The Hawaiians and the Dreadnought Guitar


I came across some fascinating bits of information while reading the recent Martin Guitar online journal. Celebrating the 100 year anniversary of their iconic dreadnought guitar, they present a detailed history if its creation, from its inception through its alterations throughout the years. In this journal article lies some information relating to how Hawaiian guitar playing of the early 20th century helped shaped the design of the Martin Dreadnought guitar.

To read the entire article go to this link here.

Just to give some general background, the dreadnought guitar is a larger bodied acoustic guitar that was developed by Martin in 1916. Over time it has become a signature design for the Martin guitar company and played by countess well-known musicians from Johnny Cash to Eric Clapton to Neil Young to Bob Dylan and many others. These larger bodied guitars became important as the guitar moved from small parlors and home concerts to auditoriums and theaters. But where did the idea for a larger bodied guitar originally come from?

The story begins at the 1916 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. One of the featured performance pavilions at the exposition had Hawaiian musicians who came playing `ukulele, taro patch fiddles (a double coursed `ukulele) as well as steel stringed guitars. What is still up for interpretation and debate is the origin of these guitars and the tuning in which they were played in. Stories vary as to whether it was the sailors from whaling ships or the Mexican cowboys who originally brought the guitar to Hawai`i. Nor do we know how the guitars were tuned or where these tunings originated from. What we do now have documentation of is that the guitars were played both Spanish style as well as in a new style placed horizontally on the lap with a steel bar used to glide across the strings. For more on my interpretation of the origins of slack key tunings you can link to my previous blog post here.

One of the performers at this exposition was Major Kealakai who went on to perform throughout America with his group called the Royale Hawaiian Sextette. In order to project a louder and richer sound he worked with Martin Guitar Company to produce a “OOO” body sized guitar that was proportionally larder with a larger 21-inch body and a four-inch sound hole. This guitar dubbed the Style 17 was sent to Major Kealakai who was touring in Chicago in March of 1916. This new design led to a collaboration between Martin guitar builder John Deichman and Oliver Ditson of the Oliver Ditson Guitar Company which in turn produced the first Dreadnought guitars which were shipped in August of that year.

The release of the new dreadnought guitars was announced in Music Trader Review as such, “A new steel guitar called the ‘Dreadnought,’ and said to produce the biggest tone of any instrument of its kind, is now being used in the making of phonograph records. It is also said to be an excellent instrument for use in auditoriums and larger halls….”.

I found the involvement of a Hawaiian musician with the development of this iconic guitar to be a fascinating piece of important musical history. It also lends another layer to the mystery of the early years of guitar playing in Hawaii. How were these guitars originally tuned, where did the tunings come from? We do know the guitars were tuned lower or slacked, so the need for a larger bodied guitar makes sense from that standpoint.

What is amazing is that not only was it the unique tunings and playing style of the Hawaiian but also the demand for Hawaiian music in concert halls and vaudeville shows that really pushed the need for a larger bodied acoustic guitar that eventually led to the dreadnought design which today is an iconic piece of American instrument design.



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