History of The Hawaiian Steel Guitar
The original was a wooden Spanish guitar with strings raised over the fretboard and played with a steel bar—according to a history of the instrument by The Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association.
A Hawaiian named Joseph Kekuku is credited with originating the Hawaiian steel guitar in the late 1880s. It gained worldwide exposure at the 1914-15 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco and by the 1920s, Hawaiian steel guitar music was wildly popular across the country.
The first commercially available electric steel guitar came out in the 1930s. The pedal steel guitar was developed in the 1940s and other physical developments included additional strings, multiple necks, and stands with legs.
Throughout the first decades of the 20th century, Hawaiian steel guitar players were in great demand. But, by the 1960s, the art and technique of playing Hawaiian steel almost died out. During the following years some dedicated individuals did carry on and share their skill and knowledge of Hawaiian steel guitar.
Today, the distinct sounds of the instrument can be heard in jazz, country, bluegrass, western, blues, folk, rock and many other music forms. And in the Islands, the beauty and art of Hawaii's original instrument is being perpetuated by the teachers and players of Hawaiian steel.
The grand niece of Joseph Kekuku gave this speech at the 2009 ceremony held in Honolulu to honor the Hawaiian steel guitar.
"Aloha Kakou! My name is Ka'iwa Meyer and I am proud to say that I am the grand niece of Joseph Kekuku. I know that my grand uncle would be deeply touched and humbled by this recognition of his invention of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. I am humbled and grateful to you for honoring and recognizing a very special Hawaiian man who loved his home, families, friends, his Hawaiian music and who invented the Hawaiian steel guitar.
"Joseph Kekuku was born on Dec. 29, 1875 and grew up in La'ie, O'ahu. He loved to sing and play the guitar in the Hawaiian way.
"His parents were: Joseph Kekuku'upenakana'iapuniokamehameha Apuakehau, the konohiki of Koolauloa and Koolaupoko and his mother was Miriam Kaopua from Kohala. He was the oldest of six children. He had four sisters; Estelle, Harriett, Ivy, and Violet (my grandmother); and a brother; Edwin.
"I remember the story I heard during my childhood about how my uncle had a comb in his shirt pocket and how it fell onto the strings of the guitar he was playing. He was so excited about the sounds it made. This occurred in 1886 when Joseph was 11 years old. It took him seven years to master the new sounds because there were no teachers and no books to study this new technique which he had discovered.
"In 1889, he attended and boarded at Kamehameha Schools and during his machine shop class at school he designed a steel bar to play the steel guitar.
"Joseph taught the steel guitar to his families and friends and it was the instrument of choice at home and abroad. It was played all over the world. In 1904, he moved to the mainland and played at every theater from coast to coast. In 1919, he moved to Europe, where he lived for eight years playing before kings and queens of many countries. He returned to the U.S. in 1927 and lived in Chicago. He ran a popular and successful music school (he was an Instructor at Reid's School of Music) doing what he loved so much - singing and playing Hawaiian music on the steel guitar.
"Though he was married, he did not have children. He later settled in Dover, New Jersey and gave music lessons for many years. Around town he was referred to as 'the Hawaiian.' On January 16, 1932 at the age of 58, Joseph Kekuku passed away of a cerebral hemorrhage in Dover. The Dover Area Historical Society salutes Joseph as a genius
musician, an artist, a teacher, and ambassador of Hawai'i . He was also praised for bringing the Aloha spirit to their town. Indeed he took his native islands, through his music, to the rest of the world.
"His legacy lives on here and even within this very room by those of you who continue to play the Hawaiian steel guitar, and especially by the State of Hawaii today recognizing a Hawaiian man and his invention by a proclamation given in his honor and in his home that he loved so much."
Ka'iwa Meyer, grandniece of Joseph Kekuku