Gerald Byrd became known as Jerry Byrd, the legendary Hawaiian steel guitar
master. In fact, his plaque in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame proclaims
him to be "The Master of Touch and Tone".
He was the first child of Harley and Lauretta Byrd, born in Lima, Ohio.
He graduated from Lima Central High School in 1939. He showed a strong
love of music, particularly the Hawaiian "Steel" guitar after hearing
one played for the first time at a traveling tent show around 1932.
In an interview with Rick Chatenever of the Maui News on October 11, 1991,
Jerry described seeing and hearing the steel guitar for the first time in
that tent show as a 12-year old boy. He listened to the music and was
hypnotized by it. And that attention to that sound stayed with him all through
Jerry said in that interview of the tent shows, "They were much like
circuses. They would spend one or two days in town and then move on.
If you missed it, you had to wait a year. One of my schoolmates, he
came from a wealthy family and said he would pay my way. It cost
a dollar. I had never seen a dollar before."
"We went in, there was a troupe of Hawaiians. The backdrop was
a volcano erupting, surd palm trees." The show featured the Ka'ai
Kue Family - "they later made quite a splash with Arthur Godfrey."
But the impression that stayed with Jerry was "...the guy playing the steel
guitar in his lap."
Jerry then aimed to learn to play the steel guitar, but quickly
surpassed his teachers. He said the guy who taught him played
"Home an the Range." In fact, this was during a time when there was a big
fascination with the Hawaiian music and culture in the United States at the time.
Every radio station seemed to have something that was Hawaiian at the time
in the 30s and 40s. For Jerry, he paid for instrument transcribing
at the "Honolulu Academy of Music" in Lima, Ohio.
He was playing professionally by the time he was 15. Jerry was
quoted, "I played beer joints for $1 a night." He was also doing
his own "research" into the steel guitar at the time.
"There were no teaching materials. So I started out on my own,
experimenting with tunings. I was way ahead of the game."
How far ahead of the game was he in his tunings and his styling? Let's take a look
at his history. Jerry pioneered several things in the history
of steel guitar one being a tuning of which there are several.
He introduced what he called the "C-6th" tuning and did so in
1939 publicly. It revolutionized the steel guitar as an instrument.
He was recorded playing in this tuning at Ron Dearth's studio
in Lima, Ohio on February 19, 1939. This indicated
Jerry was playing in this tuning as early as 1938 when he was only
18 years old.
Many steel players have claimed they used the C-6th long
before they ever heard of Jerry. But, when they were asked specifics
such as when they started using the tuning, they cannot verifiably show
they were using it before 1939. In fact, most were not yet born
or were only 5-10 years old. Jerry can verify his claim, he has that
original recording in his possession.
There was little else to do during the deep
depression years of the 1930s, Jerry turned to the Hawaiian steel guitar
instrument and gave it his complete attention. When he graduated,
from high school, Jerry left Lima, Ohio to start his musical career.
He began in Kentucky when John Lair talked him into joining the Renfro Valley
Barn Dance back in the 1930s, possibly around 1938 (a Country Song
Roundup article in 1950 indicated Jerry had been on the radio for 12 years
by then). While he was in Renfro Valley, he worked in the music library during the week. The Renfro Valley Barn
Dance achieved a bit of fame itself, being broadcast at one time on the
NBC, CBS and Mutual radio networks.
Illness struck Jerry in 1941 when he contacted pneumonia which nearly
took his life. The disease prevented him from participating in any
military service during World War II. He returned to his home in Lima
and following a long recuperation period he returned to the Renfro
Valley Barn Dance where he worked until 1942. In 1942, he moved to
Detroit, Michigan, where he appeared on radio station WJR for over two
His career saw him as a member of Ernest Tubb's band the "Texas Troubadours"
for about three months; long enough to go to Hollywood and be a part
of the movie, "Hollywood Barn Dance". Later on, he joined the Cumberland
Valley Boys which was the group behind Red Foley.
Jerry then joined the world famous "Grand Ole Opry" in
Nashville, Tennessee, in 1944/45. It was during this time that his
unique playing style was first heard on commercial recordings with
nearly all the top country singers of that era. Jerry quickly became
the most sought after "side" man in the recording industry, doing
hundreds of sessions with singers from the country and pop segments
of the business.
In 1948/49, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to join the
popular WLW Midwestern Hayride where he gained his first national television
exposure. At that time, he was a part of the Pleasant Valley Boys group, which
included Red Turner, Zeke Turner and Louie Innis. While on WLW, he was also
on the "Strawhat Matinee" that aired on the NBC network, too.
