The steel guitar is one of the iconic sounds of Hawaiian music. And yet . . . depending on whether you see the proverbial glass half full or half empty, there are many many sources of information out there . . . while at the same time there are precious few sources that guide newbies through that jungle. So consider this set of resources as starting points for appreciating the steel guitar in Hawaiian music, for introducing yourself to major players throughout the 20th century, and for exploring some websites that will provide many many more links and directions to explore. And know that there are legions of players and fans out there eager to chat up their favorite players and recordings.
1. Book on Steel Guitar
There is, at this writing (2011), only one book devoted entirely to Hawaiian steel guitar. Luckily it is the work of a longtime student of steel guitar, Lorene Ruymar, who worked with the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association to gather together a variety of source materials in one place on the history of the instrument and its prominent players. Lorene Ruymar, The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and its Great Hawaiian Musicians (Centerstream Publishing, 1996).
2. Anthology Recordings
My recommendations always begin with the multi-artist compilations, because this is a really efficient way to get a sense of the range of styles and artistry. Over the past two decades, many vintage recordings have been reissued on CD. Yes, the CD is almost a dinosaur. But many compilations are still available online as either physical discs or mp3 downloads. One major advantage with the physical discs is the detailed liner notes included in the packaging, which are worth their weight in gold. So here are my recommendations for starting points:
HanaOla Records released two anthologies: History of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar (HanaOla HOCD-34000, p1999) and Legends of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar (HanaOla HOCD-79000, p2006). Both discs offer a historical sweep of guitarists over the 20th century. The History volume covers up through the 1950, while the Legends volume includes selections by artists both historical and contemporary. The historical notes by radio personality Harry B. Soria, Jr. in the History volume offer carefully researched details, and are supplemented by technical notes contributed by acclaimed teacher Alan Akaka. The Legends volume, produced by internet radio personality Aloha Joe, offers a similar span of performers, with some notes on each track, but overall the intent is more to expose listeners to the range of sound.
Lest anyone think that steel guitar is a historical relic in Hawaiian music, the series of anthologies produced by Greg Sardinha on the Smaʻ Kine label offers listeners a sampling of the current generation of steel guitarists active in Hawaiian music. Made in Hawaii–The Hawaiian Steel Guitar (Sma Kine SK-1210, p1996) is the initial compilation, and the 2010 release of Hawaiian Steel VI is the latest in the series to date. Greg Sardinha, Alan Akaka, Casey Olsen and Bobby Ingano are featured prominently throughout the series. Minimal liner notes focus on performer profiles.
Hawaiian Music: Honolulu, Hollywood, Nashville, 1927-1944 (Fremeaux FA-035, p1995). The path traced by this volumeʻs subtitle–Honolulu, Hollywood, Nashville–follows the steel guitarʻs expanding popularity beyond Hawaiiʻs shores. The group of musicians active in Hollywood filmmaking in the 1930s include Andy Iona, Sol Ho‘poi‘i and Sam Koki. Nashville marks the steel guitarʻs crossover into what eventually came to be known as “country & western” music. The liner notes are detailed and informative.
This CD, Steeling Round the World (Harlequin HQ CD-182, p2003) features the work of steel guitarists active outside Hawai‘i playing the steel guitar in Hawaiian music, with a heavy concentration on the pre-1960 period and European-based performers. Produced by John Marsden, the England-based historian of Hawaiian music, whose deep familiarity with the history of Hawaiian music across two oceans informs the extensive liner notes.
This collection was a totally random find on Amazon.com last year. It is a four-disc collection that offers “the history of the steel guitar, from its Hawaiian origins via its role in values and Western swing to its prominent position in country music.” Only the first of the four discs is devoted to Hawaiian music, and focuses, moreover, on pre-World War II recordings of performers like Sol Ho‘pi‘i, Sam Kū West, Jim & Bob the Genial Hawaiians, Tau Moe, and Roy Smeck. A historical essay fills 42 of the enclosed bookletʻs 54 pages; the balance contains complete discographic information on the tracks selected for inclusion.
3. Instructional Materials
The overuse of the steel guitar in the 1950s and 1960s, especially its almost cartoonish use in the flood of heavily orchestrated “easy listening” records that flooded the market in the decade immediately following Hawai‘iʻs statehood in 1959, contributed to its declining popularity in Hawai‘i. In the 1970s cultural resurgence, it was the rootsier sound of kī hō‘alu slack key guitar technique that came to the forefront. Slack key got a major boost with George Winstonʻs Dancing Cat label, whose extensive marketing included touring its roster of artists across the continental United States, securing such enthusiasm for slack key that it dominated five of the seven years of the brief and turbulent lifespan of the Best Hawaiian Album category in the GRAMMY Awards.
All of this is by way of saying that the low quantity of instructional materials for steel guitar is in stark contrast to the active marketplace for instructional resources for slack key guitar. This is also in contrast to a steady stream of instruction materials published in the 1920s and 1930s on the continental U.S., in response to the national fads for Hawaiian music following the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That body of material and those streams of performance are another story for another time.
a. Printed Books
Henry Kaleialoha Allen, How to Play The Hawaiian Steel Guitar (Honolulu, Mutual Publishing, 2008). A beginnerʻs book that is heavy on music theory rudiments, but provides the reader with all of the information needed to read the song scores. The book is richly illustrated with numerous photographs of the author. An accompanying CD, cleverly tucked into the bookʻs cover, guides the student / reader through all of the bookʻs exercises and scores.
Stacy Phillips, The Art of The Hawaiian Steel Guitar (Mel Bay Publications, 1991) and The Art of The Hawaiian Steel Guitar Volume 2 (Mel Bay Publications, 2005). These two volumes contain some introductory background on the history of Hawaiian music, and of Hawaiian steel guitar. Instruction is primarily embedded within the selection of songs, each of which highlights particular techniques and/or effects. Many of the songs include reference to recorded performances. An accompanying CD in each of the two volumes guides the student / reader through the booksʻ exercises.
4. Some Websites for Your Exploring Pleasure
Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association — “a worldwide organization promoting traditional Hawaiian music and the signature sound of Hawaiian steel guitar.” The organization convenes annual conventions in Joliet, Illinois, and a biennial convention in Honolulu.
The Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame — a non-profit organization that promotes steel guitar (pedal and non-pedal) by preserving the integrity of the instrument and its players for future generations. A list of inductees is posted at this site, along with a photograph of the plaques posted in the breezeway of a downtown St. Louis, Missouri hotel.
Pedal Steel Guitar Association — Billing itself as the “First Steel Guitar Association” formed in 1973, this organization focuses on the instrument across many different repertoires and musical traditions.
“Hawaiian Steel Guitar” at TaroPatch.Net — an active online discussion forum for musicians and fans devoted to Hawaiian music.
Hawaiian Music Institute and Rainbow Records — Steel guitarist Henry Kaleialoha Allenʻs website, from which the annual Henry Kaleialoha Allen Steel Guitar Festival on Maui is promoted.
5. More Remarks on Recordings
Coming soon. Of course there is more to be said about more recordings to be recommended for your listening pleasure. Stay tuned!
© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All Rights Reserved.