The steel guitar holds a hallowed place in guitar history and evolution, and the Recording King Lap Steel is a proud beneficiary of that tradition. Historically speaking…
Joseph Kekuku invented the steel guitar in 1889, according to the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association. The early models reflected the same basic features that define steel guitars today.
- Played in a horizontal orientation (on the lap or a stand)
- Played with a steel bar slid lengthwise along the strings
- Action raised a half inch or so above the fretboard to completed avoid touching them while playing the instrument
- Eventually frets were replaced by visual markers as a reference, because they’re not actually used to play the instrument.
According to Michael Wright writing for acousticguitar.com, Kekuku came to the U.S. mainland in 1904 and performed in Vaudeville theaters around the country, mounting a successful Broadway show that also toured in Europe. American guitarists and guitar makers certainly took notice. While it’s difficult to accurately place all of the influences, if not for Kekuku’s presence on the American music scene, the history of slide guitar playing, resonant guitars, and the electric guitar would not likely have unfolded as it did. Some would argue that American music itself would not be what it is today without the Kekuku’s American adventures (see Haleema Shah writing for Smithsonian Magazine).
The Far-Reaching Influences of the Hawaiian Connection
Hawaiian music is also associated with slack key guitar, a fingerstyle technique with open chord tunings that preceeded the slide guitar innovation. So slide guitar and open tunings went together from the very beginning. As the story goes, many Hawaiian performers following in Kekuku’s footsteps toured extensively throughout the U.S. in the 1920’s and 30’s, including in the segregated South. Being non-White, the Hawaiian performers would have stayed in the same boarding house system as Black performers. Most chronicles of the Blues, cite African traditions at the roots of slide guitar in that context. The Hawaiian connection, however, is included more and more.
A common term for the forerunner of Country Music genres in the 1920’s was Hillbilly Music. The song forms provide an obvious overlap between proto-Country and the Blues. The music performed by the Hawaiian touring acts of the era shared in those song forms as well. By the 1930’s, Western Music was given name and rising in popularity, with the steel guitar and as a common denominator. Jimmy Rogers is rightly celebrated as a seminal figure in country music. His early recordings featured Hawaiian steel guitarist Joseph Kaipo. The rest is, as they say, history.
On the Guitar Making Front
Whether a direct or indirect influence, John Dopyera’s original resonator design was the first answer to the volume problem of playing a lap-oriented guitar. That history is detailed elsewhere. Soon after, however, the first electric guitar ever marketed in 1931. That was of course the infamous Rickenbacker “Frying Pan,” a lap steel guitar that has changed little since. Rickenbacker.com summarizes the history that ties Doeyera and one-time collaborator George Beauchamp (inventor of the guitar pickup), to Hawaiian music on the Mainland in the 1930s. Here again, the rest is history.
Today lap steel guitar is a common feature of Hawaiian music, Country Swing, Blues, Roots, and Rock. And though the pedal steel is somewhat more common in Jazz, you find an occasional lap steels there too. The Recording King Lap steel, with tabacoo sunburst finish and bridge-position P90 pickup, is designed specifically with Roots and Blues in mind, every iteration of lap steel music has something to teach us.
Check the More Videos section for some fun clips.