Hawaiian music took the world by storm in the first part of the 20th century and catalysed new guitar types and playing styles. Hawaiian koa also became one of the most desirable tonewoods, and after history of over-exploitation is now being actively conserved and restored.
For a kid growing up in Scotland, the name Hawaii always conjured up pictures of an exotic tropical paradise complete with balmy ocean breezes, surf, and girls in grass skirts dancing the hula – a view formed from how the Hawaiian Islands were portrayed in movies and on TV.
I first had the opportunity to visit Hawaii as a stop-over on my way from California to start my new job in Australia back in 1984. By then, I was a trained ecologist, and colleagues in California had given me contacts and tips for where to visit in Hawaii. I learned that there was much more to the place than just surf and grass skirts.
Hotspots and volcanoes
The Hawaiian Islands are one of the many groups of islands making up Polynesia – isolated islands in the middle of the very large Pacific Ocean. Hawaii consists of a chain of islands stretching from the Big Island (Hawaii) to Niihau. The islands are volcanic in origin, and the Big Island is still volcanically very active. It sits on top of what is known as a volcanic hotspot – a hole in the earth’s crust where molten material is pushed up from the earth’s mantle.
The Big Island is the most recent island in the chain to form – indeed, it’s still under construction as more volcanic material is extruded. Mauna Loa is one of the world’s biggest volcanoes , and is also home to the Mauna Loa Observatory, where measurements of atmospheric CO2 have been made continuously since 1958 – resulting in the data that unequivocally shows the steady and inexorable increase in CO2 that is driving the dramatic changes in climate seen today.
The most active volcano on the big island is, however, Kīlauea, which has erupted regularly over the past few decades, creating spectacular active lava flows. It’s quite an experience peering down into Halemaʻumaʻu crater and walking on recently-cooled lava flows. In Hawaiian mythology, Kīlauea is the body of the deity Pele, goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes.
The other islands formed in the same way but gradually drifted away from the hotspot as the tectonic plate moved. The theory of plate tectonics describes how the earth’s crust is divided into a series of large plates that move very slowly. At the boundaries of the plates, plate movement causes earthquakes, volcanoes or mountain building. For instance, two plates meet along the west coast of North America, a region famous for major earthquakes and past and recent volcanic activity.
Hawaii doesn’t sit at the edge of a plate, but still experiences plenty of volcanic activity because of the hotspot. The other islands in the chain were all over the hotspot at some stage, but have drifted away as the plate moved. For an easy way to understand this phenomenon, have a look at “Toothpaste Volcano Chain”. The further away from the Big Island, the older the islands are – Kauai is estimated to be several million years old, while Maui still retains more recent volcanic features.
The range of geologic age across the islands and their isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has led to some pretty amazing biology. New islands that pop up out of the ocean because of volcanic activity initially have very little life, but are gradually colonised by species that can disperse well. Eventually, entire complex ecosystems develop, and the colonising species diversify and evolve, often becoming species that are found only on the islands. A famous example of this is Darwin’s finches, found on the Galapagos Islands, early observations of which fed into Charles Darwin’s developing theory of evolution.
Hawaii is also known for its amazing birds, but unfortunately many Hawaiian species are already extinct or threatened with extinction. For instance, 20 species of the spectacular Hawaiian honeycreeper group have gone extinct in the recent past.
A feature of island ecosystems is their susceptibility to invasion by species arriving from elsewhere – obviously, this is how the island flora and fauna established in the first place, but more recently species arrive from elsewhere by being brought there by human activities. Native island species are often unable to compete with more aggressive non-native species, or are susceptible to pests and diseases they haven’t encountered before.
Hawaii has some amazing plant species, although many of the island ecosystems have been heavily modified by cattle grazing, sugar plantations and invasion by non-native species. We’ll take a closer look at Koa, a species of tree found only on six of the Hawaiian Islands later in this article.
Guitars in Hawaii
Humans have been on Hawaii for a relatively short time. The islands were colonised by Polynesians around a thousand years ago and the islands have a rich history of native Hawaiian culture.
