Ken Emerson is one of the world’s most highly regarded traditional Hawaiian steel guitarists. His unique playing style reflects the Hawaiian guitar’s grassroots origins of over a century ago & towards present day. He is the only steel guitarist who is also a virtuoso in slack key guitar, he combines both styles in what he calls ‚slack/steel‘ a self-accompanying style that was popular in the very early days of hawaiian steel guitar.
But he is not focusing on Hawaiian music alone. His great musician ship and versatility lead to recording and touring the world with artists like Todd Rundgren, Tah Mahal, Jackson Brown, Donald Fagen and Charly Musselwhite, just to name a few.
He has a 4 albums available at Cord International, the latest is called ‚Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar‘ 14 recordings of old spiritual songs and features the distinct sounds of his vintage National Resophonic guitars.
SM: How did you get started playing steel guitar?
KE: I started playing ukulele at 7 and guitar at 9. I had lessons on cornet and accordion.
SM: Did you played any instruments before ?
KE: I started on mother’s ukulele. Then played guitar when my hands got bigger- lol.
SM: Did you had any teachers or are you basically self-taught ?
KE: I was self-taught for most of my playing styles. I developed a good ear for listening & learning. Later for some of the slack key & steel guitar I would watch and listen to the masters play. Just watch, and listen. Much of what I learned in the old acoustic style I learned from old 78 rpm recordings, because no one was playing that way anymore.
SM:Which steel guitar players influenced you the most ?
KE: When my brother and I started collecting 78 rpm records we discovered some really great Hawaiian style blues and jazz. Sol Ho’opi’i of course was probably the biggest influence, along with Sol K. Bright, Benny Nawahi and some of the others from that era. Why Sol Ho’opi’i was such a big influence was the fact that you could hear the extreme talent he had, as well as the great arrangements and what I like to call ‘humor in music’.. He had that for sure, personality, and I have tried to do that in my own playing, sort of carry on a tradition.
SM: Please tell us about your steel guitars. Which instruments do you use the most ?
KE: I use mainly a 1928 National Tri-cone Style 1 for my acoustic steel playing. You can tell when they have never been taken apart, they are all tone and volume. I also use a 1930 National Style ‘0’, it’s another exceptional guitar. I like to use a 1937 Gibson EH-150 for my electric playing. I have an old Rickenbacker BD-6 that sounds great, but I am more comfortable playing the Gibson. I also have some Vegas, and other lap steels I use. But the EH-150 is a main axe.
SM: What was your first steel guitar ?
KE: My first acoustic steel was a mid/late 30’s National steel bodied single resonator, with the fake wood finish and bakelite headstock with national engraved. I have not ever heard a louder guitar in my life..lol.
SM: I read that you are using G-LowBass a lot. Any other tunings that you like to use ?
KE: I will use low bass tunings for acoustics & high bass tuning for electric lap steel, and play with variations of G tuning. Sometimes from GBDGBD i will raise the middle D string to E, and create a G6th tuning. Sometimes i will flatten the middle G to F# , sometimes both G strings to F#. I have experimented with other tunings as well, but basically I stay in G for the older style. I have played a bit in C6 and E9 but I keep G tuning as my base.
SM: You lived quite some time on Hawaii. Did you had the chance to meet some of the old heroes ? Any stories you can share ?
KE: Yes, many that were still living. George Kainapau, Sol K Bright, Alvin Issacs, Alice Namakelua, Genoa Keawe, and other classic musicians.
Uncle Sol was a real character. We talked about the old days in Hollywood. I told him I found a union book from 1930, and most of the Hawaiians were at the same address, a hotel. He had a good laugh about that. He said there was great tropical themed clubs back then, in the 20’s and early 30’s in L.A.. We talked about Sol Ho’opi’i and all the recording they did together back then. A few years later he said he was playing the “Hawaiian Cowboy” at a restaurant/club in Petaluma, in the middle of the great depression, in the early 1930’s. He said he hadn’t finished the song, and a lady at the bar kept on him to play it, so he was making up verses as she was tipping him. It turned out later they were hundred dollar bills! We were doing a gig once at the Waikiki aquarium. Right in the middle of the song, Anapau, as it was my solo on steel, he started talking to me. He would ask, “Hey Ken, you married”? Without messing up the solo I’d hesitate and then say, “No”.. He would smile a big smile and say “enjoy life”.. I think he did that just to have fun and maybe try to throw me off a little, and when I didn’t flinch, I think he really liked that. He also occasionally would reach back to where he had a small pint of whiskey tucked into the back of his amp, and we’d nip at it slyly between songs. We played quite a bit together in the late 70’s/early 80’s. He was a big man in my eyes and I’ll never forget him.
