Saturday’s Instrument: Hawaiian Guitar

Hawaiian Guitar, also known as Lap steel guitar is a type of steel guitar that is typically played with the instrument in a horizontal position on the performer's lap or otherwise supported.

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Having developed from the Portuguese guitar, Hawaiian guitar is also known as a steel guitar. Its body is carved of thicker wood and its sides are deeper, but the shape remains unchanged.


The Hawaiian guitar is placed across the musician’s knees, metal rings are worn on the right hand, and the left-hand holds a comb-like device for a glissando effect. In the electric Hawaiian guitar, the soundbox is replaced by a trapezoidal board and the sound amplified by an electro-acoustic system. Typical effects are the vibrato and the glissando. This instrument is increasingly used in American country music.

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The steel guitar, when played in Hawaiian, country, bluegrass, or western swing styles, is almost always plucked using a plastic thumb pick affixed to the right hand's thumb, and metal or plastic "fingerpicks" fitted to the fingers of the right hand. This allows the player greater control when picking notes on non-adjacent strings. Some blues players, especially those who use a round-neck resonator guitar played upright, conventional-guitar-style, with a bottleneck or hollow metal slide on one left-hand finger, forgo the fingerpicks and thumb picks, and use their bare fingers and thumb instead. On the other hand, a minority of blues players and many rock players use a conventional flat pick.


A lap steel guitar's strings are raised at both the nut and bridge ends of the fingerboard, typically to about half an inch. The strings are too high to contact the surface of the neck, so frets, if present, are only for reference and are often replaced by markers. Some lap steel guitars can be converted between lap and fretted playing, or are modified versions of conventional guitars—the only difference is usually string height. Round-necked resonator guitars set up for steel playing fall into this category.


It is widely reported that the lap steel guitar was invented by a Hawaiian youth named Joseph Kekuku in 1889. It is said that the 17-year-old Kekuku was walking along a railroad track and picked up a metal bolt, slid the metal along the strings of his guitar, and was intrigued by the sound. He taught himself to play using this method with the back of a knife blade. Various other people have also been credited with the innovation. The instrument became a major fad in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. The instrument became especially popular in Hawaii, as musicians played in tent-rep shows.

It was electrified in the early 1930s, and in 1932 the first production electric guitar was introduced, the aluminum Ro-Pat-In (later Rickenbacker) A-22 "Frying Pan" lap steel. This made the so-called "Hawaiian" guitar the first electric stringed instrument.

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