From The Desk… Something in the Way They Play: Legendary Female Guitarists Part 2

Letritia Kandle, Letar virtuoso and Steel Guitar innovator
Letar virtuoso and Steel Guitar innovator. art by JOtwell (click to buy)


With the Great Depression fading in the rear-view, America began going about its business again. Various dreamers and tinkerers began addressing the issue of amplification, particularly as it applied to stringed instruments, whose players were always struggling to be heard over horns, pianos and drums. As the music became more strident there was real demand building throughout the ‘30s for a solution to this problem.  Resophonic guitars provided a partial answer, particularly in Hawaiian music, which had become hugely popular on the mainland as a result of its exposure at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, but innovators like Les Paul were convinced there was an electronic element that was out there yet to be cracked, and these folks, mostly working independently, felt they were getting very close.

When the aptly named Letritia Kandle visited the World’s Fair in her home town, she was a musically gifted, attractive eighteen year old who had been playing Hawaiian-style steel guitar since the age of thirteen, enamored of the musical stylings of the great Alvino Ray. She began piano tuition at age 9 and was well grounded in musical theory when she started playing acoustic guitar at 11.  Her very supportive parents were willing to indulge their only child, and she had the best instruments available in the Hawaiian slide genre and was already a notable instrumentalist, particularly on the new Dopera Resophonic slide guitar, soon to be known as the Dobro. Letricia also developed a close working relationship with the Dopera family, which would have major significance within a few years.

She was naturally drawn to the Hawaiian display area at the World’s Fair and was fortunate to meet a mentor there, G. Keahola Gilman, who gave her valuable lessons in many aspects of the island culture. Armed with this insight, she formed “The Kohala Girls,” an all-female ensemble who were outfitted with matching National Resophonic guitars.

While leading this successful combo, she not only upped the ante on her own playing, but her restless inquisitive mind began to envision new innovations for the “steel guitar” as it was becoming known.  By 1937 her instrumental prowess had elevated her to featured soloist with The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which in those days was a very big deal indeed, and she was working on a design for a “dream guitar,” a multi-necked instrument that would allow for a variety of independent tunings.  Her thinking pre-dated pedal steel guitar and her tunings became the basis for pedal steel players who were to follow.

In fact, the only thing she didn’t envision was the crucial system of pedals and knee levers that made it possible to achieve her goal using only two necks. As it was, the “Grand Letar,” as it was dubbed by Whiteman, employed four necks and, as made by National, weighed a ton once all the additional bells and whistles (a twin-speaker amp and light show) were figured in.  She and her ever-supportive father came up with a more practical version, the “Small Letar.”  She received a great deal of trade-press coverage for her innovative new instruments and demonstrated them at the 1937 National Music Trade Convention in New York City, during which Alvino Rey witnessed her display. Mr. Rey had been working with Gibson to design a multi-neck steel guitar, and the Letar seems to have unlocked the mystery for him and for Gibson, because within two years they introduced the Console Grande, their first multi-neck steel.

Letitia’s legend and legacy were hampered by the fact that she never recorded, and by 1955 had quit the Big Stage for domesticity, although she continued to teach for many years. Writer and collector Paul Warnik, long haunted by old trade pictures of this mystery woman and her mystery guitar, finally tracked her down, very much alive and well, in 2007. To his delight Warnik found that she still had all her instruments, including the Grand Letar, which was then fully restored in time for the International Steel Guitar Convention 2008 in St. Louis, the instrument’s first public demonstration in 55 years.