A Morning of Hawaiian Lap Steel Guitar at the Library

Maui Musician Jpel Katz gave a free performance at Molokai Public Library July 27. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Dressed in aloha attire — slippers, shorts, aloha shirt and a lei — and armed with a strange-looking musical instrument nested on his lap, Maui musician Joel Katz gave a free performance and talk story at the Molokai Public Library on the morning of July 27.

As Katz began plucking the chords of his Hawaiian lap steel guitar, the roughly 20 people who attended the performance immediately surrendered to his music.

The sweet melodies coming out of the odd-looking instrument were all-too-familiar. Traditional Hawaiian music, haole-hula songs, country music, Beatles melodies, all felt right at home among an audience of a wide age range.

Katz said the lap steel guitar originated in Hawai‘i. In the mid-1880s, Joseph Kekuku, an 11-year-old boy from O‘ahu, experimented with sliding metal objects over the strings of a guitar. He tried different objects until he came up with the bar still used to this day — a polished metal cylinder with a round end.

“People would write in newspapers … ‘a woman played this amazing singing guitar on her lap,’” Katz said of news articles during the early days of lap steel guitar. “They didn’t know what to make of it, so these strange things would appear in the newspapers.”

The guitar sits on the player’s lap. With the left hand, the player slides, pulls and pushes the bar over the strings of the guitar, making different sounds, changing notes with one slide. With the right hand, the player plucks the guitar chords using special metal picks attached to each finger.

Additionally, “muting” — getting strings to not play — is a really important aspect of Hawaiian lap steel guitar, Katz said. As you pull the bar to a new string, your other finger mutes the previous string.

“I mute with everything,” said Katz, adding he uses his fingers, his palms and even his wrist to mute the chords. “It takes a little practice.”

There are many variations of lap steel guitar; they can have six to eight chords, and can even come with two necks.

The lap steel guitar was also picked up by Hollywood, where it was extensively used for movie sound effects. It was even used in popular cartoon songs such as Looney Tunes.

Having performed professionally on Maui for the last 30 years, Katz recorded and released several albums. He said he first came in contact with Hawaiian lap steel guitar some 25 years ago, when he took a class from musician Henry Allen. But it was only until about seven years ago when Katz really took lap steel guitar seriously. Today, he is passionate about playing and carrying on the tradition of this rare and difficult-to-learn instrument.

After Katz performed a song penned by Willie Nelson, an audience member said he attended a Summer Fest concert in Lake Michigan in 1973, when Willie Nelson himself played the same song. “And he didn’t even play it that good,” said the man, causing laughter among the audience.

Molokai Public Library Branch Manager Sri TenCate said the library offers music programs to the public depending on funding. The Maui Friends of the Library sponsored Katz’s program, which was supposed to last an hour, but went way beyond it.

“This was the longest (program),” TenCate said. “He’s been playing here since 10 a.m.”

Katz played for almost two-and-a-half hour. At the end, the audience was able to purchase a few of his CDs.


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