Roger Guy Scott Cundell
This project examines the transformation in the early 20th century of the steel guitar from a Hawaiian folk instrument to a mainstay of American popular music. The steel guitar – here characterised as a prepared instrument and a performance style whereby a guitar is positioned face up on the lap of a seated player who stops the strings by means of a steel bar – is a late 19th century Hawaiian adaption of the Spanish guitar. Its original role was that of a solo and accompanying instrument in the performance of Hawaiian music, which was itself an ethnic music tradition that had developed under American and European colonial influences. Once Hawaiian music was exposed to Western audiences in the early 20th century, its popularity grew rapidly and it evolved from an ethnic curiosity to a global popular music phenomenon. The steel guitar was at first synonymous with Hawaiian music, but just as the music became more global in its outreach, so too did the instrument itself. The steel guitar came to be gradually divorced from its original, ethnic Hawaiian context, and was incorporated steadily into a range of mainland American popular music stylings. This study examines the origins of the steel guitar, the evolution of early steel guitar style and the context in which the evolution occurred.