by Lorene Ruymar, HGSA founding member and author of
The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians.

In addition to a history of the steel guitar, I want to give you my school-teacher rant about properly naming the steel guitar. It has so many slang expressions, no wonder the public is not sure yet what it is. The original name, given in Hawai’i where Joseph Kekuku invented it around 1889, is: Kika Kila(geetah-steel-ah). Translation: Steel guitar.

When mainlanders first saw it, they didn’t know what to call it, so they reported that it was held on the lap and played with a steel bar. That’s how it got stuck with lapsteel which is still much used. But if you want to go first class, you’ll call it a steel guitar. It was originally a 6-string wooden guitar built to be a Spanish guitar, but converted to a steel guitar by inserting a metal converter nut (adapter nut) (extension nut) over the nut at the headstock to raise the strings about a half inch off the fretboard. It was originally tuned A Major low bass (1-6) E.C#.A.E.A.E, which has three strings tuned the same as the Spanish guitar.

Joseph Kekuku

Joseph’s name is being questioned. Members of the Kekuku family have not yet agreed on the correct form. What I was told at press time was: Joseph Kekuku’upena-kana’iaupunio kamehameha Apuakehau. This is a title the family held in the service of the king. Translation: Keeper of the nets that surround the kingdom of Kame-hameha. Possession of that title meant they were “ali’i”.

That name has been used on Joseph’s plaque in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of Jerry Byrd.

In later years the players of blues, bluegrass, folk, etc. music took the instrument in, but tuned it more to suit the banjo player, to G Major low bass (1-6) D.B.G.D.G.D. The G tuning is still popular in that genre of music to this day. But they referred to the steel guitar as a Dobro and still do. That’s not really correct, because Dobro is a manufacturer’s name. The name implies that there are no other manufacturers (Weissenborn, National, and many others).

As if we’re not confused enough, we now hear people calling it a slide guitar and in that they are totally wrong. “Slide” is not a “guitar” at all, it’s a method of playing a regular Spanish guitar using a metal cylinder slid over the left hand pinkie, to make a sound imitating the steel guitar.

Another misnomer: on the mainland in the early days we said, Hawaiian Guitar. Meanwhile in Hawai’i that name is reserved for slack key guitars.

As I said, the original steel guitar was a wooden Spanish guitar with a converter nut slipped in to raise the strings, and played with a steel bar. Since it was laid flat on the player’s knees, the sound was directed to the ceiling. To give it more volume (electric instruments were not yet invented) manufacturers used the material church bells are made of, BELL BRASS, and coated it with German silver for beauty. Great! They were much louder. But almost immediately (in the 1920’s)the first electric instrument was invented, which by the way was a steel guitar, and the stampede was on to buy one of those. Soon the 6 strings had a 7th string added, then an 8th string, then double necks whether 6 strings or 8 strings each. We even have FOUR necks now!

Then the pedal steel guitar came along, in the 1940’s. The modern electric steel guitar can still be played on the lap, or it can have manufactured legs. The acoustic steel guitar is played on the lap or suspended by a strap so the player can stroll while performing, AND it can have an electric pick-up, for amplification.

All of the previously mentioned instruments are steel guitars, all are of the family fathered by Joseph Kekuku. All the different styles, shapes, names, tunings of the guitar and of the steel bars used to play it have contributed to much confusion among players and the general public. After more than 100 years, the general public will still look puzzled if you speak of a “steel guitar” but when they hear it, they’ll say, “That music is so beautiful! What is it?”

In telling this story, I have not mentioned the great musicians who played the instrument, nor have I spoken of the steel guitar’s travels through the world and into many forms of music. To get the whole story, read The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians published in 1996 by Centerstream Publications, Anaheim Hills, CA. The author of the book is Lorene Ruymar, founder of HSGA.

Jay Harlin with his first 8-string 6-pedal steel.

John Quarterman, photographer.