Slack-key guitar

Slack-key guitar (from Hawaiian kī hōʻalu, which means "loosen the [tuning] key") is a fingerstyle genre of guitar music that originated in Hawaii and uses open tunings. Most slack-key tunings can be achieved by starting with a guitar in standard tuning and detuning or "slacking" one or more of the strings until the six strings form a single chord, frequently G major.


In the oral-history account, the style originated from Mexican cowboys in the late 19th century. These paniolo (a Hawaiianization of españoles—"Spaniards") provided guitars, taught the Hawaiians the rudiments of playing, and then left, allowing the Hawaiians to develop the style on their own. Musicologists and historians suggest that the story is more complicated,[1] but this is the version that is most often offered by Hawaiian musicians. Slack-key guitar adapted to accompany the rhythms of Hawaiian dancing and the harmonic structures of Hawaiian music. The style of Hawaiian music that was promoted as a matter of national pride under the reign of King David Kalākaua in the late 19th century combined rhythms from traditional dance meters with imported European forms (for example, military marches), and drew its melodies from chant (mele and oli), hula, Christian hymns (hīmeni), and the popular music brought in by the various peoples who came to the Islands: English-speaking North Americans, Mexicans, Portuguese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Tahitians, and Samoans.

The music did not develop a mainland audience during the Hawaiian music craze of the early 20th century, during which Hawaiian music came to be identified outside Islands with the steel guitar and the ukulele. Slack key remained private and family entertainment, and it was not even recorded until 1946–47, when Gabby Pahinui cut a series of records that brought the tradition into public view.[2] During the 1960s and particularly during the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the 1970s, slack key experienced a surge in popularity and came to be seen as one of the most genuine expressions of Hawaiian spirit, principally thanks to Gabby Pahinui, Atta Isaacs, Leonard Kwan, Sonny Chillingworth, Raymond Kāne, and the more modern styles of younger players such as Keola Beamer, his brother Kapono Beamer, Peter Moon, and Haunani Apoliona. During this period, luthiers such as the Guitar and Lute Workshop in Honolulu specialized in the development and manufacture of guitars custom made to order for slack-key performance.

Many currently prominent Hawaiʻi-based players got their starts during the Cultural Renaissance years: Cindy Combs, Ledward Kaapana, George Kahumoku, Jr., his brother Moses Kahumoku, Dennis Kamakahi, Ozzie Kotani, three Pahinui brothers (Bla, Cyril, and Martin), the Emerson Brothers and Owana Salazar. These artists, and slack key in general, have become well known outside Hawaiʻi largely through George Winston's Dancing Cat Records record label, which has most often showcased the music in solo settings.

One indication of slack key's increasing visibility beyond the Islands is that the first four winners of the Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album were slack key collections: Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2 in 2005,[3] Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Volume 1 in 2006,[4] Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar—Live from Maui[5] and "Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar – Live in Concert from Maui." Players from outside Hawaiʻi have also taken up the tradition, for example, Chet Atkins (who included slack key pieces on two of his albums), Yuki Yamauchi (a student of Raymond Kāne's and an advocate of Hawaiian music in Japan), pianist George Winston, and Canadian Jim "Kimo" West (perhaps better known as guitarist with "Weird Al" Yankovic).

Techniques and tunings

Kī hōʻalu often uses an alternating-bass pattern, usually played by the thumb on the lower two or three strings of the guitar, while the melody is played on the three or four highest strings, using any number of fingers. Many kī hōʻalu players incorporate various embellishments such as harmonics (chimes), the hammer-on, the pull-off, slides, and damping. Slack key compositions exhibit characteristics from indigenous Hawaiian and imported musical traditions. The vamp or turnaround (a repeated figure, usually at the end of a verse) is descended from the hula tradition, and other harmonic and structural features are descended from hīmeni and from the hula kuʻi encouraged by King David Kalakaua.[6]

Nearly all slack key requires retuning the guitar strings from the standard EADGBE, and this usually means lowering or "slacking" several strings. The result is most often a major chord, although it can also be a major-seventh chord, a sixth, or (rarely) a minor. There are examples of slack key played in standard tuning, but the overwhelming majority of recorded examples use altered tunings. The most common slack key tuning, called "taro patch," makes a G major chord. Starting from the standard EADGBE, the high and low E strings are lowered or "slacked" to D and the fifth string from A down to G, so the notes become DGDGBD. As the chart below shows, there are also major-chord tunings based on C, F, and D.