Later on, he became a part of George Morgan's "Candy Kids" as part of the
robin Hood Flour Shows that were broadcast over the CBS radio network. He
was only a temporary replacement with George Morgan's group at the time as
the original steel guitar player had gone into the Army.
While he was in Nashville, he had a show that aired on Friday nights
at 7:15 EST that he shared with Chet Atkins called "Two Guitars".
In a Country Song Roundup article of 1954, they said he had recorded
with The Harmonicats, Rex Allen, Louis Innis, Chet Atkins, the Davis Sisters,
Homer and Jethro, Guy Mitchell and more.
Jerry continued to do more recording sessions plus
daily radio and television shows. He returned to Nashville in
1952 and remained there for twenty years where his heavy work
Jerry notes in a radio interview with Canadian Broadcasting's Laurie Mills
in about 1973, that the first records he made of any consequence were with
Ernest Tub. He had been working at a radio station in Detroit, Michigan
at the time and that job had ended and then he got a call from Ernest Tubb.
He said he was playing the same type of fills he had been playing for years
and "...all at once I was discovered." He then started working with Red Foley,
then recorded on his own with Mercury in 1949.
During that circa 1973 interview, Jerry mentions:
"I listened to the Hawaiians because they were really the only ones who
were playing the steel guitar at that time. Dick McIntyre was my
particular favorite although there were so many great ones ..
Andy Iona, Sam Koki, Sol Ho'oppi'I ... all of them contributed to
steel guitar. A lot of the kids like me that were learning to
play - you couldn't play Hawaiian music in the middle of Ohio so
you play the next thing to come along which was country music.
I know Joaquin Murphy out in California picked up a lot of
his stuff from Sol Ho'oppi'i. Roy Wiggins got a lot of his stuff
from Hawaiians - that was the only place you heard it."
Jerry mentions that the first country steel guitar player that made an
impact on him was a fellow that was a part of the legendary western swing
band lead by Bob Wills - Leon McAuliffe. He said in that 1973 interview
that he went to see a movie with Bob Wills about four times just to see
Leon play that one chorus of Ida Red. He said his style leant itself to
country music as it was back then. But in 1973, he didn't know how his sound
would fit in with the music of the day. He said the Red Foley ballads
back then such as "Blues In My Heart" were the type of songs he enjoyed.
Later on in the interview with Laurie Mills, he mentions the impact of
being a session musician or being located in one area such as Cincinnati
or Detroit where you don't get out of the state much and not doing much
road work. He felt he didn't get the chance to experiment as much as say
a person such as Curley Chalker who was working quite a bit in Las Vegas
at the time to work in different techniques. He said he started working with a
"...five piece band just to do that - to get to play something different
and be able to experiment more."
Another unique aspect of Jerry Byrd's steel guitar sound is the instrument
type he chose to play throughout his career. In the Maui News article, it mentions
that Byrd had always stayed up with the latest technology. But
he found that he resisted the next development in the steel guitar's evolution.
"I never went to pedal steel," he said. "I gave it a lot of thought, but
I had started going on my own as a soloist. I realized I had an
identity. I would lose followers if I changed."
He called the twangy instrument, so essential to the honky tonk sound,
"the great equalizer. If you didn't have the talent in your left hand,
your feet did it for you."
Jerry said, "I never changed. That was the best decision I ever made."
In the interview with Laurie Mills, Jerry mentions he first saw a pedal
steel guitar in 1939. Back then he said, they weren't as sophisticated as they
are now with the instruments; they had ingenious ways to pull the strings, but
they didn't seem to work and the guitars were forever out of tune. That made
him think he wasn't going to change unless he saw some big improvements. It
wasn't until 1949 that he saw a good version of a pedal steel. Ernest Tavares
was playing it, who was with Harry Owens at the time. Jerry thought Ernest's
pedal steel was good, but by that time, Jerry had been recording on his own
and had developed a unique style. He had a big fan club back then he said. He
asked them - should he move to the pedal steel? They told him, if they wanted
to hear the pedal steel guitar, they would buy those records, so his fans
told him to stay the course.
In the Mills interview, Jerry relates a tale of when he played
at a trade show.
"I played a trade show and some boy came up to me and saw my little ol'
black Bakelite Rickenbacker that's in the Hall of Fame. He said
"Is that the guitar you use all the time?" and I said
"Yeah". I was playing in the Rickenbacker guitar company's suite at the show.
