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. This is Part V of a multi-part series. © 2023 www.oiacoustics.com.
My music background is keyboards, so I like sitting at the instrument on legs. To keep good ergonomics with your elbows above the strings, the legs need to be the right length so that the steel is just barely above the lap. It winds up being a bit further away from you. For myself and the others who have tried them, it's enough to make a BIG difference.
And it's just sitting there all time wanting to be played. Or I can switch over to the keyboard or bass without having to muck around with the steel. Or plug in an additional instrument to the leg mounted amp.
I designed and made custom flush fittings with very light carbon fiber legs, and flight cases sized for air travel, so everything is organized and secure. All those aspects were critical to me in developing the instrument to be as versatile as possible. It also had to be light without sacrificing longevity, so it's easy to haul around and equally suited for those who prefer to play on the lap.
The look, although important in the end to many, doesn't particularly interest me by itself – it is subservient to the tone and playability of the instrument. "Form follows function" is a bit of a worn expression; I think of the two as intertwined. Basically if an instrument doesn't play well, have good ergonomics and sound great (which is a relative concept to the genre, setting or application), it's not going to be used much and is a failure of purpose.
Steve Jobs said "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
The goals drove the design of the instrument, which then met the fundamental criteria. From there, I lean towards shapes that refer to or are influenced by traditional acoustic instruments, as that's what I've mostly built and the music I listen to. In this case it's a modified Weissenborn shape, with Maui hooks on the cutaways, and a teardrop relief in the top, then proportioned into a smaller profile which is just large enough to accommodate the components for full range of strings, scales and amplified tone – the overall length of the body changes only from the Maui hooks through the tuners. The actual shape of a wood steel doesn't affect the sound if built well, but does feel nice to the hands and to hold. And the grain of mango is as beautiful as any.
The bottom line is that if you have an instrument that you love to hold and listen to, you'll play more and better. I received this note recently:
"Once I finally started playing, I can't seem to stop. I practice every day, and while I know I have a long way to go (before it ever sounds presentable to another person), I am enjoying it tremendously.
I can really tell this is a quality instrument, and I doubt I would have stayed with it with something inferior. I really appreciate the resonance of each note (when I hit them) and just zone out into a state of happiness. The hand-feel of the neck, the craftsmanship, the beauty of the wood are all such a pleasure to experience again and again.
Thank you thank you. Obviously, I think of you often, with gratitude."
There is no greater reward to the luthier than to not only hear great music made by their instrument, but hear about the peaceful and rewarding state of mind that it brings to the player.
This series of articles has addressed some of the factors in designing a steel guitar. But ultimately, tone is in the hands of the player – a great one can make a decent guitar sound fantastic, but no amount of great hardware will make a great player. I will now turn this discussion over to those who really know about playing and finding your tone, and whose work has inspired me.
From Alan Akaka:
"Here are some tips for achieving the 'Hawaiian' tone:
Of course the pickup and amp make a difference. I prefer a pickup with nice fat lows which is a reason why I mentioned using the George L's on the ‘Oi steels. My kumu Jerry Byrd would set his treble, mids and bass on the Fender Twin to 1, 1, 10 respectively. On my Princeton Reverb I set the treble to 1 and bass to 10 to get similar results. The main thing is to find a tone that is comfortable to the player?s ear so no matter which amp is used tweak the settings accordingly. One more thing, placing the amp on a table top, cart, floor, close to a wall or in a corner can make a huge difference.
When playing my steel, I add a little more pressure on the bar which thickens the tone and actually contributes to a more vibrant 'ping' in harmonics. Also, for a richer tone pick midway between the bar and bridge."
For the Alan Akaka School of Hawaiian Music, visit https://kekulamele.com.
Excerpts from a 2018 interview with Mike Neer:
"There are certain sacrifices you have to make in learning to play an instrument. I don't know anybody who was just born with the ability to play. It takes a lot of hard work.
I think one of the hardest things to do is to put aside, to some degree, what you already know and learn how to approach the instrument. If you were suddenly left to play guitar with just one finger, you might have to rethink the way that you look at harmony. You have to keep thinking: reduction. That process took me a lot of years to realize. You think you're making progress and you're nailing all this really cool stuff but it sounds like you're really struggling to make it happen. With steel guitar, it should have a sense of ease to it.
One of the things that I figured I needed to do was to simplify it; look at harmony in a new way in terms of upper extensions and triads and to start building from there. I think there's a little bit of progression going on [in my playing] now. I can feel it. I feel pretty excited about it, actually. Once you're on the path to discover your own voice, you find the sounds that you like. Sometimes we listen to other players and hear something we want to avoid. So I really did make a conscious effort to not be a very "slidey" player. I listened and decided that I didn't really like sliding too much unless it was for an exaggerated effect.
I use less of the gliss effect than some other players because I thought it took away from the right-hand articulation. I wanted to make the melodic lines more articulate. That was the goal. Now that I've gotten to the point where I can control that more, I'm bringing more of the sound of sliding into my playing and hopefully, I'll sound like I have control over that as well."
Visit Mike Neer's webpage: http://www.lapsteelin.com/.
And his jazz recording "Steelonius" is fabulous!
Excerpts from John Ely's "Hawaiian Steel Guitar Web"
"There are many types of bars that have been designed for steel guitar. Most are unusable! I recommend strongly that you purchase a quality 'bullet' shaped bar that is ¾ inch in diameter. The bullet end should be smoothly rounded and the bar should be long enough to cover all of the strings when you place the bar at the 12th fret. For a typical 6-string or 8-string steel guitar, a bar that is 2¾ or 2 7/8 inches long should work. You don't want a bar that is too long—for example, one that sticks out more than a half inch when you place it on the 12th fret. A bar that is too thick or too long will be difficult to maneuver properly."
"Tuning Mechanics: We call it 'tuning up' for a reason – always start with the string below your target pitch and slowly raise the string up to your desired pitch. If you start with the string higher than your target pitch and then tune down to your note, you're going to have problems. Because of the metal-on-metal construction of tuning gears there is inherent 'slack' in the system. If you tune downward instead of upward, the tuning gears could slip a little resulting in a flat note, and this could happen in the middle of a steel solo! Always tune upward to remove the slack in the tuning gears."
"Learning the steel guitar is a labor of love and, incidentally, a lifetime endeavor. Steel guitar is without a doubt one of the hardest instruments you can take up. But the rewards are great if you can stick to it. You'll have a rare gift that no one can take away from you, as Jerry Byrd used to say."
There is MUCH more at https://hawaiiansteel.com/learning/tuning_up.php.
‘Oi is heard in the expression Maui No Ka ‘Oi, meaning "Maui is the best." I think of "the best" as in "awesome" or "Da kine;" I called my instruments ‘Oi as a reflection of doing my best to make the best I can.
"No Ka ‘Oi" is an adjective preceded by a noun; "‘Oi No Ka ‘Oi" is a play on words, roughly meaning "the best of the best," also referring to the quality of the native mango that I use. I harvested a 150-year-old dying tree from my land on Maui's north shore two decades ago, and have used the wood for furniture, doors, cabinets and instruments, culling it out until I was left with the best of the curliest and most colorful grain which I'm using for this limited run of steels until it's all gone – with just a couple of dozen left. Even though this particular design is new, this project from tree to ears, including lots of acoustic Weissenborns, ukuleles, guitars, basses and monitors, will have taken 25 years from beginning to end of this run!Feature
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