The Art of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Techniques for Live Performance

Chet Atkins once said that the loose tunings used by Hawaiian Slack Key guitarists were what he considered open tunings. This unique style of guitar playing has been captivating audiences for decades, and is now being kept alive by living legends such as Ken Emerson and Jim Kimo West.

Slack Key

is a Hawaiian term for what is more commonly known as open tuning, and is characterized by some of the strings being looser than in standard tuning. The thumb plays the bass while the other fingers play the melody and improvise in a style chosen with the fingers.

Ken Emerson began studying Hawaiian language and music by emulating the musicians of the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on the jazz and blues styles of Sol Hoopii and Sol K. West. He developed his own loose vocabulary that now defines his unique approach to this great tradition. Jim Kimo West and Ken Emerson are preserving the sincerest essence of traditional slack key, while also bringing their own musical heritage to their original slack key instruments.

Cord International's Hana Ola Records is dedicated to preserving, restoring, and publishing authentic and lost Hawaiian music. Although slack key tuning and open tuning use similar tunings, such as open C and open sun, slack key has a different sound, influenced by the tropical environment and the relative isolation of Hawaii. Emerson won the prestigious Kahili Award for perpetuating Hawaiian culture, and was one of the featured artists on the first Hawaiian album by the National Academy of Recording Arts, winner of the Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts. This began to change when the generation of players who currently consider themselves “living legends” realized that if they didn't start sharing with people, Slack Key would disappear.

A long-time fan of open tunings, Jim Kimo West was immediately drawn to the soft rhythms of the loose-key guitar and soon began writing his own songs. For those looking to learn more about live performance with a Hawaiian Slack Key guitar, there are several techniques to keep in mind. First, it is important to understand how to tune a slack key guitar correctly. This involves loosening some strings compared to standard tuning.

It is also important to understand how to play with your fingers in order to create a unique style that follows a chosen pattern. Finally, it is important to understand how to use traditional Hawaiian music as inspiration for your own compositions. Learning how to play a Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar can be an incredibly rewarding experience for any musician. With its unique sound and loose tuning, it can be used to create beautiful melodies that will captivate any audience.

To get started, it is important to understand how to tune a slack key guitar correctly, as well as how to use your fingers in order to create a unique style that follows a chosen pattern. Additionally, it is important to draw inspiration from traditional Hawaiian music when creating your own compositions. With these tips in mind, you can begin your journey into mastering this beautiful art form.

Kurt Wilkes
Kurt Wilkes

Unapologetic coffee fanatic. Evil web ninja. . Hardcore food ninja. Total music aficionado. Devoted food expert.

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