Steel Trappings

Steel Guitar Chronicles

Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Country Music

March 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 Country music.

Did you know that music historians have traced the roots of the modern pedal steel guitar back to the Hawaiian Islands?

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

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

In America, Kīkā Kila worked its way into Country Music, replacing the fiddle as the lead melodic instrument. The country musicians called this new style "Steel Guitar."

Frank Hutchinson, Bashful Brother Oswald, and Bob Dunn

In 1926 Frank Hutchison, a white musician from West Virginia recorded the first acoustic steel guitar in country music on a song called "Worried Blues" on Okeh Records.

The early pioneering Country acoustic steel guitarists includes Jimmy Tarlton, Cliff Carlisle, Joseph Kaipo who played with Jimmie Rodgers, Bashful Brother Oswald with Roy Acuff, and Bob Dunn with Milton Brown's Musical Brownies.

In 1932 the lap steel guitar was electrified by the Rickenbacker Company to make it louder to a growing listening audience. And aside from Hawaiian music, the electric lap steel guitar was played in Country music, and Western Swing.

Players soon demanded electric steel guitars with multiple tunings. So Fender, Gibson and Bigsby created the multi-necked steel guitar called a "console." This allowed players to stand up while playing and they could jump from one tuning to another with a flick of a switch. Consoles came in double, triple and even four-necked steel guitar models!

Don Helms, Leon McAuliffe, and Noel Boggs

The early electric console steel guitar players include Don Helms with Hank Williams; Jerry Byrd with Ernest Tubb; Leon McCauliffe with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Noel Boggs with Spade Cooley, and Little Roy Wiggins with Eddy Arnold.

Many music fans consider this the "Golden Era" of Country Music with the steel guitar's wide vibrato tone and a lonesome heartfelt twang.

By the 1950s, pedals and knee levers were added to the console steel guitar to change the pitch of certain strings, making more complex chords available on the same neck.

This invention revolutionized how the instrument was played, making it a "new" instrument known as the pedal steel guitar. Its sound is described as being jangly, trebley and slick! Add tons of reverb and you have the Nashville sound!

Soon after, a majority of the country musicians switched over from playing the lap steel and the console steel guitar to playing the pedal steel guitar. The early pioneering Country pedal steel guitarists include Bud Isaacs, Jimmy Day, Curley Chalker, Lloyd Green and Buddy Emmons.

Bud Isaacs, Leon McAuliffe, and Buddy Emmons

Today the pedal steel guitar is synonymous with Nashville Country Music, together with cowboy hats, blue jeans, and large silver belt buckles.

Kīkā Kila, the original style of playing the lap steel is unfortunately referred to as the "non-pedal" steel guitar. Country music fans are unaware of the origins and rich history of the steel guitar and its birthplace and development in Hawai‘i.

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 kīkā 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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