Thursday, March 25, 2010

Music: Picking Up the Slack (Key) in Hawaii

When many people think of Hawaiian music they often think of four distinctive elements. One is the slack key guitar (a tuning variation to a regular guitar), two is the ukulele, three is the steel guitar and four is falsetto singing. There are many more elements unique to Hawaiian music but these are probably the four most widely know.


This piece will talk about the slack key guitar while future postings will address the other key contributions of Hawaiian music to the world’s cultural richness. Hawaiian slack key guitar (ki ho'alu) is truly one of the great acoustic guitar traditions. Ki ho'alu, which literally means "loosen the key," is the Hawaiian language name for the solo finger picked style unique to Hawai'i.

First off, the slack key guitar is generally your basic six-string acoustic guitar but with a different tuning than is usually played on the mainland. Hawaii had the guitar before the ukulele mostly due to Portuguese immigrants at the end of the 18th century. In standard guitar tuning each string is tuned to a different key, often EADGBE. When tuned this way and strummed without fingering, an unharmonious sound is produced. However in Hawaiian slack key guitar tuning the strings produce a harmonious sound even without fingering.

This style of tuning may have had its origins with the first vaqueros (cowboys) -- known in the Islands as “paniolos” and unique to Hawaii -- who came here from Mexico. They tried to play the guitar but did not understand the jarring sound when the strings were strummed together. They experimented with other tunings by loosening or slackening the strings to produce chords that matched the singers’ vocal ranges.

The most common slack-key tunings are usually set to a full chord without the need for fretting/fingering, like the “taro-patch” tuning where the strings are tuned to DGDGBD to produce a G major chord. But bear in mind, there are endless variety of other tunings, well over fifty at least (e.g., the “wahine” tuning of DADFAC).

These are also known as “open tunings.” And the open tuning set the stage for evolving the slide playing technique known today as steel guitar (more about this later in another piece).

Peggy Chun/ Daniel Ho

At first, there possibly were not a lot of guitars, or people who knew how to play, so the Hawaiians developed a way to get a full sound on one guitar by picking the bass and rhythm chords on the lower three or four pitched strings with the thumb, while playing the melody or improvised melodic fills on the upper two or three pitched strings.

In the old days, there was an almost mystical reverence for those who understood ki ho'alu, and the ability to play it was regarded as a special gift. To retain and protect the slack key mystique, tunings were often closely guarded family secrets. This practice has changed with the times, as respect has increased for the preservation of older Hawaiian traditions, and now slack key guitarists are more willing to share their knowledge outside the family circle with those who wish to learn. Because many of the beautiful old traditions in Hawai'i have been changed by outside influences, this greatly increased respect for the older slack key traditions and the sharing of tunings is helping to ensure that traditional slack key guitar will endure.

There are a number of 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, generally every third Sunday in August (if interested, please verify date), and the annual Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival is generally held on the next to last Sunday in July at the Hilo Civic Auditorium on the island of Hawai’i (if interested, please verify date). Other festivals also take place on Maui and Kauai, on the Mainland, and occasionally internationally.


  1. For information about the annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festivals which Milton Lau promotes (and stages), see:

    The annual Ki Ho`alu Festival held at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center is scheduled for Sunday June 27 this year:

    2010 Big Island Hawaiian Music Festival has been announced for July 10 & 11 at Afook Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo. Scroll down this page for lineup and ticket info:

    Not sure if Cyril Pahinui will be staging another "Gabby" festival in Waimanalo again this year, but you can contact him via his website for any details:

    The concert calendar at is a good resource for finding Hawaiian music performances, worldwide.

  2. Mahalo Auntie Maria for this information.


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