Letritia Kandle

and the Magnificent Grand Letar
Letritia Kandle
Letritia Kandle
Letritia Kandle with the National Grand Letar; note the front panel’s rising-sun motif, which was changed after the U.S. went to war against Japan.

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, Letritia Kandle deserves to be on the list, as well – her 1937 Grand Letar being the first “console” steel guitar and the first steel with more than two necks, its built-in amplifier was also 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 lighted front, sides, and fretboards!

* * * *

The story is really about two people, Kandle and Paul Warnik, a steel-guitar historian/collector who was haunted by a photo in Tom Wheeler’s American Guitars showing a young woman from decades past posed in front of a multi-neck steel guitar. Its caption reads, “Teacher Letritia Kandle poses with National’s Grand Letar Console Steel.”

Though he looked, Warnik could find no information on Kandle. But when he purchased a National lap steel at a vintage-guitar show in the early ’90s, it had a signed receipt from Kandle’s guitar studio, with a Chicago address. Assuming she’d passed away, years went by before, in 2007, he met one of Kandle’s former students at a steel-guitar convention in Illinois. He told Warnik that Kandle was still very much alive and living in the Chicago suburbs.

Kandle was born November 7, 1915, the only child of Charles and Alma Kandle. In her early years, she was a typical young lady of the era; she took piano lessons, but when at 13 she saw Warner Baxter play the Spanish guitar in the film The Cisco Kid, she immediately wanted to play guitar instead. Her instructor told her that the Hawaiian (also known as “steel”) guitar was becoming popular, and helped Kandle get started on the acoustic Hawaiian guitar.

Her father was supportive, and after she proved to him she was serious about playing the Hawaiian guitar, he bought top-of-the-line instruments. Her early acoustics included a koa Weissenborn and a National Style 2 (followed later by a top-of-the-line Style 4) resophonic guitar. When she spotted a turn-of-the-century doubleneck harp guitar (possibly made by Almcrantz) hanging in a second-hand shop, she asked her father to buy it. They then converted it to a Hawaiian raised-nut instrument with a standard neck and a 12-string neck capable of different tunings.

At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, Hawaiian music and culture was all the rage. There, Kandle met George Kealoha Gilman, who mentored her in Hawaiian lore – speaking the language, Hula dancing, and making leis and grass skirts. The following year, she formed an all-girl ensemble known as The Kohala Girls, which played Hawaiian music and had matching National Resophonic guitars.

Paul Whiteman
Big-band leader Paul Whiteman named the Grand Letar.

Unlike many young musicians, Kandle was continually thinking of ways to not only improve her musicianship, but to improve the steel guitar itself. After a few years of playing with The Kohala Girls, during which time electric lap steels and double-neck lap steels became more popular, Kandle had a vision. In a series of articles for Music Studio News, she wrote about how the National Grand Letar console steel came to be; “Have you ever indulged in dreaming? If you have, you know that there are primarily two different kinds – one where the dreamer tries to escape from the reality of living, and one where the dreamer sets a mental goal for himself, and then tries by hard, honest endeavor to reach it in reality,” she wrote. “The second type of dreamer is responsible for many of the advancements of our Modern way of life.

“And so while waiting for an appointment on one of the upper floors of a tall office building in Chicago, the idea for a 26-string guitar was born. It was summer, and through the large window facing the West from where I was sitting, the sun, like a huge ball of fire, surrounded by a myriad of colors, sky blue, pink, yellow, purple, and green was dropping by the horizon, there appeared an instrument seemingly blown of glass. I kept looking at the sky, when the crisp friendly voice of the receptionist called my mind back to this world. In those few moments of daydreaming, I knew what I wanted.

“A guitar that would enable me to stand while playing it, one that would sound full, like an organ, and yet produce tones like a vibraharp – one with not less than 26 strings, for complete harmony, and one that would change colors as the different tones were produced. When I arrived home, later that evening, I told my father of the dream. Although my dad is an engineer and not a musician, he offered to help build the ‘dream instrument’ for me, if I would help.

