Abstract: Fashioning the Sounds of Hawaii: Roy Smeck and the Business of Hawaiian-Style Guitars

Andrew A. D. Bozanic


Interest in native Hawaiian musical traditions, an outgrowth of Hawaii's 1898 annexation, created a demand for commercial recordings of the island sound and inspired guitarists to learn to play in the Hawaiian style. Beginning in the late 1910s, guitar manufacturers diversified their product lines to include Hawaiian-style instruments and signature models named for celebrity musicians of the day in response to the growing number of Hawaiian-style players. This paper will trace the impact of the Hawaiian sound on the acoustic guitar business through the lens of one particular performer, the "Wizard of the Strings," Roy Smeck. A Vaudeville musician and later star of radio and film, Smeck was a virtuoso at playing the ukulele and Hawaiian guitar. In 1934, Smeck endorsed one of the first signature models of guitars, enabling the Gibson Company to distinguish its instruments from the competition by adding the cultural value associated with Smeck's popularity. These Hawaiian guitars represented the evolution from interchangeable Spanish/Hawaiian guitars to a line of uniquely constructed instruments specially adapted to play in the Hawaiian style. The changes brought about by the Hawaiian craze, including the advent of the Hawaiian-style guitar, had a profound and lasting impact on acoustic guitar makers and players.