Ya know, like the late Jeff Healy used to play. Are there technical reasons for holding the guitar in front of you, and reaching up and around to fret the strings?

Has anyone any experience with playing in the lap? It SEEMS like it makes more sense to use the lap, as you have access to all 5 fingers for fretting, and plus you can see what you are doing.

Barre chords seem tougher, and pushing the strings down seems to take more force.


5 Answers 5


The Guitar was played in a sitting position, resting on the thigh, dating back to about the third century (murals/carpet depictions), but was still box shaped. Slowly it evolved so that by the 16th Century it had morphed to the current "Female" curvature - by then, the shape lent itself to being held in such a position and the pictures depict musicians playing it in such a fashion. As to why it's not on the lap - simple physics is my guess: apposable thumbs. It is easier to grasp something, like a club or stick, at the current angle of the guitar, rather than twisting your hand to grasp it, or pushing down and playing it like a piano (Sorry, Stanley Jordan).

Why a Guitar Strap: Live performances in front of larger audiences than the previous dinner/small taverns/picnics/juke joints that the guitarists had been paid to play prior to the 20th Century.


I think the simplest answer is sound.

If I place the guitar on my lap I deaden the back of the guitar, and the (now deadened) sound is going to project up into my face.

Macafferri style guitars have a false back, so would also not be affected by deadening the back of the guitar, but the sound projection would still point up to the face of the player.

Of course with any sort of electric guitar this becomes irrelevant, as you are obviously projecting sound from the amp, not the guitar itself.


I meant to add that all classical (and some steel string) guitarists play only seated. The guitar is still pointed towards the listening audience, but the back of the guitar is left untouched. The sides of the guitar which have almost no affect on tone are used to support the guitar. Wearing a strap pushes the back of the guitar against the guitarist's body deadening the sound.

This I learned by reading books and websites for Luthiers. Though I have no plans to become one, it is fascinating and worthwhile knowledge.

  • @Mugen: I think I answered that in my edit. Wearing a strap does push the back of the guitar into the body, and does deaden the back and resulting sound. Unless you mean it is hung from a strap with the back facing the ground. In which case it is similar to what I said about Macafferri.
    – Anonymous
    Jan 28, 2011 at 21:57

They are for all intents and purposes different instruments, the conventional guitar is more of a chordal instrument, the vast majority of chord types can be played using fingerings from standard tuning, all keys can also be traversed without altering tuning or anything else.

Notes on the guitar are generally fully fretted and it can be used as a chordal and a soloist instrument at the same time; in addition to which it has enough range for composition.

The lap guitar is an entirely different beast, notes are sounded using a slide of some type or other; chords are limited and are quite dependant on the tuning of the instrument.

In addition to the above; the lap guitar has a very unique and specific sound, which is not easy to emulate using a standard guitar and a slide.

Generally the standard style guitar is a lot more versatile in almost every respect; being able to fit your hand around the neck, apply accurate downward pressure using all fingers(and thumb), at speed, and being able to move around freely is the reason for this.

  • No, not a lap guitar, a regular guitar, but laid in your lap.
    – Anonymous
    Jan 27, 2011 at 7:40
  • I think a lot of the same still applies; in addition to which most guitars aren't a very good shape or balence to have on your lap, you are not able to apply downward pressure without something supporting the neck. I have seen guitars played like this with a slide; but I still think that most of the above still applies.
    – Bella
    Jan 27, 2011 at 7:49

Besides Jeff Healy, "Thumbs" Carllile was known for holding his guitar flat and playing by pressing straight down. YouTube has some videos of him playing. One I like has a good view of his fingers as he messes around. He's also got the advantage of having his thumb available, and takes advantage of it, hence the nickname. He plays some nice blues runs in this second video.

It's been many years since I read interviews with either of them, but, if I remember right, they both fell in love with the sound of guitars but hadn't seen anyone play them, so they were not sure how to hold them, and started with it flat in their lap.


You say, "pushing the strings down seems to take more force". The key word is "seems": of course it doesn't require more force---the strings are same, and they're being pushed the same distance---but it seems that way because of the way our arms, hands, and fingers are built. Our muscles and ligaments aren't built for that kind of movement. It would be like typing on a keyboard in which there were six rows of keys, and you wanted to type combinations of keys simultaneously. In fact, try that: try typing four- and five-letter words (using the numbers and function keys as well) as blocks, rather than one letter at a time. You'll find it pretty difficult.

  • Chording keyboards are designed to handle multiple key-presses and are usually recommended for ergonomic reasons because they help with RSI and carpal-tunnel injuries. So, while it might initially seem difficult, once someone gets used to it they have little problem. I think the same would be true of someone starting with the guitar flat, and sticking with it. They'd be used to it, and would find positions that avoid stress. Watch videos of Thumbs Carllile play and you can tell he's not working hard or dealing with odd hand stresses.
    – Anonymous
    Jan 29, 2011 at 6:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.