Europeans started showing up in the late 1700s during voyages of exploration – perhaps most famously, Captain James Cook visited the islands in 1778 and was later killed there by a native Hawaiian. A major sugar cane industry started in the islands and the sugar exported to the US. The islands were annexed by the US in 1898 and became a US state in 1959.
The development of Hawaiian music mirrors this mixing of native Hawaiian traditions and influences imported by people coming from elsewhere. Traditional Hawaiian folk music includes several varieties of chanting (mele) and music to accompany the ritualized hula dances. Interestingly, the Hawaiian language has no word for music, instead having a variety of words describing rhythms, instruments, styles and songs.
The two instruments most commonly associated with Hawaii – the ukulele and the steel guitar – developed from instruments brought in during the 1800s. An instrument called the braguinha was brought in by the Portuguese in the 1870s, and this is thought to be a precursor to the ukulele. The invention of the ukulele is attributed to a Portuguese immigrant, Manuel Nunes, who arrived in Hawaii in 1879 to work in the sugar plantations. For a detailed history of the ukulele, have a look at the book by Jim Traquanda and John King.
Guitars most likely first came to the islands with Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) brought over in 1832 to teach the natives how to manage cattle. The Hawaiian cowboys (paniolo) subsequently incorporated guitars into their traditional folk music.
Steel-string guitars later arrived with the Portuguese in the 1860s. The Hawaiians didn’t take to traditional guitar tuning, and instead re-tuned the guitars to sound a chord (“open tuning”) and developed their own style of playing. Slack-key, as it was known, remained a Hawaiian folk tradition thereafter.
The Hawaiian steel guitar we know today emerged later, and is attributed to Joseph Kekuku, who in the late 1880s began sliding a piece of steel up and down the strings rather than fretting the strings with the left hand. This produced a unique haunting and evocative sound, sometimes resembling the human voice.
Hawaiian music on the move
From about the start of the 20th century, Joseph Kekuku and others travelled to mainland USA and brought the new sounds of the steel slide guitar with them. Hawaiian musicians were initially regarded as a bit of a novelty and included in vaudeville acts. However, the music they played became increasingly appreciated as more than just an exotic curio. This was also helped by the increasing availability of music records to be played on phonographs. Hawaiian music became widely popular, and with it came increasing interest in the instruments that made the music.
Ukulele production skyrocketed, with established guitar manufacturers like Martin producing large numbers from an initially small start in 1915. Guitars modified for playing Hawaiian style also proliferated. Early Hawaiian steel guitars were simply modified normal guitars. They were played by positioning them flat on the seated player’s legs and moving a steel bar up and down the strings. In order to be able to do this smoothly, the guitar had its strings raised higher above the fretboard than normal, by placing a bigger nut at the top of the fretboard.
This innovation subsequently gave rise to an array of instruments that were to be played predominantly with a steel slide. Chris Knutsen, a guitar maker from Washington state who specialised in harp guitars, started making guitars specifically designed for Hawaiian style musicin the early 1900s, and he and Hermann Weissenborn in Los Angeles developed and promoted these models. Such guitars, now generally known as Weissenborns, continue to be built today and have characteristic hollow necks and slim body shapes.
The degree of fascination with Hawaiian music in the US from the 1920s on is hard to grasp today. But it was definitely a craze that was fed by a proliferation in the availability of instruments and instruction in playing ukulele and Hawaiian lap steel guitar. For instance, the Hawaiian Teachers of Hollywood marketed guitar lessons and cheap instruments resembling Weissenborns – these “Genuine Radio Tone Hawaiian Guitars” had paper fingerboards with printed-on frets, position markers and the names of all the notes for an open A tuning (E A E A C# E).
From Hawaiian to resonators and beyond
It’s generally acknowledged that the Weissenborn style of guitar is the precursor for the subsequent emergence of resonator guitars, invented by John Dopyera, who also lived in Los Angeles. The National Style 1 Hawaiian guitar introduced in 1927 resembled a Weissenborn made of metal and contained three metal resonator cones designed to increase the volume of the instrument. These, and subsequent single cone National and Dobro resonators went on to fuel not only Hawaiian music for several decades, but also the explosion of blues music in the southern US. We’ll look at resonator guitars in more depth in another post.
