Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music

Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music

Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music

Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music


Since the nineteenth century, the distinct tones of k& 299;k&257; kila, the Hawaiian steel guitar, have defined the island sound. Here historian and steel guitarist John W. Troutman offers the instrument's definitive history, from its discovery by a young Hawaiian royalist named Joseph Kekuku to its revolutionary influence on American and world music. During the early twentieth century, Hawaiian musicians traveled the globe, from tent shows in the Mississippi Delta, where they shaped the new sounds of country and the blues, to regal theaters and vaudeville stages in New York, Berlin, Kolkata, and beyond. In the process, Hawaiian guitarists recast the role of the guitar in modern life. But as Troutman explains, by the 1970s the instrument's embrace and adoption overseas also worked to challenge its cultural legitimacy in the eyes of a new generation of Hawaiian musicians. As a consequence, the indigenous instrument nearly disappeared in its homeland.

Using rich musical and historical sources, including interviews with musicians and their descendants, Troutman provides the complete story of how this Native Hawaiian instrument transformed not only American music but the sounds of modern music throughout the world.


Riley “B. B.” King was born on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Mississippi, in 1925. As a child in the Mississippi Delta, Jim Crow’s ground zero, he labored as a sharecropper, as did nearly everyone he knew. King was restless, however, and soon the backbreaking labor that he and his family endured in those cotton fields, combined with the call of Memphis’s bright lights, became too much for young B. B. to bear. Eventually, he found a way out, one built of six strings, wood, magnets, and wire; when he plugged it in, it burst with howls and despair that sounded far beyond his years. Eventually it, and the other guitars he would play for the rest of his life, would be named Lucille.

B. B. King was famous and loved, winning presidential honors and industry awards. But at his heart, he was a troubadour, always ready to travel with Lucille in hand. He lived for the music until it inevitably outlived his body. His vision, his life, teemed with the stuff of American history, the good and the bad, that shaped his twentieth-century world.

As a child, King sopped up the sounds around him like a sponge, twisting up all of these musical ideas in his head, and then cascading new sounds through his fingers as they worked the fretboard. His Mississippi Delta was not a land of isolation; he did not rehearse ancient field hollers from the days of slavery. And while he sang in the Baptist church, old time spirituals, ultimately, were not his game. He had radio. He could tune in the latest pop gems blanketing the countryside from New York City ballroom broadcasts; he could follow all the hit parades and keep up with the jazz kings and queens. Or, like he often did on Saturday nights, he could dial into the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM.

Yet through all of the sounds that competed for his imagination, one seemed to triumph above the rest. As he recounted it, it fundamentally shaped his sound as a bluesman. It was “that sound” of the Hawaiian steel guitar. “Well, I’d hear it on the radio,” he told National Public Radio’s Terry Gross in 1995. “I would hear the Hawaiian sound or the country music players play steel and slide guitars, if you will. And I hear that—to me a steel guitar is one of the sweetest sounds this side of heaven. I still like it, and that was one of the things that I tried to do so much, was to imitate that… that sound! I could . . .

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