I said "Why?" and he said "Well, you play a lot of stuff so you
must play a pedal guitar. I've heard that you've got one at home you
keep in a closet and only bring it out for recording sessions".
(laughs) I said "No, this is what I play. I'm not up here selling' guitars.
They pay me to come up and play and that's what I'm doing". I don't think
he ever did believe me."
Jerry went on to explain how he was able to mimic the sounds that a pedal
steel might generate in that interview.
"I did an album called "Admirable Byrd" and I did a lot of pedal sounds
in there ... not as good as the pedal guys could do it but it was that
sound and it was still different. I wrote a lot of the tunes to show
what you could do without pedals in an E9th tuning. I got a lot of
mail ... one of the songs is "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight" and I do
a lot of bar slant work, you know, and a lot of people still don't believe
I did it without a pedal guitar but I did. To me it's kinda silly.
Why would I lie about it if I did play pedals! I'd tell 'em."
One of the things Laurie Mills brought up during that circa 1973 interview
was Jerry's contribution to what is called "The Nashville Sound". He asked
whether Jerry and others knew what they were creating at the time.
"No, and nobody else knew either, It was just something that
evolved. At that time for recording sessions, there were only 5 or 6
guys doing the majority of 'em ... Chet Atkins and myself and a few
others. Back in those days, and Nashville still practices, (there was) a kind
of an interest in what the singer is tryin' to do. They'll go to extra
lengths to see that they're satisfied. Which is good business. It's always
been that way. Back when we started we didn't watch the clock, we
were interested in recording four sides, having it good and everybody really
pitchin' in. When the New York singers and all the pop singers started coming
to Nashville, that's the thing that impressed them the most ... the desire
on the part of the musicians to get a good record for them. So that's
how Nashville got started and I think that's how they still practice. I
One memorable session was the one in Cincinnati, Ohio with none other than
Hank Williams when he finally got the okay from Fred Rose to record "Lovesick
Blues". Jerry was a part of that session as were Zeke Turner on lead guitar,
Louis Innis on rhythm guitar to reinforce Hank's playing. Tommy Jackson
was on fiddle. And a WLW announcer by the name of Willie Thall played bass. It was
around the time of the recording ban and Fred Rose didn't exactly care for the song.
Jerry had been working with Turner on a previous Ernest Tubb session that included
"Waiting For a Train" and with little time to try anything else, they replicated
that sound a bit with Hank's song.
Jerry said they did two cuts. And he said he told Hank that was the sorriest
thing he ever did hear. But Hank was defensive a bit and mentioned that they
may put that song on a flip side or something. Jerry and the rest of the crew
were a bit 'dismayed' that 'anything as sorry as that could be a hit'. But as legends
go, history shows that "Lovesick Blues" became Hank Williams' biggest hit and
when he performed it on the WSM Grand Ole Opry, it brought the house down.
But Nashville wasn't to be Jerry's last stop or home. In
that 1991 interview with the Maui News, Jerry reveals how it came to be
that he moved to the Hawaiian islands.
"Hawaiian style - that's where my heart was always at. I talked to
Sonny Kamahele, he said, come, on over here. You belong with us,
Eventually, Jerry took Kamahele's advice and moved there 1971. Jerry
said his first job was with Kamahele, stating that he was playing
two weeks after he had arrived.
"I didn't want to do shows - I wanted to get a couple of guys and go
play the clubs and just play."
Jerry's love for the steel guitar and Hawaiian music are reflected in
his many accomplishments and the deserved recognition he has received over
the years. The first steel guitar and amplifier he used can be found
on exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Jerry was
the first inductee into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame
in St. Louis, Missouri in 1978. Between 1978-1998, he performed over 35
times in Japan and played two concerts in Australia and one in New
Throughout his career, Jerry has always took the time to show others
or teach others the rudiments of Hawaiian steel guitar playing. Even
back in 1950, he signed up with the Robbins-Miller-Feist publishing
company to publish a set of instructions for playing the steel guitar. Back
then the hope was to include a correspondence course as well that would
be distributed nationally.
Later, when he moved to Hawaii, he wanted to teach the native Hawaiian
students the musical theory of the Hawaiian steel guitar which he had
become associated with so they could carry on the island's musical legacies.
