1954 Oahu Iolana

The Oahu Publishing Company was a superb exercise in marketing. Founded in the days of the Hawaiian music boom, the firm’s Pacific island name was betrayed by the Cleveland address in its catalogs. Oahu may have published its own sheet music and instructional books, but the instruments bearing its name were all sourced from outside manufacturers. Stromberg-Voisinet (later Kay) accounted for the large majority of pre-War Oahu instruments, while Regal accounted for probably all of the rest. Regardless, the company’s 1938 catalog devoted an entire page of photographs to “our guitar factory” – an implication which was maintained in company literature throughout the 1940s.

Oahu started distributing Volu-Tone electric instruments in 1937, and the following year it introduced the first electric model under the Oahu name. While the company did sell electric Spanish guitars, its bread and butter remained Hawaiian guitars (lap steels) until the company dropped musical instruments altogether around the middle of the 1960s. Early examples were built by Kay, but electric production was taken over by Valco after World War II. One model that spanned both manufacturers was the double-necked Iolana steel, which debuted in 1941. Few were built by Kay before the War intervened, and when production resumed around 1946, Valco largely copied the unique aesthetics of the first version.

The Iolana – whose name is often misread as “Jolana” or “Lolana” due to the script font on the headstocks – was Oahu’s flagship model at the time. It retailed for $198.50 in 1948, while the equivalent Rickenbacker D-12 in the same catalog was only $189.00. Despite the reputation of “catalog” instruments for low prices and lower quality, Oahu and Valco conspired to create a professional-grade steel. Later in the 1950s, Oahu would sell re-branded versions of the National Grand Console, but in the early post-War period, the Iolana was the top of its line. Despite not featuring more than six strings per neck, it was covered in white pearloid and boasted two strong, clear string-through pickups. A three-way switch allowed the player to select one neck, the other, or both. The headstocks were unique, with angled Kluson tuners set on a plate possibly inspired by double-bass tuners. An extra $37.50 bought the player a sturdy hard case.

The Iolana was produced well into the 1950s, but for whatever reason it was rarely if ever featured in catalogs after 1948. Later examples were fitted with leg sockets and a revised control layout with the knobs between the two necks, but I have not been able to date this change through company literature. In the late 1940s, the model was advertised with a matching 17-watt amplifier; curiously enough, the amp was not built by Valco. While this amp is rare today, the late 1940s version of the Iolana steel is common; it must have been built and sold in substantial numbers. Its limited market value today is perhaps because it does not have eight strings per neck, and perhaps to the lesser reputation of the Oahu brand compared to National, Rickenbacker and others. However, the Iolana remains a top-quality instrument in features and sound – as the catalog put it, “Queen of the double fretboards”.

This particular example is all original except for the tuner buttons.