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9 April 2012

How to set up an Hawaiian Guitar

I'm having a bit of an Hawaiian moment. It's great!

King Uke contemplates a little lap-slide

Over the years I've strung up some of my guitars to allow me to play slide. I've tried acoustic and electric set-ups, and it's always been a whole lot of fun. So here I am doing it all over again. This time I've bought a guitar especially for the project, and this time, I'll capture some of what I'm doing in a post for you.

Here's the guitar I bought for slidifying. It's an Aria AFN-15BS.
This is a budget guitar, but it's a nice one. I considered buying a
wreck to do up, but for the money, this was by far a better
option. I got it second-hand, but I'd be surprised if it's ever
been played in anger. And once I've strung it up, it never will be! Ha ha
One thing I noticed whilst hunting this one down is the
trend these days for boxy shapeless acoustic guitars. Even the
Fender acoustics were just plain boring. This one stood out for
me with its shapely hips. Beautiful! 

My next acquisition was a 'nut-riser' or 'extension nut'. This is a simple
piece of equipment that you can fit over the nut of a standard guitar
to raise the action of the strings. I was chuffed to bits to bid on and
win a vintage Nick Manoloff riser for this project. I can't be sure when
this one was manufactured, but this exact design features in Hawaiian
Guitar Instruction books from as far back as 1936. Nick Manoloff is
credited with writing a load of songs in the 30s and produced a
number of instruction books for Spanish and Hawaiian guitar.

Here you can see the riser fitted

See here that the riser width is wider than the neck on my Aria guitar.
Originally when the Hawaiian guitar trend broke, they were made out of
converted Spanish guitars which have wider necks than modern
acoustics (modeled after electric guitars). This riser was most likely
made for a Spanish guitar. However, don't let this put you off fitting
a vintage riser to a modern guitar. In the 1928 Lew Stern book
"How to Play the Hawaiian Steel Guitar", he explains that you should
ensure that "the nut also is made to project a little, so that the
1st string runs along the edge of the fingerboard to the bridge."
Guess what happens when you fit a vintage riser? You got it!

Tuning is fairly straight-forward. I did most of it with a modern standard guitar
tuner, struggling only with the C#. The strings are tuned to E A E A C# E.
For those of you who are used to tuning a guitar to itself by ear, do the following:
6th string 5th fret = open 5th string
5th string 7th fret = open 4th string
4th string 5th fret = open 3rd string
3rd string 4th fret = open 2nd string
2nd string 3rd fret = open 1st string
This picture is from "Smith's NEW Rapid Instructor for Hawaiian Guitar"
copyright William J Smith Music Co Inc 1935

Finally, all you need to do is to learn how to play the instrument. If you want to be
proper Hawaiian then you will rest the guitar on your lap as in this picture. As you
know, I'm not much one for doing things by the book, but I reckon this is the way to go.
You can see balanced on the book my bullet slide. I'd really like to get my hands on
something a bit easier to hold. The ultimate for me would be to buy one of
Nick Manaloff's original patented metal slides. Wish me luck! And if you'd like to hear
what this instrument sounds like then just wait a while; I'm hoping to do a version of
the 1940 classic “Dreams of Old Hawaii” (Lani McIntire, Joe White & Larry Stock) which
featured in the film Delicatessen... as soon as I can...

Update 11-May-2012: Following my discovery of Google Patent Search, I may have found the patent for the nut riser. Check the following out. What do you reckon?

Patent 1599184 - Filed 7th September 1922
"Nut for Musical Instruments"
Invented by B Polihronis AKA W J Polychronis

Patent 1599184 - Filed 7th September 1922
"Nut for Musical Instruments"
Invented by B Polihronis AKA W J Polychronis


  1. Hey, Can you tell me what that Nick Manoloff Riser is worth? I found one in an old desk that I got from a garage sale. Let me know, thanks


  2. Hello Dane. Lucky you! Unfortunately, you're not going to be able to retire. I spent £6.20 which would be about $10. Keep your eyes open for a Manoloff slide - I'm still looking...