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Son of renowned guitarist to perform and talk about father's work

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Ediitor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If you’ve never seen – let alone heard – an Eharp Hawaiian guitar before, or a “Mighty Mo,” a “Mini-Surfer,” or a “Super Axe,” your opportunity has arrived.

The son of one of the world’s greatest Hawaiian guitarists and pioneer in the field of experimental guitars will talk about his father’s work and music today at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Richard Alkire’s lecture-performance, “Warm Breezes and Hawaiian Guitars: the Genius of Eddie Alkire,” takes place from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, 236 Harding Band Bldg, 1103 S. Sixth St., Champaign. The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of the campus’s 2006 tribute to U.S. music and musicians, “American Music Month.”

Richard Alkire is the youngest son of renowned guitarist Eddie Alkire (1907-1981) and is a senior research scientist at the U. of I.’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications. He also is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and holds the Charles and Dorothy Prizer Endowed Chair in chemical engineering.

When he was a teenager, Richard Alkire said, he and his brother joined their father on his weekly evening radio program. Eddie Sr. would play one or another of his steel guitars, which had their origins in his Eharp 10-string guitar and tuning, while Richard would play the piano. Eddie Jr. would join in on bass and Al Alexander would play acoustic Spanish guitar.

For his presentation, Richard Alkire will recount stories about his father and life growing up surrounded by music at a time when the electric Hawaiian guitar came of age in American popular music during the 1940s and ’50s.

“By the late ’50s,” Alkire said, “my father was experimenting with other ways to put a steel guitar together including the number of strings, string length and voicing, the tuning, electronics, amplification and speaker systems.”

Alkire said he still plays piano – classical and jazz, and that “next year I am planning to do some concerts with my daughter, who is a professional musician in Colorado.”

The Sousa Archives, in conjunction with this year’s American Music Month, has mounted an exhibition of Eddie Alkire artifacts, which the Alkire brothers had held, including unpublished recordings of his 1930s radio broadcasts, sheet music, schematic drawings of experimental stringed instruments, photographs and most of Alkire’s instruments, including the Eharp and its cousins – several of them never commercially produced because of their prohibitive weight. Alkire’s 45-pound handmade “Super Axe” guitar is among those on display.

The collection was acquired in February, and the exhibition will run through May.

Also in the exhibit is a CD of Alkire senior and his young sons performing.

Adriana Cuervo, assistant archivist at the Sousa Archives, says Alkire was “the whole package.”

“He was an entrepreneur who invented and produced guitars, developed notation systems for teaching the Hawaiian guitar, wrote articles about the philosophy of music education and performance, developed numerous tunings for the Hawaiian guitar, published sheet music, performed extensively, made many recordings, and played more than 1,000 broadcasts on NBC and CBS radio networks with his group, the Oahu Serenaders.”

But it was the Eharp that brought him fame.

The Eharp (pronounced AY-harp) is derived from the word “eha,” meaning “four” in Hawaiian; the musician uses three fingers and the thumb to play the instrument.
A tour of the Alkire exhibition will follow the lecture. U. of I. library science graduate student Eric Harbeson put up the Eddie Alkire exhibition.

Other exhibitions mounted for the 2006 American Music Month include a collection of sheet music from the 1920s that show stereotypes in American popular music; a display of unusual and rare musical instruments, such as an erhu, a Chinese fiddle, a quena, a Peruvian flute, and a koru bativo, a Peruvian signal horn; and a display about John Philip Sousa titled “American Idol: Marketing Image and the Power of Stardom.”

For more information on American Music Month events and special exhibitions, click on the Sousa Archives Web site.