Hawaiian Music: Ukes, Steel Guitars and More

Hawaiian Music: Ukes, Steel Guitars and More

Hawaiian Music

by David Brown


My 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.

I 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, ADF#B.

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 fingerpicking 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 Ôukulele 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 Ôukulele 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 anymore.

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.

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