Unlocking the Secrets of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar

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, what I call “false rhythms”, in which a small brushstroke is added to simulate rhythmic strum and melody, is also used. Playing the melody on the two upper strings with a lot of sliding up and down the fretboard is a big part of what we do, as are the open-chord vocals and syncopated variations of the bass theme. If you compare it to, for example, Travis Picking, you'll find a lot more syncopated things happening simultaneously.

You really have to separate as a drummer. That's why Slack Key's learning curve is so steep. Tuning a chord and not having to hold down the chords is what really gives Hawaiian Slack Key its unique sound. The reason is that it allows us to play the strings less.

When we touch the strings, they stop ringing: the fingers act as shock absorbers. According to slack key legend, Cyril Pahinui, slack key is essentially a Hawaiian term for what's more commonly known as open tuning. He says that when he met and played with Chet Atkins in Nashville, Tennessee, Atkins told him that the tunings he used in slack were what Atkins considered open tunings. The Slack Key guitar is Hawaii's secret music. It grew up on the ranches of the Big Island and then spread to the other Hawaiian Islands as a private tradition for family and close friends.

Hawaiians didn't share it with the tourists who visited it and for a hundred years it was virtually unknown outside of Hawaii. Non-standard tuning can also facilitate “ringing”, one of the special effects used by loose-key guitarists. Like the blues guitar, the loose key tradition is very flexible and can have great emotional depth. A guitarist usually plays the same song differently each time, sometimes changing the tempo or even the tunings. As guitarists learn to play in this individualistic tradition, they find their own tunings, techniques, arrangements and repertoire. At age 13, after two years of learning Uncle Raymond's nahenahe (sweet sound) style, I met Sonny Chillingworth, another legendary master of Slack Key's art.

In the first half of the 20th century, the loose-key guitar was a secondary violin after the ukulele and the electrified steel guitar. The loose-key guitar exists to play solo or to accompany the voice, with a maximum of one or two other instruments. For the amateur, or simply the fan of loose-fitting guitar music who is visiting the right place at the right time, there are plenty of loose-key guitar festivals. My first kumu (teacher) was Bobby Moderow Jr., a protégé of Nānākuli's main Slack Key teacher, Raymond Kaleoalohapoinaʻoleohelemanu Kāne. During the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Hawaiian Renaissance, when Hawaiians regained their cultural identity after imperial colonization of their homeland, many loose-toned recordings were made. The modern period of Slack Key began around 1946 when Gabby made his first recording.

To this day, Slack's key artists are inspired by the traditions of the area where they grew up and by the music of their 'ohona (family) and add their own individual playing style to it. You might get lucky and find a loose-key guitar as background entertainment in a restaurant or hotel. Without this, slack becomes a mere technique; something that veterans would never approve or recognize as Kī Hō'alu. In practice, a loose-key guitarist will loosen three to six strings between one and four semitones.

There are a myriad of guitar styles played in open tunings that aren't Slack Key or Hawaiian Slack Key.

George Kuo reflects on his key loose mentors: “Sometimes older players fixate on a rhythm (they keep same pace and feel) and stay there all night”.These four artists - in addition to Sonny Chillingworth - recorded in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and influenced all youngest Slack Key guitarists.

Since 1960s - especially in 1990s - Hawaiian slack key guitar has become highly developed instrumental art form both in solo and group formats.

Kurt Wilkes
Kurt Wilkes

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

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