Home of Slack-Key Master Keola Beamer

BEG-11: A Brief History of Slack Key Guitar

Artwork of Keola & ʻOhana (Family) by Maui Artist Ken Kennel

Artwork of Keola & ʻOhana (Family) by Maui Artist Ken Kennel


by Dancing Cat Records & George Winston

Hawaiian slack key guitar (kī hōʻalu) is truly one of the great acoustic guitar traditions in the world. Kī hōʻalu, which literally means "loosen the key," is the Hawaiian language name for the solo fingerpicked style unique to Hawai'i. In this tradition, the strings (or "keys") are "slacked" to produce many different tunings, which usually contain a major chord, or a chord with a major 7th note, or sometimes one with a 6th note in it. Each tuning produces a lingering sound behind the melody and has a characteristic resonance and fingering.

Many Hawaiian songs and slack key guitar pieces reflect themes like stories of the past and present and people's lives. But it is the tropical surroundings of Hawai'i, with its oceans, volcanoes and mountains, waterfalls, forests, plants and animals, that provide the deepest source of inspiration for Hawaiian music.

These currents run deep in slack key guitar playing, as accompaniment to vocals, as instrumental compositions or as interpretations of vocal pieces. Slack key guitar music is sweet and soulful, and it is said that slack key is drawn from the heart and soul out through the fingers of each player.

There is a mystique surrounding slack key guitar music - it is very personal, and can be very magical in feeling. Slack key derives its unique sound from techniques such as "hammering-on" and "pulling-off." These techniques mimic the yodels and falsettos common in Hawaiian singing. Harmonics ("chiming"), produced by lightly touching the strings at certain points on the fretboard, and slides in which one or two treble notes are played and then slid (usually up) to sound another note, are also common. All these enhance the feeling of aloha, joy or longing expressed, sometimes all in the same song.

Like blues, slack key guitar is very flexible. Often, the same guitarist will play a song differently each time, sometimes using different tempos, and even different tunings. As each guitarist learns to play slack key, they find their own individual tunings, repertoire, tempos and ornaments. It is a very individualistic tradition and, as one can hear from different recordings, each guitarist plays quite differently from the others.

There are different theories about the beginnings of slack key guitar in the Islands. Music is one of the most mobile of cultural forms, and the six-string guitar was probably originally introduced to the Hawaiians by European sailors around the beginning of the 19th century.

Guitars were also brought to Hawai'i by Mexican and Spanish vaqueros (cowboys), hired by King Kamehameha III around 1832 to teach the Hawaiians how to handle an overpopulation of cattle. Many of them worked on the Big Island of Hawai'i, especially around the Waimea region.

In the evenings around the campfire, the vaqueros probably played their guitars, often two together, with one playing lead melody and the other bass and chords. This new instrument would have intrigued the Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo, as they came to be called, who had their own strong, deep-rooted music traditions. However, given the strenuous work, the Hawaiians possibly didn't have time to learn a lot about this new music.

When the hired cowboys returned to the Mainland a few years later, some of them gave their guitars to the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians incorporated what they had learned of the Mexican and Spanish music into their traditional chants, songs and rhythms, and thus created a new form of guitar music. Hawai'i's own unique musical traditions tended to dominate, as they did with the other musical influences that came their way from the rest of the world, and over time, it blended into a sound that became completely the Hawaiians' own.

At first, there possibly weren't 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.

The gut string guitar (the precursor to the modern nylon string guitar) brought by the cowboys had a very different sound than the steel string guitar, which came to the Islands later, probably brought in by the Portuguese around the 1860s. The steel string sound caught on with the Hawaiians, and became very popular by the late 1880s, by which time slack key had spread to all of the Hawaiian Islands.

The slack key tradition was given an important boost during the reign of King David Kalākaua, who was responsible for the Hawaiian cultural resurgence of the 1880s and 1890s. He supported the preservation of ancient music, while encouraging the addition of imported instruments like the ʻukulele and guitar. His coronation in 1883 featured the guitar in combination with the ipu (gourd drum) and pahu (skin drum) in a new form called hula kuʻi, and at his Jubilee (celebration) in 1886, there were performances of ancient chants and hula. This mixing of the old and new contributed to the popularity of both the guitar and ʻukulele.