The quest for increased volume also drove the quest for amplified instruments, and the first electric guitar, designed in 1931, was in fact a lap steel guitar. The “frying pan”, created by George Beauchamp, was the ancestor of all subsequent electric guitars.
Hawaiian music and the blues
The widespread popularity of Hawaiian music provided the impetus to create instruments that facilitated that particular style of music – particularly involving the use of a steel slide.
There is also an increasing body of evidence that suggests that Hawaiian music strongly influenced other forms of music in America – particularly blues and country. Blues uses slide guitar extensively, and this was thought to have originated within the music of the southern US. However, recent research – particularly by John Troutman – suggests that the old blues guys were actually influenced by travelling Hawaiian musicians and adopted and modified the slide techniques they heard them use.
The Forgotten Story Of How Hawaiians Transformed American Music by Jessica Terrell and Claire Caulfield 2020
“There were droves of Hawaiian musicians who were performing throughout the deep South,” Troutman says. “There was a much greater sense of interaction that was taking place that was leading to the proliferation of all of these different sounds.”
If you listen to early blues musicians like Son House, Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, you’re hearing the sound of the steel guitar, Troutman says.
“In fact people like Son House referred to the slide style of playing as the Hawaiian way of playing,” Troutman adds.
It wasn’t just blues. The steel guitar had a profound impact on country music too. But when you read about the history of both genres — roots music that led to rock and roll and everything that came after — you almost never read about Native Hawaiians.
“As a longstanding music historian, it’s something that I’d never heard of before, I’d never recognized and so then I began to wonder, well why don’t we know this?” Troutman says. “Why don’t we understand this central and powerful role that Hawaiians have played in the development of all kinds of musical genres?”
For decades, this history had completely been ignored by music historians.
One of the reasons this history has been overlooked, Troutman says, is because of how musical genres were racialized by the music industry.
Record companies in the 1920s would recruit musicians based on their race, basically creating race-based musical genres. Country music, for example, was categorized for white musicians and rhythm and blues for black musicians.
“And so we’ve been fighting against these race-based genres of music that cut out really critically important populations of people who were deeply implicated in the origins of that music, including Native Americans, including people from Hawaii, including Latino people who were just written out of that history — written out of the stories.”
The result is that few people know Native Hawaiians inspired the development of the Delta blues slide guitar. Or that Native Hawaiians inspired the use of the steel guitar in country music.
“All that history was just gone, it was just absent,” says Troutman.Source: CivilBeat 2020.
For more on this, see:
Steelin’ the Slide: Hawai’i and the Birth of the Blues Guitar by John Troutman (2013) Muse
Hawaii’s unexpected role in American Blues music (2013), Wilson Quarterly
Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music (2016), by John Troutman
The Hawaiian guitar tree
As well as being the source of inspiration for new types of instrument and musical styles, Hawaii is also home to what’s considered one of the best tonewoods in the world. Koa is often likened to Mahogany, but it has its own distinctive characteristics, is highly variable in colour, grain and figuring.
Koa (Acacia koa) is found only on the Hawaiian Islands. Its story is similar to many of the trees we’ve talked about in previous posts – a formerly abundant tree that is now significantly diminished in extent. In this case it’s because of past logging, conversion to pasture and ongoing grazing pressure from livestock and goats.
Koa is found on all the main islands and across a range of different environments, growing into large trees in the most favourable habitats and becoming more gnarled and stunted in less favourable places. Koa can grow into large and impressive trees, like the one in the photo. In my visits to Hawaii, I didn’t get to see such massive trees – they are few and far between these days. But the koa I did see still had a certain charm, even growing in the challenging volcanic areas of the Big Island.
Past use and current conservation and restoration
Koa was used by the native Hawaiians for canoe building, and was recognised by European colonists for its structural and aesthetic qualities. It was, however, used in fairly mundane ways and a lot of wood was wasted when land was cleared for pasture.
