wife and I visited the Hawaii in 1981, and were both struck by the beauty
of the islands and the people. There was only one thing I found
disappointing- I didn't hear one steel guitar player. Sure the slack-key
guitar was riding a wave of newfound popularity, and the 'ukulele too was
ubiquitous; but in our 2 week stay I never was able to find young people
playing the kind of guitar named after Hawaii. I even found a baritone
ukulele in the shape of Oahu, but most of the interest and development was
in the guitar and the slack-key guitar. New luthiers were making quality
guitars and ukes of all shapes and sorts-but no steels.
I knew some of the big night clubs had shows
including a few of the old-timers still playing the Hawaiian guitar, but I
wanted to find the steel-playing equivalents of the kids at the beach
playing their slack-key. I did see many tourist-oriented show groups, and
with them ukes of all sizes, but the steel guitar had appeared to have
fled the islands to the mainland, now residing in Nashville in the form of
the pedal steel, the most mechanically developed member of the guitar
family, and it's cousin the Dobro, a resonator guitar designed as a loud
acoustic Hawaiian guitar in the 1920's. Of course there were some of the
oldtimers around, but we did not know how to find them.
You see, I loved the Hawaiian guitar. I had been
dabbling with one since I was a kid, and one summer when working at a
local music store came across a WWII vintage National six string electric
lap steel, and a circa 1911 Leon Coleman Hawaiian guitar method book. As a
teenager I had played in a dance band, and was exposed to the all-but
defunct sound of "Hawaii Calls", of the music once the most
popular in the continental USA, that of Hawaii.
found out that by 1900 the recently-invented ukulele and Hawaiian guitar
were gaining in popularity on the mainland, along with a new style of
music called hapa-haole, or "half-white", and was a blend of
many elements reflecting the diverse peoples that settled in the Hawaiian
Islands in the 1800's.
Native Hawaiian elements were mixed with
congregational hymns, sailor's songs, Portuguese, Spanish, Mexican, and
many other musical genres adding their contributions- even European band
music! Immigrants from other Polynesian Islands brought another layer of
influences. Before the late 1800's, violin and flute were among the main
lead instruments, and mandolins were popular as well. However by1880 a new
instrument based on a Portuguese braguinha (also the ancestor of the
Brazilian cavaquinho) burst on the Hawaiian scene, the ukulele, which was
a small guitar-shaped body , short neck, and 4 strings of gut, now nylon.
The tuning was based on the guitar as well, GCEA being the Hawaiian
standard, although mainland uke players typically tuned up a whole step,
The ukulele became a widespread hit, even
becoming asscociated with the early flapper/jazz age of the Roaring 20's,
and was played in vaudeville by such string virtuosos as Roy Smeck and
Harry Volpe. The baritone ukulele is larger and is tuned lower, DGBE like
the highest four courses of the guitar. Players often used fingerstyle
techniques, but occasionally used felt picks or some other plectrum.
Double-strung ukuleles were called "taropatches" and were more
often played plectrum-style.
|The guitar was brought to the Islands by Mexican cowboys and possibly
whaling vessels in the early 1800's, and soon the guitar was being tuned
to open chords as a means to produce a certain unique style of playing,
and to make playing basic chord patterns easy. This guitar style developed
into two distinct areas- slack key and the Hawaiian or steel guitar.
Slack key is possibly the earlier development,
and is based on finger picking melodic patterns against open tuned
backgrounds; many tunings are used, maybe over 100, although most
performers use far less. The name derives from slackening the strings, to
produce open chordal tunings in different keys. Somehow, the slack key
guitar was not a big part of the uke-steel guitar boom of the 1st half of
this century; however with the revival of Hawaiian culture in the 1960's
and 1970's the slack key became immensely popular, moreso than ever on the
Islands or the mainland.
The first public performance of hula accompanied
by the new Hawaiian steel guitar was the 1886 Jubilee Celebration for KIng
Kalahaua. Sweet Emalie danced the hula to the accompaniment of ‘ukulele
and Hawaiian guitar. Although the invention of the steel guitar style is
shrouded in doubt, the first person to make a steel bar and to develop the
standard technique was Joseph Kekuku, who moved to the mainland in 1904
and performed and taught until1931.
