Letritia Kandle was born in 1915, the only child of Charles and Alma Kandle. As a child she learned to play piano but fell in love with the sound of the steel guitar (Hawaiian) after seeing Warner Baxter play the Spanish guitar in the film The Cisco Kid. Letritia quickly took up the acoustic Hawaiian (steel) guitar when she was thirteen.
When she visited the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, she met and befriended George Kealoha Gilman, who helped her understand more about Hawaiian language and culture . Soon after, Letritia formed an all-girl ensemble known as The Kohala Girls. The Kohala Girls specialized in Hawaiian music, and had matching National Resophonic guitars.
Few recordings remain of the The Kohala Girls but the band continued to perform until Letritia left to join Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra in 1937.
Letritia was determined to improve the sound of her steel guitar. At first she experimented with a second hand double-neck harp guitar. Then she and her father, built a 26-string guitar. After much trial and error they came up with the Grand Letar at the suggestion of Paul Whiteman. The name came from the first three letters of Letritia and the last two letters of guitar. National Guitars were quick to associate themselves with the project and the National Grand Letar was a radical departure in design from the standard steel guitar which was held in the lap,
The National Grand Letar was tuned similar to a piano and sat inside a cabinet covered in cast aluminum and the sides were made of wood covered with a chrome-plated steel wrap. It featured two 12-inch Lansing Field Coil speakers, a tube amp, and a dimmer (to light up its translucent fretboard and front panel, and change the colors of 120 bulbs to match the tones produced on the instrument).
The Grand Letritia had a special case and weighed 400 pounds in total. This was the first console steel guitar to have more than two necks, and two speakers. There was also a built-in moving light show with lighted front, sides and fretboards as well as a series of tuning advancements that predated the modern pedal steel guitar. Originally, the front panel had a rising sun motif, which came from Letritia’s initial vision of the instrument. This was later changed to an art deco motif with musical notes when war wit Japan was declared.
Unfortunately, the Grand Letar proved unwieldy and featured only at higher-profile engagements and residencies. She did however Kandle demonstrate it at the 1937 National Music Trade Convention in New York after signing an endorsement deal with National. Production costs and weight prevented more Grand letars from being made but the pair did produced a more portable instrument in 1939. The Small Letar had several musical modifications including a seventh string to each of the standard necks. The National Grand Letar was a trail blazer and within a couple of years rival pedal steel guitar manufacturers were modifying their products to emulate the original.
In 1941, Kandle became the featured soloist of the 50-piece Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra, and when conductor Jack Lundin died in 1943, she assumed the role. She retired form the music business in 1955, got married and concentrated on raising a family.
In 2016, steel guitar collector and historian, Paul Warnik donated a collection of Letritia Kandle’s personal papers and photographs to the University of Illinois’ Sousa Archives and Center for American Music. Paul also painstakingly restored the National Grand Letar to full operation.
Letritia Kandle sadly passed away in 2010 but not before she and Warnik had become good friends. The pioneer of the steel guitar was delighted to share her memories and memorabilia with the historian. Like Delia Derbyshire the pioneer of electronic music, Kandle's contribution to modern music might have been lost had it not been for enthusiasts and fans keen to credit the source of such enjoyment given to millions.