Four interesting “historical” articles from the HSGA Archives about notable figures and events in Hawaiian Steel Guitar History

More History of the Hawaiian Guitar

Compiled by Harry Stanley – 4th Installment

(HSGA member, Herman Lindley of Michigan, provided this article for the HSGA Quarterly. It is reprinted here without revision. No date appears on it, but certainly it was published before 1958. We thought you might find it as interesting and informative as we did. Mahalo, Herm.)

In preparing facts concerning Hawaiian guitarists of the past thirty years, we considered it advisable to go to someone who was familiar with Hawaii and its customs and personally acquainted with the outstanding guitarists during this period. The balance of this lesson, therefore, is based upon an interview with Mr. Alex Hoapili of Honolulu, T. H. (Territory of Hawai`i ). Mr. Hoapili’s wide musical career and constant association with all the Hawaiian musicians since the origin of the Hawaiian Guitar enable him to give all the facts concerning its development.

Q. “Mr. Hoapili, I have read several contradictory stories concerning the originator of the Hawaiian Guitar; what information can you give me on this subject?”

A. “Before the steel method of playing the guitar was known, musicians would sit on the beach playing the old Hulas in the regular Spanish manner. In those days the accompanist would tune his guitar to the regular Spanish tuning, and the melody player used what was known to the boys as ‘slack key’ tuning. As you know, the second, third, and fourth strings of a Spanish Guitar are tuned to the same ratio as the second, third and fourth strings of a Hawaiian Guitar. However, they are all exactly one tone lower.”

“Instead of raising the second, third and fourth strings up one tone so as to have the guitar in A Major, they would lower the first, fifth and sixth strings a tone, which placed the guitar in G Major. In this way, when they played pieces in the regular A position they were really producing tones of the G scale. The idea of this ‘slack key’ tuning was to enable the accompanist to play in the more appropriate keys such as C, G and F, while the melody guitar played in D, A and G. As far as the rhythm, harmony and melody are concerned, these Hulas played on the Spanish Guitar resembled the modern Hulas played on the Hawaiian Guitar.”

“Sometime, somewhere, someone conceived the idea of touching the strings directly at the bridge with a comb with the idea of producing a tremolo. I suppose this was due to the knowledge of the tone produced by blowing on a comb with a piece of paper over it. Anyway, the habit of one person playing the guitar while another sat and rubbed the strings with a comb soon developed, and it was a common sight to see three people playing two guitars.” (At this point, Mr. Hoapili played a Hula on the Spanish Guitar and showed me how to maneuver a comb on the strings at the bridge. Suffice it to say this produced a very beautiful effect. I marveled at the similarity of the tone produced to the present Hawaiian music.)

“While attending the Kamehameha School for boys in Honolulu, during the years 1893 and 1895, Joseph Kekuku began experimenting with his guitar one day by trying the effect of a comb laid on the strings with the left hand instead of the customary method just described. Then he decided to try other things and turned to his pocket knife. Later he began using a piece of flat steel. It is generally supposed that he practiced the steel guitar secretly at his home for about seven years before coming to America.”

Q. “What do you know about Mr. Kekuku’s career?”

A. “Upon arriving in American he was at once featured on the Orpheum circuit. He signed up as exclusive Edison recording artist and made several of the old style cylindrical records. During all his playing, he worked single or without accompaniment.”

Q. “Who was the next Hawaiian Guitarist to visit America?”

A. “The next Hawaiian Guitarist to come to

America was Mr. Kekuku’s cousin, Sam Nainoa. He also worked single, lecturing and playing the best theatres. As he and Mr. Kekuku had developed about the same degree of technique, he also made the statement that he was the originator of the Hawaiian method of playing. This, however, was in his theatre appearances, and, of course, must be considered ‘sales talk’.”

“While it is possible that both he and Mr. Kekuku conceived the same idea of playing the guitar at the same time, it is true that Mr. Nainoa admitted later that Mr. Kekuku had really developed the Hawaiian style of playing. Remember these two men were cousins and were brought up in the same Mormon settlement in La-ie (sic).”

