Slack Key Guitar – Hawaii’s Secret Music

(Last Updated On: February 11, 2016)

slack key guitarSlack key guitar is the secret music of Hawaii. It grew up on the ranches of the Big Island and spread to the other Hawaiian islands as a private tradition for family and close friends. It was not shared with visiting tourists and for a hundred years was largely unknown outside of Hawaii.

In the first half of the twentieth century, slack key guitar was overshadowed by the ukulele and the electrified steel guitar, which both became strongly identified with Hawaii through recordings and films. However, beginning in the 1970s slack key guitar emerged from hiding and today is recognized as an authentic and traditional Hawaiian musical art form.

Exotic Origins of Slack Key Guitar

The roots of slack key guitar were planted by British Captain George Vancouver, who gave several Mexican cattle to Hawaiian King Kamehameha I in 1793 and again in 1794. To help the cattle thrive, the king enacted a kapu [taboo] that protected them, and in a few dozen years they had overrun the Big Island of Hawaii.

Mexican cowboys [vaqueros] were brought in to teach the Hawaiians how to ranch cattle. These Spanish-speaking cattlemen became known as paniolo, a Hawaiian adaptation of the word español [Spaniard]. It is said that the Mexicans brought with them Spanish-style guitars, taught the Hawaiians the basics of how to play them, and gave guitars to their Hawaiian friends. When the Mexicans returned home, the Hawaiians were left to develop their own style of guitar music.

Slack Key Guitar: Not for Slackers!

The very name slack key guitar suggests laziness. And when I tell you that the slack key guitar is most often tuned to strike a major G chord without any fingering at all, you may say Aha! Lazy guitar playing indeed!

But you would be mistaken. Watch this video for a moment and marvel at the skill and musicality with which Ledward Kaapana plays the slack key guitar:

Those nimble fingers (and wrist, and arm!) are playing “Mauna Loa Slack Key,” and the video was uploaded to YouTube by “HI*Sessions.”

Slack Key Guitar Tuning

In the case of slack key guitar, the word “slack” refers to the way the guitar is tuned. A traditional Spanish guitar has six strings. From the lowest to the highest, the strings are tuned to match the following notes on the piano:
– E2: an octave plus six white keys (a minor thirteenth) below middle C
– A2: an octave plus two white keys (a minor tenth) below middle C
– D3: seven white keys (a minor seventh) below middle C
– G3: three white keys (a fourth) below middle C
– B3: one white keys (a semitone) below middle C
– E4: two white keys (a major third) above middle C

If you remember your third grade music class or piano lessons, a G major chord consists of the notes G, B and D. That fits three of the guitar strings, but what about the A and two E’s that are left over? The six strings of the standard guitar, when played together, don’t form any familiar chord, and in fact don’t sound very good together. You have to put your fingers on some frets and change the pitch of at least a couple of the strings to get a nice-sounding chord.

However, standard tuning is not the only way to adjust a guitar. One tuning system that is widely used in blues and folk music, including the slack key guitar music of Hawaii, is known as “open tuning”: a way of tuning the guitar so that when you play an “open” chord, without fingering the frets, you get a familiar-sounding chord, usually a major chord.

In practical terms, you can only re-tune a guitar in so many ways. If you tighten the strings more than the standard tension they are more likely to break. But if you loosen them too much, the string doesn’t produce a pleasant tone. In practice, a slack key guitar player will slacken three to six of the strings by anywhere from one to four semitones. However, no rule is absolute: three commonly used slack key guitar tunings listed by Wikipedia (Atta’s C, Mauna Loa and F Wahine) ignore the risk of breakage and involve tightening strings by one or two semitones.

The Physics of Non-Standard Tuning

Why would Hawaiians adopt a non-standard tuning? In the early years, not many Hawaiians knew the fingerings for chords, so they adjusted the instruments to produce a nice-sounding open chord. OK, so the first tuning adjustments might have been inspired by inexperience or laziness. However, individual Hawaiian players kept adding more and more different slack key guitar tunings. There are more than fifty different tunings in use today, and in some instances the unfretted sound of all strings doesn’t sound like a chord at all. Musicians would say that the sound might be a major chord (G, D or C), a major seventh chord (G, D or F), a major sixth chord, or in some cases not a recognized (named) chord.

Because many of the slack key guitar tunings are not useful as open chords, there are other, musical, reasons for various tuning schemes, and those have nothing to do with laziness. With the help of videos and historical articles, plus a bit of physics, this is what I came up with:

Just Intonation. An instrument in an orchestra may be called upon to play an arbitrary melody in any possible key; however, slack key guitar is not such an instrument. Slack key guitar is designed to play solos or to accompany the voice, joined by at most one or two other instruments. As a result:
– The tuning can be chosen to enhance the style of music being played, or in some cases, to give a unique tone to one particular song;
– Since the guitar doesn’t need to play in every musical key, it can use just intonation (“just tuning”) as I described in an earlier blog, where the overtones of the different strings perfectly match to produce a rich, full sound that is treasured in much indigenous or folk-based music.

