Where Did It Come From: Guitar Origins In the Islands

As I digest the opening chapter of John Troutman’s book “Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music” I am intrigued by the possibility of two other sources for the guitar in Hawai’i. While the common narrative holds that cowboys of California brought here by Kamehameha III in the 1830s were the source of the first guitars in the islands, Troutman presents two other possibilities. At this point in our study of the steel string guitar I don’t think it’s a question of what is the true source, but what research needs to be done to add some factual evidence to support the possibility of the other origins of the guitar in Hawai’i.

One possible theory is that the guitar was discovered during a visit to Monterey, California by about 80 Hawaiians during the reign of Kamehameha I (Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music pg. 14). And another one is that New England missionaries brought them in 1820s when they first arrived. What we do know is that there is documentation of an advertisement for guitar strings in an island newspaper in 1840 (Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music pg. 14). This at least gives evidence to the reality that the guitar was here and in use by the 1840s.

I am not trying to disprove the Hawaiian cowboy narrative, as it does fit well with my own personal upbringing in the rolling hills of Waimea, but rather suggest that more research is needed in this area in order to ensure the narrative being presented is accurate. What we also have documentation of is the use of open tunings in Hawaiian guitar playing tradition. Troutman provides a quote from Daily Bulletin that preferences a guitar player at a Honolulu Symphony Club performing on the guitar “with steel strings tuned to an open E chord” (Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music pg. 20).

So while the origin of the guitar is still up in the air, the use of open tunings and other techniques associated with Ki Ho’alu playing was alive an well by the 1880s. I look forward to other documented tidbits like this one as I move through this fascinating book.

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