Steel Trappings

Hawaiian Sunset

That "Hawaiian" Sound

August 13, 2016 • Addison ChingEducation and Training

"I want to learn how to play my steel guitar so that I sound Hawaiian. How do I get that 'Hawaiian' sound?"

To sound "Hawaiian" you have to know what the Hawaiian sound is all about, and what makes it symbolic to Hawaiian music. Once you know what the sound is, you can then develop your own style and technique to replicate it. But you first need to know and understand what that sound is.

If you listen carefully to traditional Hawaiian music, you'll notice that while the backup musicians constantly play, the steel guitar does not. Instead, the steel guitar is used to "fill" the empty spots where there is an absence of singing, such as a transition between verses. In many cases the vocalist will feature the steel guitar in an entire stanza or verse; something loosely called "pa'ani (to play)." In this case, the steel guitar plays the main melody or a variation of that verse as a soloist.

There is no better method to develop an understanding of this sound than by listening to old Hawaiian recordings that feature the legendary steel guitarists of yesteryear. You can develop your own library of Hawaiian music by investing in CDs or purchasing and downloading Hawaiian music from the many music library services available today such as iTunes. Be certain, however, before purchasing music that the selection you're considering includes a steel guitarist, either as a featured soloist or as a member of the group or as backup musicians. Many of the vintage recordings feature a steel guitar, but many contemporary recordings do not.

Selected recordings from Hawaiian music artists such as Genoa Keawe, Hawai'i Calls, Alfred Apaka, Dick McIntire, John P'ilani Watkins, Lena Machado, Maile Serenaders, and Pua Alameida include steel guitars used in both background and featured roles. Recordings from steel guitar masters such as Alan Akaka, Greg Sardinha, Bobby Ingano, Jerry Byrd, and Benjamin Rodgers feature the steel guitar as the primary instrument.

Amassing a collection of recordings can be a costly undertaking. An alternative to developing a steel guitar music library is to listen to this music online via Internet radio stations that broadcast Hawaiian music. One such station is Aloha Joe ( which broadcasts Hawaiian music around the clock. Another such station is Hawaiian Music Live ( A third option is Internet radio station Ho`olohe Hou Radio ( which targets a specific topic or genre each day, and features the Hawaiian steel guitar all day and all night long every Saturday. According to station owner Bill Wynne, "You will hear such legends of the past as Sol Ho'opi'i, Dick McIntyre, David Keli`i, Hal Aloma, Sam Makia, Freddie Tavares, Benny Rogers, David 'Feets' Rogers, Bennie Nawahi, Eddie Bush, Jules Ah See, Jerry Byrd, Pua Almeida, Barney Isaacs, Mel Abe, Joe Custino, Billy Hew Len, Splash Lyons, Herbert Hanawahine and many others from long out-of-print recordings you would likely not find anywhere else. And you will also hear such living legends as Alan Akaka, Greg Sardinha, Casey Olsen, Paul Kim, Isaac Akuna, Bobby Ingano, and Jeff Au Hoy."

An accomplished Hawaiian musician and falsetto singer himself, Bill has an enormous library of out-of-print vinyl recordings to draw from, and takes pleasure in sharing his collection and appreciation of Hawaiian music with station listeners. Take advantage of this valuable resource to help develop your understanding of the steel guitar plays an important part of producing the "Hawaiian" sound.



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