D
- Gmaj9 – G B D F♯ A D (Bob P. Lee, also called “D over G”)
More 6 String Tunings
- Am11 – A C E G B D (G6 over C6)
- Open B – B F♯ B D♯ F♯ B (Baritone tuning, not recommended for scale lengths less than 26 inches)
- B11 – C♯ D♯ F♯ A C♯ E (no root, Mike Holland)
- Open C – C G C E G C (not recommended for scale lengths less than 25 inches)
- C6 – A C E G C E
- C6 – G C E A C E
- C6 – G C E G A C (Papa Dafoe Low C6)
- C6 – G C G A C E
- C13 – B♭ E G A C E (often referred to as C6)
- D5 – D A D D A D (modal tuning used by Ben Harper)
- D6 – A D F♯ A B D (used by Papa Dafoe)
- D6 – D B D F♯ A D
- D6 – F♯ B D F♯ A D
- Dmaj7 – D A D F♯ A C♯(Andy Volk)
- D7 – D A D F♯ A C
- D7 – D A D F♯ C D
- D7sus – D A D A C D (Papa Dafoe)
- D9sus – D A D A C E (Papa Dafoe)
- D9 – A D F♯ A C E
- D9 – D E F♯ A C E (John Ely)
- D13 – C D F♯ A B D
- D/Dm – f A D F♯ A D (Papa Dafoe)
- D7/Dm7 – f A D F♯ C D (Papa Dafoe)
- E7 – B D E G♯ B E
- E7 – E B E G♯ B D
- E7 – E E G♯ B D E (Sacred Steel)
- Em7 – E G D G B E (drop G of standard guitar tuning)
- E6/9 – G♯ B E G♯ C♯ F♯ (referred to as E9)
- E9 – G♯ B E G♯ D F♯
- Em11 – E A D G B E (standard guitar tuning)
- E13 – B D E G♯ C♯ E (sometimes referred to as C♯m7)
- Open F – F C F A C F
- Fmaj7 – F A F A C E
- Fmaj7 – F C F A C E
- F#9 – F♯ A♯ E G♯ C♯ E (Dick McIntire)
- G6 – E G B G B D
- G6 – E G D G B D
- G6 – E B D G B D (Greg Booth)
- G7 – G B G B D F
- G7 – G D G B D F
- G9 – G B D F A D
- G11 – G B D F A C
- Gm11 – G B♭ D F A C
- G13 – E G B G D F
- G13 – C E G B D F (could also be called Cmaj11)
- Leavitt – C♯ E G B♭ C D (Leavitt Tuning is not referred to by a chord name)
7 String Lap Steel Tunings
Common 7 String Tunings
- A6 – A C♯ E F♯ A C♯ E
- A7 – A C♯ E G A C♯ E
- C6 – A C E G A C E
- C13 – B♭ C E G A C E
- Open D – D F♯ A D F♯ A D
- Open E – E G♯ B E G♯ B E
- Open G – D G B D G B D
- G6 – G B D E G B D
Less Common 7 String Tunings
- Diatonic – E F G A B C E (Jerry Byrd tuning)
- A7 + C6 – A C♯ E G A C E (Jerry Byrd tuning)
- B11 – B C♯ D♯ F♯ A C♯ E (Mike Holland tuning, plus root)
- C6 – G C E G A C E (Papa Dafoe Low C6)
- C6 – C G C E G A C (Baritone C6)
- C13 – b♭ A C E G C E
- D6 – D A D F♯ A B D
- D6 – D A B D F♯ A D
- D6 – D F♯ B D F♯ A D
- D7 – D A D F♯ A C D
- D9 – D A D F♯ A C E
- D/Dm – D F A D F♯ A D (Papa Dafoe)
- D/Dm – f D A D F♯ A D (Papa Dafoe)
- Dmaj9 – D A D F♯ A C♯ E
- E7 – E B D E G♯ B E
- E7 – E B E G♯ B D E
- Fmaj7 – F A C F A C E
- G6 / Em7 – E G B E G B D
- G6 – E G B D G B D
- G9 – g G B D F A D (Papa Dafoe)
- G11 – G B D F A C D
- G13 – G B D F A C E (includes 9th and 11th)
- G13 – E G B G B D F
- G13 – E G B D F G D
8 String String Lap Steel Tunings
Popular 8 String Tunings
- A6 – A C♯ E F♯ A C♯ E F♯
- A6 – F♯ A C♯ E F♯ A C♯ E (Herb Remington, Cindy Cashdollar)
- B11 – B F♯ B D♯ F♯ A C♯ E
- C6 – A C E G A C E G
- E9 – E G♯ B D F♯ G♯ B E
- E13 – E G♯ D F♯ G♯ B C♯ E (Leon McAuliffe)
- G6 – G B D E G B D E
- G6 – E G B D E G B D
Other 8 String Tunings
- Amaj9 – A C♯ E G♯ B C♯ E G♯ (Don Helms “E6”)
- B11 – F♯ A B D♯ F♯ A C♯ E (Don Helms)
- C6+A7 – A C C♯ E G A C E (Jerry Byrd tuning)
- C6+A9 – b A C♯ E G A C E (Joaquin Murphey – referred to as C6/A7)
- C13 – G B♭ C E G A C E
- C13 – B♭ C E G A C E G (Junior Brown)
- C13 – C B♭ C E G A C E (Low C – used by Jerry Byrd)
- D9 – F♯ A C D F♯ A C E
- E6 (C♯m7) – B C♯ E G♯ B C♯ E G♯ (Don Helms)
- E7 – E G♯ B D E G♯ B E
- E9 – G♯ B D E F♯ G♯ B E
