The Hawaiian Lap Steel: History, Tuning and Players
By Mark Byrnes

This is the second part of a three part series discussing the instruments, music and culture of the Hawaiian Islands and the effect that it has had on popular music and culture. In part two we will look at the introduction of the lap steel in Hawaiian music and its great effect on modern music from 1915 to the present day.

A Brief Introduction
Having been employed by Music folk these last few years has brought back a passion that I thought was lost and forgotten, the cry and moan of a slide on a steel string.
Living in the St. Louis area most of my life, and only blocks away from Scotty's Music, I had the opportunity from the age of eight to hear some of the worlds best steel guitar players. Scotty's was known as "THE" place to go for everything that was steel guitar. I remember going to the Christmas parties or walking into the store just before the weekend of the International Steel Guitar Convention in the late 70's and seeing Dewitt "Scotty" Scott Sr. jamming with Jerry Byrd, or seeing Herb Remington, Speedy West, Buddy Emmons and Jeff Newman jamming together. Listening to the up and comers and veteran players from Nashville like Herbie Wallace, Doug Jernigan, Hal Rugg and Paul Franklin take those jazzy Emmons' licks and push them to a new level. And seeing Jerry Garcia stop by just to say hi, those were the days.
Even though most of the players listed in the previous paragraph are well known for their pedal steel abilities. They all could do amazing things with a Rickenbacher Fry Pan. Some, like Jerry Byrd, an innovator in lap steel, will be featured in this article.

The History
As the story goes, one day in Hawaii 1885, Joseph Kekuku walking along a railroad track picked up a metal bolt and slid it across the strings of his guitar. Little did he know he would change the world of the Spanish guitar. Joseph became the first to popularize this technique of using a slide and introduced it in the Panama Pacific Expedition in 1915, the same expedition that introduced the ukulele to the mainland mentioned in the previous series.
By the early 1920's the slide guitar was divided into two different camps, bottle-neck style played on a standard guitar and lap style. These lap style guitars had raised strings and unlike the bottle-neck style that was closely associated with the blues, the lap style guitars could be heard in Hawaiian, country, big band and western swing music.
Most Hawaiian lap style guitars built in the early days were made out of wood, had hollow necks and high strings. One of the better known guitars of the time was the Weissenborn, made popular by lap steel guitar giant Sol Hoopii. By the mid 1920's players were looking for more volume for the larger venues they were playing and turned to the newly developed resonator guitars made by manufactures such as National. Sol Hoopii also used these as well as the electric steels to follow in the early 1930's.
By the mid 30's there were a number of electric lap steels on the market. Rickenbacher (still using an H instead of a K), Gibson, Bronson, Oahu, National and Regal all had guitars on the market. These at first had six strings, but with the advent of western swing and jazz, different tunings developed, needing seven, eight and even ten strings on the neck. This also made a demand for multiple neck guitars, up to three on your lap for different tunings. With complaints coming from the players having to use tables to set these instruments on, the manufactures got smart and put legs on these multiple neck lap steels.

The Tunings
(All tunings in this section are listed from the high string to the low string)
First let's discuss the traditional Hawaiian tunings made popular by Sol Hoopii and Jerry Byrd as well as others.
Sol Hoopii Played in a number of variations on E major as well as a low A bass and high A bass. Although he recorded well into the early 1950's, many modern players are unaware that the tunings they are using were developed almost 90 years ago.

STRINGS 1 2 3 4 5 6
A Low Bass E C# A E A E
A High Bass E C# A E C# A
E Major E B G# E B E
C# minor E C# G# E D B

Jerry Byrd is one the most influential lap steel players of all times, with his development of the C6th tuning as well as providing us with many of the Hawaiian lap steel standards that we hear today. He was one of the great endorsers of Hawaiian lap steel before his death and is credited with single-handedly saving the steel guitar from extinction in Hawaii.
Here are some of Jerry Byrd's most popular tunings, these include 6, 7 and 8 string necks. Enjoy!

STRING 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
A Major E C# A E C# A
E Major E B G# E B E
E 7th E B G# E D B
C# min E C# G# E D B
C6th/A7 E C A G E C# C A
F#min9 E C# G# E A# F# C# G#
C diatonic E C B A G F E
B11th E C# A F# D# C# A

Here are some more tunings used in Hawaiian style lap steel guitar.

STRING 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
A6th E C# A F# E C# A F#
F Maj7th E C A F E C
D9th E C A F# E C#
A13b9th E C# A F# E C# Bb G
E6th E C# B G# E D E G#
E13th E C# G# F# D B G# E
C13th E C A G E C Bb C

And the most commonly used 6 string tuning.

STRINGS 1 2 3 4 5 6
C6th E C A G E C

Listen to the Players
If you want to listen to some veterans and up and comers in this style of music here's a list of some of the trend setters. Search the internet, there's some great music out there.
Sol Hoopii, Jerry Byrd, Dick McIntire, John Ely, Andy Iona, Billy Hew Len, Bruce Clark, Ralph Kalsiana and Barney Isaacs.
Though the lap steel was at first considered an Hawaiian instrument there are many great players in other genres. Here is a list of just a few.
Country: Junior Brown, Don Helms, Jeremy Wakefield and Marian Hall.
Western Swing: Cindy Cashdollar, Herb Remington, Joaquin Murphey, Bob Dunn and Leon McAuliffe.
Roots Music: Pete Grant, Ed Gerhard, Lee Jeffries and Jody Carver.
Rock and Roll: Ben Harper, David Lindley and Steve Howe.

Vaudeville act "Byrnes & Blair" displaying their skill on the "Superdupro".

Music Folk carries a wide variety of new and vintage lap steels and accessories as well as resophonics. If you have any questions on this subject please give us a call at 314/961-2838 or email

Look for our third and last installment of this series:
Slack Key Guitar - History, Tunings and Players


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