Review: Harley Benton Slider II electric lap-steel guitar

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(Note: Just as this review was posted, I discovered that Thomann appears to have raised the price of the “non-stand” Slider II package, from €66 to €77, whilst keeping the “stand” package price at €98. This means that at current exchange rates, the price difference between the two is now around £15, rather than the ~£25 at the time I bought my Slider II. This change should be borne in mind when reading this review.)

For some time, I’ve liked the sound of steel guitar—whether lap- or pedal-steel—and wondered if I’d ever get the opportunity to try learning. Whilst pedal-steel is way out of my reach (price, availability, etc.), there are a few budget electric lap-steels available in the UK, and to cut a long story short, I recently shelled out for a Harley Benton Slider II from Thomann (the package with the integrated stand). I haven’t found much in the way of reviews of this guitar, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on my experience so far with it.

The instrument

Photo of lap-steel guitar on carpet

Harley Benton Slider II (without stand)

From its shape and specification, readers in the US may recognise the Harley Benton Slider II, as a “cousin” of the Rogue family of Chinese-built budget lap-steels, such as the RLS-1. I imagine the Slider II is made in the same factory as the Rogues; I haven’t checked out whether “mods” intended for the latter (e.g. the 920D replacement control-plates) would “fit” the former, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

I really rather like the finish on the Slider II—on Thomann’s website, it looks black, but in reality it’s a kind of metallic charcoal-grey, which I think sets off the instrument quite nicely. (I’ll defer my opinion on the chrome-metal-style scratchplate for a bit further down the review…)

Before I come onto the items which were included with the Slider II—a tonebar, gig-bag, amplifier lead and, in this case, some telescopic screw-in legs—I should mention that the part of the package which I have been most impressed with so far, is the guitar itself. At this price—and remember, the variant of the Slider II package without the stand costs barely more than £50—I was expecting to have to replace most of the hardware on the instrument over time.

However, I’ve found that with one exception, the guitar is really not that bad at all, and generally belies its “extreme affordability”. The tuners (classical-guitar-style, but with metal barrels for the steel strings) work fine—they hold their tune; don’t “grind” noticeably when turned; and I find that the upwards-facing tuner-buttons make using them quite easy in normal conditions. I’m not 100% keen on the “slotted” headstock when changing strings—it’s really rather fiddly—but I don’t think I’ll be doing it that often, so I can live with it.

The guitar’s control-plate is simplicity itself: one Strat-style single-coil pickup, with volume and tone controls and an upward-facing jack-socket. I’ve heard some complaints that the latter is bad positioning—that the jack gets in the way of the player’s hand—but so far I haven’t found this to be a problem myself.

The pickup is a Strat-style single-coil, with the plus- (bright tone) and minus- (picks up hums and buzzes) points that this entails, although to be fair, it’s less noisy than I expected, and quite usable. I may well replace it with a single-coil-size humbucker one day (perhaps when I’ve learned to solder :-) ), though perhaps I’ll go for a complete Rogue-style replacement control-plate like the ones 920D make. Oh, and I’m sorry, but I am really not keen on the chrome-metal-style scratchplate—it shows the fingerprints something rotten, and looks shabby. I’ll be replacing that one day…

Photo of guitar headstock

Look at the two innermost strings…

One minor gripe: when the two innermost strings (in C6 tuning: the G and A) pass from the nut to the tuners, because of the angle, the strings just “butt-up” against the side of the headstock-slots on the way. I don’t think this affects the tuning at all, and there may not be much that can be done about it, but it’s a small irritation.

The earlier-mentioned exception to the generally positive, is the “stock” strings the guitar comes with. I didn’t expect much, and was proven correct, as the strings are simply awful—poor quality, and appallingly fitted. No ifs or buts: I strongly recommend you budget for a replacement set and buy them at the same time as the guitar. I invested in a La Bella C6 set, and sewed them on almost as soon as the instrument emerged from its box. A good, even essential, move, especially if you’re clear in your mind about which tuning you want to use on the guitar (C6 will definitely need new strings).

The accessories

I wish my generally positive view of the Slider II, extended to the add-ons which accompanied it in the box. Whilst it’s welcome to get a few extra bits and pieces with the guitar (and at this price, what do I expect…?): to be honest, “better than nothing” is about the highest praise I can give most of them, and I suspect most if not all of the items will end up getting replaced at some stage.

To take the best first: I’ll probably keep the lead for “travel” use, as it’s really thin and light. The gig-bag, really, is just that: a black fabric-like bag with hand- and back-straps, a small pocket for accessories, and a couple of zip-fasteners which I’m not convinced will survive much use. No padding whatsoever—if you’re going to gig with this instrument, at least a more “reinforced” case is probably essential. I’d almost put money on one or more of the zips breaking before the year is out, so perhaps I’d better start looking for a better-made bag or case.