Lower Strings. From the very beginning, Hawaiian guitar players were influenced by the tradition of chants as described in my post about Hula. A style of playing developed in which the thumb plays a steady accompaniment (an ostinato) on the lowest three strings of the guitar while the other fingers play melody and ornamentation on the upper strings. This bass line is like the drum rhythm accompanying a Hawaiian chant; slack key guitarist Jeff Peterson’s video calls it a heartbeat. Since melodies are often based on just a few different chords, by tuning the lowest strings appropriately the player can maintain the thumb rhythm most of the time without fretting those strings; this keeps the fretting hand (the left hand for a right-handed player) completely free to perform miracles of fingering on the upper strings.

Upper Strings. Non-standard tuning can also facilitate “chiming,” one of the special effects used by slack key guitar players. Chiming is produced by plucking two or three strings high on the neck, close to the fretted hand. As explained in the Just Tuning blog, this type of pluck produces a sound that emphasizes the higher harmonics of the string. I believe that some of the slack key guitar tunings were chosen because they enhance the “chiming” sound, when used with a suitable fretting and when plucked at just the right position along the string.

Sonic Aura. The tuning also creates a surrounding sonic aura for the entire piece of music. When you pluck one string of a guitar, you stimulate tones from all the other strings at the same time. This occurs for two reasons: (1) the impulse of the pluck is transmitted through the wood to the other strings, lightly exciting them; and (2) the harmonic sounds of the string you plucked resonate with harmonics of other strings, thereby exciting those strings, which in turn reinforce the sound of the plucked string. These effects are enhanced by the player’s choice of a particular tuning when playing a particular piece of music.

Where to Hear Slack Key Guitar

Physics is fine, and videos are even better, but the most rewarding way to enjoy slack key guitar is face-to-face, preferably in a small venue where you can enjoy not only the music but also see the virtuoso fingering and plucking.

You may get lucky and encounter slack key guitar as background entertainment at a restaurant or hotel, but the best players want – and can get – an audience for a full show. At such a show you are likely to hear a variety of pieces: pure instrumentals; songs sung in Hawaiian (and sometimes in English); and perhaps guitar-ukulele duets. Here’s where to find those performances:

The Big Island (Hawaii). The Big Island, whose ranches were the birthplace of slack key guitar music, features performances at resorts and at cafes. Check the KonaWeb list of events and the 101 Things To Do article.

Maui. There’s a slack key guitar show every Wednesday (and often, Thursday) evening at the Napili Kai Beach Resort in West Maui. Presented by slack key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr., it’s titled Masters of Hawaiian Music and features many well known players of slack key guitar. The show won a 2015 Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor and is a highly rated attraction. Nancy Kahumoku’s YouTube page features many videos recorded at this show. Show tickets are $38 in advance for two hours of music, shared with an audience of typically 100 to 150.

Kauai. Kauai has its own slack key guitar show, billed as the longest running concert of its kind. It’s the McMaster Guitar and Ukulele Concerts, held on the north shore of Kauai on Friday and Sunday afternoons. The show’s sponsors, Doug and Sandy McMaster, also have a YouTube page where they have posted many videos. Show tickets are $20 for two hours of music, in an audience of 70 to 100 patrons.

Festivals. For the aficionado, or simply the fan of slack key guitar music who happens to be visiting the right place at the right time, there are many slack key guitar festivals. A Google search on “Slack Key Guitar Festival” turns up several-day fests on every Hawaiian island plus such outposts as Southern California, Seattle, and perhaps even your hometown. One of the “masters” of this art form, Keola Beamer, summarized the major festivals as follows in a post that formerly (as of August 2015) appeared on his website:

Currently, there are several major slack key festivals. The Gabby Pahinui/Atta isaacs Slack Key Festival is held annually in or near Honolulu on the Island of O’ahu, every third Sunday in August, and the annual Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival is held on the next to last Sunday in July at the Hilo Civic Auditorium on the island of Hawai’i. Other festivals also take place on Maui and Kauai, on the Mainland, and occasionally internationally.

A Bonus Performance

I’ll end this blog with another treat for you: Jeff Peterson performing his instrumental piece “Kipahulu” at the Slack Key Show. The video was posted by Nancy Kahumoku.

Slack Key Guitar is a cultural tradition that also makes great entertainment. Try to sample it when you visit the Hawaiian islands.

Image Credit: Photo of Hawaiian slack key guitarist Patrick Landeza from Wikimedia Commons, author “Plindell.”

Additional Sources:

Jeff Peterson’s video that shows how slack key guitar music grew out of and helps sustain Hawaiian traditions. You might also enjoy Jeff’s instrumental “Haleakala,” performed on the slopes of Mount Haleakala where he grew up.

Curtis Kamiya’s video demonstration of basic slack key guitar technique.

An article posted on Keola Beamer’s website of slack key guitar tunings, fingering and styles of playing: A Brief History of Slack Key Guitar

Wikipedia’s article on slack key guitar describes popular tunings and gives the names of many players, many of whom also have separate Wikipedia biographies.

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