Another important group of tunings, based on major-seventh chords, is called "wahine". G wahine, for example, starts with taro patch and lowers the third string from G to F, making DGDFBD. Wahine tunings have their own characteristic vamps (as in, for example, Raymond Kāne's "Punahele" or Gabby Pahinui's 1946 "Hula Medley") and require fretting one or two strings to form a major chord. A third significant group is Mauna Loa tunings, in which the highest pair of strings are a fifth apart: Gabby Pahinui often played in C Mauna Loa, CGEGAE.

George Winston has identified fifty slack key tunings[7] Some are only commonly used for a single song, or by particular players. Mike McClellan and George Winston have developed similar schemes that organize the tunings by key and type. The chart below follows their categories and naming conventions.

Common tunings

Tuning Notes used
G Major or Taro Patch D G D G B D
G Wahine D G D F B D
D Wahine D A D F A C
Open D D A D F A D
C Major or Atta's C C G E G C E
Mauna Loa C G E G A E
C Wahine or Leonard's C C G D G B D
C 6 C G C G A E
Old Mauna Loa C G C G A D
Open C C G C E G C
F Wahine C F C G C E
Open F C F C F A C
Double Slack F C F C E A C
(Le) Igi, from Samoa

Notable players

See also


  1. ^ For example, Elizabeth Tatar, "Slack Key Guitar", in Hawaiian Music and Musicians, ed. George S. Kanahele, University Press of Hawaii, 350–360. ISBN 0-8248-0578-X
  2. ^ See updated and corrected liner notes to the compilation CD History of Slack Key Guitar, by Harry Soria, Jr., Jay Junker, and George Winston.
  3. ^ "Slack key wins first Hawaiian Grammy", by Tim Ryan, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 14, 2005
  4. ^ "'Masters' of the Grammy", by John Burger, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 9, 2006
  5. ^ Derek Pavia (February 12, 2007). "Slack Key Snags Third Hawaiian Grammy". Honolulu Advertiser. Archived from the original on August 7, 2009.
  6. ^ Tatar, "The Technique" and "The Chant Tradition" sections of "Slack Key Guitar" in Hawaiian Music and Musicians
  7. ^ [1] George Winston's on-line Short History of Slack Key Guitar, "Chart of Recorded Tunings"

External links

Dancing Cat Records

Dancing Cat Records is a record label founded in 1983 by pianist George Winston to publish both his music and music in the Hawaiian slack-key guitar style. Its mission later expanded to cover other Hawaiian musicians. Dancing Cat's albums were originally distributed by Windham Hill Records. Since Windham Hill's buyout by Sony Music Entertainment in 2008, the label receives distribution from RCA Victor, but is not owned by Windham Hill or Sony Music.

Daniel Ho

Daniel Ho (born March 5, 1968) is an American musician, composer and producer specializing in innovative approaches to Slack-key guitar, ukulele, and Hawaiian music. He has recorded 18 solo albums, some of which have won or were nominated for Grammy Awards, and has produced over 50 albums.

Dennis Kamakahi

Dennis David Kahekilimamaoikalanikeha Kamakahi (March 31, 1953 – April 28, 2014) was a Hawaiian slack key guitarist, recording artist, music composer, and Christian minister. He was a three-time Grammy Awards winner, and in 2009 he was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.

Fingerstyle guitar

Fingerstyle guitar is the technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to flatpicking (plucking individual notes with a single plectrum, commonly called a "pick"). The term "fingerstyle" is something of a misnomer, since it is present in several different genres and styles of music—but mostly, because it involves a completely different technique, not just a "style" of playing, especially for the guitarist's picking/plucking hand. The term is often used synonymously with fingerpicking except in classical guitar circles, although fingerpicking can also refer to a specific tradition of folk, blues and country guitar playing in the US. The terms "fingerstyle" and "fingerpicking" also applied to similar string instruments such as the banjo.

