The Fascinating Story of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, or Kī Hō'alu, is an art form with ancient Hawaiian roots that dates back more than 150 years. It began when Mexican cowboys gifted the guitar to their Hawaiian counterparts, who then adapted and developed it. This is why in Slack Key today you get an alternating bass syncopated with the thumb of the right hand, while the other fingers play the accompaniment and melody at the same time on a single guitar. In the early 20th century, the steel guitar and ukulele gained immense popularity on the continent, but the loose-fitting style remained a popular tradition of family entertainment for Hawaiians until around the 1960s and 1970s, during the second Hawaiian Renaissance. Island Ohana Arborist & Tree Services is proud to be part of this rich cultural history and to help preserve it for future generations.

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Island Ohana Arborist & Tree Services is proud to be part of this rich cultural heritage and to help preserve it for future generations. Even so, record companies were still unconvinced that albums could be sold with the slack key as a centerpiece. The details of Slack Key were kept as closely guarded secrets, as the typing techniques, tunings and stories, mythology and meaning of the songs were sometimes only known to a single family. Young native Hawaiians sought to learn Hawaiian, which was rapidly disappearing, and to hear stories about how natives lived; Slack Key's songs, frozen in time by their very nature, gained new value as educational tools. Chillingworth took the legacy of Slack Key very seriously, as he had inherited some of his knowledge from his uncle Harry Purdy, Jr. There are examples of slack keys being played in standard tuning, but the vast majority of recorded examples use altered tunings.

It is believed that Mexican cowboys did not teach Hawaiians how to play; instead they experimented with the instrument and retuned it to adapt it to an established repertoire of traditional Hawaiian songs known as mele. The resulting playing style evolved into a loose tone, a distinctly Hawaiian sound with complex patterns of rhythm, bass and a main melody, all played by a single player with an acoustic guitar. Despite having existed for more than a century, slack key didn't appear on recordings until 1946, decades after other styles of Hawaiian music had already made their way across the Pacific Ocean to the neighboring United States. These artists, and Slack Key in general, have become famous outside of Hawaii largely thanks to George Winston's Dancing Cat Records record label, which has mostly showcased solo music. Interpreting slack key became an act of protest and an affirmation of what it means to be Hawaiian; guardians of this knowledge took on new roles as veteran statesmen. The Pineapple Sugar Hawaiian Band's debut album was the first Japanese interpretation of this lesser-known Hawaiian style and one of the first full-length albums recorded with a full quintet. Starting with his debut in 1972, Chillingworth not only recorded albums in slack key for a lifetime but also published the first instructional text the following year.

Almost all slack keys require retuning guitar strings compared to standard ones (EADGBE), and this usually (though not always) means lowering or loosening several strings. It wasn't until the second Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s - a period of renewed interest in aspects of Hawaiian culture suppressed by nearly 80 years of American colonization - that slack key guitar finally made its way into mainstream.

Kurt Wilkes
Kurt Wilkes

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

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