Q. “What Hawaiian Guitarist do you think did the most to popularize Hawaiian music in America during its infancy?”

A. “Pale K. Lua, who was a lead violin player in a Glee Club. He too was a cousin to Kekuku and came from the Mormon settlement in La-ie. In his day he played all of the standard Hawaiian marches such as “Kohala”, “Honolulu”, “Hilo”, and “Hawaiian Hotel”.

These pieces were the favorites at dances and club meetings. You realize the intricate bowings that could be used in playing pieces of this nature on the violin.”

“It so happened that after hearing his cousin, Kekuku, play the steel guitar, he started practicing on these Hawaiian selections and developed a style of fingering which resembled his violin technique.

This was called triple picking. You will notice I said developed, not invented. The original idea came from Frank Ferra, a Portuguese, born and raised in the Hawaiian Islands, who also played the Hawaiian Guitar.”

“Pale K. Lua mastered triple picking in the privacy of his own home, came to America, and introduced a style of playing that astonished all Hawaiian Guitar enthusiasts. Even his own friends back in the Hawaiian Islands had never heard him play these fast marches using triple pick.”

“My Father Brought Steel Guitar to the West Indies in 1922”

(by Lindon O. Stoddart, member and steel player/teacher)

My father, Cyril George Stoddart, introduced the Hawaiian steel guitar to the Island of Jamaica, West Indies in 1922. He roamed the Island of over 4,000 square miles, from end to end, holding concerts, impromptu playing for groups of people, organizations, the church, weddings.

He formed his own band, and was so well known that when he walked down Kingston’s main street, the throngs of people walking along King Street called out to him. He was taught by professor Kolomuku, by remote class and recordings, and his style of playing was in the Sol Ho`opi`i genre.

In 1932, NBC radio of New York, sent the yacht Seth Parker down to Kingston. By relay, my father broadcast steel guitar on NBC. The news came back that his playing was well received. He also broadcast over local radio, several times.

My father had a music studio and played eight instruments: steel guitar, classical Spanish guitar, mandolin, `ukulele, tenor banjo, saxophone, violin and piano. However, the steel guitar was his greatest love of them all.

He played A major and E7th tunings, and dabbled in some others. He was adept on both acoustic and electric guitars. He died at 66, in May 1956, leaving eight children. At his death, approximately 95 per cent of all steel players in Jamaica had either been taught by him personally or by some of his former pupils.

How Lindon Started on Steel

I was born in Old Harbour, Jamaica in 1930, his second son and fourth child. When I was 3, my father sat me on the floor and placed his 1929 National “Artist Special” in my lap. At age 10, he began my steel guitar lessons. With wild enthusiasm, I ran through the Kamiki Method in five weeks, and then other books in A major.

Then I learned E7th (Hi Hoch Method), although I played mostly A major tuning.

My first public performance was in Elementary School, at age 11. That was also the year I began assisting my father teaching pupils. One year later, I had my own students. It all began one day when a gentleman pupil came to the house for his lesson, and my father couldn’t stay to give it, having urgent business elsewhere.

The gentleman looked down at the skinny kid and sneered “you expect this little boy to teach me?” Through a smile, my father said, with typical understatement “all right, Lindon, play a tune for him.” The man took the lesson.

Just before he died, my father said I had the talent to play like his idol, the great Sol Ho`opi`i, but that I would have to practice very hard to maintain it. At the time, I was playing the Kealoha A7th tuning. It came to me to change to A13th/C#minor combination tuning of nine strings, in 1956. It is so versatile that I think, with the addition of a B string, it could almost render the pedal steel unnecessary. I also play the E13th, but not very well, for lack of attention. I play an electric Tappin triple console special, and recently acquired a Remington D-10 non-pedal steel.

Lindon Wins a TV Contest

In 1964, while studying for my accounting exams, my brother (ranked #2 in Jamaica on jazz guitar) insisted I enter a TV contest for musicians. He accompanied me. I was scared, because the performance was live, and featured a number of recording artists. I practiced steadily for three weeks, and when I played in the contest, my guitar was literally playing itself with frightening skill. I was awarded first prize, even though a judge who was a band leader did not like steel guitar.