Kalākaua's conviction that the revitalization of traditional culture was at the root of the survival of the Hawaiian kingdom became a major factor in the continuity of traditional music and dance, and his influence still shows. This was a great period of Hawaiian music and compositions, actively supported, and many of the monarchy composed superb songs that are still well-known today. After Kalākaua passed away, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Liliʻuokalani, Hawaiʻi's last monarch. She was the greatest composer of this period, writing classic pieces such as Aloha ʻOe, Sanoe, Kuʻu Pua I Paoakalani, Pauahi o Kalani, Lei Kaʻahumanu and many other beautiful songs still played today.

Until the mid-20th Century, vocals were usually the most important element of Hawaiian music. The guitar was mainly relegated to a back-up role, often grouped with other instruments, and was played in a natural, finger picked style, with a steady rhythm, to accompany hula and singing. The guitar usually did not play the exact melody of the song, but played a repeated fragment with improvised variations using ornaments such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonics and others.

A wide variety of tunings in several different keys were created to back up the singers effectively. When the strings were tuned too low, they lost their tone, and when they were tuned too high, they were likely to break, thus tunings in six keys were developed. (Most Hawaiians did not have a guitar capo, a strap or clamp which fits on the guitar neck and raises pitch, allowing the same guitar fingerings in a higher key.) The Hawaiians often retuned the guitar from the standard Spanish tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E, from lowest- to highest-pitched string), resulting in sweet sounding tunings with "slacked" open (unfretted) strings. The guitar was often tuned to a major chord, like the popular G Major "Taro Patch" tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D), or tunings containing a major 7th note (called "Wahine" tunings), or tunings with the top two pitches tuned a wide fifth interval apart (called "Mauna Loa"), and other combinations. The many ingenious tunings the Hawaiians invented fall into five basic categories: Major, Wahine, Mauna Loa, Niʻihau/Old Mauna Loa, and miscellaneous.

When two or more guitarists play together, they often use different tunings in the same key. For example, one guitarist might use G Major tuning, and the other might use G Wahine tuning. Guitars can also be played together with different tunings in different keys, capoed up to various frets to sound in the same key. This is one way to appreciate the slack key sound.

Due to the distance between the islands, styles particular to each developed, sometimes specific to regions of an island. The Big Island, probably because of its size, has engendered the greatest variety of regional styles. Some Oʻahu players, especially from Honolulu, have sometimes had more modern and varied styles because of their greater exposure to different musical traditions from the Mainland and other parts of the world. To this day, each slack key artist draws from the traditions of the area where they grew up and from the music of their ʻohana (family), adding to it their own individual way of playing.

Slack key guitar became part of the music that the paniolo would play after work or with families and friends at gatherings, and this paniolo tradition continues to this day on the Big Island and Maui. Since the 1960s, and especially through the 1990s up to today, Hawaiian slack key guitar has evolved into a highly developed instrumental art form, in both solo and group formats. It is when played solo that the beautiful and unique intricacies of the slack key guitar can be fully appreciated, as the music of the masters has great depth and individuality.

The most influential slack key guitarist in history was Gabby Pahinui (1921-1980). The modern slack key era began in 1947 when Gabby (often referred to as "the father of modern slack key guitar") made his first recording of Hiʻilawe on an Aloha Records 78 rpm (#AR-810). Gabby was the prime influence for keeping slack key guitar from dying out in the Islands, and his prolific guitar techniques led to the guitar becoming more recognized as a solo instrument. He expanded the boundaries of slack key guitar, making it into a fully evolved solo guitar style capable of creatively interpreting a wide variety of Hawaiian traditional and popular standards, original guitar pieces, and even pieces from other countries. Many have also been inspired by Gabby's beautiful, expressive vocals and his virtuoso falsetto voice.

The Gabby Pahinui Band of the 1970s is a good example of the complexity of sound slack key can achieve. Along with Gabby, this band featured late great slack key guitarists Leland "Atta" Isaacs, Sr. and Sonny Chillingworth, and Gabby's sons Cyril and Bla Pahinui. Usually on the band's recordings, each of the guitarists would play in a different C tuning, providing a thick, textured sound.