Music arranged for fingerstyle playing can include chords, arpeggios (the notes of a chord played one after the other, as opposed to simultaneously) and other elements such as artificial harmonics, hammering on and pulling off notes with the fretting hand, using the body of the guitar percussively (by tapping rhythms on the body), and many other techniques. Often, the guitarist will play the melody notes, interspersed with the melody's accompanying chords and the deep bassline (or bass notes) simultaneously. Some fingerpicking guitarists also intersperse percussive tapping along with the melody, chords and bassline. Fingerstyle is a standard technique on the classical or nylon string guitar, but is considered more of a specialized technique on steel string guitars. Fingerpicking is less common on electric guitar. The timbre of fingerpicked notes is described as "result[ing] in a more piano-like attack," and less like pizzicato.

Fred Punahoa

Fred Punahoa Konanui (also spelled "Punahou") (April 25, 1919 - March 10, 1985) was a Hawaiian musician and slack key guitar player from Kalapana, Hawaii. Though only two known recordings exist of "Uncle Fred," he remains one of the most influential slack key artists of all time.

His legacy as a teacher can be attested to by such prominent students as Ledward Kaapana and Sonny Lim, both now-famous slack key guitarists who credit Uncle Fred as a primary teacher and inspiration.

The only known recordings of Uncle Fred consist of two songs from the 1974 Waimea Music Festival CD, which were given generic titles on the track list but have since become known as "Mauna Loa Slack Key", and "Punahoa Special". These songs are now standards in the slack key cannon, covered by Led, Sonny Lim, Makana, Nick Borho, and many other slack key guitarists.

Gabby Pahinui

Philip Kunia Pahinui (Hawaiian pronunciation: [pɐhinui]; April 22, 1921 – October 13, 1980) was a slack-key guitarist and singer of Hawaiian music.

Born into a struggling family, Gabby was born Charles Kapono Kahahawai Jr. and later hānaied with his brother and one of his sisters to Philip and Emily Pahinui and raised in the impoverished district of Kaka'ako in Honolulu in the 1920s ("all tin roofs and kinda falling apart"). He spent his childhood supporting his family by selling newspapers and shining shoes. He dropped out of school after 5th grade at Pohukaina School.

George Kahumoku Jr.

George Kahumoku Jr. is a musician specializing in slack-key guitar.

Born in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, he was labeled a Hawaiian "renaissance man" by Maui Time Weekly. He received the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album for the compilation album Legends Of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar — Live From Maui.

Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album

The Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album was an honor presented to recording artists from 2005 to 2011 for quality Hawaiian music albums. The Grammy Awards, an annual ceremony that was established in 1958 and originally called the Gramophone Awards, are presented by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States to "honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency, and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position".Campaigning resulted in the Hawaiian category's establishment in 2005. Prior to its creation, Hawaiian music recordings were eligible for the Best World Music Album category but no Hawaiian musician or group had ever won a Grammy Award. During its seven-year history, awards were presented to Charles M. Brotman for Slack Key Guitar: Volume 2, producers Daniel Ho, Paul Konwiser and Wayne Wong for Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Volume One, the same production team plus George Kahumoku, Jr. for Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Live from Maui in 2007 followed by Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in 2008, and Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Volume 2 in 2010, Tia Carrere and Ho for Ikena, and Carrere for Huana Ke Aloha in 2011. Eligible recordings had to feature the Hawaiian language on "more than half of its vocal tracks", though instrumental albums were also acceptable. Awards were presented to the engineers, mixers, and/or producers in addition to the performing artists.

Daniel Ho holds the record for the most wins, with five. Four-time recipients include Paul Konwiser and Wayne Wong as producers. George Kahumoku, Jr. earned three awards as a producer, and Tia Carrere earned two as a performing artist. Ho also holds the record for the most nominations, with seven. Amy Hānaialiʻi Gilliom holds the record for the most nominations without a win, with five. Six of the seven Grammy-winning albums were released through the record label Daniel Ho Creations. In 2011, the Recording Academy announced the retirement of the award category. Beginning in 2012, Hawaiian music recordings were eligible for the Best Regional Roots Music Album category.