[Lindon says “after that I went back into obscurity.” He came to the United States in 1978, and became a CPA in Florida, where he is now head of Internal Audit for the State of Florida’s Public Health Department in Miami.]

Usually I have little time to practice. I am only able to practice 45 minutes a day, during the week, and 20 minutes a day on weekends. [Lindon says he has had repeated evidence that the playing is therapeutic and has relieved pain in some people.]

When I am sick, if I play for half an hour, I make appreciable improvement. Perhaps I should play in hospitals, but then it’s said that the world is sick, so I guess it’s okay to play for the world!

His Favorite Steel Artists

[The greatest influences on Lindon’s playing have been his father, Sol Ho`opi`i, and Jules Ah See. “I also add to those influences something I received from God,” Lindon says. Among his other favorite Hawaiian steel players are Jerry Byrd, the late Alvin “Barney” Isaacs, Jr., Georges DeFretes, Rudi Wairata, Hal Aloma, Herb Remington “and a few Country players”.]

(ED. NOTE: If you’re looking for a teacher in Florida, why not call Lindon? You’ll find his address in “E Komo Mai” Fall ’99 issue. We don’t have his phone, but you read where he works! Sorry, Lindon, to put you on the spot, but there are many members looking for a good teacher. Mahalo nui loa for your story.)

“Sweet Someone” – the Story

(A steel guitar arrangement for this still-popular song is printed in the Winter ’99 HSGA Quarterly, mailed to HSGA members.)

“Because it has been recorded so many times by local Hawaiian entertainers, most assume the song originated in Hawai`i,” says music archivist, Harry B. Soria, Jr, well-known producer and emcee of “Territorial Airwaves”. “Sweet Someone” was written on the mainland U.S. by mainland composers Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, probably in the 1930’s or ’40’s, according to Vic Rittenband’s search of the ASCAP database. Alan Akaka remembers it as being from the Broadway show “52th Street”.

Harry B. says the song was first brought to the Islands in the 1950’s by Eddie & Betty Cole, billed as the “Two Hot Coles”, who played cocktail lounges (including The Forbidden City) around Waikiki. Eddie was the brother of Nat King Cole; Eddie played piano, both sang. They recorded the song locally in an LP album, and it was instant hit. It was soon covered on records by Pua Almeida, Kaipo Miller, and many other vocalists.

The Words…

Sweet someone, whoever you may be,
Sweet someone, you suit me to a “T”,
Although you pay no attention to me at all,
One kiss and needless to mention, I had to fall,
Oh, I wonder who’s keeping us apart,
Don’t blunder and give away your heart,
Until you whisper “I love you”
And then I’ll know, that
Sweet someone, that you belong to me.

Lili’uokalani, the Composer

by Marjorie J. Scott
(This article first appeared in the Winter ’94 HSGA Quarterly)

In January 1993, Hawaiians commemorated the 100 year anniversary of the overthrow of the monarchy, in the deposing of their queen, Lili’uokalani. In September, 1995, at their first inaugural ceremony, Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and Museum acknowledged Na Lani Eha, “The Royal Four”, consisting of brothers and sisters David Kalakaua, Lili’uokalani, Miriam Likelike, and William Pitt Lele’iohoku for their patronage of Hawai’i’s music as we know it today; they provided the strong beginnings and vitality for music composed and performed by native Hawaiians to grow and prosper into the significant and enduring culture it is today.

Lydia Kamaka’eha Paki (later, Lili’uokalani) was born in 1838, and very early showed signs of her extraordinary gifts of poetry and music. Picture, if you will, a four-year-old girl, seated between her older brother, David Kalakaua and her younger sister, Miriam Kekauluohi Likelike in a classroom of the elite missionary-sponsored Chief’s Children’s School. Here, she was already receiving formal musical training, and “very likely began composing” according to Hawaiian music historian, Dr. George S. Kanahele. Lili’u (as her friends called her) was a serious and talented student. At age ten, private tutors took over the education of the royal princess.

