Steel Trappings

Steel Guitar Chronicles

Hawaiian Steel Guitar and the Tradition of Sacred Steel

May 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 tradition of Sacred Steel.

Since the 1930s the sounds of the steel guitar has been heard in an unlikely place, far removed from the Hawaiian Islands.

Sacred Steel is a musical style and African-American tradition that features the Hawaiian steel guitar as part of its religious services.

Musicians in the Pentecostal House of God Church use the steel guitar instead of the often-heard organ or piano to lead their lively, music-driven church services. The very human, voice like qualities of the lap steel guitar is perfectly suited to underscore a spirited sermon or lead an ecstatic choir in praise. Due to its fretless body, the lap steel can slide between notes the way the human voice can, and becomes another preacher or choir member singing the praises of the lord!

>Willie Claude Eason

It all started with Troman Eason when he started taking Hawaiian steel guitar lessons from Jack Kahanalopua, a local Hawaiian musician in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His younger brother Willie Eason borrowed the lap steel, and took it to church to mimic the singing voices he heard. In time, the lap steel took the place of the organ at church services. Willie's smoothly erratic single stringed slurs and driving gospel piano chords elevated the energy during worship!

Although the Eason Brothers popularized Sacred Steel and also made its earliest recordings, Willie Eason is credited for originating a whole new style of playing the Hawaiian lap steel guitar.

At the time, the House of God Church had two divisions, one called the Jewell Dominion headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and the other called the Keith Dominion headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The steel guitar style played in the Jewell Dominion church is a boogie-woogie, bebop groove, with delta blues on top. Keith Dominion playing is described as hard-driving rock and roll.

A rival has developed over the years and the two styles are played exclusively in their respective church. You cannot play Jewell Dominion style steel guitar in a Keith Dominion church service.

Today Sacred Steel has grown and flourished within the Keith and Jewell Dominion churches in at least 22 States.

Darrick Campbell and The Campbell Brothers

Darick Campbell is the lap steel player for the gospel band the Campbell Brothers. They have taken the Sacred Steel genre from the Pentecostal churches to international fame. Darick plays the lap steel guitar plugged into a wah wah pedal, an electronic device popularized by rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix. Darick's older brother Chuck plays the pedal steel guitar, which uses knee and foot levers to change its pitch. Both brothers use their steel guitars to set the Gospel music on fire!

Perhaps the most widely-known practitioner is Robert Randolph of the Family Band. Robert is the son of a minister and took up the pedal steel guitar at age 17. He is one of the most original and talented practitioners of Sacred Steel. The Family Band has crossed over to performing secular music and Robert has played with Eric Clapton and others. The Family Band has also recorded many Grammy nominated albums.

Randolph Family Band and Aubrey Ghent

Willie Eason's nephew Aubrey Ghent has also become a celebrated Sacred Steel guitarist. He is credited for preserving the original Sacred Steel tradition, playing a lap steel and bringing its pure and plaintive style to a wider audience.

To hear and experience sacred steel guitar you must attend a church service. If you cannot attend in person, listen to Arhoolie Record's compilation "Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Music in Florida". It is an in-church live recording that takes you there!

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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