History


There's really two threads to this,
one being the inception of the Steel Guitar method of playing,
the other being the evolution or appearance of the hollowneck guitar
which was developed for this style of playing.
If you have any contributions, or know of any historical tidbits,
just get in touch!

Many thanks to Greg @ The Knutsen Archives
and to the members of the Steel Guitar Forum
for their generous contributions.

Before you proceed any further, please bear in mind this quote from the inimitable Alan Brookes,
an ex-Brummy who now resides across the pond, maker of many different varieties of stringed instruments.

"Playing a string instrument with a bar is known from antiquity, in both ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek scrolls,
as is the blues scale.
I think people need to know that the blues is at least a million years old,
and did not originiate in New Orleans,
and slide playing goes right back to prehistoric times.
It didn't originate in Hawaii, Africa, or anywhere else.
Its derivation goes right back to the wheel, the hunting bow, the fire,
and all those things that we take for granted.
Don't waste time trying to find the origins of the Hawaiian guitar,
it existed before the guitar was invented,
and before the Hawaiian Islands were populated."


Hermann Weissenborn's workshop circa 1929

What's in a name?


They are most often referred to as "Weissenborn" guitars, ( an European surname, correctly pronounced "Vice-en-born", though also commonly pronounced "Wize-en-born" ).
This refers to the man most often credited with the popularisation of the hollowneck design.

See Wikipedia on Weissenborn

This name has become somewhat of a generic moniker for this style of guitar, in much the same way that "Dobro" has come to mean prettymuch any resonator guitar.


Mr Hermann Weissenborn


Chris J Knutsen

Some now somewhat cautiously refer to them as "Weissenborn-STYLE guitars", since a manufacturer of guitars based on Weissenborn's designs has now trademarked the name.
This means that officially these other manufacturers can't call their guitars "Weissenborns" any longer, but does it really matter?
Most people still call them Weissenborns.
But perhaps by rights maybe they should've been called "Knutsens"?
The most "correct" moniker would perhaps be "Hollow Neck Acoustic Hawaiian Steel Guitar", but that's a bit of a mouthful!
On this site we'll just call 'em hollowneck guitars.

But how did they come about?

The catalyst for the hollowneck design would seem to be simply the need for a louder guitar, coupled with the fact that the Steel Guitar / "Hawaiian-style" of playing flat on the lap means that the back of the neck is no longer constrained to a size which fits in the players hand.
Cue Mr.Knutsen, the Mad Professor already building his crazy Harp-Guitars,,then Mr.Weissenborn, who along with a few others exploited the market (in a good way)... for a while...

Essential Reading:


"From Harp Guiitars to the New Hawaiian Family,
Chris J. Knutsen History and Development
of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar"
by George T.Noe & Daniel Most

It transpires that the hollowneck design emerged alongside Knutsen's "convertible" guitars which appeared in 1909, ( where the body is extended headward, approaching the shape of a hollowneck, but not quite there. )
These convertible guitars were likey built due to the idea that a guitar that could also be played "regular style" would be more easily marketable
The different shape provided not only a better body shape for lap-style Hawaiian playing, but another benefit:
increased volume and a distinct change in tone when compared to a regular acoustic guitar.

Thanks to George T. Noe we now have a photo of the Knutsen guitar he and Dan Most knew had to exist...


1909 convertible Knutsen and contemporary HOLLOWNECK! circa 1909

Knutsen's early "convertible" Hawaiian guitars were the inspiration for the "Kona" guitars, later marketed by Charles S. Delano (a student of Joseph Kekuku) in the 20s.


The great John Fahey playing his Kona,
one of his favourite guitars,
which he lovingly called "cheap"
and used as an ashtray during
a TV interview in the 60s.

.



The Mysterious Luaui Guitar

It can now be confirmed that the hollowneck design pre-existed the Kona guitars and was copied by luthiers on the American mainland in the early 1900s, most likely originating in Hawaii in the late 1800s.


It is not known if any of these original Hawaiian-built guitars still exist.


The enigmatic discovery of the now infamous "Smoking Gun" Luaui guitar smoulders tantalizingly...

Or does it ?...

Potential roots of this design of instrument lie in Europe and Scandinavia hundreds of years ago, with the Hummel and various other stringed folk instruments which are played flat on the lap.


Hummels... photo: Alan Brookes

The distictive shape of the hollowneck resembles a cross between a regular acoustic guitar and an "hourglass" mountain dulcimer, kind of fig or pear-shaped, although some look like big salad spoons ( the "teardrop" ).


Appalacian Mountain Dulcimer

Other similarities to the dulcimer are that they are both designed to be played flat on the lap, the strings plucked/strummed with one hand, the other hand often using a bar to press down on the strings (in the case of the dulcimer, a stick - the "noter" is used to press the string down onto a fret...) indeed the Dulcimer may have influenced the Hollowneck design...

