People are always asking about the way I play guitar. No, I didn’t make it up. The truth is I’m teetering around on the shoulders of giants. If you don’t mind, I’d like to introduce you to a few of them.
Our story starts in India, where the tradition of sliding glass, horn or ebony over strings dates back over a thousand years. Around 1880 a young Indian named Gabriel Davion was kidnapped and forced to serve on a sailing ship. He escaped in Honolulu by hiding in an empty fish barrel. Over the next few years Davion created a stir in the islands by using a pocket knife to play a melody on a single guitar string.
In the early 1890s Joseph Kekuku, of Laie, Hawaii, laid a guitar flat in his lap and tuned it to an open chord. With the help of his high school shop teacher, Kekuku made a four-inch steel bar that gave him better tone than a knife. He raised the strings of the guitar to keep them from rattling against the fretboard. After seeing a European zither, he changed from gut strings to steel. By 1894 Kekuku had developed a novelty into a viable style of playing. He had invented the steel guitar.
Hawaiian players brought the steel guitar to American vaudeville starting in 1899. Some time around 1903 W. C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, awoke on a train platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi, to “the weirdest music I had ever heard.” A lean black man in rags “pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars.”
Although most blues players today play slide bottleneck-style, holding the guitar upright, the lap style of playing never faded away. Here’s Babe “Black Ace” Turner, who recorded for Decca in the 1930s:
The steel guitar made its way into country music early in the 20th century, with influences from both Hawaiian music and blues. Here’s “Uncle Josh” Graves swapping licks with his picking-hand mentor, Earl Scruggs (who passed away just last week):
I’ll wind up with two more videos, featuring a couple players who particularly influenced my playing. First, here’s the Master of Touch and Tone, Jerry Byrd:
And now it’s time to go electric. The lap steel guitar came into rock-and-roll kicking and screaming (and I mean screaming) with David Lindley in the 1970s:
This is a subjective history, leaving out an awful lot. Any fan of the instrument will object about favorite players and styles I’ve omitted. (I haven’t even mentioned pedal steel, and that alone could fill a book.) The main point I’d like to make is that while the steel guitar came together in America, its roots stretch all over the world. This is not the music of any one group or community. This is the music of the human race.