“The problems we encountered were many, each one had to be dealt with separately – a metal had to be chosen for the casting, that would not expand or contract when in contact with heat – sizes of strings, electronics, etc. until finally after many days, weeks, and months of labor, emerged a finished instrument.

(CLOCKWISE) The restored Grand Letar. Photos: John Norris. A look inside the Grand Letar reveals the controls for its lights, and its 20-watt tube amplifier. Kandle, age 94, showing her slant-bar technique on the Small Letar. photo: Deke Dickerson.

“Now that the instrument was finished a name for it had to be selected, so, from my first name, Letritia, we took the first three letters, and from the word guitar we chose the last two letters. With this combination, the ‘dream instrument’ became the ‘Grand Letar!'”

In early 1937, Kandle’s father worked on the Grand Letar to his daughter’s specifications. A large console was made, with its top cast in aluminum and sides made of wood covered with a chrome-plated steel wrap. This was the first steel guitar that would not be played sitting in the lap, so it was a radical construction for the time. Previously, no steel guitar had ever had more than two necks. Kandle’s Grand Letar appeared to have four – three six-string and one eight-string neck – but in reality it had three six-string necks and two four-string necks!

Kandle’s father built the console, then went to see Louis Dopyera at National Guitars. Kandle had been playing National Resophonics with The Kohala Girls and knew the Dopyera family. National installed pickups and a 20-watt amplifier with two 12” JB Lansing field-coil speakers. It holds the distinction of being the first guitar amplifier to use two speakers, a full 10 years before Leo Fender made the Dual Professional, and 20-odd years before Leo began offering the Twin with JBL speakers as an option!

Kandle’s first gig was with the all-female group The Kohala Girls, which played National Resophonic instruments. Kandle, seated second from left, is holding a National Style 4.

In contrast to all of its construction and technical innovations, the Grand Letar’s coup de grace was its built-in light show, which relied heavily on Mr. Kandle’s engineering know-how. The fretboards, sides, and front were etched glass that displayed lights that shone from within. The front panel was originally a rising-sun motif, per Letritia Kandle’s vision. With the advent of World War II and the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, she later opted for an art-deco motif with musical notes.

Inside was a ’30s vision of the future – a network of 120 bulbs in four colors that flashed and changed colors as a motor in the base engaged electrical contacts on a flywheel. On back was a control panel with four rheostats and 12 toggle switches to control brightness and other aspects.

National built a case to transport the instrument; weighing 265 pounds by itself, once in the case the Grand Letar represented 400 pounds of freight!

At the time the Grand Letar was finished, Kandle was playing with big-band leader Paul Whiteman (who came up with the name) and she played it with Whiteman during a residency at the Drake Hotel in Chicago in 1937.

National was eager to have Kandle demonstrate the Grand Letar at the ’37 National Music Trade Convention. Held in New York City, the convention was where musical-instrument manufacturers displayed their products, and many great names demonstrated them. National signed an endorsement deal with Kandle, and arranged for her to demo the instrument at its booth. During one of the demonstrations, Kandle looked up to see her idol, Alvino Rey, watching. One of the country’s greatest steel guitar players and bandleaders, Rey left before Kandle had a chance meet him. Rey was one of the country’s greatest steel-guitar players and bandleaders – on the cusp of technological innovation – and Kandle was intrigued by the fact he left before they had a chance to speak about her instrument. Within two years, however, Rey and Gibson introduced the Console Grande steel guitar, which incorporated many of the ideas first presented in the Grand Letar at the ’37 trade show.

In addition to two Letars, Kandle used other Nationals, including this doubleneck console lap steel and matching amp from the early ’40s.

The dates of Kandle’s innovations can be verified through press on the instrument. The Music Trades ran an article about Kandle and the Grand Letar in its September ’37 issue. Down Beat, the highly regarded jazz magazine, ran a piece in October of ’37. During the made rush of stringed-instrument innovation of the late ’30s, it’s difficult to prove who did what first, but these articles prove exactly when Kandle introduced her innovations.

