Exploring the Mystique of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar

The Slack key or ki ho'alu is a distinctly Hawaiian guitar style based on a variety of open tunings. It is an art form with indigenous Hawaiian origins of more than 150 years, and has evolved to become a highly developed instrumental art form, both in solo and group formats. In addition to learning the standard pieces of the tradition, students will learn representative tunings and specific interpretation techniques, such as chimes, hammers and slides. There's a mystique surrounding Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar that is very personal and can have a very magical feel to it.

Slack Key's unique sound comes from techniques such as “hammering-on” and “pulling-off”, which imitate the Tyrolean and falsettes common in Hawaiian singing. Also common are harmonics (“ringing”), which are produced by lightly touching the strings at certain points on the fretboard, and slides in which one or two high-pitched notes are played and then slid (usually upward) to make another note sound. All of them enhance the feeling of aloha, joy or longing that is expressed, sometimes all in the same song. Many Hawaiian songs and loose-toned guitar pieces reflect themes such as stories from the past and present and people's lives. The knowledge and popularity of the slack key guitar further increased with the release of several great slack key albums in the 1960s by Leonard Kwan, Ray Kāne, Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui on Margaret Williams' Tradewinds label.

At 13, after two years of learning Uncle Raymond's nahenahe (sweet sound) style, I met Sonny Chillingworth, another legendary master of the art from Slack Key. It expanded the limits of the loose-key guitar and turned it into a fully evolved solo guitar style, capable of creatively interpreting a wide variety of traditional and popular Hawaiian standards, original guitar parts and even pieces from other countries. From the 1960s, and especially throughout the 1990s, to the present day, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar has become increasingly popular. Are there any special techniques for playing a hawaiian slack key guitar in an ensemble setting? Yes! The band Gabby Pahinui from the 1970s is a good example of the complexity of sound that can be achieved with the slack key. Other Slack Key guitarists were amazed and inspired by these four recordings, by Gabby's level of performance and because each one had a different tuning.

The slack guitar music is sweet and moving, and it is said that the slack key is extracted from the heart and soul with the fingers of every player. Since the early 1970s (often called the Hawaiian Renaissance era), Hawaiians have increasingly focused on their cultural roots, and because of this, the popularity of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar has been steadily growing. With its unique sound created by techniques such as hammering-on, pulling-off, harmonics (“ringing”) and slides, it is possible to create complex sounds in an ensemble setting.

Kurt Wilkes
Kurt Wilkes

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

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