Jeff Peterson (guitarist)

Jeff Peterson is a slack key guitar player from Maui, Hawaii. The son of a paniolo at Haleakala Ranch, Jeff was exposed to the sounds of slack key at an early age.

Jeff's style fuses traditional Slack Key with elements of classical and jazz guitar, at which styles he is also adept. Jeff studied classical guitar at USC's Thornton School of Music before returning to the islands to play and teach in the Honolulu area.

Jeff has contributed to many albums, including a series of slack key and bamboo flute duets with Riley Lee, several slack key compilations including the Grammy Winning album "Slack Key Guitar Volume 2", "Slack Key Guitar: The Artistry of Jeff Peterson", as well as his most recent solo album "Maui On My Mind". He performed at BAM's Next Wave Festival in 2008 in collaboration with the string quartet ETHEL.His Concerto for Slack Key Guitar, Mālama ʻĀina, commissioned by the Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Peter Askim to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, was premiered November 6, 2016, by the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra with Peterson as the soloist. Its three movements are dedicated to the three volcanoes in Hawaii that are located within the National Park System: Haleakala, Kilauea, and Mauna Loa. The concerto is featured in Wahi Pana, a full-length feature film DVD (and its soundtrack CD) about the music and life of Peterson. The concerto was given its Hawaii premiere on December 10, 2017, by the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra at Blaisdell Concert Hall with Peterson as the soloist and Carl St. Clair as the conductor.Jeff has shared the stage with many Hawaiian legends at concerts throughout the islands and Japan, and recently did a stint with the Nashville Symphony.

He was a former guitar professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Oahu.

Jim West (guitarist)

James West (born December 18, 1953), also known as Kimo West, is a Canadian guitarist, best known for working with "Weird Al" Yankovic. He auditioned for Yankovic after being introduced by Steve Jay and the two have worked together ever since. West can be heard and seen on all of Yankovic's videos, albums, and concerts since 1984.

West is also a composer for film and television and produced a number of CDs for independent artists. He has released seven solo slack-key guitar albums. He performs regularly at concerts and festivals.

John Keawe

John Keawe is a Hawaiian musician and slack key guitar player from Hawi in the North Kohala district of the Big Island of Hawaii.

He has toured throughout Hawaii and the Mainland U.S. and regularly performs on the Big Island. Keawe has released a series of albums on his Homestead Records Label, and can also be heard on the Grammy Winning album "Slack Key Guitar Volume 2" available on Palm Records.

Keola Beamer

Keola Beamer (born Keolamaikalani Breckenridge Beamer in 1951) is a Hawaiian slack-key guitar player, best known as the composer of "Honolulu City Lights" and an innovative musician who fused Hawaiian roots and contemporary music. Keola Beamer comes from one of Hawaii's most respected musical families.

Makana (musician)

Makana (who is so named as it is the Hawaiian word meaning “the gift”), born Matthew Swalinkavich, is an award-winning slack-key guitar player, singer, and composer.

Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar

Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar is an album released in 2010. It won a Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album. It reached number fifteen on the Billboard Top World Music Albums chart.

It featured Owana Salazar.

Music of Hawaii

The music of Hawaii includes an array of traditional and popular styles, ranging from native Hawaiian folk music to modern rock and hip hop. Hawaii's musical contributions to the music of the United States are out of proportion to the state's small size. Styles like slack-key guitar are well known worldwide, while Hawaiian-tinged music is a frequent part of Hollywood soundtracks. Hawaii also made a contribution to country music with the introduction of the steel guitar. In addition, the music which began to be played by Puerto Ricans in Hawaii in the early 1900s is called cachi cachi music, on the islands of Hawaii.

Music of Hawaiian people is largely religious in nature, and includes chanting and dance music. Hawaiian music has had a notable impact on the music of other Polynesian islands; Peter Manuel called the influence of Hawaiian music a "unifying factor in the development of modern Pacific musics".

