Many times when this music is introduced as "slack key" from Hawaii, people will ask what that actually means. The answer is simple: slack key is a beautiful style of guitar playing indigenous to the Islands of Hawaii. While the answer may be simple, the roots of slack key are rich in history.

Slack key or 'ki ho'alu' means to loosen or slacken the strings of the guitar. When the strings are "slacked" they can produce many different and beautiful tunings, and while the actual tuning itself may not be exclusive to Hawaii, the stories told by the music within a particular tuning are. The Hawaiians' inspirations came from their majestic surroundings: the mountains, ocean, forests, valleys, waterfalls...indeed, everything around them. This may be why slack key is considered one of the most beautiful forms of music in the world.

There are different theories about the first appearance of the guitar in the Islands. However, it is known that guitars were brought to Hawaii by Mexican and Spanish cowboys called "vaqueros", who were hired by King Kamehameha III in 1832 to teach the Hawaiians how to handle an overpopulation of cattle. The cattle had been brought to the islands by Captain George Vancouver as a gift for the King, and were considered KAPU (sacred) by the Hawaiians and left unharmed until their numbers became a significant problem.

When the hired cowboys returned to the mainland a few years later, some left their guitars with Hawaiian friends and families. The Hawaiians learned to tune the guitars according to what sounded beautiful to the ear, and over time, because the guitars had been left with different families, there derived methods of tuning and playing styles unique to each family.

Once Western influence became established in the islands following the arrival of the first missionaries in 1820, the Hawaiians began to experience the gradual erosion of their religion and culture. And as a consequence, they began to guard closely one of the last undisturbed treasures...their new-found music, with its unique style and tunings. Families regarded their music as sacred to their own family and would not share it or the tunings in which it was played with other Hawaiians who were not part of the family.

The most influential slack key guitarist in the modern era was Gabby Pahinui [1921-1980] who, in 1947, began recording his music, thus helping to revitalize and popularize the tradition of slack key. Gabby's unique guitar techniques and style led to the guitar becoming more recognized as a solo instrument, and today slack key is shared with everyone around the world. Among the many notible artists are Keola Beamer (kbeamer.com), John Keawe, Cyril & Bla Pahinui (Gabby's sons), Ozzi Kotani, Goeorge Kahumoku Jr. (kahumoku.com), Raymond Kane, Ledward Kaapana, Dennis Kamakahi, Cindy Combs, the late Sonny Chillingworth and so many more like them who can be heard on Dancing Cat Records (dancingcat.com), created in 1983 by pianist and slack key guitarist George Winston.


For more information on Slack Key Guitar music, please visit www.slackkey.com

About Slack Key



Slack-key guitar is a fingerstyle genre of guitar music that originated in Hawaiʻi. Its name refers to its characteristic tuning: the English term is a translation of the Hawaiian kī hōʻalu, which means "loosen the [tuning] key".


Kī hōʻalu is often characterized by the use of 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.


Common slack key tunings


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

 

Slack Key

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