Steel Trappings

Steel Guitar Chronicles

The Resonator Guitar in Hawaiian Music

July 1, 2024 • Geronimo "Geri" ValdrizSteel Guitar History

"HAWAIIAN STEEL" is a weekly radio program that spotlights the Hawaiian steel guitar masters from the past to the present. "The Steel Guitar Chronicles" is a monthly feature of the show that tells the stories, history, and origin of Kīkā Kila.

This month we look at the Resonator Guitar in Hawaiian music.

From the soul-piercing wail of the Delta Blues, to the homespun sounds of Kentucky Bluegrass, to the edgy tones of modern Americana music, resonator guitars have been lending their distinctive tones to American popular music for over 90 years.

Just listen to Bashful Brother Oswald, Josh Graves, Son House, Bukka White, Tampa Red, Blind Boy Fuller, Oscar Aleman, Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes, Mike Auldridge, and the list goes on!

It is commonly thought that the resonator guitar was built in an attempt to make the acoustic guitar loud enough with big bands in the pre-electric guitar era. But did you know that the resonator guitar was actually built for Hawaiian steel guitarists who were seeking more volume from their wooden acoustic guitars?

The roots of the resonator guitar can be traced to the 1920s, when Slovak immigrant John Dopyera, repairman and inventor, and musician George Beauchamp, were looking for more volume for Beauchamp's Hawaiian guitar. Beauchamp was playing a wooden acoustic guitar in a Hawaiian Trio.

John Dopyera, George Beauchamp, Blueprint

Dopyera built an ampliphonic or "resonator" guitar for Beauchamp, a metal bodied instrument with three conical aluminum resonators. The guitar's design exhibited a strong Art Deco influence, very modernistic, and is a true blend of art and industry.

These resonator guitars were built to be played flat on the lap, with a square hollow neck and a high nut. It was loud and the tone was piercing, great for the melodic and improvised guitar solos being played by Hawaiian musicians. At the time there were no microphones or electric PA systems, and no amplifiers. The sound of the resonator guitar sound cut through the audience to the back of the room!

After the resophonic guitar was built, George Beauchamp sought out business partners and investors to begin the mass production of these instruments. He approached his cousin, millionaire businessman Ted Kleinmeyer about investing in his business venture.

National Resonator Interior

Beauchamp took Hawaiian steel guitar master Sol Ho‘opi‘i to a party hosted by Kleinmeyer, and had Ho‘opi‘i play Hawaiian music on a resophonic guitar. Kleinmeyer was so impressed with Ho‘opi‘i's playing and the sound of the new guitar that he gladly invested $12,500.00 to help start up the company. That was quite a lot of money in the 1920's!

In 1928 Dopyera and Beauchamp founded the National Stringed Instrument Corporation based in Los Angeles, California. Initially National only built square neck guitars for musicians playing the steel guitar. However, small amounts of round-necked guitars were also made for Hawaiian rhythm guitarists. At the time Hawaiian music in America was pop music!

Sol Ho‘opi‘i adopted the square neck National Tricone guitar and became the most influential Hawaiian steel guitarist of all time–pioneering the blend of Blues and Jazz into his unique Hawaiian style of playing. Other Hawaiian steel guitarists who played early resonators include Sam Ku West, King Benny Nawahi, Tau Moe, Bobby Nichols (with the Moana Serenaders), Sol K. Bright (with the Hollywaiians), Bob Pauole (with the Genial Hawaiians), and others. Hawaiian players soon replaced their wooden Martin, Gibson, Kona, and Weissenborn acoustic Hawaiian guitars with the new National resonators!

National Resonator Styles

In 1932 George Beauchamp left National and joined Adolph Rickenbacher to form Ro-Pat-In. They introduced the first successful electric guitar, the Elektro A-25 Hawaiian electric lap steel, the cast aluminum "frying pan." The demand for Hawaiian music was still growing and live audiences becoming larger. Once again, the electric lap steel was made for Hawaiian steel guitarists looking for yet even more volume! Rickenbacher and Beauchamp later patented the first electro-magnetic pickup that is the basis for all modern electric guitars.

In 1935 John Dopyera formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company. He built metal and wood bodied square neck resophonic guitars with single cone resonators. By this time Country, Blues, Bluegrass and Jazz musicians began playing resonator guitars. Production of ‘ukuleles, mandolins and round neck resonator guitars were added.

Hawaiian steel guitarist George Beachamp retired from producing and manufacturing guitars in 1941, and later died on December 11, 1948. He remains an unrecognized and unsung hero of the development of the modern guitar.

Players like Jerry Byrd, Barney Isacs, Bob Brozman, Ken Emerson, Sebastian Mueller, Christo Ruppenthal, and Gijs Hollenbosch, carry on the tradition of playing Hawaiian music with resonator guitars.

And that ends the "Steel Guitar Chronicles" for this month, with more stories, history, and the origin of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar to come! Ka ua e ho‘okani ka kīkā kila!

"Hawaiian Steel" with Geri Valdriz is broadcast live every Tuesday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm (HST) on Mana‘o Radio, Wailuku, Maui, Hawai‘i, KMNO, 91.7FM on the radio dial.

You can catch it on the air, or streaming live at www.manaoradio.com. Listeners can also access our online archives to enjoy previously recorded programs at your convenience. Just search "Listen on Demand" for past shows.

Ed. Note: This is the last installment of Geri Valdriz's Steel Guitar Chronicles.

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