Steel Trappings

Steel Guitar Chronicles

Joseph Kekuku

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

Ed. Note: This is the first installment of a new series called "Steel Guitar Chronicles". This series will include content that accompanies another one of Geri's radio show features.

"HAWAIIAN STEEL" is a weekly radio program that spotlights the Hawaiian steel guitar masters from the past to the present. "The Steel Guitar Chronicles" is a monthly feature of the show that tells the stories, history, and origin of Kika Kila.

This month we look at the life and musical journey of Joseph Kekuku, the originator of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar.

Joseph Kekuku Apuakehau was born in 1874 at La‘ie, Oahu. As a boy he experimented with guitar technique, sliding hard objects across the strings of the slack key tuned guitar to see what sounds he could produce. By the time he was an adult, he had developed an original style of playing the guitar called Kika Kila, the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. He gave concerts throughout Hawai‘i and taught this new style of playing to many others.

In 1904 at the age of 30, Joseph left Hawai‘i and never returned home. He lived and traveled throughout America and Europe, bringing Hawaiian music and Kika Kila with him.

Joseph Kekuku

The newspapers of the day described him as "The world's greatest guitar soloist." Audiences had never seen or heard the guitar played flat and laid on the lap. With a sliding steel bar held in his hand, Kekuku turned the guitar into a solo instrument. Joseph performed Hawaiian mele as well as the popular tunes of the day, and audiences were astounded!

Initially, Joseph worked his way up and down the West Coast of America playing Hawaiian music. He played with Toots Paka's Hawaiians, and with his own group, Kekuku's Hawaiian Quintet. Later, they played on stages linked to the vaudeville theatre circuits that traversed the country, as well as World's Fairs and Trade Expositions.

Kekuku's Hawaiian Quintet

Joseph played the steel guitar on some of the earliest Edison recordings made on wax cylinder and 78rpm shellac discs. And in addition to being an in-demand performer, he also made a living teaching the Hawaiian steel guitar.

In 1909 Joseph toured throughout Europe performing in the stage production of the "Bird of Paradise" play. He popularized Hawaiian music and the steel guitar, and opened the doors for Hawaiian musicians soon to follow. He later settled down in London, England, playing music at the famous Savoy Hotel.

After eight years in Europe, Joseph returned to America. He married and moved to Chicago in 1926, where he became a highly successful teacher of the steel guitar. Eventually the couple relocated to Dover, New Jersey. From here, Joseph caught the train into New York City to teach and play the Hawaiian steel.

On January 16, 1932, at the age of 58, Joseph Kekuku, the Originator of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar, died. He is buried in the Orchard Street Cemetery at Dover, New Jersey.

In 1993 Joseph Kekuku was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame with full honors, as the inventor of the Hawaiian Steel guitar. This instrument later birthed the dobro resophonic guitar, the blues slide guitar, the electric steel guitar console, and the pedal steel guitar!

Country Music, Bluegrass, Western swing, Old-time Americana, Gospel Sacred Steel, Hindustani Slide, and the haunting bottleneck blues all share roots with Joseph Kekuku.

Today you can meet Joseph Kekuku by visiting a life-sized bronze sculpture of him located at the Polynesian Cultural Center at La‘ie, O‘ahu. He is sitting down playing an acoustic Hawaiian Steel guitar on his lap.

And that ends the "Steel Guitar Chronicles" for this month, with more stories, history, and the origin of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar to come! Ka ua e ho‘okani ka kika kila!

"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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