Steel Guitar - A Brief History

In 1885, in Honolulu, Joseph Kekuku, an 11-year-old student at Kamehameha School for Boys began experimenting (as young boys will) with ways to make different musical sounds on his guitar. While walking along the railroad tracks, he picked up a bolt and slid it across the strings, effecting the very first characteristic slur of a steel guitar.

For the next 7 years, he taught himself to master producing the unique and sweet sounds with a hair comb, a tumbler, and finally, in the school shop, developed the smooth steel bar still used today. The instrument playing style Joseph Kekuku developed was Hawaiian steel guitar. Until his death in Boston in 1932, Kekuku toured the United States and most of Europe teaching and popularizing the Hawaiian steel guitar.

Although the popularity of steel guitar became firmly established in Hawaii by the early 1900s, and soon after in the country music field, it had few teachers. Those early legendary steel players were so much in demand to perform and record that they had no time to teach others, had they wanted to. Thus, in the '60s the art and technique of playing Hawaiian steel was almost lost.

It took Country Music Hall of Famer, the legendary Jerry Byrd, to lead the current Hawaiian steel guitar renaissance. Jerry, known as the "Master of Touch and Tone", moved to Hawaii in 1972, committed to bringing back Hawaiian steel guitar by teaching new generations how to play steel once again. Many of today's well-known Hawaiian professionals like Alan Akaka, Casey Olsen and Greg Sardinha are former students of Byrd's.