The Soothing Sounds of the Slack Key Guitar
While the ukulele may be the most widely recognized musical instrument associated with Hawaii, many kama`aina (locals) also consider the slack key guitar as one of the state’s instruments.
While there are different theories on how the slack key guitar style was invented, the most popular story is that the first guitars were brought to the Hawaiian Islands in the 19th century by European sailors and Mexican and Spanish cowboys, who were hired to teach Native Hawaiians how to work the cattle farms. After working on the ranch all day, the cowboys would return to camp and play their guitars. Island cowboys (paniolo) were instantly intrigued since the slack key guitar’s sound was so different from their own music. Though the cowboys eventually left the islands, they taught the paniolo how to play the guitar and left some behind for them to use.
The paniolo incorporated the guitar into their traditional songs and chants and eventually they blended into a new and unique form of Hawaiian music. Since there weren’t many guitars or people who knew how to play them, the Hawaiians developed a new playing style which involved playing the lower pitched strings with their thumb to create the rhythm and the upper pitched strings with the fingers of the same hand to create the melody. They also altered the tuning, which, in a combination with the playing style, created a more complete sound allowing them to create complex melodies. This style of playing is unique to Hawai‘i and is called ki ho`alu meaning “loosen the [tuning] key”. When the steel string guitar was later brought to Hawai‘i by the Portuguese, Hawaiians switched to this new type of guitar while continuing to develop their playing style.
Since vocals were typically the most important part of Ancient Hawaiian music, guitars were typically used only as background music. This allowed Hawaiians to develop the different tuning and combinations – and eventually, many regions developed their own signature style of playing the slack key guitar. As with many things in the Ancient Hawaiian culture, playing styles were typically passed down within ‘ohana or families from generation to generation.
King David Kalakaua gave the slack key guitar a major boost during his reign by supporting the preservation of ancient music while also encouraging the use of the imported ukulele and guitar. His work to revitalize the Hawaiian culture acknowledged Hawaii’s new, complimentary traditions and helped to increase the popularity of the ukulele and guitar during the Hawaiian Renaissance.
The Godfather of Hawaiian Guitar
Known as “the father of modern slack key guitar” Gabby Pahinui and his music is a big reason why the slack key guitar’s popularity continues to endure in Hawaii. Pahinui made some of the state’s first slack key guitar recordings in the 1940’s and his guitar techniques and complex sounds helped people to recognize that the guitar could be used as more than just a background instrument.
While he was also an impressive singer, Pahinui’s work showcasing the different possibilities for the slack key guitar helped to pioneer the solo guitar style that is still popular today. Pahinui also worked to mentor and provide inspiration to other celebrated slack key guitar players including Sonny Chillingsworth, Leonard Kwan, and his own sons, Cyril, James “Bla”, and Martin Pahinui.
If you’re visiting Hawaii and want to experience the slack key guitar live, it is used in many Hawaiian musical performances. However, if you’d like to hear performances by living legends and the next generation of slack key guitar masters, check out the following slack key guitar events:
- Mele Mei, the celebration of Hawaiian music, language, and culture, takes place every May with workshops, festivals, luncheons, and performances across the state in preparation for the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. For more information and to see a schedule of events please visit www.melemei.com/.
- While the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival on the mainland has already concluded, the festival’s Hawaii events kick off June 22 on Maui. Events on O`ahu are scheduled for August 17 in Waikiki and October 19 in Ewa Beach, Hawaii Island on August 31, and Kaua`i on November 16. For more information on the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival and to see a schedule please visit http://www.slackkeyfestival.com/.
- For those visiting Maui, be sure to check out the George Kahumoku, Jr.’s Slack Key Show: Masters of Hawaiian Music. A master of the slack key guitar himself, Kahumoku’s show features many well-known slack key guitar and `ukulele players and offers performances every Wednesday and Thursday evening at the Napili Kai Beach Resort. For more information visit www.slackkeyshow.com/.