Ozzie Kotani

Ozzie Kotani is a slack-key guitar player and a well-respected teacher, arranger, solo performer and accompanist.Kotani was born in 1956 in Honolulu, Hawaii in the neighborhood of Pauoa. He learned how to play the 'ukulele in fourth grade, but his interest in kī hō‘alu, or Hawaiian slack key guitar, was sparked in high school when he heard Keola Beamer on the radio.

In 1975, Kotani enrolled in Peter Medeiros' slack key guitar class at the University of Hawaii Continuing Education program. In 1976, Kotani began to study privately with slack key legend Sonny Chillingworth. Kotani returned to the University of Hawai'i program in 1986 to teach and pass on his knowledge of the Hawaiian slack key style to others.

Kotani recorded his first album, Classical Slack, in 1988. Kotani followed up his debut with Kani Kī hō‘alu in 1995, To Honor a Queen: The Music of Lili'uokalani in 2002, Paka Ua (Raindrops) in 2005, and Hō'ihi (Respect) in 2008.

Teaming with Dennis Ladd in 2000, Kotani published his first instruction book on slack key guitar titled Guitar Playing Hawaiian Style: Kī Hō‘alu, An Instrumental Method For Slack Key Volume One. He followed up in 2007 with an instructional DVD titled Guitar Playing Hawaiian Style with Ozzie Kotani: Kī Hō‘alu Vol. 1 and in 2009 with Guitar Playing Hawaiian Style with Ozzie Kotani: Kī Hō‘alu Vol. 2.

Kotani is known for his use of the nylon string guitar, a vocalizing approach to ballads, his use of atypical chord progressions, rolls played with the thumb and three fingers and a stand-up bass-type sound on the low strings on the first and third beats of the measure.

Ozzie also taught private lessons during the 2000s and worked at the Bishop Museum. For Steel String guitars, Ozzie uses a vintage Martin, and a Presentation series Taylor guitar.

Raymond Kāne

Raymond Kaleoalohapoinaʻoleohelemanu Kāne (, Hawaiian: [ˈkaːne]; October 2, 1925 - February 27, 2008), was one of Hawaii's acknowledged masters of the slack-key guitar. Born in Koloa, Kauaʻi, he grew up in Nanakuli on Oʻahu's Waiʻanae Coast where his stepfather worked as a fisherman.Kāne's style was distinctive and deceptively simple. He played in a number of ki ho'alu tunings always plucking or brushing the strings with only the thumb and index finger of his right hand. He also played hammer-ons and pull-offs in a unique way; his finger moving up and out, instead of down and in, after striking a string. He emphasized that one must play and sing "from the heart". He was never flashy or fast. In Hawaiian, his sound is described as nahenahe (sweet sounding).

He was a recipient of a 1987 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

Sonny Chillingworth

Edwin Bradfield Liloa Chillingworth, Jr., known as Sonny Chillingworth, (July 14, 1932 – August 24, 1994) was an American guitarist and singer. Widely influential in Hawaiian music, he played slack-key guitar and is widely regarded as one of the most influential slack key guitarists in history.

Sonny Lim

Elmer "Sonny" Lim is a Hawaiian musician and slack key guitar player from Waimea (Kamuela) on the Big Island of Hawaii. Sonny is part of the musical Lim Family of North Kohala.Sonny's father, Elmer Lim Sr., who was a Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) on the famed Parker ranch and later worked for the ranch himself. In this respect, Sonny carries on the slack key tradition born amongst Waimea Cowboys over a hundred years earlier. Like Ledward Kaapana, however, Sonny learned primarily from Kaapana's uncle, Kalapana slack key master Fred Punahoa, who moved in with Sonny's family for several weeks to teach him.

In addition to playing with the Lim Family, Sonny played with the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau (using the stage name "Kohala") in the late-1970s, and he has shared the stage with many other Hawaiian artists such as Cyril Pahinui.

He can be heard on the Grammy Award-winning anthology album, "Slack Key Guitar Volume 2", as well as his solo debut album."Slack Key Guitar: The Artistry of Sonny Lim," was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album.Both albums available on Palm Records.


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