Monday, April 26, 2010

Music: The Hawaiian Steel Guitar

A major part of Hawaiian culture is music. Hawaiian music combines the sounds of the ancient Islanders who beat drums, blew conch shells, and chanted to their gods. It contains the styles of 19th-century Christian missionaries who taught Islanders to sing in four-part harmony.

The Hawaiians are praised for three contributions to music history: slack-key guitar, the ukulele and the steel guitar ( I have discussed the first two earlier and will focus on the steel guitar now and then falsetto singing in my next posting.

Joseph Kekuku (1874-1932) is regarded as the inventor of the steel guitar. Kekuku was born in Lāie, a village on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. As a boy, he would experiment with guitar techniques; sliding ordinary household objects across the strings to see what sounds could be produced. By the time he was an adult, he had developed a unique style of playing. He traveled extensively, teaching and performing throughout the USA and Europe. He died in Dover, New Jersey January 1932 (personal footnote: I used to vacation nearby at Cranberry Lake). (

Legend has it that around 1880, Kekuku, while just a 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 imitates the characteristic vocal vibrato prevalent in Hawaiian singing. He shared his style with others and the sound became popular in Hawaii. 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.

The Hawaiian steel guitar is laid across the knees of the player, who stops the metal strings by gliding a metal bar along the neck. The strings are usually tuned to the notes of a given chord.

There is no one standard tuning for the steel guitar and the solid body electric steel allowed for instruments to be made with two, three and even four necks, each tuned differently. Multiple necks made holding the instrument on the lap almost impossible, and legs were added, making the first 'console' instruments, although a few single neck consoles were already being played by 'steelers' who preferred to stand.

In the early 50's several players began experimenting with adding pedals which raised the pitch of a string, and in 1953, Bud Isaacs was the first player to use a pedal steel guitar on a hit recording: "Slowly" by Webb Pierce. The sound quickly caught on and many steel players converted to playing the 'pedal sound’.

Both lap and pedal steel guitars were closely associated with the development of country music and western swing. The pedal steel's liquid, yearning sound is still coveted by many modern musicians, even in jazz and blues.

In particular the popularity of alternative country has brought the instrument's beautiful sound to a much wider audience, and it has been used in many different musical genres. Jùjú music, a form from Nigeria that evolved in the 1920’s, uses pedal steel extensively.

Please give a listen to Hawaiian Steel Guitar "Sand" by Ross Costa ( “A favorite among ‘steelers,’ this classic song evokes the soft, lilting sounds of the islands. "Sand" was written by the great steel guitarist & saxophonist Andy Iona in 1930. The tuning is B11: low to high C#,D#,F#,A,C#,E. Costa used an "Aloha" 1950's Steel Guitar. Various island images accompany the audio. Visit his website for more info:”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Music: The Ukulele in Hawaii

My last piece discussed the slack key guitar…but what about the uke or ukulele? From the Honolulu Advertiser (October, 1953) over 50 years ago:

“Sing Hawaiian songs or dance the hula without ukulele accompaniment. Isn't there something missing?”

A ukulele, also spelled ukulele, looks like a small, four-stringed version of a guitar. The “uke” is tuned and played just like a guitar, with tuning going from the top string to the bottom string using G C E and A on the piano, though the ukulele is usually tuned an octave higher than the guitar. The ukulele comes in four types, or sizes: the soprano, the concert ukulele, the tenor, and the baritone.

When the ship the 'Ravenscrag' arrived in Honolulu in August, 1879, it was carrying over 400 Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira to work in the sugar cane fields. (Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago and one of the autonomous regions of Portugal, with Madeira Island and Porto Santo Island being the only inhabited islands.)

It had been a long and hard journey of over four 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 musicians' fingers as they danced across the fingerboard and they called the instrument "ukulele", which translates into English as "jumping flea".>

Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are generally credited as the first ukulele makers.

Though primarily cabinet makers, Nunes, Espirito Santo, and Dias followed an ages-old European tradition prevalent in their profession: that of turning their woodworking skills to the craft of stringed-instrument making, or luthiery. Augusto Dias was listed as a “guitar and furniture maker” in the 1884- 85 Honolulu City Directory.

This may help explain the shop here in Hilo in the picture below:

Credit: Jay Johnson (Butchy Fuego)

The ukulele received royal acclaim with nobles such as King Kalakaua, Queen Emma and Queen Lili'uokalani playing this instrument. This in turn may have made it more accepted by the people of Hawaii

It was around 1915 that the ukulele's popularity migrated to the mainland. A Hawaiian music craze had hit starting in San Francisco and made its way across the country causing ukulele sales to rise. The craze even swept across the ocean to the UK.

In the 20’s, mainland manufacturers such as Gibson, Harmony, Regal, National, Dobro and Martin were mass-producing ukuleles by the thousands. Martin produced their first uke in 1916 based on the Nunes design. Many Hawaiians prize their Martin ukes, and have been heard to speak of its special tonal qualities to this day.

In the 40’s and 50’s, the British music hall great George Formby and the American Arthur Godfrey kept the little instrument in the mainstream. Great players like Roy Smeck and Eddie Karnae kept playing fabulous music with the uke. But even with the arrival of Tiny Tim in the late 60’s the popularity of the uke seemed to recede into people's closets and by the early 70’s, Kamaka was the world's only manufacturer of ukuleles.

Today we are seeing resurgence in popularity of Hawaiian Music and the ukulele. Hawaii is home to several luthiers who have turned their talented hands and eyes to the ukulele.

"My Dog Has Fleas" is being heard by another generation throughout Hawaii. There is The Ukulele Festival here in Hawaii, which features many of the world's finest players, there are schools such as Roy Sakuma's Ukulele school ( ) and Mainland events from all over including Northern California's Ukulele Festival and the Uke Expo in Massachusetts. This instrument seems to be here to stay.

“The ukulele - it's light, very portable and brings a smile to just about every person that hears its beautiful melodies.”

One of my favorite ukulele songs is by “Iz” (Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) doing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” If you haven’t heard it before, please give it a try.

This rendition was used to close Tim Russert’s funeral, and when the parishioners went outside – there was a rainbow over Washington DC. (You can see news coverage here: Tim Russert Funeral)

Myself, Gary Fujihara and Fred Hee

Also, a shout-out to my ukulele instructor, Macario who also took the above picture for an article about the Hilo Guitars & Ukuleles store in downtown Hilo.