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The Hawaiian guitar produces one of the most recognizable and soothing sounds in music. With its signature slide technique and open tunings, the Hawaiian guitar creates a laid-back island vibe that transports listeners to the sunny shores of Hawaii.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The Hawaiian guitar is known for its distinctive sliding and melodic sound. Some common Hawaiian guitar names include the lap steel guitar, slide guitar, and steel guitar.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the evolution of the Hawaiian guitar and delve into the key elements that define its iconic sound. We will learn about the different styles and tunings used and look at some of the famous Hawaiian guitarists who helped popularize this instrument.

The Origins of the Hawaiian Guitar

The history of the Hawaiian guitar is a fascinating journey that spans continents and cultures. Its unique sound and distinctive playing style have captivated musicians and listeners alike for generations. In this section, we will explore the origins of the Hawaiian guitar, examining its introduction to Hawaii and the various influences that shaped its development.

Intro to the History

The roots of the Hawaiian guitar can be traced back to the late 19th century when Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii to work in the sugarcane plantations. These immigrants brought with them a small, four-stringed instrument called the “machete.” The machete, which is similar to a ukulele, was played by plucking the strings with the fingers. It is believed that the Hawaiians, inspired by the sound of the machete, adapted it to create the Hawaiian guitar.

Influence from Mexican Cowboys

Interestingly, the development of the Hawaiian guitar was also influenced by Mexican cowboys known as “vaqueros.” In the late 19th century, Mexican vaqueros came to Hawaii to teach Hawaiians the art of cattle ranching. Along with their horsemanship skills, the vaqueros brought their guitars, which they played in a unique style known as “slide guitar.” This involved sliding a metal or glass object, such as a knife or a bottleneck, along the strings to produce a distinctive sound. The Hawaiians embraced this technique and incorporated it into their own playing style, further shaping the sound of the Hawaiian guitar.

Development in Hawaii

As the Hawaiian guitar gained popularity in Hawaii, it began to evolve and develop its own distinct characteristics. Musicians experimented with different materials for the slide, such as metal, glass, and bone, to achieve different tones and timbres. They also explored various playing techniques, incorporating elements of traditional Hawaiian music, such as slack-key guitar, and blending it with the unique slide guitar style.

Over time, the Hawaiian guitar became a symbol of Hawaiian culture and identity, with its enchanting melodies and soulful sound captivating audiences worldwide. Today, it continues to be a prominent instrument in Hawaiian music, as well as in various genres around the world.

For more information on the history of the Hawaiian guitar, you can visit

Defining Features of the Hawaiian Guitar

The Hawaiian guitar, also known as the steel guitar, is a unique instrument with a rich history and a distinctive sound. It is primarily associated with Hawaiian music but has also made its mark in various genres around the world. Let’s explore the defining features that make the Hawaiian guitar so special.

Open and Slack Key Tunings

One of the defining features of the Hawaiian guitar is its open and slack key tunings. Unlike standard guitar tuning, which involves tightening the strings to specific pitches, the Hawaiian guitar is often tuned to open chords or slackened strings. This unique tuning allows for a more resonant and melodic sound, making it ideal for the distinctive style of Hawaiian music.

Steel Strings

Unlike traditional guitars, the Hawaiian guitar typically uses steel strings instead of nylon or gut strings. This choice of strings gives the instrument a brighter and more metallic tone, contributing to its unique sound. The steel strings also allow for greater sustain and volume, making the Hawaiian guitar well-suited for solo performances.

Use of a Slide

The use of a slide, also known as a steel or bottleneck, is another characteristic feature of the Hawaiian guitar. The slide is a tube-like object usually made of metal or glass that is worn on one of the player’s fingers. By sliding the slide along the strings, the player can create smooth glissandos and expressive vibrato, adding a distinctive flavor to the music.

Lap Playing Style

The Hawaiian guitar is commonly played in a lap-style technique, where the instrument rests flat on the player’s lap or a stand. This allows for greater control and precision in manipulating the slide and producing the desired tones. The lap playing style also enables the player to use both hands for simultaneous picking and sliding, resulting in a rich and intricate sound.

These defining features of the Hawaiian guitar contribute to its unique and captivating sound. Whether you’re a fan of Hawaiian music or simply curious about different musical instruments, exploring the world of the Hawaiian guitar is sure to be a fascinating journey.

Styles and Tunings of the Hawaiian Guitar

Slack Key

One of the most popular styles of Hawaiian guitar playing is known as slack key. This unique style involves tuning the guitar strings to a specific open chord and then “slacking” or loosening some of the strings to create a melodic and resonant sound. The result is a beautiful and relaxed playing style that is often associated with the laid-back atmosphere of the Hawaiian islands. Slack key guitarists often incorporate fingerpicking and intricate fingerstyle techniques to create a rich and textured sound.

Open D Major Tuning

Another common tuning for the Hawaiian guitar is Open D Major. In this tuning, the guitar is tuned to a D major chord, which allows for easy chord shapes and a bright, ringing sound. Open D Major tuning is often used in traditional Hawaiian music and is favored by many Hawaiian guitar players for its versatility and ease of play. It is also a popular choice for slide guitar playing, as the open strings provide a rich and resonant tone when combined with a slide.

