There are three conflicting claims attributing the invention of the steel guitar to three different people: James Hoa, Gabriel Davion and Joseph Kekuku. Of this trio, Kekuku has been the most commonly mentioned as inventor of the steel guitar – and the evidence is impressive. (Kanahele)
Likewise, there are three stories as to how Kekuku started the steel guitar phenomenon: (1) walking along a road, a rusty bolt accidentally vibrated one of the strings, (2) rather than a road, he was walking along the railroad tracks, he picked up a bolt and slid it across the strings and (3) he was playing his hair comb wrapped in tissue paper like a harmonica, with his guitar in his lap, he dropped the comb on the strings causing them to vibrate.
The latter was on the Kamehameha Schools website, where he was student at the time … come to your own conclusion – most credit Kekuku as being the originator.
Kekuku was then inspired to substitute the back of his knife for his comb. Later, in the school shop, Kekuku developed the smooth, steel playing bar used today, and raised the guitar frets so that the bar would glide easily across the strings. He also switched from gut to wire strings for more sustained notes, and designed individual finger picks for the opposing hand. (Hawaiian Music Museum)
Joseph Kekukuʻupena-kanaʻiaupunio Kamehameha Āpuakēhau (Keeper of the nets that surround the kingdom of Kamehameha) (Joseph Kekuku) is credited for inventing the Kīkā Kila, the steel guitar.
In 1993, Joseph Kekuku was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame with full honors as the inventor of the Hawaiian steel guitar. In 1995, he was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.
Kekuku was born (in 1874 or 1875) in Lāʻie at Koʻolauloa on the windward side of Oʻahu, one of a large family of Joseph Kekukupena Āpuakēhau and Miliama Kaopua. At 15, he and his cousin, Sam Nainoa, left for boarding school at Kamehameha Schools in Kalihi.
In 1889, while attending the Kamehameha School for Boys, Kekuku accidentally discovered the sound of the steel guitar. He then performed in school concerts.
That sound has been described as, “”The most beautiful and soothing of all music is brought to us from the South Seas islands of the Pacific and to many the instrumental and vocal music of Hawaiians is by far the sweetest.” (Dover Historical Society)
Kamehameha notes Kekuku was in the class of 1894; in 1904, the left for the American continent performing in vaudeville theaters from coast to coast. His group was ‘Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet’ and were sponsored by a management group called ‘The Affiliated.’
In 1909, Seattle was the host city of a world’s fair – the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P.) The A-Y-P Exposition featured Joseph Kekuku who apparently intrigued enough fair attendees that he was swamped with requests to give lessons and as a result Kekuku reportedly stuck around town for a while to provide locals with steeling lessons.
In time, Kekuku relocated to Los Angeles where he helped the Hawaiian craze expand, performing and taking on students, one of whom – Myrtle Stumpf – went on to produce the first-ever tutorial course, a 68-page classic booklet titled: the Original Hawaiian Method for Steel Guitar. (Blecha)
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 provided another showcase and fueled the Hawaiian Music craze across the country. The Hawaiian Pavilion was built; there were Hawaiian shows several times a day.
Joseph Kekuku was a guest artist. The impact of this expo was phenomenal. It was followed by an instant boom in Hawaiian recordings (which outsold all other pop music recordings), Hollywood movies with Hawaiian themes, formation of new Hawaiian musical groups, and demand for instruction on steel guitar. (Bocchino)
“Mr Kekuku has appeared in the one hundred and twenty-five largest cities of America. Over one million people have heard him play. It is not uncommon for Mr Kekuku to play five encore numbers for each regular selection presented. His audiences seem never to tire of the beautiful music.” (Promotional Brochure)
“Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet, bringing with them a breath of the Paradise Isles will be the main feature of the closing day (at Chautauqua, Lompoc Opera House.) The honey-sweetness and soft witchery of the languorous music of the Hawaiians curl around the heart of the listener like the invisible tendrils of a dream.”
“The key to this irresistible whispering hum-like effect in stringed music is in the hands of Joseph Kekuku of Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet, premier Hawaiian players and singers of the original Toots Paka, Alisky and Bird of Paradise Companies.”
“Mr, Kekuku is the originator of the celebrated steel method of guitar playing, the most bewitching note yet sounded in instrumental music. The members of Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet are: Joseph Kekuku, steel method guitar; Henry Aaka, basso, harpguitar; Alfred Weila, baritone, ukulele; Gaby Kalau, tenor, guitar, taropatch.” (Lompoc Journal, May 19, 1916)
Kekuku later joined the Bird of Paradise show that toured Europe from 1919 to 1927 (he was probably the first to play steel guitar on that continent.)
“Like the New York Times columnist who admired the ‘scenic beauty’ of The Bird of Paradise, most critics appreciated the production’s impressive staging. The inclusion of native Hawaiian musicians proved equally critical to the show’s success, and their music became a key selling point.”
“Enthusiastic reviewers of the musicians and the music of The Bird of Paradise commended ‘the native musicians who make the haunting musical interpolations of their own land’ and drew attention to the distinctive ‘threnody of the ukulele and the haunting, yearning cry of steel pressed against the strings of the guitar.” (Garrett)
He returned to the United States at the age of 53 and first settled in Chicago; around 1930, he left Chicago and visited Dover, New Jersey (he later moved to Dover – he was often referred to as “The Hawaiian.”) (Bocchino)
On January 16, 1932 at the age of 58 Joseph Kekuku died in Morristown of a brain hemorrhage; he is buried in the Orchard Street Cemetery, Dover, New Jersey.