Steel Trappings

The ‘Oi No Ka ‘Oi Steel Guitars

The ‘Oi No Ka ‘Oi Steel Guitars

November 10, 2022 • Kevin GilliesInstruments and Luthiers

Ed note: Kevin Gillies is Sole Proprietor and Luthier at ‘Oi Acoustics. He is a residential architect, land use planner, woodworker, and luthier. In his words, he "strives to achieve elegance through simplicity, reducing the number of visual elements to the minimum required. The focus is on ergonomics and tone to make an instrument that speaks for itself and you won't want to put down." This multi-part series delves into Kevin's design philosophy and what he considers important elements when it comes to instrument architecting and selection. © 2022


The ‘Oi No Ka ‘Oi Hawaiian Steel Guitar is the result of a conversation with Alan Akaka and a dream, and was introduced just 6 months later at the 2022 AISGC & HSGA Festivals. This series of articles, which will be published over the next months, explores the reasons behind and the process of developing the steels: Design, Sound & Tone Production, Strings & Intonation, Signal Chain, Ergonomics, Aesthetics and Realizing the Dream.


The process of design for me is very similar whether it's a piece of furniture, a home, a community, or an instrument. It is logically working through a set of criteria and ideas to achieve a goal and, in particular with instruments, involves a lot of back and forth - if I try one thing, does it affect another? That process at the beginning is expansive - it's exploring all the things that COULD be done - and then reverts to a reductive focus of deciding which things SHOULD be included to find the essence, or cleanest resolution, of the design. No one design of anything can achieve all possible goals…which is why there are many alternatives of everything.

Previously I'd been focusing on acoustic instruments; originally that was inspired by Herb Ohta Sr. and Lyle Ritz at the Maui Ukulele Festival and Slack Key Festivals. I loved both slack and the jazz influences, and in particular on the baritone ‘uke, but couldn't find an instrument I liked. I have a deep background in furniture building, and all the tools, so I built my own with some generous advice from a luthier from Tasmania. From there it's been a natural progression into various instruments including acoustic lap guitars - Weissenborn and teardrop.

Those instruments are primarily tuned in Taro Patch open G tuning or similar, and readily adapted from 6 string guitar tabs. But I had become enamored with C6, which is a lovely tuning with the relative Am over C chord, and is useful in other genres such as country and jazz. With 6 strings it's a close tuning, spanning only an octave and a half from A to E, and I was thinking about building an 8 string for a wider tonal range.

At last January's Los Angeles Slack Key Festival, I asked Alan Akaka what he thought might be the best tuning for an acoustic 8. Having the 5th (G) on top seemed good to me, with an A on the bottom to have two identical Am7 sets or with a low Bb for the 7th. Alan recommended a wider range with a low C on the bottom, then with a Bb for the seventh.

Accomplishing that successfully in an 8 string acoustic would be rife with conflict as a battle between structure and tone; that's a high wire act between building the lightest, most responsive instrument and it collapsing under constant string tension - for an 8 string, more than 200 lbs, and for a ten string 250 lbs - on a fragile soundboard. There is also a limitation on how much acoustic response you can get at the deep end due to the limitations of producing a long wave length on a relatively small body size.

And critically, if you are going to play live, you must have amplification, which with an acoustic instrument is another battle - between tone and feedback. The growth and explosion of popular music in any genre cannot be separated from the ability to amplify good sound for large audiences; professional musicians depend on it for their livelihood.


From this single short conversation with Alan, I went away considering taking a different tack: creating a new instrument from the ground up, focusing on sound production from the strings to amplification and eliminating all the middle ground.

The fundamental questions became:

  • Since professional players need amplification, and the acoustic guitar is fraught with complications of producing a full range of sound and then amplifying it, why not skip as directly as possible from producing the notes on the strings to the amplified output?
  • Can I produce a tone that is equal or superior to that of an acoustic, with a much deeper low end and crystal clear highs?
  • Would a steel then be more adaptable to different genres to have a broader appeal?
  • Can I devise a single design concept, readily adaptable to 6, 8 and 10 strings, different scale lengths, open to various tuning possibilities, and with a variety of interchangeable pickups and other electronic components to adjust the sound to suit different applications?

This essentially meant designing and building an electric based steel, but approaching it from the back end forwards, focusing on tone from the amplifier through the signal chain, and playability, stripping away the unnecessary to see where I would arrive.

There are steels that originated in the heyday of the 50s and 60s, primarily for country, which can be pretty twangy with a hum prone single coil pickup. There are also newer designs with active electric guitar sounding pickups. The Hawaiian guitar has had a huge and perhaps underappreciated influence on county, blues, jazz and pop/rock music; I was looking for a natural or organic Hawaiian sound, while at the same time making it as adaptable as possible for other genres while preserving the warm acoustic sound.

Certainly a lot of ground to cover for one instrument. In addition to satisfying all the fundamental questions, the two aspects to focus on were tone production and the ergonomics of playing position. And as happens when I design, I dream design solutions; frequently when working through a solution, I wake up in the middle of the night with an Ah-Hah moment. That resulted in this drawing:

Steel Guitar Sketch

Next month we'll look at sound, tone production and resonance, which is foremost of concern for all players of any instrument, and how we get to this, as ultimately it's about playing.

This video is from the 2022 Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association Convention in Foster City, California. This August 21 performance (7:00 - 8:40) features steel guitar players Bobby Black and Alan Akaka performing "South Sea Island Magic", with Alan playing his ‘Oi No Ka ‘Oi Steel Guitar.

The video can also be seen on YouTube


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Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Waikīkī Steel Guitar Festival
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