Thu, 20 November 2014
By now it has been well documented that the steel guitar was invented by a Hawaiian boy named Joseph Kekuku. History continues to debate whether the discovery was made through deliberate experiment or a happy accident. But, either way, there is no dispute that the first to play in this manner was Kekuku of Lā`ie on the island of O`ahu. (Ironically, Kekuku died just a few miles from where I am writing this in the town of Dover, NJ.)
Hawaiian steel guitarists were among the first to export the music of their unique homeland around the world. The farther they traveled, two things happened. Hawaiian steel guitarists heard styles of music they had never heard back home. In particular, jazz captivated their imaginations, and so Hawaiian steel guitar style evolved – quickly – to incorporate the jazz idiom. But, conversely, musicians from other parts of the world adopted the steel guitar for their own purposes – using them to perform other kinds of music besides Hawaiian. Despite being invented in Hawai`i by a Hawaiian, country-western music co-opted the steel guitar as its own with players popping up from Bakersfield to Nashville. At some point the mainland players would take the instrument a little farther still by adding pedals to it. But what were the pedals for?
I have written here previously that playing the steel guitar is not merely an art. It is a feat of physics. The steel guitar is limited by being played with a perfectly straight steel bar. This means that you can only achieve chords that can be found in a straight line across the strings. Moving the bar on a diagonal – forward or backward – can achieve additional chord forms, but the player must be careful (and this is especially difficult at fast tempos) to keep the bar straight across adjacent frets as the distance between frets changes as we move up and down the guitar. In an attempt to combat this problem, some players began employing steel guitars with two, three, or more necks – like playing multiple guitars at the same time, each tuned differently, so that in order to find the chord or tuning they desired, they simply moved from one neck to another, not merely between songs, but often during the same song. But pedals attached to certain strings could be used to change the tuning of that string – higher or lower – in the middle of a song – potentially alleviating the need for multiple necks since you can change tunings on the fly.
Ironically, one of the mainlanders who invented a prototype pedal steel guitar was a Hawaiian – Ernie Tavares. But despite that a Hawaiian may have a hand in its creation, Hawaiian steel guitarists largely eschewed the pedal steel guitar. Perhaps it was because they felt it was a cop-out – that a really good player could find all of the chords and sounds they needed on a non-pedal instrument through the clever and accurate manipulation of the steel bar, just as Kekuku had. Perhaps they were angry that the outside world felt that this uniquely Hawaiian instrument somehow needed some improvement. Or perhaps it was because – quite literally – a pedal steel guitar makes a different sound than a non-pedal steel guitar. Steel guitarists can hear this, as can some other musicians with refined ears. You can hear when a pedal steel guitar is being played because some notes will stand still while others are moving around, up or down. You cannot bend a steel bar to suit your needs in that moment. With the limitation of a steel bar on a non-pedal steel, if you move the bar up, all of the notes move up, and if you move the bar down, all of the notes move down. So if you hear some notes staying the same while others are moving up or down around them, you are likely hearing a pedal steel guitar.
And this is a sound that most Hawaiian steel guitarists did not favor – creating an interesting divide. In Hawai`i, either you play steel guitar or you play pedal steel guitar, and rarely do the twain meet. A scant few steel players got away with moving back and forth from pedal to non-pedal steel guitar, and this was because they developed techniques that made it less evident that they were playing a pedal steel. They typically used the pedals to manipulate strings in ways they could have otherwise manipulated them with the bar. When I think of players equally adept at both playing styles and who were largely accepted by the Hawaiian music community, the first name that comes to mind is Billy Hew Len.
But then there were Hawaii Calls’ Barney Isaacs and Jules Ah See.
There was never any dispute that Jules went back and forth between pedal and non-pedal steel guitars. (Just listen to his pedal work on such songs as “Nani Wale Na Hala” on the LP Hawaii’s Mahi Beamer.) But experts in the steel guitar claim that Barney never played a pedal steel guitar. His friends and others who knew him personally emphatically state that they never saw Barney with a pedal steel guitar. And, yet, when we listen to some of Barney’s seminal recordings where the steel guitar was well out front – such as Steel Guitar Magic Hawaiian Style (with Billy Hew Len) and Evening In The Islands (with Eddie Pang) – careful and attentive listeners will hear immediately that Barney is employing pedals to achieve some of these sounds. On Steel Guitar Magic, some have credited all of the pedal steel work to Billy Hew Len, but Billy and Barney employed the pedals differently, and we can hear this. But there is no doubt that Barney played pedals on Evening In The Islands since a pedal steel can be heard, and duet partner Eddie Pang didn’t know how to play one.
The clip you are listening to from the mid-1960s Hawaii Calls TV show puts this mystery to rest – finally. During the mid-1960s, the Hawaii Calls steel players were the same as on the Evening In The Islands LP cited above – Barney Isaacs and Eddie Pang. And Pang could not play a pedal steel. While I have never found – in listening to dozens of hours of Hawaii Calls radio programs from this period – any evidence of Isaacs playing a pedal steel on those live broadcasts, on the tune “On The Beach At Waikiki” from the TV show, we clearly hear a pedal steel guitar. And as Isaacs did 100% of the studio work for the backing tracks for the program’s brief 26-episode stint on TV, this is beyond a shadow of a doubt Barney Isaacs playing a pedal steel.
While it is debatable which of the Hawaii Calls steel guitarists possessed the most profound technique, Barney has always been my favorite. If I have honored him more than Keli`i or Ah See, you will have to forgive me. It’s my blog, so it’s my prerogative. And we will continue to honor Barney when Ho`olohe Hou celebrates his birthday in July.
Next time: We’ve doted on the men of Hawaii Calls for too long. It’s time to celebrate the ladies…