“Sleep Walk” and a Fender Guitar

So I was at my office on campus today and walked into our main department office to get something from the printer. Our administrative assistant always has the radio tuned to our school’s radio station, WMSE (91.7 on your FM dial, best station in the world; be sure to listen to my friend Sonia‘s “Blues Drive” show on Friday afternoons, 3-6pm Central).

The song playing caught my ear. I recognized it and wondered aloud what it was. Turns out WMSE livestreams both songs and titles online, so you can always see what’s playing. With a few quick keystrokes on her computer, Rose was able to tell me its name, which was “Sleep Walk.”

We agreed: Technology is awesome!

I had my phone with me (more technology; thank you, Apple), so I googled the title and found this video.

Great 1950s hair. Dick Clark is so young. And the one brother gets all the attention for his flashy playing of the melody while the other just strums away on supporting guitar, kind of like how John Oates gets stuck with all the background vocals while Daryl Hall grabs the limelight singing lead.

Anyway, I didn’t play the video (beyond checking to make sure it was the same song) until after dinner tonight. The steel guitar fascinated me—I’ve always thought of this kind of sound as “Hawaiian guitar” (my grandfather was Native Hawaiian) and wondered how that instrument somehow wound up in country music—so I watched carefully during closeups in this video to see how he played it.

Then I noticed the name on the front of his instrument: Fender.

Double take. Really? I know what a Fender is, but I thought they just made the typical rocker’s guitar, like Strats.

So I looked up Fender, and guess what I found? The very first Fender guitar ever was a lap steel guitar, produced in the 1940s. Below is the illustration for Leo Fender’s patent application.

Patent for Fender steel lap guitar

And I learned some other interesting things, too. For example, a steel guitar can be played horizontally, lying across one’s lap; hence, “lap steel guitar.” Or it can be standing up, with pedals, in which case it might be called a “pedal guitar.” Or it can be played per usual, slung across the body, except you wear a metal tube around one finger and slide it along the strings.

I never knew why it was called a “steel” guitar. I thought maybe the strings were made of steel or something. Nope, it’s called a “steel” guitar because of that metal tube (aka the “steel”) worn on the player’s finger to slide up and down the strings. A steel is also called a “slide” because of the technique (used to play “Hawaiian” guitar).

Lots of different materials can be used to make the slides besides steel. There’s glass, which is apparently the most popular of the other materials. Blues musicians used to slice off the top of a wine bottle to make a “bottleneck” slide. Other materials include ceramic and wood. According to an article on the Gibson guitar website (here) about how to choose the right slide, W.C. Handy wrote down the first blues melody after he heard “an itinerant guitarist swiping a [knife] blade across his strings at a railroad stop in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903.”

Cool to know. I love that everyday life provides such serendipitous learning adventures 🙂


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Creativity, Learning, Life, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “Sleep Walk” and a Fender Guitar

  1. You are so good at finding the most interesting facts!!! And I had no idea you grandfather was native Hawaiian!! How cool!!


  2. Sally Cissna says:

    Fascinating! Have you seen the guitar display at Discovery World at the lakefront. You’d enjoy it if you haven’t.


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