A gift of cattle to the Hawaiian king and Spanish-Mexican cowboys who left their guitars led to the development of the steel guitar—or so the story goes.
In the late 1700s, King Kamehameha I was gifted a few cattle—and they flourished. “By the 1830s, the islands were becoming overrun by cattle, so cowboys from Mexico were imported to teach the Hawaiians how to herd cattle,” said Professor Anthony Lis of the South Dakota State University School of Performing Arts.
When the cowboys returned home, they left their Spanish-style guitars behind and the Hawaiians then developed their own method of playing the instrument, eventually using a steel bar. “Though it’s never been definitively proven, the story is pretty widely accepted,” said Lis, who is writing a manuscript about some of the early American pioneers who developed and played the pedal steel guitar.
“Tradition attributes the playing technique to a Joseph Kekuku, a young Hawaiian schoolboy, who accidentally discovered the sliding sound a metal object—be it a railroad bolt, metal comb or pen knife— makes moving across the guitar strings and spent years refining his technique in the late 1800s,” Lis said.
Last summer, Lis signed a contract with University of Georgia Press to write the book draft, which may become part of a series called the Music of the American South under the possible title, “That Sliding and Chord-bending Sound.” Lis is gathering information on five early pioneers and anticipates the project will take several years to complete.
From Hawaii to country music
The unique sound that Hawaiians coaxed out of steel guitars became popular in country, swing and jazz music on the mainland. Lis became interested in the steel pedal guitar through teaching a history of country music class and eventually began writing articles for the British Hawaiian music magazine, Aloha Dream.
“The strings of the steel guitar are raised higher than a normal guitar and are played by sliding a glass or metal bar along the strings,” Lis explained. “The steel guitar, in general, and the pedal steel guitar, in particular, is kind of the province of the mavericks—people who were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and tinker with their instrument.”
Cliff Carlisle, who grew up in Kentucky, was one of the first country singer/performers to play the steel guitar in the 1930s before it had pedals. “He was self-taught,” Lis said.
Through his research, Lis found Martin P. Grauenhorst, who grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Antony P. Freeman from Northern California patented an attachment for the steel guitar that had two pedals in 1936. The musicians met in San Francisco where Grauenhorst, who changed his name to Paul Martin, led a dance band/orchestra that played soft, romantic swing music. Freeman played bass in Martin’s orchestra.
“Freeman came up with an attachment that Martin put on his lap steel guitar,” Lis said. He uncovered information about Martin through an article in the Lincoln newspaper that touted the hometown boy’s success. “You make these connections—like a detective,” Lis pointed out.
“The steel guitar is tuned to an open chord—usually a major triad, which made playing major chords easy but minor, augmented or diminished chords were more difficult,” Lis explained. The pedals allowed a steel guitar player to raise or lower a string’s pitch by half a step, moving a D, for instance, to a D sharp or flat and made playing more complex chords possible without retuning.
Further instrumental developments
Lis also found a connection between Martin and another key pioneer, Alvino Rey. The two musicians shared an interest in flying private planes. Rey, who was called the “Wizard of the Steel Pedal Guitar,” worked with the Gibson Company on some experimental steel guitars and may have had a hand in developing the Gibson Electraharp, the first commercially produced pedal steel guitar. Only a few of these were ever sold, which Lis attributed, in part, to the beginning of World War II.
“He was not interested in patenting, so what he did is harder to trace,” Lis said. Rey preferred performing. After marrying Luise King, who was part of the popular King Sister vocal group, Rey performed with 36 King relatives in the 1960s and eventually converted to his wife’s Mormon religion. Lis hopes to uncover more information on Rey that may be available through Brigham Young University.
Another important pioneer, Jay D. Harlin, and his four brothers ran a music store in downtown Indianapolis and originally started making Multi-Kord brand pedal steel guitars in the space above their store but later had them manufactured off-site, Lis explained. “Harlin’s 1947 Multi-Kord was the first commercially-successful pedal steel guitar and can still be purchased on internet shopping sites, such as eBay and worthpoint.com.”
Lis has been in contact with Harlin’s daughter Beth and attended a Harlin family gathering last summer. “Any time you can find a relative, a door can open,” he said, pointing to photos and memorabilia the family has shared with him.