Homegrown Music: The Basics of Dobro and Slide Guitar

Read about the history of the slide guitar — or "Hawaiian guitar" — including how to play.

| May/June 1982

Slide Guitar

Learn the basics of playing the slide guitar.


Not long after I took up playing the guitar, I was given an old musical instrument that had weathered more than a few years in a corner of my grandfather's shed. It was a guitar designed to be played on the lap using a steel bar to chord the strings. Well, never having seen such a thing before, I quickly attempted to play a few songs on it in "normal" guitar fashion — and ended up highly frustrated. Later I learned that many of my pickin' friends had had similar experiences.
However, I soon discovered that my peculiar acquisition was actually a "Hawaiian guitar," a type of instrument that had been tremendously popular back in the '20s and '30s. As a result of that fad, thousands of "lap guitars," as they came to be called, were sold all across the North American continent — and many of them can still be found today, primarily in secondhand stores and thrift shops.


The Hawaiian Influence on the Slide Guitar

According to legend, a man by the name of Joseph Kekuku invented the lap guitar quite unintentionally. The Hawaiian had been humming through a comb and tissue paper kazoo one day while his guitar rested on his lap. The comb slipped from his hand onto the strings of his instrument and Joseph was delighted by the sound it made.


Although the Hawaiian people have long possessed a great musical tradition, its focus — up to that time — had been on vocals often with some drum and seashell accompaniment. Guitars, however, had been brought to Hawaii by Mexican and Portuguese settlers and, with Kekuku's discovery to inspire them (and the later development of the technique to instruct them), the islanders soon took to tuning those instruments to an "open" or "sung" chord. This style of tuning — which is known as slack key because some strings are turned down from the standard tension to achieve the open chord — simplified both the chording process and the task of tuning by ear. When a guitar is tuned to an open chord, you see, a person can simply lay one finger straight across the fret board to achieve a major chord. This allows the player to slide a steel bar up and down the neck of the instrument to create different chords and sliding notes . . . resulting in sounds that remind many folks of palm trees swaying in a tropical breeze!

The new Hawaiian guitar eventually supplanted the musical saw in most of the dance orchestras of the '20s. Later its sound, as produced by the pedal steel guitar, went on to become a trademark of modern country music.

An Evolution of Sounds With the Dobro Guitar

The original lap players used ordinary guitars that had been modified by the addition of a raised nut, to keep the strings higher off the frets. These "pioneers" employed all sorts of items — including metal combs, pocketknives and flat metal strips of steel or brass — to chord their instruments. After World War I, however, American companies began manufacturing special lap guitars with hollow necks. (The idea was that the extra open space would improve the sound.) Shortly thereafter, the Dopera brothers introduced the "dobro" guitar, an instrument which incorporated an inverted metal cone much like that found on a loudspeaker. The dobro produced a loud, distinctive sound and sustained notes much longer than could ordinary wooden guitars. Some of these resonator guitars (eventually they were manufactured by other companies using different names) were made almost entirely — except for the neck and bridge — of metal.


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