Steel Trappings

Steel Guitar PLAY It Forward

Steel Guitar PLAY It Forward

March 21, 2023 • Addison ChingNews

A previous article "Makana for Makamae" described the generosity of luthier/steel guitarist Chuck Moore donating an unused instrument to a deserving keiki steel guitarist.

Several Ke Kula Mele NextGen steel guitarists have received gifted instruments to help them advance to the next level of playing or to simply provide them with a quality instrument to use. In addition to Chuck Moore's gifted Gibson EH-100 instrument to Makamae Lyu-Napoleon, these NextGen steel guitarists have received gifted instruments from veteran steel guitarists and other sources:

  • Mālie Lyman - Asher Electro-Hawaiian Jr. from Asher Guitars and Lap Steels
  • Joey Misailidis - Bronson Melody King 52 from Dr. Kris Oka
  • Ethan Goore - Fender Stringmaster Tripleneck from Don Keene
  • Mandy Gokan - Rickenbacher steel guitar from Chuck Moore
  • Ho'ailona Mahuka - Supro steel guitar from Vernon Chong, Jr.
  • Enosa Lyman - Jack Hollenberg (JH) 7-string steel guitar from Bobby Ingano
  • Isabella Bertelmann - Sho-Bud Jerry Byrd 8-string Frypan from Vernon Chong, Jr.
  • Makamae Lyu-Napoleon - Sho-Bud Jerry Byrd 8-string Frypan from Vernon Chong, Jr.
  • Reign Lyu - Gibson EH-100 from Makamae Lyu-Napoleon (the original gift from Chuck Moore)

Youth steel guitarists are not the only recipients of steel guitars paid forward. Steel guitarist Joseph Zayac received a Fender Stringmaster tripleneck gifted by Roger Fletcher from England.

As shown, some steel guitarists have more instruments in their collection than they can play, and some have decided to share their instruments with the next generation of steel guitarists to motivate and encourage these talented youth to continue playing and advancing their steel guitar studies. One such person is Vernon Chong, Jr.

Vernon Chong Jr., a real estate broker from Waikele, recently gifted three steel guitars to Ke Kula Mele.

"I have always loved the sound of the steel ever since I was a kid," says Vernon. "My uncles had a restaurant on Waikīkī beach near where the police substation is now and I remember soaking up the Hula entertainment and Hawaiian music 'floor shows'.

"I kinda forgot about the steel for a while but loved listening to Jerry and Alan's performances while on an island hopping Na Pila Hawaii tour with Alan [Akaka] and Jerry Byrd back in the 70's.

"But, the Hawaiian music 'renaissance' had started so I was playing ki hoalu at the time trying to learn Raymond Kane's style and helping Aunty Alice Namakelua teach slack key at the Waiahole Poi Factory (with my friends Nelson and Cheryl)."

Vernon continues, "After many decades, (around the year 2000) I asked Jerry if he would give me lessons. He was already winding down his teaching career but I persisted and he finally gave in and I was able to take lessons for a few years.

"I've never performed on the instrument in public since I have an inferiority complex about my touch and tone. Jerry always bemoaned the fact that I was already a guitar player prior to learning the steel guitar. He used to always correct me because I always played with too much vibrato. (I also played classical double bass so I had a hard time being delicate with my touch on the steel.)

"I have been credited for about 30 seconds of steel on a Hawaiian Air commercial but that's about the extent of my 'performances'."

Asked why he decided to donate his instruments, Vernon replied, "I have donated other instruments/things as part of my personal effort to help others in their pursuit of music/personal happiness."

"I previously donated a triple neck Rickenbacker console to Alan for one of his other aspiring students. Last year I donated a cello to the Moanalua Middle School Orchestra program. I never aspired to be a collector of steel guitars but for some reason, they all became available and I acquired them knowing that someday I'd pass them on so they could be played and not sit in a collection."

He continues, "On a personal note: like other local ‘ohana, my sisters and I were taught to respect and be helpful to others. Our parents have both passed but we still remember and appreciate them (as well as all others who have made a difference in our lives) and we continue to emulate their values and contribute so that others may have the same opportunity to succeed and be happy in life."

In his spare time Vernon spends time pursuing his varied interests. He is now simply trying to improve his piano and music reading skills. He plays golf and tennis on a weekly basis.

Makamae Lyu-Napoleon with Fry Pan
Makamae Lyu-Napoleon with her PLAY it Forward Sho-Bud Fry Pan from Vernon Chong, Jr.
PC-Alan Akaka
Isabella Bertelmann with Fry Pan
Isabella Bertelmann with her PLAY it Forward
Sho-Bud Fry Pan from Vernon Chong, Jr.
PC-Alan Akaka

When Alan Akaka shared pictures of Makamae and Isabella proudly displaying their newly-gifted instruments, Vernon replied, "It's a wonderful thing to encourage young folks to pursue their interests and hopefully they will be masters of the steel guitar like Jerry, you and all the other accomplished players I admire."

Many steel guitarists developed what steel guitarist Derrick Mau describes as the "Steel Guitarist Disease"—the desire to accumulate various steel guitar models of all manufactures, body styles, string arrangements, etc. Many of these are used once or twice then end up stored in their cases.

Paying these instruments forward would benefit other steel guitarists, especially young players just starting out in their steel guitar journey, by:

  • Giving them quality and well-seasoned instruments to help them develop their ability and style;
  • Providing motivation for their playing knowing that the instrument was once played by a seasoned steel guitar player; and
  • Helping them develop a sense of pride and ownership of a quality instrument.

Vernon mentions what another aspect of gifting might mean to a young Hawaiian. In response to a thank-you letter he received from the mother of a recipient of one of his steel guitars, he wrote, "Just think of all the wonderful names in the Hawaiian Steel guitar tradition…just to name a few of the old guys…Joseph Kekuku, Andy Iona, Sol Hoopii, Benny Rogers, David Feet Rogers, Billy Hew Len…isn't it thrilling to know that your daughter is going into that wonderful lineage? Great job Mom!!"

Please consider joining the "Steel Guitar PLAY It Forward" movement by donating your unused equipment to your favorite steel guitar instructor or school or contact an organization that supports the Hawaiian Steel Guitar for additional information. If you PLAY It Forward via a non-profit organization such as the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association (HSGA), the Aloha International Steel Guitar Club (AISGC), or Hawaii Institute for Music Enrichment and Learning Experiences (HIMELE), inquire about any tax advantages that may apply.


An Anecdote about Jerry Byrd

Vernon used to take Jerry out once a week for lunch when he stopped giving lessons due to his failing health.

Vernon recalls, "I'd pick him up and take him to get his mail at the post office in Waikiki. Then we'd go to the bank before going to lunch. His favorite place at the time was KC drive in. He also liked to go to the little farmer's market near Harry's and he'd buy bananas. He'd always take time looking and browsing through the tomatoes and corn but never bought any. He used to reminisce about his young days in Ohio where he had fond memories of eating freshly picked ripe tomatoes, freshly picked corn and homemade bread with homemade butter. He also related how he grew up dreaming of Hawaii after seeing movies that featured Hawaiian music vignettes.

"Apparently his father did not approve of his love of music and so he would practice in his closet (in the dark) so his dad wouldn't see or hear him. As you know, he simply loved Hawaii, the people and the music. He always complemented local musicians and had a special soft spot in his heart for the talent that he felt was special to Hawaiians.

"Among all the other local musicians he admired, he always spoke especially highly of Hiram Olsen. He said Hiram had such great natural talent that it didn't matter if he was playing guitar or operating heavy equipment, his "touch" was always impeccable. On occasion, he'd talk about all the stars he worked with in the CW music recording business but other than Marty Robbins, he never really talked up anybody else. You'd never know he was that famous in that arena…he'd prefer to tell me funny stories about the jam sessions at the Musician's Union…he had funny anecdotes about who played, how they played, what they could or could not play…'he couldn't play in a minor key to save his life'…that sort of thing but it was never disrespectful…"


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