- E9 – E B D E F♯ G♯ B E (Jerry Byrd)
- E13 – E G♯ B D E G♯ C♯ E (I’ve seen this referred to as C#m7)
- E13 – B D E G♯ B C♯ E G♯
- E13 – B G♯ D E G♯ B C♯ E
- E13 – E D E G♯ B C♯ E G♯
- F6 – D F A C D F A C
- Fmaj9 – F A C E G A C E (Andy Volk – think of this as C6 over Fmaj7)
- F♯13 – f♯ d♯ F♯ A♯ E G♯ C♯ E (Herb Remington)
- Open G– D G B D G B D G
- G13 – G B D E F G B D
- G13 – G B D E F B D E
- G13 – E G B D G B D F
- G13 – E G B D F A C E (includes 9th and 11th)
Most Common 10 String Tunings
10 string lap steels are less common than their 6, 7, and 8 string counterparts, and with 10 strings to choose from the number of potentially useful tunings is nearly infinite. These three are most common.
- C6 – C F A C E G A C E G (an Fmaj9 chord, or C6/F?)
- Alkire – C♯ E F F♯ G G♯ A B C♯ E
- Robinson “C6” – F A C E G A C E G D (pedal steel C6 tuning)
Most Common 12 String Tunings
With 12 strings the tuning possibilities are endless, but the universal E9 pedal steel tuning is where most players will probably start.
- E9 – B E G♯ B E F♯ G♯ B E G♯ D♯ F♯ (Pedal steel tuning)
- G13 – D F A C E G A C E G B D (Reese Anderson)
Papa Dafoe* 2022 Tunings
- D6 – A D F♯ A B D
- C6 – G C E G A C E
- D6 – D A D F♯ A B D
* Papa Dafoe tunings appear courtesy of Allan Revich
Additional Steel Guitar Tuning Resources
The websites below are highly recommended. In addition to many more tunings, there is information about lap steel history and famous players. Tunings used by notable musicians are also within these pages.
- John Ely’s Tuning Master List
- John Ely’s Guide to String Gauges
- Steel C6th Non-Pedal Steel Guitar Tunings
- Brad’s Page of Steel Tunings
- Cindy Cashdollar tunings and string gauges
- Peterson Tuners chart – includes 10 and 12 string tunings
- Fretboard Visualization Tool from Steel Rail Guitars
- Andy Volk Slide Rules – Andy’s book is like the “bible” of lap steel tunings, a fantastic resource for the lap steel player
More Steel Guitar Resources
- The Steel Guitar Forum – Fantastic community of steel guitar enthusiasts
- How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed American Music
- Mike Neer’s Lap Steel Guitar Blog
- Volk Media Books
A Note About Lap Steel Tuning
Sometimes it seems as if there are as many tunings for lap steel guitar as there are players of lap steel guitar. This may be because every tuning requires compromises; the result of an inherent conflict between simplicity and versatility. The simpler tunings, such as Dobro G, GBDGBD, allow one to play any major chord, up and down the neck – and it’s nearly impossible to make a mistake doing it. So why not just tune to a major chord and be done with it? Because a lot of music demands more than just major chords!
While it’s possible to play minor (and other) chords in a major tuning by using slants and partial chords, players started exploring tunings that had more extended chords built in to them. Starting with dominant 7 chords, like E7, and then progressing to 6th tunings that allow easy majors, 6ths, minors, and minor 7ths. From there, more and more tunings evolved, and strings were added to increase the possibilities even more.
In a nutshell, the more different notes there are in a tuning, the more versatile the tuning will be—and the more possibilities there will be to make mistakes. Fewer notes, mean fewer possibilities to mess up—and fewer rich chordal possibilities.
