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The Slack-Key Guitar, Hawaiian Style

by Claude Samard Polikar

Photo by Samuel Ramos for Unsplash

Under the beautiful hawaiian skies, the famous hawaiian guitar and it's sliding sounds has somewhat cast a shadow over the century old "Slack Key" guitar, an acoustic finger-picking technique based on over a hundred different open-tunings, commonly played in Hawaii. It’s been years since this sound became quite popular with the American media thanks to a few virtuosos from Hawaii but also to other guitarists such as Ry Cooder, Chet Atkins or David Lindley who have made the Slack Key technique part of their own particular style.

1. Historical facts

First of all, what does the term "Slack Key Guitar" stand for? You could translate the term by explaining that it's a guitar that has strings that are loosened up (slack) by turning the keys. The expression "Slack Key" comes from the hawaiian "ki ho’alu" (literally: "loosening the keys")! Why loosen the strings? Here comes the history part. At the turn of the 18th century the king of Hawaii received a present from G.Vancouver: 10 cows and 2 bulls, unknown animals to the people of the island then. Little did we realize that these animals were to change the history of the guitar! A few years later there was so much cattle around the islands that the hawaiians had to contract professional cowboys from Mexico to train the locals to herd their cattle, and naturally some of them travelled to Hawaii with their guitars. When the Mexicans finally left, some of their guitars remained in Hawaii. Because they had no particular training, hawaiian guitarists from every island, combined what the Mexicans had taught them with their own rhythms and traditional melodies. So naturally each of them ended up tuning their guitars to any key that was convenient, and developed a very easy-playing open-tuning style, without the complicated left-hand finger set ups. Thus for the past 150 years or so, depending on the singer's range or for whatever personal reason or inclination, the hawaiians created their own open-tuning registers and standards. As it was passed down through generations of guitarists, each locality bore it's own particular traditions. Around 1880 the slide guitar technique was equally being developed and would soon stand for hawaiian music in years to come. But for the hawaiians the "slack key" technique was always much more popular, a bit like what the "blues" meant to the Americans or the "son" to the Cubans, based on an expression of misery and everyday hardship. In the 70s the hawaiians began to promote this true representative of their original style, through various festivals, specialised record labels, CDRom methods, books and educational videos, to share with the rest of the world their family secrets and traditions.

2. Technique

The metal wound string picking technique quickly became a standard. The guitar being the only polyphonic instrument around, they had to use the guitar's resources to accomodate a piece with open-tunings that could stretch all the way down to a C tuning alternating bass strings and finger pickings which would add to the rich quality of the music accompanying a singer, ukelelee, percs and dancers alike. In 1947, Gabby Pahinui created the very first Slack Key solo.

These pieces are generally binary based on a very "Island style", major I-IV-I-V's. And peculiarly enough, very few Slack Key-Slide duos can be heard. Some of the main characteristics are the use of hammers and pull-offs (a little like with the celtic guitar), harmonics and slides. You're not very far from a Chet Atkins spirit, but with less muffled or sustained basses. The tunings are what really make the difference.

Cyril Pahinui

3. Tunings

These tunings have considerably influenced American music. First it influenced those playing the hawaiian steel guitar who in turn influenced the Dobro tuning and the electric steel guitar when they came to play in America. (Please check other articles on the steel guitar: hawaiian music became very popular in the US for over 20 years in the 1900s.).

To cover all the vocal ranges, 6 open-tunings were created.
Divided into 5 categories, the 3 most popular ones are:

  • major: ex G Major " Taropatch tuning " D-G-D-G-B-D, the most well-known that will become the Dobro’s.
  • major 7th: ex F " Wahine tuning " C-F-C-G-C-E
  • sixth: ex: C6 " Mauna Loa tuning " C-G-E-G-A-E which will become the western swing steel guitar's.

When playing different tunings together, Slack Key guitarists use capos to make their instruments compatible.

4. How to become familiar with the style without travelling to Hawaii.

If you would like to add an original flavour to your picking style, you'll need to get familiar with the country. Pictures or videos of sunny skies, big waves, volcanos, landscapes, dances, but above all find a wholesome compilation such as the "Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar" (Dancing Cat Record), where you will be able to listen to all the tunings played by the most famous hawaiian guiatrists (Pahinui, Chillingworth, Beamer, Kane, Kuo…).

To practice the licks, I recommend two different educational videos: "The Art of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar" (Homespun) by Keola Beamer who also teaches on this excellent web site: or "The Slack Key Secrets of Ray Kane" (Lonetree Productions), by Ray Kane. There's also a book + cassette method titled: "An instructional method for slack key Vol.1" (Native books) by Ozzie Kotani.