of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar
Part I - The Great Beginning
did steel guitar come from? It had to start somewhere. Most players
will agree it was originally invented in Hawaii. The story has many
twists and turns, but I’ll try and give you some insight in this,
and future articles. When we say “Hawaiian Steel Guitar”
we mean the style of playing a guitar by sliding a steel bar of some
kind up and down the strings while laying the guitar flat on your lap,
or suspended flat in front of you somehow on legs, or a strap, or table.
That’s the basic mechanics that describe the style—but of
course many genres of music can be played on the steel guitar in all
The Hawaiian Islands are often called the ‘melting pot of the
Pacific’ for good reason. For decades outside influences from
around the world have been integrated into the current culture. Early
European immigrants brought their music and instruments to the islands
beginning in the 1700’s and added a new sound to the traditional
music that existed. The two instruments most associated with Hawaii
today are the Ukulele and the Steel Guitar.
the ship the ‘Ravenscrag’ arrived in Honolulu on the afternoon
of August 23, 1879, it was carrying 419 Portuguese immigrants from the
island of Madeira to work in the sugar cane fields. It had been a long
and hard journey of over 4 months and some 15,000 miles. In celebration
of their arrival, Joao Fernandes borrowed his friend’s braguinha,
jumped off the ship, and started playing folks songs from his native
land on the wharf. The Hawaiians who came down to the dock were very
impressed at the speed of this musician’s fingers as they danced
across the fingerboard and they called the instrument “ukulele,”
which translates into English as “jumping flea.” You see,
that was the image conjured up by those flying fingers.
origin of the steel guitar is more hotly debated, with many stories
outlining how it was born. Most will not debate that it sprang from
the regular 6 string guitar. Hawaiians had the guitar before the ukulele.
Portuguese immigrated as early as 1794, and the guitar was in use in
Hawaii in the early 1800’s. To play the regular guitar, Hawaiians
created their own unique tunings and invented the Slack Key style we
know today. Slack Key means to slacken the strings and tune to a full
chord or variation of an open chord. There are many common Slack Key
open tunings in use today, and many more that performers customize to
meet their needs for the music. The open tuning is a key element, because
these open tunings were usually full chords. This set the stage for
evolving the slide playing technique known today as steel guitar.
has it that around 1880, Joseph Kekuku, a Hawaiian schoolboy, discovered
the sound while walking along a railroad track strumming his guitar.
He picked up a bolt lying by the track and slid the metal along the
strings of his guitar. Intrigued by the sound, he taught himself to
play using the back of a knife blade. The steel sound imitated the characteristic
vocal vibrato prevalent in Hawaiian singing. He shared his style with
others and the sound became popular in Hawaii about 1880. The name “steel
guitar” comes from the fact that it’s played with a steel
bar, and usually played lying flat. It’s not to be confused with
‘slide guitar’ where a guitarist uses a glass bottle neck
or metal hollow slide to make notes. However, many believe early Blues
artist developed their slide styles after seeing and imitating early
Hawaiian musicians touring in the early 1920’s.
introduction of Hawaiian music to the mainland US was a major step in
the evolution of the musical culture in Hawaii and the world. In 1915
the ukulele and steel guitar were introduced on the U.S. mainland. That
was the year of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco,
where Hawaii hosted a pavilion. The exposition celebrated the completion
of the Panama Canal and lasted for 7 months. With exhibits from countries
all over the world it attracted more then 17 million people, an amazing
number considering the population in those days! The Territory of Hawaii
viewed it as an important opportunity to promote its products, land,
people and tourism, and the legislature appropriated over $100,000 for
a Hawaiian Pavilion. The main attraction turned out to be the Hawaiian
show featuring hulas and songs which ran many times a day. The music
created a sensation! This was the first time that Hawaiian music had
been promoted on the U.S. mainland and it soon swept the country. Not
long after, steel guitar was everywhere.
1915 and 1941 the U.S. Mainland and the rest of the world embraced the
music of Hawaii. Early Tin Pan Alley and Hawaiian songwriters blended
Jazz and Big Band era music with Hawaiian music and themes to create
a virtual paradise on the radio for people longing for something better
during the Great Depression. Hapa Haole (half white) songs with their
English lyrics, Hawaiian themes and jazz flavorings fueled the early
tourist industry in Hawaii. The music quickly spread around the world
influencing many musicians and musical styles including Country Swing,
Gospel, and Blues. Today’s use of the pedal steel guitar in Country
music traces its roots directly to the Hawaiian invention. In those
years, the great steel players began to evolve and change the instrument
to fit all types of music. Steel was here to stay.
TIME: Hawaiian Steel Guitar History Part II - Transformation!
How did the acoustic Hawaiian Steel from 1880 transform itself into
the three main steel instruments (the Resonator Guitar [aka ‘Dobro],
Electric lap steel, and the modern Pedal Steel) we play to day?
Aloha a hui hou,
Kennison plays traditional Hawaiian Steel in Book
'em Danno and lives in Ft. Collins, Colorado. He also belongs to
the Hawaiian Steel Guitar
Association - where he listens, plays, and learns from the masters.
He can also occasionally be found sitting behind a D-10 pedal steel
in the long time Country band - ROUNDER
in Ft. Collins.
fun reading for steel guitar fans: