Steel Trappings

On the Playlist

On the Playlist: Billy Hew Len

April 1, 2023 • Geronimo "Geri" ValdrizSteel Guitar History

"HAWAIIAN STEEL" is a weekly radio program that spotlights the Hawaiian steel guitar masters from the past to the present. "ON THE PLAYLIST" features the musicians heard on the program's playlist. This month we feature steel guitarist Billy Hew Len!

Billy Hew Len possesses an inspirational background filled with courage and triumph. He overcame the tremendous handicap of losing his left hand at age 17 in an industrial accident. By the use of a leather glove with an attached steel bar, Billy was able to play the steel guitar again. Through sheer love and dedication, he developed into one of the most renowned steel guitar players in the Hawaiian Islands, much sought after for recordings and live performances.

Billy Hew Len was born in Honolulu on January 18, 1921. As a youngster he taught himself to play the steel guitar, but had to relearn his playing technique after the loss of his left hand. His unique style, warm Hawaiian tone and "on the edge" playing set him apart from others.

Billy Hew Len

He started his professional career playing with John K. Almeida at U.S.O. shows entertaining troops during World War II. In 1944 he joined Pua Almeida at the Club Pago Pago. A series of changing nightclubs, hotels, and luau shows followed throughout his long career. He played in Waikiki and Honolulu with all of the major Hawaiian artists of his time.

They include The Waikiki Sands Gibson Bar; the Niumalu Hotel with Freckles Lyons; as the band leader at the Niumalu Hotel for eight years; the Waikiki Queen's Surf, the Kahala Hilton Hotel with Chick Floyd; with Haunani Kahalewai at the Hawaiian Village; band leader at the Moana Hotel for fourteen years; with the Hawaii Calls radio show; the Blue Dolphin Room at the Outrigger Hotel, and the Chuck Machado's Luau.

Billy recorded with all of the major Hawaiian artists. They include John K. Almeida, Genoa Keawe, Pua Almeida, Lena Machado, Jesse Kalima, Irmgard Aluli, Jack de Mello, Eddie Kekaula, Joe Keawe, Chuck Machado's luau album, Barney Isaacs, Elaine Ako Spencer, Freckles Lyons, Kealoha Kalama, and others.

In the 1960s Billy recorded with Benny Saks, pianist and vibraphonist on the Makaha Records and Sounds of Hawaii labels. Saks arranged and produced recordings for vocalist such as Myrtle K. Hilo, Marlene Sai, Kai Davis, Bill Kaiwa, Haunani Kahalewai, Billy Gonsalves, and Leinaala Haili. Billy played either the lap steel or the pedal steel guitar on these sessions, depending on the artists' needs!

Billy Hew Len is revered by steel guitarists the world over. His spirit and musical excellence overcame his physical disability. He is described as Hawaii's most exciting steel guitarist! Totally unpredictable with his "off the cuff" jazz style of playing while retaining the Hawaiian feel and identity. He is most known for playing the A6 tuning on a pre-war Rickenbacher A25 frying pan steel guitar.

On November 23, 1987 Billy Hew Len died at age 66 years. His grandson steel guitarist Casey Olsen carries on his musical legacy of Kika Kila!

Today fans seek out the recordings of Billy Hew Len. He continues to inspire steel guitarist seeking to emulate his soulful Hawaiian style. His music is now available on CD and online to a new generation of fans who can appreciate this innovative and unique Hawaiian musician!

On the Playlist of Hawaiian Steel: Eddie Bush

Song CD Album / Artist Publisher
Holau Hawaiian Song Bird / Lena Machado with Benny Saks Cord International-Hana Ola Records
I Lanikai Legends of Hawaiian Steel Guitar / Various Artists Cord International-Hana Ola Records
‘Uluwehi O Ka‘ala Mele Hali‘a Aloha / Elaine Ako Spencer Poki Records
Hula Blues Treasury of Hawaiian Steel Guitar / Various Artists Cumquat
Noho Paipai Tropical Heatwave / Freckles Lyons and the Waikiki Beachboys Cumquat
Hana Paradise Encircling Love / Kealoha Kalama Kalama Productions

"Hawaiian Steel" with Geri Valdriz is broadcast live every Tuesday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm (HST) on Mana‘o Radio, Wailuku, Maui, Hawai‘i, KMNO, 91.7FM on the radio dial.

You can catch it on the air, or streaming live at Listeners can also access our online archives to enjoy previously recorded programs at your convenience. Just search "Listen on Demand" for past shows.


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