By: Mike Hayes
In 1865 a number of Portuguese arrived to work the mighty Pioneer Sugar Plantations and through them, the island musicians were exposed to the first "non-classical" guitar styles - some 50 - 60 years before it moved into the limelight of American popular music.
The guitar quickly became part of island life and because European music or technical approaches offered little that suited the Polynesian's expressive needs, they literally re-invented both the instrument and it's music, to bring forth a style know as "Ki ho alu", or "slack key guitar".
The name was used by the Hawaiians to describe the method of tuning - several strings were loosened or slackened down to spell out the sound of a basic triad, usually major. Many tunings exist, but the original and still the most common, is called - "taro patch" tuning …..
1 2 3 4 5 6 D B G D G D
Tunings were originally developed and kept within the family, then handed down to succeeding generations as a family secret. Nowadays, tunings continue to be developed, but the veil of secrecy is gone and ideas are willingly shared by all good players.
Since 1960 there has been a tremendous upsurge of interest among young Hawaiians in the traditional slack key methods and a great deal of wonderful music can be found within the recorded works of Gabby Pahanui, Atta Isaacs, The Breamer Brothers, Raymond Kane and other masters of the style. Their music is tightly locked into the modern Polynesian psyche as Flamenco is interlaced with the Spanish, and Jazz with the Afro-American way of life.
Slack Key and its "Taro Patch" tuning were taken one step further when an eleven year old Hawaiian schoolboy, Joseph Kekuku, as early as 1885, placed the guitar flat on his lap and using a comb discovered the sweet sounds of the slide guitar.
He progressed from this comb a railway bolt, a knife or tumbler, and finally to a steel bar which he designed and made in the school workshop. To increase the volume he designed metal fingerand thumb picks shaped to fit his right hand. When after some experimentation, Kekuku realized that this new style of playing was more than a novelty, he became determined to tap its potential and master whatever his findings brought to life.
He worked hard and while still at school, gave professional concerts in Honolulu. Many classmates learnt from Joseph and took his method of playing bavk to their homes throughout the islands, and from there it spread throughout the world.
In 1904 Joseph Kekuku moved to the American mainland and begun a full-time playing and teaching career. His ability to communicate with audiences opened the doors for the international acceptance of Hawaiian and steel guitar music.
Between 1919 and 1927 he toured Europe and ‘played before the Kings and Queens of many countries' - he set up effective teaching practices in Chicago and Boston and finally died in 1932. He was considered to be "a great teacher of the steel guitar and the possessor of the sweetest-toned guitar in the world."
Thanks to Joseph Kekuku and the early Hawaiian steel-men, the instrument and its associated musical forms soon established an identity of their own. But, Joseph's very effectiveness in focussing attention onto his steel-type playing detracted from its original source - Slack Key. This form remained virtually unknown to the ‘non-Hawaiian' music world until the 1950's.
The very year that Kekuku died saw the birth of the electric guitar - the first Rickenbacker Frypans became available in 1932 and a new era began. The steel guitar was more suited to electrification than its "Spanish" counterpart - a large magnet could be placed above and below the strings without impeding the player's right hand movement; and since this breakthrough was solely associated with the Hawaiian players, their music spread to even wider fields.
Thousands of recordings were made and magnificent players such as Sol Hoopii, Dick McIntire, Andy Iona, Danny steward and Bobby Nicholls were much sought after. These men, plus a few others, created music of great beauty that is now virtually non-existent. If an opportunity to hear the music of these now-forgotten pre-war Hawaiian artists arises - grab it!
The development of the Hawaiian guitar through these early electric years is a complicated story as leading players tried and tested new tunings and technical approaches.
Today, the pure Hawaiian style is best preserved in the playing of Jerry Byrd - an American guitarist living in Honolulu. Electrification itself made the steel guitar a force to be reckoned with in Country music and it's sound became an essential ingredient in the style known as Western-swing. Leon McAuliffe, guitarist with Bob Wills Texas Playboys, McAuliffe the first great player in this area.
Today, steel guitars come equipped with two necks of ten strings, usually tuned to E9th and C6th, plus pedals and knee levers to raise or lower each string - a formidable instrument indeed. Few men can claim to have mastered its complicated mechanisms, but those that have are giants of the first order.
To hear pedal steel guitar at its best, listen to Buddy Emmons or Curly Chalker (both have one foot in the world of Jazz and the other in Western Swing). For the best of Country style, catch Lloyd Green and Australia's own Kenny Kitching.