Instrumental deep dive: Steel guitar

What is a steel guitar? 

Steel guitar is considered a staple of country music. The softer, lilting sound of a steel guitar can be found in country music throughout the 20th century and into the 21st 

The steel guitar is usually played on the lap, by plucking the strings with one hand – as opposed to strumming – whilst running a steel bar over the strings with the other hand, hence the name. It’s known to create a smoother sound, with glissando (notes stepping up in half tones quickly) and vibrato (the ‘wobbly’ sound when a note is held), this unique tone makes it instantly recognisable to the ear and incredibly popular. Called the ‘frying pan’ in its early days, for its long neck and circular body shape, steel guitar is played sitting down. 


The history of steel guitar 

Believed to have been originally conceived by teenager Joseph Kekuku in his Lāʻie high school dormitory around 1889, the guitar hails – like Kekuku – hails from Hawaii. Hawaiian music dominated the US music charts in the 1910s. Following the fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom orchestrated by US settlers and colonialism, Hawaiians travelled to the US and took their culture, art and instruments with them. The economic hardship in Hawaii led many to leave behind their home islands in pursuit of better jobs and more security, many Hawaiians turned to music to preserve their heritage and language (which was being discouraged in Hawaii after the fall of the Kingdom). The steel guitar was an innovation on the six-string guitar, which itself was brought over to Hawaii by vaqueros (cowboys from Mexico and Spain), these Spanish-speaking cowboys taught locals to play the six-string guitar, all long before Kekuku’s invention came into being. Kekuku himself left Hawaii in 1904, setting up a shop in Seattle where he also taught local musicians about his instrument, the steel guitar.  

The sound of steel guitar gained popularity and by 1915, Hawaiian guitar music was outselling every other genre of music in the US. Of course, many Hawaiians moved to the Southern US. It was under the rule of segregation that the steel guitar met blues music. As native Hawaiians were banned from staying in whites-only spaces, performers – and other natives who played steel guitar – lived and worked in places where African-American, native and other immigrants also lived. The mixing together of cultures, through shared experience, sowed fertile ground for musical flowers to grow. It was here, in shared spaces that the steel guitar became a mainstay in blues, featured on tracks by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Using the slide method of guitar playing, the steel guitar was quickly a mainstay in American music. Kekuku toured for many years, before settling down in Chicago and continuing to teach steel guitar.  


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Hannah Larvin, Editor, Maverick Magazine
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