The history and evolution of slide guitar

There is a lot of speculation as to the origin of slide guitar, but undoubtedly the two main contributors are Hawaii and Africa via North America . 

The story goes that in Hawaii around 1887-89 a boy called Joseph Kekuku was walking down a road or some say an old railway track playing his guitar, when he picked up a metal bolt and started sliding it on the strings. Fascinated by the sound, he practised and perfected the new technique until he felt it was ready to be performed in front of an audience. In the years that followed the new sound and approach proved to be a great success. His popularity further increased when he toured America and Europe where he even played at the London Palladium in front of royalty.

Guitars were popular in Hawaii as Mexican Cowboys who used to work on American run ranches brought the guitars over from Mexico. Another influence also brought to Hawaii via Mexico was Bavarian yodelling, as Emperor Maximillian in the 1860s was colonising Mexico, so the Mexican Cowboys brought Alpine yodelling as well as guitars to contribute to the Hawaiian sound, this can clearly be heard in the music.

The Hawaiian guitar is also known as ‘steel guitar’, or ‘lap steel’, the ‘steel’ is referring to the solid steel slide bar used when playing. A lap position is adopted when playing the instrument and over the years since it first appeared, there have been many types of variations and modifications from double neck versions to hollow necks to pedal assisted, all very much part of the mainstream now and adopted in many forms of popular music.

Hawaiian guitar bands grew in popularity in America particularly around 1915 when the San Francisco Panama – Pacific trade fair had musicians from Hawaii playing on the Hawaiian stand to promote tourism. From then, it eventually became famous the world over.

Shortly after the emergence of Hawaiian guitar in America the slide guitar associated with the blues also appeared. The famous blues man W.C. Handy, documents hearing a guitarist around 1907 sliding a knife across the strings to great effect. Blues slide guitar may have evolved concurrently with Hawaiian guitar at this time, as a one stringed instrument known as the diddly bow of West African origin was also played with a slide. The diddly bow was mainly played and popularised in the rural South, and considered a forerunner to the blues slide guitar we know of today. The technique of placing a hollow slide on the finger so a conventional guitar could be used, quickly gained in popularity. The slides themselves also featured all manner of materials from hollowed out bones to the necks of bottles hence the term bottleneck guitar, each material giving distinctively different sounds. These type of slides can fit over the finger and are not solid thus allowing the guitar to be played in an upright position as opposed to the lap position. This of course facilitates the different playing styles in the ever evolving world of slide guitar.

As the popularity of Hawaiian and blues guitar started to spread, the cross pollination of different types of music started to take form, blues and gospel music of African American origins started to cross pollinate with rural American folk forms of European origins namely Irish, English and French music. This in turn led to the formation of different types of country music, which of course heavily features different types of slide guitar from pedal steel to lap steel to resonator guitars etc, creating a whole industry of slide specific guitar types. Amplification had also appeared as far back as the 1930s as electric instruments were starting to take hold. Slide guitar by this time had found its way into many popular forms of music from, Big Band to Western swing, Country & Western , Bluegrass, Folk, the list goes on. It is worth checking out a few players from around this period, musicians like Alvino Rey who played in a big band setting and conjured all manner of sounds and techniques from his steel guitar ,even on occasion making it literally talk, by using early vocoder technology.

This cross pollination of different styles and techniques however does not stop here, the slide guitar has travelled and evolved in many diverse locations and regions including Burma and India. In Burma for instance the Hawaiian guitar was added as a result of a developing film industry in around 1943. Burmese slide guitar is tuned like a violin with variations like one of the unison strings dropped a quarter of a tone to achieve authentic Burmese intonation. This gives Burmese slide its own identity, together with the music itself, that can have abrupt shifts in rhythm and melody with vivid contrasts of texture and unpredictable sudden outbursts. On first hearing to western ears, it can sound chaotic, almost like a backing band for a great Captain Beefheart record. All good for the continuing evolution and diversity of the slide guitar.

Another important location of course is India where the slide guitar was introduced by an important figure called Tau Moe. Tau Moe was a Samoan raised in Laie Hawaii, he toured extensively in Asia and indeed all over the world with his particular brand of Hawaiian and Samoan music, this included both dancing and native ritual music. He created a lasting impression, particularly in India where he lived during the war years. He cut his final record with the late great Bob Brozman in 1988 and passed away in 2004 aged 95 .

After the war years there was a time of very productive cultural exchange and immigration and the blues had  infiltrated  many forms of popular music including Rock ‘n’ Roll and Jazz. The postwar freedom enjoyed in the 1960s lead to a revolution of exchange, travel and communication, all good news for the further development of musical ideas.

Indian music in particular at this time was very important, and the slide guitar in the early 60s found itself in the hands of Brij Bushan Kabra, his slide guitar was perfectly suited to the Hindustani classical tradition of North India in that it could simulate the vocal inflections and nuances that are so important to this music. The guitar itself was adapted with sympathetic strings and drone strings and played in a lap position with a steel bar slide. This tradition of Hindustani slide guitar has continued to the present day with modern exponents like the excellent Debashish Battarcharya who has many recordings available.

During the 1960s further integration with Indian music came when sitarist Ravi Shankar toured the west and met with George Harrison from The Beatles. Harrison was also a slide player as we know, he was particularly interesting, in that he played slide ,but not in an overtly blues context. His collaboration with Ravi Shankar and interest in Indian music lead to some timeless songs and also his lesser known soundtrack album Wonderwall music, which was an experimental psychedelic sounding record with a heavy dose of eastern influence and instrumentation. George Harrison’s song ‘ Norwegian Wood ‘ and later ‘ Within you without you’ lead many people to want the sitar sound on their recordings. The problem was that the sitar is a difficult instrument to tune, play and obtain in the west. In fact it was apparently Jimmy Page at the time, when he was a session man, who told a journalist that an electric sitar was needed. The sitar influence eventually collided with the guitar in the form of a sitar guitar invented by Vincent Bell. The coral electric sitar was launched by the company in 1967.

In India Western instruments like the Hawaiian steel guitar had combined with traditional Indian instruments particularly in the Indian film industry where film composers such as Burman Hemant Kumar and Salil Choudhury introduced music from folk traditions, mixing modernity with tradition and combining Western and indigenous elements. One notable slide player in Bollywood film music was Sunil Ganguly who had a lot of popularity in India for both songs and film music. There are of course many other musicians of note, but sadly too many to mention here .

From the beginning of the last century to the present day slide guitar continues to evolve and integrate in many forms of music and styles and it is important to check out all the great slide players from the past to the present day, guitarists  like Derek Trucks and Rick Vito who combine West and East in their playing together with Sonny Landreth for Cajun influences or Dave Tronzo for experimental approaches, and don’t forget there is also a wealth of innovative equipment and slide gadgets out there. Please check out my own contribution at eastwestslide.com and other articles for east west slide productions.

Clinton Beale