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Online Akustik Travels

Steel Guitar Story - part 3

A One-Way Ticket To Hawaii Via The Mississippi Delta

by Claude Samard Polikar
Sol Hoopii (center) - courtesy of Soren Venema of Amsterdam’s Palm Guitars

Page 3 of 5

The Americans were still under the hawaiian tidal wave when a second shock wave of slide sounds hit the coasts of New Mexico, working their way up North, heading straight for Chicago.
Hawaiian guitarists were the first to introduce slide sounds to the world as early as the 1900s. Open tunings and metal objects sliding on strings were the two main characteristics of this technique that was originally created simply because it was easy; slowly but surely, the technique became more and more sophisticated thanks to the talented contributions of musicians such as Sol Hoopi. At the same time, the black slaves arriving from Africa, had come with their own ethnic stringed instruments, which later became the banjo's ancestor (related to the gimbri that can still be found in Western parts of Africa). All over the world, from Viet Nam to Hawaii, musicians were using ordinary everyday objects to slide on their strings, in order to modulate or alter notes. This was what Southerners used to call "playing hawaiian style" or with a "diddley bow" that even B.B. King described as a string attached to a wall and played on by sliding a bottle. The bottle became so familiar amongst blues musicians, that it very naturally turned into what is now known as the "bottleneck", or it's metal counterpart, which have become akin to the blues tradition. No one really knows where or who invented the slide sound, sometimes played with animal bones, bamboo shoots, blades, pipes or regular glass bottles. But one thing is for sure, is that no American musician could ignore the successful contribution the hawaiian sound created at the turn of the century.

Travelling shows, records and radio did the rest. Bluesmen took the trend into their stride, used it, adjusted it and developped their own sound with it, along with the Hawaiians who were gradually turning it into Swing. Metal or glass slides, Dobro or National resophonics became the emblems of the Mississipi Blues. Bob Brozman says that even the tunings were identical: "The open G (DGDGBD) is the first open tuning commonly used amongst Hawaiian or Mississipi Blues musicians as a basic tuning."

muddy waters
Muddy Waters

Originating in the Afro-American culture, the Blues expanded. The basic tradition of telling the story of everday life hardships, the rhythm, led to an electric interpretation of the Blues in Chicago, Jazz or Rock 'n Roll. At the same time, Hawaiian music remained more or less the same. But as Billy Gibbon's (Z.Z. Top) put it: "If you listen carefully to Sol Hoopi, you'll notice that many aspects of Hawaiian music have been used to define Bottleneck Blues".

Hawaiians were accustomed to playing their instrument flat on their laps. The necks of these instruments were square shaped and sturdily built to withstand the extra thick strings (from .016 to.059). Some Bluesmen were known to play their instrument just like that (Tampa Red, Black Ace), along with a steel blade like Charlie Patton, one of the Mississipi Blues pioneers. But most musicians played in an upright position, tuned G or D, played slide or bottleneck depending on the song. Patton introduced the style which inspired many, such as Son House, Bukka White, Muddy Waters (who played open G end E, but also standard), Robert Johnson or Elmore James who both played open D like Blind Willie Johnson, who became Ry Cooder's mentor.