Sounds of Old Hawaii in the Hawaiian Steel Guitar

Hawaii Aloha Travel > Blog > Sounds of Old Hawaii in the Hawaiian Steel Guitar

Oftentimes, a song can trigger old memories or feelings we unknowingly had; whether joyful, somber or unchanging, the revelations can be very telling for us. A Hawaiian steel guitar’s silky tone and smooth bravado have that capability and take us back to the “vintage Waikiki days,” a time that many may associate with those dashboard hula dancers wearing grass skirts and flashy floral hair adornments. You might even think of Elvis’ Blue Hawaii, which sought out a Hawaiian-style feel to its theme music by using the steel guitar and ukulele.

Later techniques of playing a steel guitar involved using a slide, like this one.

Although some may refer to the steel guitar as a hapa haole genre from the 40s and 50s (music with Hawaiian tuning and English words), it actually came about much earlier than that, during the late 1880s. According to the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association (HSGA), a young Hawaiian boy named Joseph Kekuku invented the steel guitar, or kika kila. Not only do the steel guitar’s sounds distinguish itself from other guitars but also the way in which it is played – held on the lap and played with a steel bar. That’s how it became known as a “lapsteel” guitar.

Overtime, it has evolved and acquired different styles, shapes, names and steel bars used. Some mistakenly call it the “Hawaiian Guitar,” while others refer to it as the slide guitar; when in fact, according to HSGA, it’s simply the steel guitar. At one point, the art of steel guitar had almost been lost. Legendary steel players were in such high demand to perform, that they had no time to teach others. But thanks to Country Music Hall of Famer, Jerry Byrd, the Hawaiian steel guitar made its comeback. He moved to the islands in 1972 and taught new generations how to play this very unique guitar.

I just learned that my eighth grade Kamehameha music teacher, Alan Akaka, is one of today’s master Hawaiian steel guitarists. In fact, he is a former student of Byrd’s. Alan and several others will be performing at the upcoming 3rd Annual Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival in Waikiki. The festival will include a concert performance by legendary guitarists, as well as the next generation of musicians – students ages 11 through 18.

If you want to learn the basics of playing the Hawaiian steel guitar, then there will be a workshop and hands-on expo from 1 to 6:30 p.m. This will also be a great place to get a brief history of the guitar or to meet local music legends.

3RD ANNUAL STEEL GUITAR FESTIVAL • June 17, 2012; 1-7pm • Waikiki Beach Walk 227 Lewers St., Honolulu, HI 96815 • 808-931-3591 • Valet or metered street parking; near bus route

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