Steel Trappings

Steel Guitar Chronicles

Hawaiian Steel Guitar and the Blues

January 1, 2024 • 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. "The Steel Guitar Chronicles" is a monthly feature of the show that tells the stories, history, and origin of Kīkā Kila.

This month we look at the story of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar and the Blues.

Did you know that music historians today have traced the roots of the blues slide guitar back to the Hawaiian Islands? Slide guitar is not an African tradition based on the diddley bow. Instead, blues musicians learned the slide guitar technique by listening to Hawaiian music on the radio and records, and by watching Hawaiian musicians play.

By the 1890s the Hawaiians had developed a unique style of playing the slack key opened tuned guitar called Kika Kila. It was laid flat on the lap, while sliding a steel bar over the strings.

By the 1920s Hawaiian musicians brought Hawaiian music and Kika Kila across the U.S. Continent and over the sea to Europe. Its popularity became worldwide!

July Paka, Walter Kolumoku, Joseph Kekuku

Early 78 rpm recordings of steel guitarists Iolai (July) Kealoha Paka, Pali K. Lua, Walter Kolomoku, Joseph Kekuku, Frank Ferera, and others were in high demand. Hawaiian musicians played in World Fairs, Exhibitions, Vaudeville, Broadway, the Orpheum Circuit, theatres, hotels, and tent shows all across the country. From the West Coast to the Mid-West, the East Coast to the deep South, audiences were drawn to the sound of the Hawaiian steel guitar.

In time, Kika Kila worked its way into Country Music, replacing the fiddle as the lead melodic instrument. The country musicians called this new style "Steel Guitar." Kika Kila also worked its ways into the Blues and its musicians called it "Slide Guitar."

W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues" writes in his memoirs that in 1903 he was waiting for a train at Tutwiler, Mississippi. There he observed that "…a lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar besides me as I slept. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who use steel bars. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I have ever heard." The music was "weird" because at the time, it was new.

The first blues guitarist to record in a Hawaiian derived style was Kentucky bluesman Sylvester Weaver. In 1923 he recorded Steel Guitar Rag. Weaver played the slide guitar laid flat on his lap, in the Hawaiian style. Some of the other bluesmen who played lap-style include Blind Lemon Jefferson who recorded "Jack O Diamond Blues" in 1926, Bukka White, Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, Black Ace, Casey Bill Weldon "The Hawaiian Guitar Wizard" and Freddie Roulette.

Frank Ferera, Sylvester Weaver, Casey Bill Weldon

However, most blues guitarists never favored the Hawaiian style of resting the guitar on the lap. They preferred to play the slack key tuned guitar in the standard upright position. In addition, blues guitarists fitted metal tubes or bottlenecks onto their finger instead of holding a metal bar onto the strings.

The sound was not too different than that produced by Hawaiian guitarists. However, it was less tied to melody than to background accompaniment, and it was raunchier. In addition, the blues sound is based on the use of the pentatonic scale, and flatted 7th notes.

By the 1930's the influence of the Hawaiian guitarists had changed the sound of the blues. Pioneering slide guitarist include Francis Scrapper Blackwell who played with Leroy Carr, Elmore James who recorded "Hawaiian Boogie," Tampa Red, Son House, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.

Some blues guitarists were unsuccessful at playing Kika Kila so they adopted it to their own blues sound. B.B. King's signature guitar lick is an over exaggerated finger vibrato or "trill." He explained that he developed this technique to imitate the sound of the Hawaiian steel guitar. King stated, "To me a steel guitar is one of the sweetest sounds this side of heaven. I still like it, and that was one of the things that I tried to do so much, was to imitate…that sound!"

Today the sound of the slide guitar is synonymous with the rural bluesman of the Mississippi Delta and the urban bluesman in Chicago. However, most Blues fans are unaware of the origins and rich history of the slide guitar and its connection to Kika Kila.

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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