The Hawaiian steel guitar changed American music. Can one man keep that tradition alive?

Stephanie Yang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

KAILUA, Hawaii — Quincy Cortez plucks at a slim black box laid across his legs, his fingers flashing silver.

Steel strings twang with each pull from the metal rings — wearable guitar picks — adorning his right thumb, index and middle finger. His left hand hovers over the strings along the neck, a cylindrical tube held between his thumb and middle finger drawing the metallic tones into a smooth glissando when it touches steel.

A few minutes into the leisurely melody, the 16-year-old hesitates.

Next to him, 67-year-old teacher and musician Alan Akaka swivels his desk chair from his computer screen to face Cortez with a pop quiz: "Have you been practicing with the music?"

Cortez lifts his hands from the strings. "Kind of," he says. With school work and sports, sometimes it's hard to find the time.

The Hawaiian steel guitar became a cultural force in America at the turn of the century, popularized by troupes of traveling musicians from Hawaii. It evolved beyond its association with a tropical paradise to influence new genres of music, from bluegrass to jazz to rock and roll. But while the steel guitar can still be found in country and other types of music, the Hawaiian steel guitar garners little recognition today, even on the island of Oahu, its birthplace.


That's where students like Cortez come in. He's a recruit, part of a new generation of players trained by Akaka, who is working to keep the practice alive and knows the clock is ticking.


Akaka, who has been playing Hawaiian steel guitar for more than 50 years, was not initially drawn to the instrument, despite hearing it at parties and luaus while growing up. As an 8-year-old, he first taught himself how to play the ukulele that was stored under his father's bed, but only when Daniel Kahikina Akaka, a U.S. senator and church choir director, wasn't home. Then Akaka learned the clarinet for the school band.

It wasn't until he was 14, hearing his older brother play Hawaiian music on his steel guitar at home, that Akaka's interest in the gliding style was piqued.


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