Lili’uokalani, around 1864.
Photo courtesy of Robert E. Van Dyke

In her autobiography, Lili’u writes of her ability to sight read early on. To introduce a new song to the class, her teacher would give her the untried music and she would sing it by note, until the class learned it by ear. Kanahele says, “she must have had perfect pitch, too, for in later life as a composer, she wrote out her music in cipher form when music paper was not available.” “To compose was as natural to me as to breath”, she wrote. The earliest composition known to be hers may be “Nani Na Pua” (Flowers of Ko’olau), bearing the signature “L.K. Paki”, her maiden name and the signature she used prior to her marriage to John Dominus in 1862.

He Mele Lahui Hawai’i“, her “Hawaiian National Anthem” was not composed until 1866.

Lili’uokalani had several musical distinctions: she could write music and was, reportedly, the only native Hawaiian composer who could. Also, she may have been the most prolific composer of the century, as she states that while she never numbered her compositions “they must run will up to the hundreds.” She was given to writing complex harmonies, unlike other royal composers, and she brought a western music influence to her songs, evident in their melodic line and lyrical quality.

Fortunately for us, Lili’u made every effort to have her songs published so that they would be available to all. Her “Aloha ‘Oe” was, in fact. the first Hawaiian “hit song” outside of the Islands, thanks to Captain Henry Berger, leader of the Royal Hawaiian Band, who arranged it for the band and included it in every concert in Hawai’i and in the mainland U.S.

In both public and private life, as Queen Lili’uokalani, she filled her world with musical activity. Many concerts were given at Iolani Palace, where, in addition to featuring visiting foreign musicians, she could often be found playing piano, singing, directing song groups. She was, in fact, an accomplished instrumentalist on the zither (her favorite instrument) and guitar. One wonders if she would not have learned steel guitar also, had it been available and popular prior to the 1890’s.

In addition to”Aloha ‘Oe” some of Lili’u’s songs, still played and popular today are “Queen’s Jubilee”, written on the steamship which carried her and Queen Kapiolani to England as Queen Victoria’s guests for the British monarch’s celebration of her long and influential reign, “Ho’oheno Song”, “Puna Paia ‘A’ala”, “Ka Wai Mapuna”, “Puia Ka Nahale”, “Ka ‘Oiwi Nani” and “A Prayer”. The performance of songs by Lili’u, the composer, still inspires memories of Lili’uokalani, the Queen, who was regarded with great affection by the Hawaiian people for her gentleness and graciousness, and for her concern for the welfare of her people.

Some Steel Guitar History

An article from the archives of HSGA

In 1885, in Honolulu, Joseph Kekuku, an 11-year-old student at Kamehameha School for Boys began experimenting (as young boys will) with ways to make different musical sounds on his guitar. The story goes that while walking along the railroad tracks, he picked up a bolt and slid it across the strings, effecting the very first characteristic slur of steel guitar.

For the next 7 years, he taught himself to master producing the unique and sweet sounds with a hair comb, a tumbler, and finally, in the school shop, developed the smooth steel bar still used today. The instrument playing style Joseph Kekuku developed was Hawaiian steel guitar. Until his death in 1932, Kekuku toured the United States and most of Europe teaching and popularizing the Hawaiian steel guitar.

Steel guitar legend, Jerry Byrd

Although the popularity of steel guitar became firmly established in Hawai`i by the early 1900s, and soon after in the country music field, it had few teachers. Those early legendary steel players were so much in demand to perform and record that they had no time to teach others, had they wanted to. Thus, in the ’60s the art and technique of playing Hawaiian steel was almost lost.

It took Country Music Hall of Famer, the legendary Jerry Byrd, to lead the current Hawaiian steel guitar renaissance. Jerry, known as the “Master of Touch and Tone”, moved to Hawai`i in 1972, committed to bringing back Hawaiian steel guitar by teaching new generations how to play steel once again. Many of today’s well-known Hawaiian professionals like Alan Akaka, Casey Olsen and Greg Sardinha are former students of Byrd’s.