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#139: 26 Strings

September 7, 2010

An article in last month’s Vintage Guitar Magazine (a regular read of Dad’s) introduced me to a poineering American musician, a 22-year old girl named Letritia Kandle, who in 1937 used imagination to bust the guitar world open with innovation and her sensational Grand Letar. 

The article begins:

Run down the list of early electric-guitar innovators and an all-male group typically comes to mind- Les Paul, Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian, Merle Travis, and the like.  However, a woman named Letritia Kandle deserves to be on the list as well- her 1937 Grand Letar being the first “console” steel guitar, the first steel with more than two necks, its built-in amplifier was the first guitar amp to use two speakers, and it boasted a series of tuning advancements that pre-dated the modern pedal steel.  Perhaps most incredible, though, was its built-in lighted front, sides, and fretboards.

Letritia showed promise as a steel player from an early age and in 1933 became mentored in Hawaiian culture.  The next year she formed an all-gal grouped named The Kohala Girls who played Hawaiian music with matching National Resophonic guitars.

Aloha.

In 1937, Letritia has a vision of her dream instrument and worked with her engineer father and National Guitars to make the dream come true.  A magazine snippet from that same year read:

This new instrument, known as the “Grand Letar”, is the invention of Letritia Kandle.  She designed it and had it built especially for her.  The instrument has 26 strings and a lighting effect that is very new and novel, being the first instrument to change color while it is played.

Kandle said of her dream instrument that she wanted it to “sound full, like an organ, and yet produce… complete harmony, and change colors as the different tones were produced.”

She traveled the country and played for many of her idols, but no recordings of Letritia playing her Grand Letar exist.  She never pursued fame or fortune like some of her peers at the time, and was relegated mostly to obscurity.  National never produced another Grand Letar because they were too costly and too heavy.

In the late 2000’s, a steel guitar historian named Paul Warnik came across a photo of Letritia and her instrument that he couldn’t get out of his mind.  Some detective work led him to find her very much alive and well in her 90’s.  There in her house was the Grand Letar, stored for 55 years under the stairs.  He had it restored, and the Grand Letar again has new life.   Oooooweeee, I sure love a happy ending.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2010 9:21 pm

    This is fascinating! You’ve probably already seen them but here are pictures of the restored Grand Letar, with functioning lights! http://steelguitarfrance.forumactif.com/steel-guitar-f5/national-grand-letar-t1868.htm

  2. September 17, 2010 2:29 pm

    What a great story! Even more amazing photos!

  3. July 12, 2011 5:18 pm

    What an amazing story indeed! Ms. Kandle was way ahead of her time creating and electric guitar and lightshow in one. How fun it must have been to jam with the Kohala Girls. They really look like they’re having fun.

    I’m so glad the Grand Letar has been restored. What a great link, Ms. Camille

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