The tonebar (a “bullet”-style” one) must be the slimmest I’ve ever come across; barely thicker than my middle finger. I suppose it’s just about usable, and it may suit some players, but within a couple of weeks I found myself stumping up the cash (£20) for a replacement steel—Shubb’s SP2, a weightier, larger and “sculpted” tonebar which I found to be an immeasurable improvement. At the very least, I would earmark some “readies” for this purpose from the outset as well (see a bit of a pattern here yet?).

Uncomfortably for me, the one of the instrument’s accessories I am least pleased with, is the one I paid almost £25 extra for: the stand. This consists of three telescopic legs, which screw into threaded sockets mounted on the underside of the guitar. The legs themselves are acceptable (if a little flimsy); I have read reports of the screw-mounts stripping their threads, though I suspect this is avoidable as long as the legs are installed with care.

Photo of lap-steel guitar on stand

The repaired leg is the one on the right in this view

However, in the specific case of my guitar, I discovered that one of the leg-mounts underneath the instrument was positioned incorrectly, leading to the guitar resting noticeably “bow-legged” and unstable, particularly the more the legs are extended. I spotted that the offending leg-socket (circular) is held in by screws, so I removed these, rotated the socket to the correct position, bored some new holes for the screws, and reinstalled them. This appears to have fixed the problem, much to my relief, as if it had not worked, the stand would’ve been as good as useless, especially if I ever wanted to position the guitar for playing standing up.

I can’t say whether or not this problem with the legs is common, but if it is, I would question spending the extra on the package with the stand. Your mileage may vary, but unless you fancy gambling on having more “luck” than I did, perhaps I would purchase the Slider II without the legs, and put the difference in cash towards another accessory—perhaps a decent tonebar, and/or something like a keyboard stand (providing you can find one that will “fit” the Slider II in your favoured playing position)?

In use

So, the proverbial “acid test”: how does such a “budget” instrument turn out in practice?

I first tested the Slider II “plugged-in”, in something of an odd place: a car-park (well, it was somewhere where I didn’t think I’d be interrupted!). I ran the output of the guitar into an iPad running the JamUp Pro XT amp-sim/FX app, via a Sonuus i2M Musicport (used only as an audio interface—I’m not ready to try MIDI-conversion with a lap-steel guitar!).

Here’s the demo, “warts and all”…

Now, my lap-steel “chops” are not likely to be up to much for a while yet (nearly three decades of guitar-playing aren’t necessarily preparation for steel-guitar…), but at least in terms of sound, I was pleasantly surprised.

As I noted earlier, the Slider II’s pickup is a simple Strat-style single-coil unit—and probably an ultra-cheap one at that—but in the car setting, the sound was unexpectedly free of noise, giving a pleasantly steel-guitar-like tone which was less “glassy” than I usually expect from single-coils. I often get noise and buzzing from my Ministar Testar guitar where there are certain lights and/or noisy mains-power connections around, so I will have to try the Slider II in that kind of setting, but early signs are positive. I may even not “need” to replace the pickup in the short-term, although I’m really not keen on the Slider II’s chrome scratchplate, so it’ll probably “go” sometime!

Verdict

I weighed up for some time, whether to go for the Slider II, or a rival budget lap-steel such as the Recording King RG-31. To cut a long story short, the Slider II won, largely as the RK comes with no accessories at all, reportedly sports cheap hardware just as the Slider II does, and is still pricier than the Harley Benton offering.

Well, now you know that the Slider II’s accessories are, in my blunt opinion, largely disposable—ranging from “handy to have” (lead) and “better than nothing, I suppose” (gig-bag), through “it’ll tide you over until you can buy something usable” (tonebar), to “not great, really” (stand). However, purely as an instrument, I find the Slider II very playable and reasonable-sounding, and quite amenable to upgrading if you find you’d like to improve any aspects of it.

If you’re a guitarist looking for a different sound to try out (and, in my case at least, a challenge to learn a new approach to a stringed instrument), the Harley Benton Slider II is an extremely affordable entry-point into the world of steel guitar. Just remember to put some extra cash aside for some new strings (essential), and quite possibly a replacement tonebar (very advisable—you won’t believe the difference a “sculpted” steel makes), and if you feel you don’t need the stand, the money saved could go towards the new accessories.

Next step: learning to play this thing well enough to record with… ;-)

Pros

  • Extremely cheap
  • Hardware works fine
  • Sounds decent
  • Fun!

Cons

  • Job One: replace the strings!
  • Accessories variable in quality/usability
  • Stand/legs somewhat flimsy
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