The Steel Guitar

Joseph Kekuku, a native of Hawaii, was a student in a boarding school in Honolulu. He was walking along the road one day with his old Spanish guitar. Seeing a rusty bolt on the ground, he reached down to pick it up. The bolt accidentally hit one of the strings on his guitar. Joseph liked the sound it produced and he began experimenting with other metal objects. Little did he know at the time that he created the first steel guitar.

The steel guitar is played by placing it on the person’s lap. The music is generated by plucking the cords rather than strumming them like with a regular guitar. A steel bar is run over the neck of the guitar. The resulting sound was unlike anything ever heard before.

The popularity of the steel guitar was also a product of the colonization of Hawaii. A militia force of mostly American men overthrew the Queen of Hawaii. This led to a concentration of the riches of Hawaii into the hands of American business interests. There was an effort to ban much of the culture of Hawaii. Many of the artistic class of Hawaii fled their homeland. Joseph was one of them.

They were fearful of coming to America because they had heard stories about how Native Americans had been treated. In spite of this fear, they relocated to America along the west coast. Joseph became famous for his new sound.

When Joseph and other Hawaiian entertainers traveled to the Southern U.S., they experienced the same segregation policies as did African Americans. When Hawaiians stayed in boarding homes with African Americans, there became a melding of music genres. Jimmie Rodgers, who is considered the father of country music, played with Hawaiian steel guitarists.

The Hawaiian influence on country and blues is little recognized today. Some of the earliest blues singers played the guitar holding it on their laps. Later, the steel guitar would have its influence on Rock ‘n’ Roll. In effect, the steel guitar brought together in music what we are still working on in human relations.

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“If you have ever listened to a native Hawaiian play a guitar, producing those plaintive and yet beautifully melodious notes that seem to sing out from his instrument, you will readily understand what Joseph Kekuku will present to you in his solo guitar work.” – (from an advertisement for a concert)

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