Steel Trappings

Tone Bars: Stainless or Polymer?

Tone Bars: Stainless or Polymer?

February 22, 2018 • Addison ChingEducation

Many aspiring lap steel guitarists start off with a metallic standard stainless steel or chromed tone bar. As the journey advances, some players become more critical of their sound, and explore any and all means of achieving that "perfect" sound. Some go the route of electronics to alter their sound, adding sound equalizers and tone shapers, sound processing preamps utilizing vacuum tubes, modeling amplifiers, or playing through and using an old-fashioned amplifiers that employ vacuum tube circuitry (vacuum tubes are thought to produce a fuller, richer, sound as compared to digital amplifiers), while others play around with the values of the tone compensation control and capacitor in the guitar's electronics, and even go as far as changing their guitar's pickups. Other things affecting a guitar's sound quality include the selection of strings and the choice of the tone bar.

Joseph Kekuku started off with a metallic implement, and this has evolved to a quasi-standard for today's steel guitars. The objective when selecting a bar is to find one with very low friction as it glides over the strings. However, any type of object can be used, some with better outcomes than others. Objects that have been known to be used include plastics, glass, combs, glass bottles, wooden dowels and broomsticks, and even non-symmetrical metal bars.

John Pearse manufactures a thermos-cryonic tone bar that was designed for the Hawaiian steel guitar, in the dimensions that most 6 and 8 string players prefer. This bar is manufactured from stainless steel, heat treated to 60 Rockwell hardness then cryogenically frozen to minus 300 degrees to remove all construction stresses. The manufacturer claims that the bar has that great sustain needed for country, western swing, gospel and Hawaiian styles of music, and it's comfortable size is ideal for bar slants.

Many players who are introduced to the steel bar as their first never venture away. Others may not realize that the tone bar plays a role in determining how a steel guitar sounds. And unless you, as a player, are influenced by someone else who uses a non-steel bar, you are likely to never consider any alternative to the steel bar.

While there are many choices in addition to the stainless steel bar, this article explores one player's experiences with a polymer tone bar and discusses his findings and conclusions.

Trung-Tam Le

Trung-Tam Le is not a professional musician but he is serious about obtaining a professional sound. A doctor by trade, he did scientific research for 34 years until he retired in 2000. Le has played the steel guitar since he was 16 years old and has always dreamed of steel guitarists such as Hal Aloma, Lani McIntire and musicians Felix Mendelssohn and Danny Stewart, and of Hawaii Calls. His dreams were his passion and inspiration for learning music and music theory in high school. His piano teacher introduced him to the steel guitar. The teacher didn't know anything about the steel guitar but taught Le the music of the sounds.

He plays the steel for his pleasure and that of his friends and wants to obtain the best sound to share his feeling. "I always play with my feeling of the moment. This means that my musical phrases are rarely the same because I hate rehearsal which force to always redo the same notes to become mechanical and we can play well, even very well, but…no soul, no feeling."

Le left the steel guitar during his professional career but picked it back up after he retired. His interest in Hawaiian music in Europe is uncommon. Aside from the large Hawaiian music representation in The Netherlands, many European players are Pedal steel guitarists and prefer country music. Being from Liège, Belgium, Le brings a unique perspective to the art.

The Quest For A Better Sound

Le relates that he played with a steel tone bar, but then he was dissatisfied with the friction of the tone bar on the strings, especially on big wound strings. He then switched to flat wound strings. Although greatly attenuated, he still detected friction noise.

At one point in time of his musical journey, an acquaintance made a polymer bar and offered it to Le, who purchased it and was disappointed with the results. The bar produced a muffled sound and sustain was virtually non-existent, much less than a steel bar.

Most recently, another friend provided Le with the address of another manufacturer. Le purchased a tone bar from this manufacturer and was amazed by the sound it produced. Le offers this comparison:

Video 1

Here is an example of a song played by Le, "Terang Belang," using a polymer bar.

Video 2

At this point, the combination of this polymer bar and D'Addario flat wound strings is very satisfying to Le. "The friction noise is nonexistent," says Le, and the bar has "…remarkable sustain." This, in combination with the use of D'Addario Chromes XL Flat Wound strings, gives Le the almost perfect sound he is trying to achieve. "If you do not use them yet, try them out. I'm sure you will not be disappointed," says Le.

The Facebook Discussion

Le also posted his findings on his Facebook page (Aloha Tam Le) and that post produced a lengthy discussion thread and met with some interesting comments from steel guitarists all over the world. Jess Montgomery from Kapa'a, Kaua'i, commented, "I have some bars made in the '80's by a guy from Oregon. I think he called them "Kona Bars". I don't know if you would call them polymer, as they are made from casting resin poured into a mold around a stainless steel bolt. I prefer the tone they produce over a stainless steel bar tone when I play my acoustic instruments, but for electric I prefer the tone and sustain from the steel bar. The other down side is that they will chip if dropped onto a cement floor. Fortunately they can be pretty easily repaired with resin." Jess is a professional steel guitist and entertainer.

A follower from France inquired about the bar's composition. Le replied, "If I understand correctly, it's not a 2-Piece Assembly. Here, it would be liquid matter contained in a mould where a steel core is immersed, which explains the perfect adhesion of the coating on the bar. The Bar is then polished after release." Other followers from Brazil and Vietnam thanked Le for his analysis and comments.

Part 2 will discuss sustain, characteristics of various Polymer bars, and describe the preferences of some amateur and professional steel guitar players.

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