Photo by Kyle Rothenborg
In a moment of pure inspiration the idea came to local guitar craftsmen Mark Iseman and Matthew Nigro of O‘ahu-based Iseman Guitars: Creating handmade koa wood Weissenborn-style lap steel guitars would complete a circle because the tropical, bluesy sound of the steel guitar was born on O‘ahu.
It’s widely accepted that the lap steel guitar originated in Hawai‘i in the late 1800s, with Island musicians laying their instruments across their laps and sliding bars over the strings to create the signature twang since embraced by many of the world’s most accomplished guitarists: Ben Harper, Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour (whom Iseman says is one of his favorites). By the 1920s, Los Angeles luthier Hermann Weissenborn had helped popularize the instrument, building Hawaiian- inspired steel guitars with a thick, hollow neck that provides extra resonance and creates support for playing the instrument horizontally. Iseman’s and Nigro’s version remains true to the exacting standards of craftsmanship that make 1920s-era Weissenborn koa guitars highly sought after by collectors.
“We realized no one was making a highquality, koa-wood Weissenborn today at an affordable price,” says Iseman, who spent years building resonator guitars for National Reso-Phonic in California and custom ‘ukulele for Kanile‘a ‘Ukulele on O‘ahu before starting Iseman Guitars in 2012 with Nigro, his bandmate and business partner. “Since Hawai‘i is the birthplace of the lap steel guitar and the only source on the planet for native, naturally fallen koa, we knew we could create something special that would be unique in today’s market.”
Musicians and collectors have good reason to celebrate Iseman’s vision. It’s estimated that fewer than five thousand koa Weissenborns were made, and no one knows how many still exist. Aficionados would expect to pay from several thousand up to ten thousand dollars for one in good shape. Iseman’s koa Weissenborns come with a far more modest price tag: They start at around two grand. But how do they sound? “Iseman’s guitars have an excellent feel,” says local lap steel recording artist Greg Sardinha, “and maybe even better resonance than some of the original Weissenborns I’ve played.”