Steel Guitars: from Hawaii to Hank Williams

When I think of country music, in my mind I can hear what sounds like to me the whiny steel guitar to accompany that accompanies it. What I did not know was the “whiny” steel guitar is not only a trademark to country music, but Hawaiian as well. The origin of the steel guitar begins in Hawaii in the early 1893.

The repertoire first performed by the steel guitar performed by the first generation of steel guitarists consisted of mele and was in the Hawaiian language. The songs often reflected the political turmoil taking place during that time in the state in the early 1900’s.1

Joseph Kekuku is credited with inventing the steel guitar, and spent the rest of his life perfecting it. The very origin of how he invented the steel guitar is contested, but according to his great niece he developed the sound by an accident. As she recalls, Kekuku was eleven years old when he was sitting on the front steps of his house. By accident, he leaned over and his metal tooth comb fell out of his pocket and onto the strings of his guitar, making a sound he would spend his life trying to recreate and perfect.2 Trademarks to the Hawaiian guitar are the ornamental sweeps such as: glissandos, dampening the strings to imitate glottal stops, sliding notes with the steel bar and many others were used to imitate ancient Hawaiian music.

Above is audio of how the steel guitar was used in Hawaiian music. While it is not performed by Kekuku, Sol Hoopii is another well known Hawaiian steel guitarist who made his living performing across the country.

The effects that the Hawaiian use of steel guitar in the music draws similar response to the “complaining songs” of country music that yearn for a better life. Bjorn Jonsen from Brooklyn wrote “I have never been to Hawaii but someday I will go. The playing makes one forgets the care’s worries of the day and makes one want to forget the humdrum existence of the city for the sandy white shores of beaches where the sun always shines.”3 Helen Ward from Ohio agrees saying “It is my favorite music. Especially when I am tired, nervous, overtaxed from worry. It is so resting, so comforting when I am all alone and blue.”4 No doubt, the expressiveness of the steel guitar is modeled in the listeners.

The steel guitar was brought to the United States by traveling troupes in the 1910’s. America’s reception to the steel guitar like other foreign musical cultures and instruments was exotic but not threatening. While the very start of the instrument’s implementation in country music and American culture is heavily debated, the pioneer of country music, Jimmie Rodgers is one of the first know musicians to use the instrument. The exotic sound of the guitar and the “whine” it made was a perfect backdrop for the complaining songs of country music. Below is an example of the steel guitar used in country music, in a song by Hank Williams.

In both videos the steel guitar is used as an accompaniment and “whine” and slide of the guitar is evident.

America’s reception to the foreign steel guitar was exotic like other foreign music but not dangerous. The dreaminess as told by reviews gave listeners a sense of comfort. The steel guitar unites the “whiteness” of country music and the “whine” in their music with the sounds of another culture that experiences the very same feelings linking together people of very different backgrounds and filling them with comfort and hope.

1 TROUTMAN, JOHN W. “NOTES.” In Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music, 235-320. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. pg 62.

2 STEEL GUITAR PLAYING INVENTED BY HAWAIIAN. 1927. New York Times (1923-Current file), Jan 23, 1927. (accessed September 23, 2019).

3 Bjorn Johnsen to the Oahu Serenaders, February 7, 1933, folder 2, box 83,

4 Helen B. Ward to the Oahu Serenaders, January 22, 1934, folder 7, box 83,

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