SM: How old were you when you started to play steel guitar ?
KE: I started sliding on guitar around the age of 13, sliding a harmonica on the neck of an acoustic and mimic steel guitar and blues riffs. Later I got more serious about it and got a proper bottle neck slide. My dad had a great record collection and I would mimic the Hawaiian steel. Later on someone gave me a steel found in a basement, no one knew how it got there. I said I played so they gave it to me and away I went. It was a Gibson student model from early 1950’s, with a single coil pickup. I played high bass G tuning and along the way discovered the G6th, which i still use. I discovered resonator guitars and that was one of the Emerson Brothers big contributions to the Hawaiian music scene in the 1970’s, as acoustic steel was a dead art at that point.
SM: Which slide and picks do you use ?
KE: Well, I used Dunlops, because they were easy to find. I use the metal fingerpicks, because they are adjustable, and don’t feel thick and cumbersome like plastic one’s do. Oddly enough, my girlfriend is a neighbor of Jim Dunlop, so I still use them, I just don’t buy them anymore.. lol. Sometimes Jim and I jam on the Nationals for fun.
SM: How do you amplify your acoustic steel when you play live ?
KE: I still don’t have pickups in the old Nationals. I have never found the right sound compared to the natural sound, so I mic them still. And maybe it’s a bit like bluegrass players, nothing beats the natural sound. I do have a modern electric Dobro I play in concerts.
SM: Do you have a favorite amp for electric steel guitar?
KE: I use a 1965 Fender Deluxe reverb. My favorite amp so far.
SM: You are one of the few players who plays steel as well as slackkey guitar. Do
you play also the self accompanying style on the steel guitar ? I couldn’t find too many recordings in that style, Kanui and Lula and Charles Diamond come to mind. Alan Akaka told me that he was able to listen to some wax cylinder recordings of Joseph Kekuku, and he said it was also in that self accompanying style. Any more players you know of who played in that style ?
KE: I have some of those recordings, and they are interesting. I do play slack key, so I have developed my own way of playing solo steel. The right hand basically plays like a slack key guitarist, syncopating the bass strings. As for the left bar hand you have to do a lot of pulling up the back end of the bar, to free the bass strings to sound. So the bullet end gets a lot of use during single and double string runs (while the bass strings also being played) and then at times the steel is used as regular steel all across the strings, while the bass strings are constantly being plucked in a steady rhythm. A challenge is doing forward and reverse slants while keeping the bass going, as well as harmonics. It’s a nice style. I recorded a song called “Ka Loke De Mi Corezon” featuring that style. Also on my “Slack & Steel” album from 1996 I played an old chant “uUa No Weo” in a minor tuning in that style, solo guitar. Unusual for the time. Well, even now. I’m pretty much alone in playing this way here in the islands.
SM:So you are using a Dunlop bullet steel ? Do you know which size ?
KE: Yes, it’s a medium size, I don’t use real thick bars.
SM:I love the story about Sol K. Did he still play steel when you played with him ?
KE: No, he hadn’t played steel in a long time. He was playing a great doghouse style upright bass though.. And sang a lot. old hulas, It was a blast. He liked the fact I was on a National.
SM: Talking about Sol K playing with Sol Hoopii, I always wondered how a studio session
looked like in the 20s and 30s, did Sol talked about that ? Only one mic I guess .
KE: Yeah, i guess electrical recording was new then, so it was a big improvement. They did a fair amount of jamming/rehearsing before the sessions because, they didn’t get a lot of chances at multiple takes. And he said Ho’o’pi’i was so confident on his solos, he never stuck to a real worked out thing, as a real jazzman would do.
SM: Do you have a preferred microphone for micing the acoustic steel (live and/or studio) ? How do you place the mics ?
KE: I liked the older Sennheiser mics, the long square one. It was real multi-directional and seemed to really pick up the sound of the Tri-cone.
SM: How important is musical theory to you ?
KE: It’s important to know how to tie things together, and basic stuff like the circle of fifths, minor, diminished, octaves and partial chording. Also playing a chord while leaving open strings to sound.
SM: Are you mostly a feel person or do you know always exactly what you are doing when you play ?
KE: I am a real feel type player I think. I do hear things arranged in my head, and I have certain patterns on the neck I mentally project to. It is great because you can really cut loose when you tie the patterns together, for the changes the music is going through. So certain patterns you can do chords, or single/double/triple notes on. When you tie in the triplet techniques, you can really color the sound.