Derived in part form slack key, the Hawaiian
guitar uses a hard object, like the back of a comb, pocket knife, or best,
a steel bar to touch the strings and shorten the strings, rather than
using the fingers to press the strings against a fret, All manner of
slides, graces, glissandi and vocal effects are available when using a
steel, and it was this sound that influenced blues players to use slides
or bottlenecks to get that "whining" tone characterizing old
Delta blues. Even East Indians have adopted the steel guitar as it can
play all the gamaka of Indian vocal styles- and all the microtonal pitch
inflections of the Indian music system. This is fair, as one of the
possible developers of the Hawaiian guitar was a naitive of India named
Gabriel Davion, who may have adapted the vichitra vina playing technique
to guitar. This vina is played with a hard egg-shaped piece of glass,
sliding and swooping and playing quite vocally.
The earliest Hawaiian guitars are merely regular
Spanish guitars with metal strings, raised nuts, played with flat metal
bars and fingerpicks, tuned most commonly then in the early 1900's to open
A low bass tuning of EAEAC#E. These guitars were not particularly loud, as
a regular guitar placed on the lap does not project the sound forwards
like the usual method of holding it, so in Los Angeles a guitar maker
named Weissenborn made Hawaiian guitars with a larger body and hollow
neck, often of koa wood, the preferred ‘ukulele wood. These guitars were
not particularly popular with the professionals of the time, but were the
next step in development; in many ways the steel guitar developed faster
and further than almost any other string instrument in the same period.
The first "new" guitar design which was
wholeheartedly accepted by the professional Hawaiian player was the
invention of the resonator guitar in the early 1920's- and also in Los
Angeles- by the Dopera Brothers, notably John. The design is based on the
use of aluminum cone "megaphones" upon which the bridge sits,
and the tone is much louder than a conventional wooden top. Some of the
most prized of these were made with all metal bodies, often etched in
designs. Due to business reasons, the Dopera Brothers formed a new
company, Dobro (DOpera BROthers-and it means "good" in all
Slavic tongues) and intorduced a single-cone resonator guitar which bears
the company name and in turn passed it on to posterity. Today the Dobro is
widely played by Bluegrass artists, the only popular acoustic steel
Dobros are tuned in what was originally called by
Hawaiian guitarists G high-bass, or GBDGBD. The old A low bass tuning was
adapted to high bass, AC#EAC#E, and transposed to G. This is the standard
acoustic steel tuning. Hawaiian player often used other tunings for more
complex chords. A 1930's Gibson catalog, featuring several models of steel
guitar, lists a chart of tunings, and suggests the use of an E 7th tuning
for advanced players. This tuning is BDEG#BE, with use of the 2nd string
up to C# sometimes.
National and Dobro merged in 1932, and soon
(again it's unclear who was forst) were selling an electric Hawaiian
guitar, the first commercially available ones ever. One of their former
emplyees also released an electric Hawaiian guitar, Adolph Rickenbacker,
forming a company still bearing his name. Soon the pros switched again,
this time from the resonators to the amplified Hawaiian guitars; soon to
appear were 7 and 8 string models, double necked versions followed by 3
and 4 neck instruments, console models, and finally the addition of pedals
that alter the tuning, resulting in the pedal steel.
Most Hawaiian style players prefer smaller
non-pedal steels. One of the Hawaiian hallmarks is the use of slanting the
bar to obtain harmonies and other chords than the open tuning provided,
and the use of pedals changes the whole approach- not to mention the
expense and complication of the pedal steel compared to the simplicity and
easy portability of the reliable lap steel.
Amplification also altered the playing style, as
the acoustic Hawaiian guitar player played bursts of notes, staccato
open-string and stopped tone runs, and replaced it by the nahenahe or
sweet style, using sustaining notes, smooth runs, and more slides and
vibrati. A player with a multineck instrument could have different tunings
instantly available, and lusher tunings were developed. One of the latest
but most popular is the 6th tuning; I use a G 6th, six string version
BDEGBD; B and D sounded with G produce a major chord, but B and D and E
make an E minor, and the whole can function as a major 6th or a minor 7th.
On my 8 string I add a string at each end, GBDEGBDE. This is easy to
retune to an A 6th, F#AC#EF#AC#E, another typical tuning.
There is an effort underway to revive the
Hawaiian guitar. Several organizations exist for the steel guitarist; some
are more country-oriented, some Hawaiian, but there is now a yearly
Hawaiian guitar convention in Honolulu sponsored by Nashville pedal steel
vet Jerry Byrd.
Perhaps the time of the Hawaiian guitar's
renaissance has arrived.
For more information on Hawaiian Steel Guitar
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