One of her ideas for the Grand Letar was the tuning of its necks; lap steels and doubleneck lap steels were usually tuned with one or two standard tunings, such as the low-bass A for Hawaiian playing or the C6 tuning for jazz. Kandle envisioned being able to cover all harmonic and chordal bases in a style that necessitated switching between the necks during each song. The chord inversions she devised were later utilized by pedal-steel players, with their pedals achieving the same result as switching between necks. The first neck was tuned to an A-major (high bass) tuning – A-C#-E-A-C#-E. The second neck had the standard E7 tuning – B-E-D-G#-B-E. The third was an A minor tuning which could also make C6th inversions. The fourth – an eight-string – was arranged in two small clusters, with four strings for each. One was tuned to an augmented chord (F-A-C#-F) and one was tuned to a diminished chord (F#-A-C-E).

The Grand Letar proved unwieldy, so it was mostly used for higher-profile engagements and residencies. In ’39, Kandle and her father came up with a more portable instrument, like the Grand Letar but without the amplifier and lights. The Small Letar added a seventh string to each of the standard necks, with one interesting variation on the E7 neck – a high F# string on the top of the E7 neck, which when played turned it into an E9 chord, pre-dating the Nashville E9 tuning by 20 years!

In the years that followed, National fielded several inquires about manufacturing and selling Grand Letar consoles, but the cost and weight prevented another from being made. National promoted Kandle’s involvement by picturing her in the 1940 catalog holding a Princess lap steel.

Letritia conducted the 49-piece Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra, which featured no fewer than 17 steel guitarists!

In ’41, Kandle became the featured soloist of the 50-piece Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra, which featured her playing classical numbers such as “Blue Danube Waltz” as well as other pop and Hawaiian numbers. When conductor Jack Lundin passed away in ’43, Kandle assumed the role.

Througout the ’40s, Kandle taught hundreds of students at her guitar studio in downtown Chicago. She was featured in the Who’s Who Of Music, judged talent competitions, made the cover of B.M.G. magazine, and authored articles for Music Studio News and other publications. She also continued her interest in advancing the steel guitar. In the late ’40s, she endorsed the Harlin Brothers Kalina Multi-Kord steel guitar, one of the early attempts at a pedal-steel guitar.

After the Grand Letar proved too bulky to transport feasibly, Kandle had National build the Small Letar. Essentially the same console-steel concept, it didn’t have the built-in amp or lights.

In 1955, Kandle married Walter Lay, a one-time string bassist for the Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra. Both went to work for Kandle’s father, who had begun manufacturing earth-boring equipment. Kandle retired from music to concentrate on raising a family. Walter passed away in December of 2008.

Kandle’s story and early innovations could have been relegated to obscurity, since she never made any recordings (beyond a few radio transcriptions which have yet to surface), never pursued fame beyond her own musical endeavors, and never entered the public consciousness in the manner of Les Paul or Alvino Rey.

Fortunately, she archived the magazines and publicity photos that document her career. Better yet, she stored the Grand Letar in its case and out of harm’s way – under her stairs – for 55 years. Warnik restored the instrument with the help of Jeff Mikols and Sue Haslam. In September of 2008, it was transported to St. Louis, where it was played during the International Steel Guitar Convention.

Even as her story is being told and the Grand Letar is back in action, the 94-year-old Kandle’s modest attitude belies the fact that her accomplishments deserve a great deal of recognition.

The Grand Letar was an amazing technological innvovation. Kandle, however, remains humble.

“All I ever tried to do was elevate the steel guitar into a more versatile instrument that was capable of playing other styles of music, like modern and classical – not just Hawaiian music,” she said.

So while it may be 70 years late, it’s time to acknowledge the debt we owe to early electric-guitar innovators like Les Paul, Alvino Rey, Charlie Christian – and Letritia Kandle!

Special thanks to Paul Warnik, T.C. Furlong, Sue Haslam, John Norris, Jeff Mikols, and Kay Koster – and especially Letritia Kandle.

This article originally appeared in VG August 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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