SM: Slackkey vs Steel Guitar: Right now slackkey is much more popular on the Hawaiian Islands compared to steel guitar. From the 30s until the 50s it was the other way around. Steel guitar was considered a very hip instrument. Why do you think that changed ?
KE: Yes, oddly enough at one time steel was king. Well, for one thing steel is a ‘feel’ instrument, as there are no frets to keep the notes true. Only where you hold the steel above the frets. So it is a more difficult instrument.In that regard. Slack key is fretted, so right away it is an easier instrument to learn.
SM: Which advise would you give to a players who just started out to play the steel
KE: Start with a 6 string acoustic, and work your way up to an electric steel if you desire, and go on to other versions with extra strings, or even into pedal steel if that’s your thing. But starting with a 6 string acoustic is basic, it’s easier, and not expensive. You literally only need a nut to raise the strings.
SM: What kind of muting do you use the most ? Left hand or palm blocking ?
KE: I use both, and after playing so long i don’t even think about it, or even realize I am doing it sometimes.. It becomes a part of your style.
SM: When you started out in the late 70s you said there was nobody around who played
acoustic Hawaiian steel. Today the situation looks a bit better, at least there’s a handful of instructional material around (Stacy Phillips: The Art of Hawaiian Steel Guitar Vol1+2 and Bob Brozman: Traditional Hawaiian Steel Guitar). In addition it’s not too hard to get a hold of the old 78s via iTunes, etc. But still it seems it’s only a small bunch of people worldwide playing in that old style. You play all over the world, do you think the old acoustic style gained popularity ?
KE: It was starting to perk in the early 70’s. When I played in the mid-later 60’s there was rarely anything on Hawaiian, just maybe some Dobro stuff, as bluegrass was, (and still is) popular back then. For Hawaiian, there wasn’t really much of anything. Brozman and I met in Santa Cruz when he first got there, we were in our early 20’s and did a similar thing. We stayed in touch over the years and played gigs like the Dobro Festival in Slovakia. He was perpetuating it on the mainland, and i returned to play Nationals in Hawaii in 1978, and eventually we both played all over the world. There are younger players now like the ‘Sweet Hollywaiians’ from Japan and other players like Pascal Mesnier) in places like France. So hopefully players like Brozman, Robert Armstrong and myself were there at the right time to help keep the ball rolling on period Hawaiian acoustic steel guitar. Robert Armstrong and I recorded an album
called “Escape to Jazz Island'” on the grass skirt label in England, and I have many recordings on the Hanaola /Cord international label – if people are interested in hearing more of this unique style of playing.
Aloha pumehana kakou, k.e.
Sebastian Müller is a musician, producer and sound designer located in Berlin/Germany.
After focusing mainly on electronic music for the last decade he discovered Hawaiian Steel guitar music during his frequent travels
to the Hawaiian Islands. Since then he is affected with the steel guitar virus, focusing mainly on the early style from the 20s and 30s.
He performs with the only Hawaiian Band in Berlin called ‚Hula Hut & The Seven Seas‘ www.hulahut.net
5 thoughts on “A Conversation with Ken Emerson by Sebastian Müller”
Thanks and Mahalo Sebastian! Wonderful interview, well done.
Very nice article. Ken is a fantastic player and musician.
I met Ken Emerson a few weeks ago at a show he was doing with Jim “Kimo” West in Southern California. He is a great player and a good man. I told him that his version of “I Kona” was the best I had heard and he told me a few things about that recording. One of the other strands of our conversation went something like this:
KD: Every ukulele singing group should have a steel guitar.
KE: No, every Hawaiian music group should have a steel guitar.
A wonderful evening…
This was revelatory! I covered “Hotel St. Blues” at the Maui Steel Guitar Festival in 2014 and 2015, but I was in “A” low bass tuning so I was playing it in the key of C at the 3rd fret. Konabob Stouffer backed me up on bass and I was surprised when he recognized the origin of the tune and said he knew or knew of Ken. Last year an old buddy of mine, Steve Jackson, said he played drums for Ken in Oregon. I’ve been surfing around the internet to see if Ken has a gig mailing list. It was great to read this. I Googled “Andy Volk” after having just received hi new book in the mail, and ended up here. I’ll have to find that Emersons album.
Fantastic Sebastian, just a lovely article all around. But I’d still love Ken to share more stories/details regarding recording sessions in the 20s and 30s….. as there is so little info available. Keep on rocking Ken and Sebastian! Thanks,