Jerry talked of his methods and ideals for teaching his students Hawaiian
steel guitar playing in that 1973 interview:
"What I do with my boys - I have them from 11 years old up to college
age what I've found by trial and error - talking about someone who has no knowledge
of steel guitar ... I started 'em out with 6 strings. The 1st thing that
they learn is the left hand ... how to hold the bar, how to move it,
how to slant it, forward slant 1st, reverse slant later. Then we start
with a simple "A" tuning - EC#AEC#A - for two reasons: one you're
dealing with new ears and it's easier for them to hear a guitar tuned
in thirds . ... then we move to E major which eliminates some of the slant
bar work of A tuning and makes it a little easier to playwhich
is really the reason these tunings were discovered. We have 6 or 8
lessons in E tuning, then E7th, then C#m which is a combination of
A tuning and E tuning. They're able to get more chords and it starts
sounding more like music to them. Then we go into C6th tuning -
the final tuning that I teach. There you've got all your chords -
at least in triads, major , minor, diminished , augmented, things like
that. Then when they're done with that, if they want to get into
note reading, they can - I leave it optional.
By this time they're able to play pretty good. We then learn chord theory
and note reading so they can learn a new tune by going out
and buying the sheet music. That's my method. We've got boys who
are only 22 weeks into it playing some pretty advanced stuff.
You talk about 22 weeks where it took me 22 years, I can teach them
in 22 weeks 'cause I know the shortcuts. If I was teaching a pedal
guitar I wouldn't start 'em out on pedals I don't think because it's too
much to learn at once. Steel guitar is, I think, the only instrument
in the world where you play position by sight and by ear. So I teach'em
the mechanics so they're relaxed with the playing part and they can then concentrate
on what's written down in front of'em."
Jerry has composed over 35 instrumentals and has written several
instructional books and 199 arrangements for the steel guitar. He
has also recorded an instructional video tape. Jerry's main
professional involvement today is teaching private lessons in
Hawaii to ensure a continuing life for the instrument in its native
environment. To this end, he has taught over 4,500 private lessons
between 1980 and 2001.
Jerry's contribution to Hawaii and its music was acknowledged
by Hawaii's representative on April 12, 1989 in
the Congressional Record of that date, which reads as follows:
PRAISING JERRY "MANU" BYRD
"In Hawaiian steel guitar circles, Jerry is known simply as The Great One.
Thousands throughout the world have enjoyed his singular musical skill,
which brings forth the fantasies and realities of four Island paradise:
perfumes of tropical flowers, swaying palms, pounding surf, colorful
rainbows, surfers, and hula maidens. More importantly, Jerry's steel
strings evoke our Hawaiian spirit of aloha.
I feel privileged to join Jerry's many friends and his family in
saluting him for his contribution to Hawaii. Jerry has shared his
talent so unselfishly, not only with the listening public but with the
many students he has taken under his tutelage. I want to extend a
big mahalo to Jerry "Manu" Byrd for all he has done, for music and
Jerry was about 5 foot 8 inches tall and around 143 pounds back then.
He married a gal named Thelma and they had two girls, Lani Jo and
In 1950, Jerry did his first solo steel guitar recordings under
his name. Before he finished, he had recorded over 280 sides and
had 25 albums released on eight labels. The following is a list
of the singles that were issued on 78rpm. By no means are they a complete
listing of his life's works. We cannot list the recordings he appeared on
nor the subsequent albums he made later in his career as part of this site's
scope, but these will show you a part of his legacy. The albums and CD's that
came later also capture his legendary sound and style.
Credits & Sources
- Country Song Roundup No. 7; August 1950; Charlton Pub. Corp.;
- Country Song Roundup No. 17; April 1952; American Folk
Publications, Inc..; Derby, CT.
- Country Song Roundup No. 35; November 1954; American Folk
Publications, Inc..; Derby, CT.
- Cowboy Songs No. 26; May 1953; American Folk
Publications, Inc..; Derby, CT.
- Cowboy Songs No. 54; December 1957; American Folk
Publications, Inc..; Derby, CT.
- Byrd On The Wires; The Maui News; October 11, 1991.
- CNN Radio Interview with Jerry Byrd; circa 1973; Interview by Canadian
Broadcasting's Laurie Mills.
- Hank Williams - The Biography; Colin Escott; Little, Brown and Company;
- Jerry Byrd History; Provided by J.L. Byrd (Jerry Byrd's Brother)
- Jerry Byrd Discography; Provided by J.L. Byrd (Jerry Byrd's Brother)
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