The steel guitar, one of the most distinctive voices in Hawaiian music, might not exist were it not for serendipity and the sharp eye of an 11-year-old boy.
In 1885, as the story goes, Joseph Kekuku was meandering beside a railroad track in Honolulu with his guitar in hand. A bolt on the ground caught his eye, and as he stooped to pick it up, it touched the strings on his guitar. The resulting sliding sound was beautiful — unlike anything Kekuku had heard before.
Curiosity piqued, he took the bolt home and began experimenting with it. Laying his guitar on his lap, he discovered he could change the pitch of the strings by sliding the bolt across them.
He also tried using a metal comb, the back of a pocketknife and a dull razor blade before determining a thin, four-inch steel bar that he had made in his machine shop class at Kamehameha School for Boys produced the best sound.
Thus, the steel guitar was born.
In 1971, renowned musician and vocalist Alan Akaka, then 14 years old, remembers sliding his clarinet barrel across the strings of a guitar, which he had placed on his lap. He was intrigued by the different sounds he was able to make, unaware that he was mirroring Joseph Kekuku’s experience nearly a century before.
“Growing up, I heard the steel guitar at parties and in recordings,” Akaka said. “I never paid attention to how it was played, but its glissandos were magical to me. When I discovered I could emulate those haunting sounds with a clarinet barrel, I was amazed! My dad saw me and told me I was teaching myself how to play the steel guitar.”
At the time, the Sons of Hawaii’s “The Folk Music of Hawaii” album was enjoying record sales, and Akaka, with his keen ear for music, was able to figure out the popular songs’ steel guitar solos and “fills” — short, varied passages played during breaks in the melody.
“I could do it!” Akaka said. “I could play along with the Sons, and it sounded pretty good. I was ecstatic!”
He went on to study with steel guitar virtuoso Jerry Byrd and was influenced by other local greats as well, including David “Feet” Rogers of the Sons of Hawaii; Benny Rogers, Genoa Keawe’s steel guitarist; and, through recordings, Jules Ah See, who played in Alfred Apaka’s show and for the radio program “Hawaii Calls,” which was broadcast from 1935 to 1975.
Although Akaka is now also accomplished on the guitar, ukulele, bass and vibraphone, his favorite instrument is the steel guitar. It has become a key factor in his life’s work, which is to promote and perpetuate Hawaiian culture, music and musical instruments through educational events and activities.
Founded in 2009, Akaka’s Ke Kula Mele Hawai‘i School of Hawaiian Music offers classes in steel guitar, ukulele, rhythm guitar and upright bass. Through Skype, he is teaching steel guitar students around the globe, including Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Russia and Brazil. NextGen, a select group of Ke Kula Mele students ranging in age from 11 to 16, will perform at this year’s Kaua‘i Steel Guitar Festival.
It is one of seven annual steel guitar festivals on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island produced by the nonprofit Hawaii Institute for Music Enrichment and Learning Experiences, which Akaka founded in 2015.
Now in its fifth year, the Kauai festival will offer workshops, jam sessions, an exhibit of vintage steel guitars dating back to the 1930s and a demonstration area where attendees can try playing the instrument. The Open Stage show will spotlight amateur steel guitarists, and the Hoolaulea will showcase the artistry of seven featured performers.
Although they’re not open to the public, there will also be visitations to Kilauea Elementary School, Kapaa Middle School and Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, where students will receive a hands-on introduction to the steel guitar, its history and its versatility.
“Music is a universal language, and the steel guitar can express sounds running the gamut, from happy to melancholy,” Akaka said. “Because of that, there’s no limit to the stories it can share.”
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.