Old Hawaiian Guitar Method Books


Hawaiian music was popular in the United States in the 20's and 30's. A key element of Hawaiian music was the Hawaiian guitar (a guitar played lap-style with a slide). A number of schools sprang up to give Hawaiian guitar lessons. Oahu Publishing was one of the largest and had over 1200 schools at one time. Lessons were usually taught on an inexpensive acoustic guitar that was set up with high nut.

This page contains a collection of Hawaiian Guitar instruction books and sheet music from the 1920's through the 1940's. It is not a scientific sampling of the Hawaiian guitar music literature. It's just stuff that I bought off of eBay over the years for not much money.

Points of Interest

If you look these books over, a couple of things stand out.

One is the content of the books. Except for the tune "Aloha Oe", it is rare that you see traditional Hawaiian tunes or even popular hapa haole tunes (e.g. "Little Grass Shack", "Hula Blues"). Instead you see popular tunes such as "Oh Susanna", "Jingle Bells", "Dinah", and "Ave Maria". Maybe people were more interested in entertaining themselves by playing familiar tunes rather than trying to play authentic Hawaiian music or play licks by the popular players of the time.

The covers are cute. Many have a guy playing a Hawaiian guitar, a woman in a grass skirt dancing along and palm trees in the background. The publishers are obviously playing on people's longing for the exotic.

If you're a player then the arrangements are probably the most interesting thing. They are very different from what you see today. There are lots of strummed chords and melody notes played on the first string over chords played on the open strings. There are lots of fat major chords. Many of the arrangements are piano-like with alternating bass lines or a "bass-chord" accompaniment. Nearly all are arranged for Low A tuning (from bass to treble: E A E A C# E) since that was the only tuning anybody used until people started to experiment with alternative tunings starting in the mid-30's.

The Collection

Click on any of these images to see a larger view.

CoverOh Susanna Smith's Hawaiian Guitar Duets

Smith was one of the large publishers of Hawaiian guitar methods. This is copyright 1925. The interesting thing about this arrangement of "Oh Susanna" is the notation. It's standard musical notation with hints about the fret number. The string number is left as an exercise for the player.

Cover 5 Minute Hawaiian Guitar and Steel Guitar

A thin booklet with the rudiments of Hawaiian guitar playing, it ends with simple arrangements of "The Old Oaken Bucket" and "Home Sweet Home". The cover has the three standard elements for a Hawaiian guitar method book (guy, hula dancer and palm trees). 1926.

Smith's 100 Twinkle Twinkle Hark the Herald
Camptown Races Carnival
Smith's One Hundred Hawaiian Guitar Solos

"Twinkle, Twinkle" has an interesting "finger picking" arrangement. Note all of the fat major chords in the other tunes. "Carnival of Venice" is an example of the more complex tunes in the book. 1932.

Gibson Course Inspirational Message Dom 7 Chord
Gibson System for Hawaiian Guitar

This course stands out because it was well written and more sophisticated than the other instructional books. The books use standard musical notation instead of tablature.

The first excerpt is an example of the inspirational messages that are scattered through lessons. The second excerpt shows the location of the notes in a Dominant 7 chord and discusses how they relate to one another. The third excerpt is an arrangement of "Liebestraum" with some examples of how to play minor chords by using open and fretted strings. 1937.

NIOMA Aloha Oe Cover NIOMA Aloha Oe and NIOMA Technical Studies for Hawaiian Guitar

Two from the National Institute of Music and Arts (i.e. a chain of Hawaiian guitar schools). Copyright 1939 and 1940 respectively. I don't know if Honolulu looked like that in 1939, but it sure doesn't look like that now. 

Nick Lucas Cover Nick Lucas Hawaiian Guitar Method

Nick Lucas was a famous star of stage and radio. He was better known for being a Spanish-style guitar player rather than a Hawaiian-style player (Gibson produced a Nick Lucas model Spanish-style guitar in the 30's). Nevertheless he came out with this Hawaiian guitar method. It contains exercises and a number of original compositions by Nick Lucas. 1940.

Everybody's Favorite J. Strauss Come All Ye Faithful
Silent Night Jingle Bells
Everybody's Favorite Hawaiian Guitar Solos

Check out the tunes listed on the cover. It's first time I've seen a Strauss waltz arranged for lap steel. Note the fat strummed chords in "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night" and alternating bass in "Jingle Bells". 1946.

Bronson Aloha OePage 2 Bronson Aloha Oe

Lap steel afficionados will recognize the bakelite lap steel on the cover. They were made by Rickenbacker and sold under the Bronson name. Can you imagine a bakelite Rick (one of the "Holy Grails" of lap steels) being used to play such a hack arrangement of "Aloha Oe"? Oh the horror! Note that it is an Open E tuning. 1947.

Oahu Accordian Cover Oahu Modern Piano Accordion Course

Oahu got it's start as a Hawaiian Guitar school and was one of the biggest. At one point they branched out into accordian instructions. I guess it okay as long as you play with nahenahe.


Links and Other Information

Much information about the history of Hawaiian guitar can be found in the book The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians by Lorene Ruymar. It includes chapters on Hawaiian guitar schools and instructional books from the 20's and 30's. It's available from places that specialize in music books or Hawaiiana.

The Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association has a gallery of photos from International Guitar League Conventions of the 40's and 50's.

Feel free to contact me if you have any comments. Visit my home page for some pages on related subjects.

visits since April 27, 2002

04/27/02 - Initial version
04/04/06 - Moved to new server
02/08/07 - Added link to HSGA photos