Exploring the Art of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar

Hawaiian Slack Key guitar is an art form with indigenous Hawaiian origins of more than 150 years. It was born when Mexican cowboys gave the guitar to their Hawaiian counterparts, who then adapted it and made it evolve. Widely regarded as the original ambassador of Slack Key, Ray Kane opened many doors to this beautiful and unique guitar style. The combination of 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.

Many kī hōʻalu musicians incorporate various ornaments, such as harmonics (chimes), the hammer, the clasp, the slides and the cushioning, to create a unique sound. An alternating bass line, known as “false rhythms”, is used to simulate rhythmic strum and melody. Playing the melody with the two upper strings and sliding the fretboard up and down is an important part of what we do, as are open chord vocals and syncopated variations of the bass theme. If you compare it to Travis Picking, you'll find a lot more syncopated things happening simultaneously.

The reason why we tune or “loosen” the strings is that it allows us to play them less. When we touch the strings, they stop ringing and our fingers act as shock absorbers. In the early 1970s, a young musician named Keola Beamer wrote the first Slack Key instruction book. Sometimes, after playing the Slack key, they would tune their guitars back to normal settings so that no one could copy their keys.

Uncle Ray was one of the first slack key masters to give public concerts and tour internationally, bringing music from the islands to every corner of the world. The Hawaiian-style Slack Key guitar cannot simply be played with technical knowledge or skill, but must come from the soul. Without this, the loose key becomes a mere technique, something that veterans would never approve or recognize as Kī Hō'alu. As a child growing up in O'ahu, I had the immense fortune to learn from some of the leading Hawaiian guitar players Slack Key.

Influential teachers Raymond Kane and Sonny Chillingworth made a determined effort to teach and transmit this art form to the next generation. It is interesting to note that “alu” also derives its kaona (hidden meaning) from “combine” or “act together”, which means an aspect that is crucial to defining Slack Key. Despite having these musical roots and having a father who was an extraordinary easy-going musician who left his family when Kane was two years old, Kane's desire to learn slack key forced him to seek classes beyond his family at age nine. My first kumu (teacher) was Bobby Moderow Jr., a protégé of Nānākuli's principal Slack Key teacher, Raymond Kaleoalohapoinaʻoleohelemanu Kāne.

Kurt Wilkes
Kurt Wilkes

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

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