My friend and colleague, Jack Ewel was Director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry in Hawaii for a while and was involved in extensive research on koa ecology. He told me: “old koa trees (were) wasted by the megaton in the 20th century. I’ve slept in a lot of cowboy cabins built from rough koa boards (probably now worth a fortune), and I’ve seen kilometers of cattle fencing built from bulldozed koa trees piled into linear tangles.”
The belated recognition of both its ecological value and the value of its timber means that there is now considerable interest in improving koa’s lot. There are now several excellent conservation efforts in place which aim to protect the remaining stands of koa. And in addition, there are increasing efforts to restore former forests and establish plantations. It’s a species that can fix nitrogen, through a symbiosis with microbes living in root nodules, and it can readily germinate in open, disturbed areas. So, in theory, it should be able to do well in Hawaii – except that new seedlings are eminently edible for cattle, and hence few survive where grazing is allowed. So, replacing lost koa forests means reducing grazing by livestock.
Once established, koa trees grow pretty fast, but it will still take a long time to produce the grand old trees that were so abundant in former times.
Koa guitars – the good old days
Koa’s story goes hand in hand with the story of the spread of Hawaiian-style guitars and ukuleles. If people were infatuated with Hawaiian music and instruments, it made sense that there would be an interest in making these instruments from something Hawaiian too. And, as luck would have it, Hawaii’s native koa was a pretty nice wood to make guitars and ukuleles with that both looked and sounded good.
Local Hawaiian guitar builders had experimented with native woods such as koa since at least the 1870s. But it was the blossoming of Hawaiian instrument building in mainland US that pushed koa towards the top of the list of desirable tonewoods. The early builders like Knutsen and Weissenborn in California adopted koa from the start, and the larger established builders jumped on the Hawaiian bandwagon pretty quickly thereafter.
Martin started making ukuleles in 1915 and all-koa guitars from 1918. Some of these appeared with the Martin brand, but others were made for the Southern California Music Company. The increasing demand for ukuleles and Hawaiian koa guitars is often credited with keeping Martin afloat financially, especially in the otherwise economically troubling times of the depression years. Martin’s main parlor koa guitar, the 0-18K was produced in relatively large numbers during the 1920s and early 30s, but ceased production in 1935. Koa became increasingly hard to get hold of, and World War II effectively saw the end of Martin’s use of koa. In addition, people gravitated towards the new electric lapsteels and away from the traditional Hawaiian acoustic models.
Other companies also used koa to greater or lesser extents over the period that Hawaiian music was most popular. Even Oscar Schmidt, better known for their low-cost Stella guitars, produced a series of Hawaiian guitars, under the labels “Hawaiian Guitar” or “First Hawaiian Conservatory of Music”. In a similar way to Stellas, many of these guitars were constructed from birch, but some more expensive models used koa. It has to be said that some of the guitars that have survived to today look and sound great, and compare very favourably with the more expensive brands.
Koa guitars today
As koa became less easy to source, its price skyrocketed – to such an extent that it has been referred to as now being one of the most valuable hardwoods in the world. Unlike Brazilian Rosewood, koa is not listed as a threatened species, but good quality wood is nevertheless almost as hard to come by.
This has seen a major change in the use of koa in guitars and ukuleles. A quick internet search will still show plenty koa instruments being made and advertised – however, most of these instruments are not solid koa like their counterparts from the 1920s-30s. There are a few exceptions. Many of the smaller builders continue to use solid koa, and Martin produces limited run and Custom Shop koa guitars . Iseman Guitars in Hawaii produce lovely solid koa instruments using koa salvaged from downed trees, and Taylor introduced a line of amazing solid koa guitars in the late 1990s.
More generally, though, in order to keep producing guitars with the aesthetics of koa without the expense, most manufacturers turned to using laminates rather than solid woods. Lamination uses thin layers of wood bonded together to make a strong construction – and this means that a thin layer of expensive wood can overlay cheaper layers beneath.
This approach seems to make a lot of sense in terms of using less wood from species that are now scarce. Many guitar companies use laminates extensively, not just for koa -particularly for lower-priced instruments. Martin does it, as does Taylor, who prefer to call the product “layered” rather than “laminate”.
