Letritia Kandle had a dream, the echo of which can be heard whenever a rock group plugs their guitars into loud amps and plugs an extension cord into an outlet.
The spark for her dream – a 26-string guitar – came “while waiting for an appointment on the top floor of a tall Chicago office building,” she later wrote in Music Studio News.
“It was summer and through the large window facing west from where I was sitting, the sun fell like a huge ball of fire, surrounded by myriad colors, sky blue, pink, yellow, purple and green, on the horizon. Then an instrument appeared, apparently made of glass.”
Expanding on this original image, Kandle envisioned a guitar with the pitch range of an organ and the ability to put on a light show. That was quite a vision considering the traditional guitar of the time was a six-stringed instrument that emitted pleasant but relatively mellow tones.
Indeed, realizing Kandle’s dream required a musical behemoth: The Grand Letar, dubbed the Grand Letar, weighed 263 pounds, was transported in a 150-pound suitcase, and had a price that stunned potential buyers. The 1937 prototype, designed by Kandle and assembled by her father, was the only one ever built.
The Grand Letar’s role in the development of the electric guitar was forgotten until Paul Warnik, a vintage guitar collector, stumbled upon the instrument’s history. He discovered that Kandle had kept the Grand Letar under the basement steps of their home in the north-west suburb of Barrington.
She gave it to Warnik, who had it restored, and it was played for the first time in five decades at the 2008 International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis. Thereafter, Warnik donated the instrument and Kandle’s papers to the Sousa Archives of the University of Illinois Library.
Born in 1915, Kandle grew up in Austin, Chicago, at a time when middle-class girls were taking piano lessons. But she switched instruments after seeing “In Old Arizona,” a movie that featured a Spanish guitar. Her teacher promoted the Hawaiian guitar, an alternative that didn’t rest in a performer’s arms but lay flat on their laps.
Her timing proved propitious. In the Great Depression that followed, all things Hawaiian became a dreamy pop-culture alternative to the grim reality of the 1930s. The rough voice of the Hawaiian guitar spoke of whitecaps rolling over sandy beaches.
Kandle formed and played with a Hawaiian guitar sextet, the Kohala Girls. She then performed with the Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra, a 50-piece group that plucked and strummed guitars, banjos, mandolins and string basses, along with accordionists and percussionists. She later married Walter Lay, a bass player in the orchestra.
As her career progressed, she wanted to explore more complex genres. But the Hawaiian guitar, in her opinion, had limited potential for jazz and classical music. Six strings can only produce so many tones. Other musicians attempted to expand the instruments’ musical vocabulary by building guitars with two necks, and thus more strings.
Why stop at two necks? thought Kandle. “Have you ever indulged in dreaming?” she later wrote in Music Studio News.
“If so, do you know that there are two main types – one in which the dreamer attempts to escape the reality of life, and one in which the dreamer sets a spiritual goal and then achieves it through hard, honest effort it is actually trying to achieve.”
Hers was of the second kind, and she described her vision to her father, an engineer specializing in augers: “A guitar that would allow me to play while I was standing up, one that would sound rich, like an organ, and yet produces tones like a vibraharp.”
He built her a guitar with three six-string necks and two four-string necks on a cast aluminum console. The Hawaiian guitar already had a wooden body swapped out for a metal body, giving it the alternative name of a steel guitar. Inside the Grand Letar was a row of colored lightbulbs connected by an electrical switching system that projected a rainbow through a glass window, swapping one hue for another in unison with the tempo of the music.
“The problems we encountered were varied, each one having to be addressed separately – a metal had to be chosen for the casting that would not expand or contract on contact with heat – sizes of strings, electronics, etc,” she later said remind. “The tuning was just ‘force majeure’, completely unprecedented.”
The Grand Letar made its debut at the Drake Hotel in 1937, where Kandle performed with Paul Whiteman. That same year, National Guitars, hoping to market the Grand Letar, sent it to the National Music Trade Convention in New York.
Kandle was delighted to see Alvino Rey watching her demonstrate the instrument. He was their hero, a famous steel guitarist and bandleader. She would be honored to meet him, but he left before she finished playing. Two years later, a possible reason for Rey’s early exit was revealed.
Gibson Guitars announced a Rey-designed electric guitar that incorporates many of the features of the Grand Letar. Most significantly, Rey’s amplifier had two speakers – a technological innovation developed by Kandle and first publicly presented at the 1937 show.
Gibson became synonymous with electric guitars. National Guitars did not receive enough requests to justify producing Kandle’s guitar. Or its little brother, the Little Letar, a lighter version that was easier for Kandle to carry from home to loop commitments.
In the 1940s she gave up performing in favor of teaching. She opened a studio in the Kimball Building at 306 S. Wabash Ave., which eventually had 14 teachers. One alumnus recalled the disciplined ambience Kandle created:
“When you took lessons from her, you played from the sheet music and you played what the sheet music asked for. No more, no less.”
Her studio also provided a way for Warnik, the guitar enthusiast, to connect with Kandle. In the 1940s she wrote a monthly column for Music Studio News and occasional pieces for Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Magazine.
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Decades later, Warnik, a passionate collector of all things guitar, learned that she had put her ideas and sketches of guitars on paper. He saw her name in a guitar encyclopedia, so he knew what Kandle had accomplished. But was she alive, and if so, where was she?
In the 1990s, Warnik bought a vintage guitar with an attached receipt showing Kandle’s studio address. In 2007, at a guitar convention, he met a former student who gave him Kandle’s home address in Barrington.
His visit left her amazed. “All I’ve ever tried to do is make the steel guitar a more versatile instrument, capable of playing other styles of music, like modern and classical, not just Hawaiian,” she told him.
A story was presented to Vintage Guitar magazine and a race with the Grim Reaper ensued.
Kandle was 94 and seriously ill. Warnik and Kandle’s friends were determined that she would know her story was told before she died. As the August 2010 issue of Vintage Guitar rolled off the press, one of them grabbed a copy and rushed to the hospital bed where Kandle lay and showed it to her. She died three days later.
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