Exploring the Enchanting Sounds of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar

The Slack Key He'eia Hawaiian guitar is an enthralling instrument, with an alternating bass line and “false rhythms” that add a brushstroke to imitate rhythmic strapping and melody. Playing the melody with the two upper strings and sliding the fretboard up and down is an essential part of the style, as are open-chord vocals and syncopated variations of the bass theme. To truly master the instrument, one must distinguish themselves as a drummer, as the learning curve is steep. The strings are tuned or “loosened” to give Hawaiian Slack Key its unique sound.

This allows players to touch the strings without them ceasing to ring, acting as shock absorbers. The Slack keyboard guitar is usually played in open tuning, however, playing in open tuning does not imply that you are playing the Slack keyboard guitar. There are a multitude of guitar styles played with open tunings other than Slack Key or Hawaiian Slack Key. My first kumu (teacher) was Bobby Moderow Jr., a protégé of Nānākuli's principal Slack Key teacher, Raymond Kaleoalohapoinaʻoleohelemanu Kāne.

Influential teachers Raymond Kane and Sonny Chillingworth worked hard to teach and transmit the art of Hawaiian Slack Key to the next generation. This is my original and lively piece for Hawaiian thin-key guitar, which portrays the behavior of the Hawaiian bird (ʻelepaio), believed to be the goddess of canoe makers. Most loose keys are played with the free stroke, which, when executed correctly, produces a crisp, loud sound. It's interesting to note that “alu” also derives the kaona (hidden meaning) from “combine” or “act together”, which means an aspect that is essential to defining Slack Key.

An art form with indigenous Hawaiian origins dating back more than 150 years, the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar or Kī Hō'alu was born when Mexican cowboys gave the guitar to their Hawaiian counterparts, who then adapted and developed it. 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. The Hawaiian-style Slack Key guitar cannot simply be played with technical knowledge or skill, but must come from within. The combination of these three parts played simultaneously on a single guitar, with loose or “open” tuning, is what constitutes the basic guitar approach known as Hawaiian Slack Key.

As a child growing up in O'ahu, I had the immense fortune to learn from some of Hawaii's leading Slack Key guitar players. This is a Hawaiian solo piece for Slack Key guitar composed by Keola Beamer that represents the starlight of the Milky Way (Ka Leileiona) seen from the island of Maui.

Kurt Wilkes
Kurt Wilkes

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

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