Of course, the older, major chord tunings, don’t just disappear. They were good when they were first applied, and they are still good now. There are ways to get virtually every kind of chord from every kind of tuning. But each player decides for themselves whether they value simplicity or versatility, and which tunings provide them with the best way to make the music they want to make.
A Note About Names
Wherever possible I have tried to name each tuning for the chord that would be played when all the open strings are played. This should make it easier to compare and contrast all the different tunings. However, music theory aside, tunings are not always referred to by the exact chord they represent. C13, which is C6 plus B♭ is often simply referred to as C6. E6 has become more widely known as C#m7, and sometimes simply as C# minor. Just because your theory professor would say a chord name is incorrect, does NOT mean a tuning name is “wrong”.
Tuning names are simply names. They exist to help steel players communicate information about tuning. The names used have evolved over time to perform that task.
A Note About Reentrant (re-entrant) Tunings
Most string instruments are strung with a “linear” tuning. That is a tuning where the thin (higher pitched) strings are on one side of the fretboard, and the thick (low pitched) strings are on the other. There is a gradual progression from thick to thin across the fretboard. Some instruments are not tuned this way though. The most common examples of instruments that are nearly always strung with a higher pitched (thinner string) on the bass side of the fretboard are the soprano ukulele and the 5-string banjo. Standard tuning for the ukulele is g C E A. The g-string is tuned higher than the C and E strings, a tone below the A-string. Banjos are typically tuned to an Open G chord, g D G B D. The string closest to the players chin is shorter than the other strings, with its tuning peg located part way down the fretboard. It is also tuned to a higher pitch than the lowest banjo string next to it.
Lap steel guitars are usually set up with linear tuning. The thickest string is closest to the player, and the thinnest string is closest to the audience. But some players prefer to have a thinner, reentrant string tuned to a higher pitch, closest to their body. This allows for picking and strumming patterns that are not possible with a conventional linear tuning. Occasionally, on steel guitars with 10 or more strings, there are reentrant tunings that interrupt the linear progression part way across the fretboard.
A Note About 13th Tunings
13th tunings at their most basic combine a 7th tuning with the 6th tuning of the same chord (the 6th becomes the 13th when the chord contains a 7th). Clearly they represent a significant innovation in lap steel tunings. Take any open chord tuning, like E major (E B E G♯ B E) and add in the 7th (E D E G♯ B E) for an E7, then add the 6 (13th) for E B D G♯ C♯ E, and you get a 13th tuning. Suddenly you have minor chord options, jazzy 6th, and bluesy 7th chord options—all under a straight bar. Keep in mind that there are other ways to tune to E7 and E13 besides those I’ve used for this example.
The theory behind 13th tunings is especially interesting. They can contain every note in a diatonic scale except the major 7th, which is replaced by the dominant (flatted) 7. However, they don’t need to contain all those notes to still be considered a 13th chord. Typically, lap steel 13th tunings will consist of only 5 notes; 1 3 5 7 13. For C13 that would be, C E G B♭ A in root position. But it would still be C13 even without the 5, so only 4 notes, C E B♭ A. In fact, in a pinch, you could even drop the root note out of your C13, and play just the 3, 7, and 13, E B♭ A! — On the other hand, your C13 could contain all 7 notes, the 1 3 5 7 9 11 13, so for C13, C E G B♭ D F A (ref).
A Note about Em11 — The most popular unpopular tuning
What makes Em11 “the most popular unpopular tuning”? The fact that it is standard tuning for 6-string guitars! When many (most?) guitar players are asked what chord they tune their guitars to they’ll answer that they don’t know, or that guitars aren’t tuned to an actual chord. In fact guitars are tuned to an easy to understand open minor chord — Em11.
Let’s take a look…
Start with a basic E minor; E G B (root, flatted third, fifth)
Add the dominant seven; E G B D
Now the ninth; E G B D F♯
And finally the eleven; E G B D F♯ A
Hey! That’s starting to look kinda familiar, but I’ve never seen a guitar tuned that way.
But wait! There’s more!
We don’t need to keep every note in the chord, we can drop some without changing the chord. Let’s get rid of that F♯ . Now we are left with E G B D A, Em11 in root position. But it would still be Em11 if we arranged the notes differently. Let’s try, E A D G B. That works, but guitars have six strings, right? Yup! So let’s just add the root up top so we have it as our bass note and as our top note; E A D G B E. There you go, Em11. The chord that nearly every guitar in the world is tuned. But hardly any lap steel guitars are tuned to it, hence it’s “the most popular unpopular tuning” .