The most famous guitars in the world trace their origins to Hawai‘i. (Kealakai Center for Pacific Strings)
The Dreadnought guitar is a larger bodied acoustic guitar that was developed by the Martin Guitar Company in 1916. Martin invented the Dreadnought shape and it has since become one of the most popular shapes for many guitar manufacturers.
It was named after a British Royal Navy battleship ‘Dreadnought’ launched in 1906 (the first of a new class of large battleships); the vessel was a turning point in naval history, bettering its rivals in terms of armament, speed, size and firepower. The HMS Dreadnought famously sunk the German SM U-29 submarine in 1915.
Early Martin designs were based on smaller body sizes but, before amplification, as the demand for more volume and projection grew and musical styles and genres evolved, larger bodied guitars were introduced. (Martin)
(Size matters; the larger the guitar, the more it can project its sound to the admiring audience.)
Over time the Dreadnought has become a signature design for the Martin guitar company and played by countess well-known musicians from Johnny Cash to Eric Clapton to Neil Young to Bob Dylan and many others. (Bernstein)
It started with Mekia Kealaka‘i.
Kilin Reece contends that a Hawaiian musician should be credited with an active role in the evolution of the modern acoustic guitar – Mekia Kealaka‘i.
“Martin Guitar has been producing ukuleles for over 100 years, and the roots of the iconic Dreadnought guitar started in Hawaii, which may people do not know.” (Amani Duncan, Martin’s Vice President of Brand Marketing in Martin Journal of Acoustic Guitars, 2016)
It goes back to July of 1916, when Hawaiian music was all the rage following its introduction to a large portion of the American public at the Panama Pacific Exposition in Chicago the previous year.
“Following the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (which, with 18 million visitors, was a major turning point in the popularity of Hawaiian music), one of the most talked about performers from the event’s ‘Hawaiian Pavilion’ took his band on a tour of the United States.”
“Traveling to venues across the United States, Mekia ‘Major’ Kealakai’s Royal Hawaiian Sextette was a smash hit, with crowd thronging to witness the band’s exciting, steel-stringed sound.”
“Finding a guitar loud enough to reach these growing mainland audience soon became a problem for Major. To solve it, Kealakai reached out to America’s prominent guitar manufacturer to talk about something different – and something bigger.”
“[T]he craftspeople at Martin Guitar devised a steel-string instrument large enough to suit the needs of the Royal Sextette’s sound – and the largest guitar Martin ever produced.” (Walsh, Martin Journal of Acoustic Guitars, 2020)
“Mekia Kealakai was the first person to ask Martin to make a jumbo steel-string guitar. He was one of only four people at that point that the Martin Guitar Company made a guitar for, and they called it the Kealakai model.”
“Those templates were used to make the first dreadnought guitar, the most imitated and widely used acoustic guitar in the world.” (Kilin Reece)
“CF Martin & Co. made its Kealakai model in 1916, one year after the exposition. The standard size for a guitar was smaller then, more suited to the parlor than the stage.”
“Kealakai, seeking a stronger projection when he played Hawaiian lap steel, asked for a bigger-bodied instrument.”
“The resulting design was repurposed in an order for Oliver Ditson and Company, which has long been understood, inaccurately, as the originators of the dreadnought guitar.” (Reece: Hanahou article by Nate Chinen)
“Mekia Kealakai is a crucial part of that legacy. Born into poverty, the son of a sergeant major in the Royal Guard (hence the name “Mekia,” which means “major”), he received rigorous musical training in reform school, where he’d been sent for truancy at age 12.”
“His teacher – Henry Berger, then the conductor of the Royal Hawaiian Band – trained him in the European concert tradition. Mekia entered the band in his teens as a trombonist and flutist.” (Reece, Hanahou)
“[A]t age 15, [he] joined the Royal Hawaiian Band as Berger’s star protege, and within a short time was composing songs with Liliʻuokalani and Kalākaua, eventually leading the Royal Hawaiian Band in a tour across the United States in 1895.” (Reece, Ka Wai Ola)
“During a Mainland tour in 1895, Kealakai caught the ear of the composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa, who wanted to hire him.” (Reece, Hanahou)
“[He] toured the U.S. continent as a member of Ka Bana Lahui; at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo he demonstrated a “triple-tongue” technique so accomplished that John Philip Sousa called him the “greatest flutist” he had “ever heard.” (Kīkā Kila)
“But Kealakai turned him down and remained in Hawaiian string bands for the next ten years, playing up and down the West Coast from Portland to San Francisco before touring America and Europe and with his own act, Major Kealakai’s Royal Hawaiian Sextette.”
“He met his future wife, the noted hula dancer Mele Nawaaheihei, at the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York.” (Reece, Hanahou)
He eventually returning home to take over the leadership of the Royal Hawaiian Band, complete with a glee club, largely, as he put it, “to help preserve Hawaiian music.” (Kīkā Kila)