TWANG 3: STEEL
WAITING FOR A Train by The Flatlanders is still on the turntable. In addition to saw and yodel, there is from the outset a haunting, echo-y resonating guitar that establishes a setting, a tone, a vibe evocative of the high prairie of West Texas. It completes the song's twang trifecta and is a segment of the story – of the sound that would come to define Americana, country and roots – that starts in Hawaii.
Joseph Kekuku was a high school student and guitar player on Oahu in the late 1800s who, legend goes, picked up a railway spike on the way home one afternoon and for reasons lost to posterity experimented with running it along the fretboard of his instrument as he strummed the strings. The resulting sound snaked around the notes and scales in what must have felt a surprising discovery of bittersweet extremes; Kekuku would later refine the sound by raising the six strings higher above the frets, and by using a smooth metal cylinder rather than the railway spike. A uniquely Hawaiian instrument known as the steel guitar was born, played in the lap with the strings facing upward in a 'picked' style. It spread quickly across the islands.
Popularity overlapped with political change; the US annexed the archipelago in 1898 and there soon followed an exodus of artists and musicians to what were then the 45 mainland states and three territories of America. Kekuku was one of those who made the trip, taking his revolutionary guitar to the West Coast in 1904 and, along with many other Hawaiian performers, touring extensively to showcase the sound. It was wildly successful and by 1916, according to some measures, Hawaiian music outsold all competitors in the still relatively young world of popular recorded song; big hitters included Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wachi Woo (That's Love in Honolulu), Hello Hawaii How Are You?, and Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula. Not all were what you would call serious music.
The instrument at the heart of the sound joined the heady mix of styles and cultures already cross-fertilising the musical landscape across rural, urban and southern America via roadshows, early records and word of mouth; it took root and influenced genres including blues, jazz, hillbilly, western swing and country. Experimentation with the sound, and so evolution of the artform and the technology, was inevitable.
In the 1920s, Los Angeles man George D Beauchamp was a Hawaiian guitar enthusiast and performer (and sometimes house painter) seeking increased volume from his instrument in order to soar above the audience; John Dopyera was a luthier who ran a violin repair shop just down the street and agreed to experiment on his neighbour's behalf. An initial effort based on what must have been an awkward phonograph-style 'horn' failed to produce the right results, so an alternative approach was adopted using inset aluminium echo chambers to amplify the sound of the strings.
The tri-cone resonator guitar was born and the National String Instrument Corporation, sometimes referenced as the National Company, was established to produce and sell the invention. Local tool and die operator Adolph Rickenbacker, related to the First World War flying ace of the same surname – and not to be confused with German ace Manfred von Richthofen of Red Baron and Snoopy fame – manufactured the metal elements and eventually joined the company as chief engineer.
It all seemed to be going swimmingly with the new instrument proving popular among musicians seeking that instantly identifiable language of the lap guitar while also providing the added volume necessary to enliven any live gig. And then the branch split. Dopyera became disenchanted with Beauchamp, although not the product, and started a new company that would carry on the tradition of the resonator guitar under a new name: the dobro. It was a moniker that referenced, and was derived from, both the first two letters of the family name and the Slovak for 'good'.
The branding initially applied only to instruments made by the Dobro Corporation but eventually spread to encompass, as a generic class, any resonating guitar with a metal body or insert. Guitar company Gibson currently owns the name and produces a limited range of instruments under the Dobro with a cap-D trademark. Modern examples of the instrument across all manufacturers include direct descendants with a number of cones inset into a wooden frame, full metal machines and a variety of body shapes and finishes both traditional and wacky.
Musically, the dobro was played either Hawaiian style as a lap guitar or in the more up and down method associated with the standard instrument, although in both cases it was more often than not paired with a slide across the neck. In both cases it provided the distinct 'country' string sound typified by the opening bars of the Flatlanders version of Waiting For A Train, and spread far and wide across all branches of rural musical styles and some urban derivatives such as the Chicago blues.
