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Online Akustik Travels

Steel Guitar Story - part 2
Hawaiian Acoustic

by Claude Samard Polikar

Page 2 of 5

A century since it's first appearance in the US, the hawaiian guitar is still going strong. Ben Harper and his fuzzed Weissenborn on MTV, Jerry Douglas and his Dobro in Nashville's biggest studios, have all responded to the call of «Bali hai».

It was only in 1810 that Hawaii was first introduced to the Spanish guitar brought to them at the time by the missionaries. Then followed the Mexican cowboys and the Portuguese sailors who promoted the instrument on the island to such an extent that by the end of the century the guitar simply became part of the hawaiian landscape except for the fact that Hawaiian singers had decided to use it a little differently: flat on their laps, with open strings and a slide to match their particular vocal technique.

You may wonder who originally invented the sliding sound? Probably Gabriel Davion, a slave brought from India to Honolulu, who played a traditional Indian slide known as the gottuvadyam. Officially though, it's origin has been attributed to Joseph Kekuku back in 1880, who played this technique around the country. The whole island soon began to slide away. Just about anything could be used to slide: combs, knives, glass cylindars, metal cylindars etc... Shortly after which, by the end of the century, hawaiian bands began touring the American continent with their musicians, singers, dancers and … guitars. They soon became the most poplular attraction in some of the most massive venues such as the World Expo in Chicago or the Panama Canal inauguration in 1915. At the time, this was considered good promotion with some 17 million people attending.

Hawaiian music became quite famous in the US all the way through to the 1940's. In 1916 the American record industry sold more Hawaiian records than all the other styles combined and guitar makers sold Hawaian model guitars galore, do-it-yourself kits including metal rods, bridge elevators, finger and thumb picks, as well as song books. Raising the bridge on a six steel string guitar was already the beginning of an answer to enhance the volume for the average Hawaian guitar amateur. And soon enough, a specific hawaiian model was designed with a square neck, flowered frets and strings set 2cm away from the neck: Weissenborn even designed a model with a hollow koa neck in 1915. Then came Martin, followed by National (the very first resophonic model with a built-in resonator) in 1927, and the electric Rickenbacker in 1932. Even Selmer created a model in France at the time.

Sol Hoopi was the biggest star of all. He created a unique style by blending blues and jazz into the traditional hawaian style on a Martin, then on a tricone National, and in the 30's on an electric Rickenbacker. He even went to Hollywood where he was featured in a few movies.

All kinds of American musicians were influenced by the hawaian sound. Many of them learned to play the slide technique on various models of Dobro and Nationals made popular by famous Hawaiian performers.
Two different styles of playing were used: the standard upright position or the layed down one. The regular upright stance was more commonly used by bottleneck blues performers from Robert Johnson to Duane Allman. The layed down flat lap position was also used by certain blues musicians, and in extension by electric Western Swing or Country musicians playing their pedal-steel guitars. However to hear the acoustic slide technique, you have to listen to Bluegrass. After Mike Aulridge, you find Jerry Douglas who developed a mind-boggling technique with his Dobro (tuned GBDGBD). As for Ben Harper, we owe him (after Ry Cooder) the rebirth of the Weissenborn (often tuned 1 tone under the DGCFAD or CGCGCE or DADDAD in addition to the standard open D & G tunings) in a legendary style of fuzzed slides, rock, hip-hop patterns and Delta-blues riffs.


Guitarists should focus on avoiding string vibration, in order to increase volume (thanks to both finger & thumb picks) and to enhance sustain, strings are set higher and are thicker (the high e is set between 0.13 and 0.18). This makes it easier to get away from unwanted parasite resonances; just try it, and you just might be drawn into your own hawaien experience which, like Ben Harper has already shown us, is not just restricted to playing an ordinary «Blue Hawaii» theme.