Their reason they want to make this distinction lies in the fact that laminates vary greatly in what they actually are. For instance, high pressure laminates (HPL) used by Martin and others are a thin top layer of wood over layers of paper impregnated with resin.
But does all this affect the quality of the resulting guitars? Oh boy, this is another of those questions that will send guitar folks into a frenzy. Look at any guitar chat group, and there’s bound to be a discussion thread on the topic – e.g., Acoustic Guitar Forum. Laminates have certain advantages in terms of strength and stability, but opinions vary on how they compare with solid wood in terms of tone. And, because of all the variables involved, it’s not always an easy question to answer. Laminates vary in quality, and sometimes they are used only for guitar back and sides (with a solid wood top), and sometimes for the top as well.
Often, when you first pick up a guitar, it can be hard to decide whether it’s solid wood or laminate. Some manufactures label their solid wood guitars as such, but some don’t. But there are ways to figure out which is which.
Interestingly, though, it may not always be obvious from the way the guitar sounds. Laminate instruments can sound really good – and it’s another of these things that some people will be concerned about and others won’t. I’ve certainly played really nice laminated koa guitars and ukuleles that sound just fine to me [2 of the instruments in the photo at the start of this piece are laminates] – and at the same time have that amazing koa look.
Grow more koa!
As mentioned earlier, there are increasing efforts to restore koa forests and replant areas that were cleared for pasture. Guitar makers are helping with this process. Paniolo Tonewoods is a collaboration between Pacific Rim Tonewoods and Taylor Guitars aims to bring koa and other sustainable tonewoods to market.
Paniolo approaches the issue by engaging in good forest management, reforestation and innovation, and by promoting new ways to plant, grow, and manage koa and other native trees. It’s being shown that 20 yearold koa trees can produce wood that can be made into fine guitars. Bob Taylor is determined to keep these lovely koa guitars flowing off the Taylor workbenches! We’ll look in greater depth at Taylor’s other activities in relation to conservation and sustainability in a future post.
As koa has become scarcer, guitar makers have also been looking to alternatives. Koa is an Acacia, and Acacia is a very large genus with hundreds of species. Some of these are close relations to Koa and a few share many of its best characteristics. One species that is widely used now is Australian Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) – this has been used by Australian guitar makers, such as Maton, for some time, and is increasingly being regarded as a worthy koa alternative.
Other species are actually also called koa – Taiwan or Formosan koa (Acacia confusa), found in southeast Asia, shares many of the same characteristics. A Taiwan-based instrument maker, AnueNue, produces interesting instruments using this wood – in combination with Hawaiian koa on some instruments.
In an interesting twist – mirroring the experience here in Australia – some of the non-native trees that have taken over a lot of Hawaii are also proving to be useful for guitar making. For instance, Kiawe (Prosopis pallida) is being used by builders such as Rick Micheletti in northern California.
And, finally, we can also move into the world of alternative non-wood guitar materials. We’ll cover these in more detail in future posts, but in the meantime, here is a look at a carbon fiber Weissenborn produced by Emerald Guitars in Ireland, with a video review by Justin Johnson here.
An interesting aside here is that John Decker, the founder of Rainsong Guitars – one of the first to produce carbon fiber guitars – was inspired to look at alternative materials during a rainy day on Maui. After running Rainsong for nearly 20 years, he returned to Maui and is now building finely crafted classical guitars, using traditional woods. John’s quoted as saying: “I retired from day-to-day operations with RainSong in 1998, and now I make classical wooden guitars as a sort of low-level occupation. I don’t make many—just a few a year, out of the usual exotic woods. But it’s ironic that I own a company that makes, give or take, a thousand guitars each year—almost all steel-string; we might make half a dozen or a dozen a year for nylon-strings—and they have no wood in them whatsoever.”
Is carbon fiber a glimpse of the future, or a step too far for guitars? Certainly the Emerald Weissenborn is a long way from the koa guitars built in the early parts of the 20th century. But hopefully the endeavours of Taylor and other companies will ensure an ongoing supply of guitar-quality koa into the future – meaning that, like in John Decker’s case, tradition and modern advances can co-exist.
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