Slack Key Guitar – Hawaii’s Musical Heritage
Slack key guitar is a secret music of Hawaii. For over a hundred years it developed on Hawaii’s ranches and in private homes, but was not shared with visiting tourists. Since the 1970s, slack key guitar music has come out of hiding and is now recognized as an authentic and traditional Hawaiian art form.
The best way to introduce slack key guitar is with an example. Just a half mile from Honokeana Cove, a ten minute walk, is a weekly slack key guitar show at Napili Kai Resort.
Here’s a video from that show that features three masters of slack key guitar: George Kahumoku Jr., Garrett Probst and Peter deAquino. You don’t have to listen to the entire five minutes to notice several features of the slack key guitar tradition:
– An easygoing ballad, in this case the song “Nani Kauai”
– Vocal harmony, plus the use of falsetto voice in some verses
– Accompaniment by both guitars and ukuleles
– Verses that are purely instrumental, without vocals
– Modulation to a different key before the concluding verses.
Note: The photos in this article depict slack key guitar masters who are currently active as performers. If you click on one of those photos, it will take you to a video performance by that artist or artists. Enjoy!
The Unique Music of Slack Key Guitar
Spanish guitars arrived at Hawaii not long after the first Europeans. The guitars came with Mexican cowboys [vaqueros] who taught the Hawaiians the skills of cattle ranching, and as items of trade.
The Hawaiians taught themselves to play, using a variety of playing styles, some European and others uniquely their own. They also invented new ways to tune the guitar, in some cases to provide a “drumbeat” bass line reminiscent of chant, and in other cases to achieve a sound texture to match a particular song.
The tunings used were modifications of the standard guitar tuning EADGBE (lowest note to highest). Typically, one or more strings would be “slacked,” that is, adjusted to a lower pitch by loosening its tuning peg. The change was never more than a step or two, but that was enough to transform the instrument.
When you strum a traditional guitar without fretting the strings, the sound is a hodgepodge, not a true chord. However, strumming a Hawaiian slack key guitar will sound a major chord, a major sixth, a major seventh, or a blend of two related chords.
There’s a longer version of this article at Art’s science website. That article discusses specific tunings and playing techniques, and gives additional video examples. For now, the most important point is that slack key guitar has a distinctive sound and style, one that blends well with the lilting syllables of Hawaiian songs.
Where to Hear Slack Key Guitar
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.
When you’re staying at Honokeana Cove, you’re just a half mile from Maui’s best slack key guitar performances, presented every Wednesday (and often, Thursday) evening at Napili Kai. Hosted by slack key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr., the show is 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.
Every Hawaiian island holds annual slack key guitar festivals, and Maui is no exception. If you visit Maui around the end of June, try to catch the Kī Hō’alu [Slack Key Guitar] Festival, a full afternoon of slack key guitar performances at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center in Kahului. There’s also a Ukulele Festival at MACC in October. Check their Festival Calendar for these “Annual Events.”
Now’s a good time to book your Maui vacation!
Hawaiian slack key guitarist Patrick Landeza in 2012, posted by Plindell
Daniel Ho and George Kahumoku Jr. in 2000 at Slack Key Guitar Festival, Hannover, posted by Jens Bludau
Sonny Lim in 2008 at the Fairmont Orchid’s Sunset Terrace on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island, posted by WaikoloaBill (Bill Adams)
George Kahumoku Jr., Garrett Probst & Peter deAquino playing “Nani Kauai” at Maui Slack Key Show, posted by Nancy Kahumoku
Patrick Landeza playing “E Pupukani`oe,” posted by HI*Sessions
George Kahumoku Jr. & Daniel Ho playing “Ku`u `Aina Aloha o Kahakuloa,” posted by DHCdesigns
Sonny Lim & Friends playing “Maunaloa Slack Key” at Hawaiian Airlines’ Pau Hana Fridays, posted by HawaiianAirlines