These are still fretted though, and so the steel guitar really depended on the availability of steel guitar strings and a bar with enough mass to enable decent sustain and volume without having to press the string down onto a fixed fret.

A closer ancestor may be the traditional instruments from India, such as the Vichitra Veena which is played with an egg-shaped glass slide, or the Gottuvadyam.


The Gottuvadyam

The fact that the string is not actually fretted is what gives Steel Guitar it's "microtonality", meaning that the player has access to "the notes between the notes" and can sharpen or flatten the pitch of the note being played by any amount & add expressive vibrato effects.



Bukka White playing resonator guitar with a knife-handle

"Who did it first" is an often hotly contested subject!
The method certainly arose from experimentation using "found objects" later adapted to suit the application.
So railroad-spike or knife-handle became the smooth metal bar that gives Steel Guitar it's name.


Joseph Kekuku, often credited with inventing
the Steel Guitar style.

The style of playing may even have been born of necessity, on guitars rendered unplayable by any other means due to bowing or warping of the neck resulting in impossibly high action.

"Fretting" the strings with, for example, a knife, provides a playable instrument.
Anything the right size & shape, smooth enough to slide on the strings and heavy enough to provide sustain will do the job...

The steel guitar style was in all likelyhood invented by different people, at different times, independently of each other, but the Hawaiians made the Steel Guitar Sound their own.


 

 


"Bessie" c.1927
(image copyright Norma Grinstead and courtesy of Ben Elder)

Hawaiian musicians toured the USA and the rest of The World, opening peoples' ears and hearts to the Sound of Singing Steel.

You can read in depth elsewhere about the Hawaiian Music Boom brought about by the huge exhibitions & tours on mainland America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Mass public exposure to this exotic new sound ( not only from touring musicians, but also on those new-fangled wireless vacuum-tube radio-wave recievers using the electrical amplification ) led to massive demand for Hawaiian music all over.

Demand for instruments grew, and Hawaiian Music schools and publishing companies sprang up to provide tuition and sheet music books & courses, such as Bronson, Kamiki, Oahu Publishing Co, RadioTone/Hawaiian Teachers of Hollywood and many others.

The appealingly vocal-like quality of the Steel Guitar Method meant it quickly became prevalent in American Folk Music at the time, becoming incorporated into forms of music which are now known as Country-Blues, Gospel, Bluegrass & The Blues...
It is unclear & debatable which genre influenced which at this time!

( See "Not From the American South, But From the Blue Pacific": The Steel Guitar in Early Country Music... Article from "Aloha Dream Magazine )

Essential reading for Hawaiian Steel Guitarists


King Bennie

The Hawaiian Music Boom led the relentless quest for volume, in order for the guitar to be heard amongst other louder instruments.
The humble Hollowneck ultimately lost the Volume War shootout with the Resonators, and with the advent of electric Hawaiian guitars, it retreated, Kenobi-like, to the desert.

 


Sol Hoopii

Meanwhile the Resonators and then the Electric Steel Guitar, through Hawaiian and Country & Western Music, further evolved into the Pedal Steel Guitar, with it's multiple necks and tunings.


Rickenbacher "Frypan" Electric Steel Guitar
photo: Klaus Luginsland

The development of the magnetic pickup was instigated by Hawaiian Guitar, and so the wheels were set in motion for the evolution of that Monolith of Mankind's Acheivements, THE ELECTRIC GUITAR,
from whence arose all the musical genres which it so dominates.


No Hawaiian Guitar... No Death Metal???

 

In the quest for the Holy Grail of Volume, the value of the beautiful of tone of these guitars was overshadowed, and the hollownecks seemed to slip into obscurity...
Or did they?...
They certainly stopped being made.
Or did they?...

What of the European builders?

In the USA, many would have changed hands frequently during the years of the Great Depression.
Many were sold and lost, found and broken.
Some inevitably were munched to dust by critters.
Some though would have ended up in hands less fortunate than their previous owners, and been much appreciated for their cathartic tone.


Jimmie Tarlton playing unidentified hollowneck


Pandit Debashish Battacharya
& his "Trinity of Guitars"

In India, the singing quality of the acoustic Hollowneck and Hawaiian/Lap style playing were recieved with open arms and ears, the sound well-suited to Ragas.
In fact, as stringed instruments played with a slide have a long history there, the technique would have been familiar to musicians there.
The acoustic Hawaiian Guitar was swiftly assimilated into Indian Classical Music and spawned a number of adaptations to the basic design with the addition of drone and sympathetic strings.
These adaptations are many and varied, the Chatarangui, "Hindustani Steel Guitar" and various slide instruments often dubbed "Veenas" are well established in the music of that region.

Steel guitar in it's many forms is now prevalent in many musical genres, and steel guitar in general is experiencing somewhat of a resurgance thanks in no small part to the internet.