Open E Major Tuning

Open E Major tuning is another popular choice among Hawaiian guitarists. In this tuning, the guitar is tuned to an E major chord, which creates a rich and full-bodied sound. Open E Major tuning is often used in blues and rock music, but it can also be adapted to Hawaiian music styles. The open strings in this tuning allow for easy chord shapes and provide a bright and vibrant sound that is well-suited to the Hawaiian guitar.

Open G Major Tuning

Open G Major tuning is another common tuning for the Hawaiian guitar. In this tuning, the guitar is tuned to a G major chord, which creates a warm and mellow sound. Open G Major tuning is often used in folk and country music, but it can also be adapted to Hawaiian music styles. The open strings in this tuning allow for easy chord shapes and provide a relaxed and soothing sound that is perfect for the laid-back atmosphere of the Hawaiian islands.

Influential Hawaiian Guitarists

Joseph Kekuku

One of the most influential figures in the history of Hawaiian guitar, Joseph Kekuku is credited with inventing the slide guitar technique. Born in 1874 in Hawaii, Kekuku discovered the unique sound of sliding a metal object, such as a railroad spike, along the strings of his guitar. This technique, known as “steel guitar,” became synonymous with Hawaiian music and played a significant role in shaping its distinctive sound. Kekuku’s innovation revolutionized the way the guitar was played and paved the way for future Hawaiian guitarists.

Sol Hoopii

Sol Hoopii is another legendary Hawaiian guitarist who left an indelible mark on the music scene. Born in 1902, Hoopii was known for his virtuosic playing style and innovative approach to the instrument. He incorporated elements of jazz and blues into his music, pushing the boundaries of traditional Hawaiian guitar. Hoopii’s unique sound and technical prowess captivated audiences both in Hawaii and abroad, earning him a place among the greatest Hawaiian guitarists of all time.

Lani McIntyre

Lani McIntyre, a highly skilled guitarist and bandleader, made significant contributions to the Hawaiian music scene. Born in 1904, McIntyre was a versatile musician who incorporated various styles into his playing, including swing and big band. He was a member of the influential Royal Hawaiian Serenaders, a group that popularized Hawaiian music throughout the United States. McIntyre’s melodic and innovative guitar playing, combined with his leadership skills, helped shape the sound of Hawaiian music during the mid-20th century.

Gabby Pahinui

Gabby Pahinui, often referred to as the “Father of Modern Slack Key Guitar,” was a highly influential Hawaiian guitarist and singer. Born in 1921, Pahinui is best known for his mastery of slack key guitar, a unique fingerpicking style that originated in Hawaii. He played a crucial role in preserving and popularizing this traditional Hawaiian art form, which involves retuning the guitar strings to create unique harmonies and resonances. Pahinui’s soulful playing and expressive vocals continue to inspire guitarists worldwide.

For more information on Hawaiian guitarists and the history of Hawaiian music, you can visit

The Legacy of the Hawaiian Guitar

The Hawaiian guitar, also known as the lap steel guitar, has a rich and fascinating history that has left an indelible mark on the world of music. Its unique sound and versatility have captured the hearts of musicians and listeners alike, making it a beloved instrument across genres and generations.

Use in Country Music

One of the most notable aspects of the Hawaiian guitar’s legacy is its significant impact on country music. In the early 20th century, country musicians began incorporating the instrument into their performances, adding a distinct and soulful sound to the genre. The smooth gliding notes and emotive slides of the Hawaiian guitar perfectly complemented the heartfelt lyrics and twangy melodies of country songs. Artists like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson embraced the instrument, contributing to its popularity in the country music scene.

Adoption by Pop Artists

Beyond country music, the Hawaiian guitar found its way into the mainstream pop music scene. In the 1950s and 1960s, pop artists began incorporating the instrument into their songs, adding a touch of exoticism and a dreamy quality to their music. The hypnotic tones of the Hawaiian guitar can be heard in iconic songs like “Sleepwalk” by Santo & Johnny and “Pipeline” by The Chantays. These artists introduced the instrument to a wider audience, cementing its place in pop music history.

Continued Popularity in Hawaii

In its homeland of Hawaii, the lap steel guitar continues to be an integral part of the local music scene. The instrument’s deep cultural roots in Hawaiian music have ensured its enduring popularity on the islands. From traditional Hawaiian melodies to contemporary Hawaiian music, the Hawaiian guitar adds a distinctive and soul-stirring element to the sounds of the islands. Its melodic resonance evokes the lush landscapes and serene beauty of Hawaii, making it an essential component of the island’s musical heritage.

For more information on the history and sound of the Hawaiian guitar, you can visit


Over a century after its origins, the Hawaiian guitar continues to captivate listeners with its euphonious melodies. Its laidback vibe and nostalgic sound have secured its place in music history. Though it evolved far from Hawaii, the Hawaiian guitar remains an iconic symbol of the islands. Whenever the sliding notes ring out, we are transported straight to the tranquil shores of paradise.

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