Twang, in a word.
Dobros and resonators, having initially been given a new lease of life by the bluegrass revival of the 1970s, are nearly ubiquitous in the age of Americana and the associated enthusiasm for string bands and other traditional genres.
The comeback is remarkable given they had all but disappeared from the airwaves and recorded music during the 1950s. The instrument was considered too rustic for the intensely commercial years of the refined Nashville sound, its place usurped by the other, electrified half of the Hawaiian guitar evolution: the pedal steel, born from a precursor developed by none other than John Dopyera's neighbour and ex-partner George Beauchamp.
Still seeking a way to amplify the iconic sound of the lap guitar, to tap into that stringy resonance so integral to the Hawaiian and later country genre, Beauchamp decided as the 1930s kicked off that electric power was the way forward. With the help of old pal Adolph Rickenbacker a prototype was created with a fairly traditional neck, a small round body and the precursor to the types of pickups that to this day create something magical from guitar string vibrations.
The A-22 Frying Pan – so-named for the physical appearance of the instrument – would be the debut product of a company initially known as Ro-Pat-In, then Electro String, but made famous in time, and following ownership changes, as Rickenbacker, purveyor of electric guitars and basses made legendary by The Beatles, Byrds and REM, Tom Petty, Thin Lizzy and Black Flag. A patent application for Beauchamp's 'electrical stringed musical instrument' was filed in 1934 and granted three years later. A number of pre-WW2 models were produced featuring six or seven strings, various neck lengths and with steel or Bakelite bodies.
The electric lap steel would evolve quickly, dispensing in short order with the 'frying pan' body of the guitar and, with a number of stops along the way including those fantastic multi-neck, multi-chord and multi-key console steels of the post-war years, morph into the full-blown, all-but-modern four-legged pedal steel. The instrument would debut on Webb Pierce's 1956 hit Slowly, which reached the top of the country charts and stayed put for 17 weeks.
The track featured from the outset a shifting aura of pure undulating joy (across pitch, key and note) that revolutionised country; a complex, harmonic and soaring version of the dobro twang that married perfectly with the more produced and controlled sound then taking hold in Music City. It came to define mainstream country during the commercially-minded 1960s and 1970s.
Pioneers including Paul Bigsby and Buddy Emmons were among those to introduce a system of pedals and levers that allowed for the ongoing transformation of the instrument, eventually resulting in a relatively standardised unit of up to 14 strings able to incorporate a variety of tunings covering the vast majority of touring and recording requirements.
What remains essential to this day, and constant across dobro, lap steel and pedal steel, is that sound, that sense of tangible, physical twang that describes an extra-urban world of characters and landscape, healthy handshakes and bright eyes, next-door sweethearts and honkytonk sirens.
Throw in a yodel or a saw, or in fact any instrument from banjo to fiddle to mandolin to Telecaster that reproduces that visceral screech of authenticity, and the recipe is complete; listen again to Waiting For A Train and see if you disagree.
WE'LL WRAP up this segment with a quick mention, essentially a footnote, for 'rounders' – a term sprinkled across Americana, roots and country.
Singers describe themselves as rounders (Jimmie Rodgers, notably, which is why this is inserted here), performers direct lyrics towards the rounders in the audience (usually in the form 'all you rounders' and followed by a warning to 'leave be' as described in the discussion of yodels in Twang 2) and songwriters regularly introduce rounder characters into their narratives as protagonist or antagonist.
The generally accepted definition of rounder is a petty, habitual criminal or disreputable person; the etymology derived from those rascals who make 'the rounds' of bars, saloons and other establishments on the fringes of polite society.
Connotations across various musical styles are more subtle; while rounders are no doubt seen as being 'outside' the norms, the 'other' when compared to the everyday, there is nevertheless something to be admired, either secretly or perhaps even openly, about the lifestyle: an element of the romantic outlaws, Huck Finns and noble hobos that enliven American literature, myth, legend and history.
So come on all you rounders; we're only getting started.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.