50 STATES OF FOLK: How Hawaii Created the Modern Country Sound
Photo by Schubinger via Pixabay
Turn your radio to a country music station, and you’re likely to hear the lilting sounds of a pedal steel. It’s a sound iconic to the genre, so ubiquitous that it’s probably permeated your idea of what country music is without a second thought.
But what you may not know is how the pedal steel came to dominate American music. Where did the pedal steel come from? And how did it spread like wildfire, defining the sound of America to the world?
The Bolt Heard Round the World
It all started in Hawaii. About 250 years ago, Europeans first arrived on the island, bringing with them Christianity, stringed instruments, cattle, and cowboys from the Americas. The Mexican paniolos (or cowboys) and the native Hawaiians worked in close proximity on the new cattle ranches, and the cowboys taught the locals how to wrangle livestock and how to make music with new instruments like the guitar and the cavaquinho, an early progenitor of the ukulele.
Music had long been part of the culture of Hawaii, so when new instruments and sounds were introduced to the islanders, they took to it quickly. By the 1870s, guitars were very popular with native Hawaiians, who easily picked up the breezy strumming style of the paniolos. Then they made it their own, slackening the tuning of the strings on the European guitars to an open chord in order to better accompany Hawaiian vocal stylings.
But things really started to take off in 1889. Joseph Kekuku, a 15-year-old Hawaiian teenager, had just recently left home to attend boarding school in Honolulu. One day, he was carrying an old Spanish guitar along the side of the road when he saw a rusty bolt on the ground. When he picked it up, he accidentally struck it against one of the strings and discovered he could create haunting, resonant tones. He then experimented — starting with the bolt, then the back of a pocket knife, then a steel comb, and finally a highly polished steel bar similar to the slides used today — and found that he could use these tools to create sustained melodic notes and slides, giving him the ability to mimic the singing of mele chanters. From this, the canonical sound of the Hawaiian steel guitar was invented.
A Brief History of Twang
This kicked off a whole suite of innovations. Shortly after Kekuku’s initial sonic discovery, steel guitar musicians realized that they could rotate their guitars onto their backs, allowing them to slide across the fretboard with their steels more easily, thus inventing the lap steel. Then musicians wanted more volume, so the steel guitar’s leading melodies could be heard through a full band, so they vaulted the strings above the fretboard. Finally, electricity entered into the music world — it had already been used in radios and recording studios, so it was a logical next step to electrify the instruments themselves. The first electric guitar was sold in 1932, the Elektro A-25 Hawaiian electric lap steel. The invention was quickly adopted by Hawaiian musicians and beyond.
Now this was a pretty big deal. You may or may not have noticed, but electric guitars kinda took off. But the Hawaiian guitar style still had its own distinct appeal. Those long, warbly notes, those slides across the scale: It was unique and interesting. It was just a little inflexible, hard to quickly switch between keys and chords.
With the new ability to electrify instruments, using a small electrical pickup rather than an open body to capture and amplify sound, suddenly musicians didn’t really need to carry around full-sized instruments anymore. Instead, to play a lap steel, all you really needed was a steel guitar’s neck and a pickup. Musicians realized that, for the same space as a traditional instrument, they could pack multiple necks in multiple tunings, giving them more flexibility to play in different keys and from different starting chords. This was called the console steel — essentially a table with steel guitar necks attached.
But even this got clunky. Musicians wanted to play out of all kinds of chord shapes and keys, and there were only so many necks you could strap to a console steel. They needed a way to retune on the fly. Enter the pedal steel. In 1939, musician Alvino Rey worked with a machinist to create a convoluted engineering solution to what can only be called a niche problem. With the pedal steel, pickers could use pedals manipulated with their feet to retune their steel necks, giving steel pickers the ability to switch between chords and major and minor tunings in the middle of a song, or even in the middle of a note.
Initially, pedal steel players resisted re-tuning their strings during a sustained note, considering it to be “un-Hawaiian.” But the thing is, it sounded super cool. In 1953, Webb Pierce recorded “Slowly,” and his steel player Bud Isaac altered his tuning while sustaining a chord. Immediately, it defined the sound of the pedal steel — and modern American country music.
Over time, more pedals have been added to the pedal steel to enable more flexibility in pitch, tone, and volume, opening up countless possibilities. With these tools at their fingers (and toes, and knees, and elbows), more and more musicians began to experiment with the pedal steel in their recordings.
A New American Sound
Nowadays, pedal steel has infiltrated all kinds of American music — from country to bluegrass to jazz to rock. As it fades from popularity in one genre, you will find it rising triumphant elsewhere. It’s featured in recordings by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Elton John and Led Zeppelin. It’s used by quiet acoustic groups like Mandolin Orange and it’s part of sensational stadium acts like Lady Gaga. This instrument that could only have evolved in the melting-pot culture and folk traditions of America has been adopted and adored worldwide. And it all started because one Hawaiian teenager picked up a piece of trash on the side of the road.
For a sampling of the evolution from slack-key guitar to modern pedal steel, check out this playlist!
This is the first column in 50 STATES OF FOLK by Kara Kundert. Each month, Kara will examine one state’s influence on the wider roots music world. To comment on this or any story on nodepression.com, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.