Hawaiian slack key guitar has a long and rich history, deeply rooted in the weak-toned guitar. It has been used as an accompaniment to vocals, as instrumental compositions, or as instrumental interpretations of vocal pieces. This music did not reach a continental audience during the Hawaiian musical fashion of the early 20th century, during which Hawaiian music came to be identified outside the islands with the steel guitar and ukulele. What makes Slack Key music unique is the double bass with the thumb and other fingers playing the rhythm and lead vocals.
My first kumu (teacher) was Bobby Moderow Jr., a protégé of Nānākuli's principal Slack Key teacher, Raymond Kaleoalohapoinaʻoleohelemanu Kāne. The modern period of Slack Key began around 1946, when Gabby, who is often referred to as the father of the modern Slack Key era, recorded his first recording.
As a child growing up in O'ahu, I had the immense fortune to learn from some of the leading players of the Hawaiian slackkey guitar.The knowledge and popularity of the slack guitar was further increased with the release of several great albums in the 1960s by Leonard Kwan, Ray Kāne, Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui on Margaret Williams' Tradewinds label. George Kuo, reflecting on his more discreet mentors, points out: “Sometimes, older musicians notice the rhythm (they keep the same rhythm and feel) and stay there all night.”Slack Key's compositions show characteristics of indigenous Hawaiian and imported musical traditions.
To this day, every key Slack artist draws inspiration from the traditions of the area where they grew up and the music of their ʻohana (family), adding their own individual way of playing. This loose tradition received an important boost during the reign of King David Kalākaua, responsible for the Hawaiian cultural revival in the 1880s and 1890s. George Kanahele made a great effort to raise public awareness through his publications, music classes and the sponsorship of concerts, including the emblematic 1972 Slack Key concert. The second is a kind of loose jazz, with a lot of improvisation, used prominently in the music of Atta Isaacs, Cyril Pahinui, Leddy Kaapana, Moses Kahumoku, George Kuo, Ozzie Kotani and Peter. When played alone, you can fully appreciate the beautiful and unique intricacies of the loose-key guitar, as each teacher's music has great depth and individuality. The skinny guitar became part of the music that Paniolo played after work or with family and friends at meetings, and this Paniolo tradition continues to this day on Isla Grande and Maui.
There's a mystique surrounding guitar music with loose keys: it's very personal and can have a very magical feel to it.