Besides Gabby, two other highly influential slack key artists have been Leonard Kwan and Sonny Chillingworth. These three are notable not only because of their artistic virtuosity, but also because of the availability of their recordings, Gabby's in the late 1940s, and Leonard's and Sonny's in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Four of Gabby's earliest recordings from the late 1940s or early 1950s (on Bell Records 78 rpms) are especially impressive: Hiilawe (#505); Key Hoalu (#509); Hula Medley (#506); and Wai O Keaniani (#510). Other slack key guitarists were astounded and inspired by these four recordings, because of the level of Gabby's playing, and because each was in a different tuning. He also made many recordings in the 1950s for the Waikiki label, issued on three different albums: Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 1 (#319), Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 2 (#320), The Best of Hawaiian Slack Key (#340).

Awareness and popularity of slack key guitar were further increased by the release of several great slack key albums in the 1960s by Leonard Kwan, Ray Kāne, Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui on Margaret Williams' Tradewinds label. These four, along with Sonny Chillingworth, recorded in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (Gabby Pahinui started recording in the 1940s) and influenced all the younger slack key guitarists. Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan, and the late Ray Kāne have also continued to record and influence many others from the 1980s until today.

In the 1970s, albums were issued by the new generation of influential players such as Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaʻapana (with his trio Hui ʻOhana), and Peter Moon (with his trio The Sunday Manoa).


There are four basic types of slack key guitar. The first is the simple but profound style, most evident in the older playing styles, such as that of the late Aunty Alice Nāmakelua. The second is a sort of "slack key jazz," with lots of improvisation, used prominently in the music of Atta Isaacs, Cyril Pahinui, Ledward Kaʻapana, Moses Kahumoku, George Kuo, and Ozzie Kotani. The third kind creates a unique sound using ornaments like hammer-ons and pull-offs. These techniques are featured on Sonny Chillingworth's Hoʻomalu Slack Key, Ray Kāne's Punahele, and George Kuo's Kohala Charmarita.

The fourth, performance-oriented slack key style, features entertaining visual as well as sound techniques. These include playing with the forearm, playing with a bag over the fretting hand (performed by the late Fred Punahoa and by Ledward Kaʻapana), and the intriguing needle and thread technique, where the player dangles a needle, hanging from a thread held between the teeth, across the strings while otherwise playing normally, which creates a sound a bit like a mandolin or a hammered dulcimer. This can be heard, performed by Sonny Chillingworth, on the fourth verse of the song Wai Ulu, on his recording Sonny Solo (Dancing Cat 08022 38005). The technique can be seen on the song Kaulaʻili in Susan Friedman's film Kī Hōʻalu, That's Slack Key Guitar and in Eddie Kamae's great slack key film The Hawaiian Way.

In the old days, there was an almost mystical reverence for those who understood kī hōʻalu, 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 sincerely 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 and be shared.

Since the early 1970s (often called the era of the Hawaiian Renaissance), Hawaiians have increasingly looked to their cultural roots, and because of this, slack key guitar has steadily grown in popularity. The Hawaiian Music Foundation, founded by Dr. George Kanahele, did much to increase awareness through their publications, music classes and the sponsoring of concerts, including the landmark 1972 slack key concert.

Because Hawai'i is one of the crossroads of the world, its music has always had many influences: Latin music from Mexico, Spain and Portugal; Polynesian music, especially from Samoa and Tahiti; European music and music from the Mainland, including jazz, country and western, folk, and pop. All have been absorbed by Hawaiians, and they have enriched it with their mana (soul).

Hawaiian music has always enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with music from the American Mainland. Hawaiians began touring the U.S. during the early 1890s with acts such as the Royal Hawaiian Band, small string bands, steel guitarists, and vocal ensembles.

The 1912 Broadway show Bird of Paradise helped introduce Hawaiian music (although not slack key guitar) to the Mainland, as did Hawaiian shows at the big Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915. By the late teens, Hawaiian recordings were the biggest selling records in the U.S., especially acoustic steel guitar and vocal recordings.

Starting around 1912, blues slide guitarists and country and western steel guitar players became more and more influenced by the Hawaiian slack key guitar sound, due to increased recordings and tours by Hawaiian performers. The pedal steel guitar was developed from the Hawaiian steel guitar, which was itself invented in the 1880s. Some Hawaiian steel guitar tunings (and thus, some of the Mainland steel guitar tunings) evolved from slack key tunings, especially the G Major tuning for the dobro and lap steel guitar, and the C Major 6th tuning (similar to the C Mauna Loa tuning) for the pedal steel guitar. (Steel guitar means any guitar played with a metal bar, regardless of what material the guitar is made.)

In return, the hot jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, especially the great trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Biderbocke, influenced the Hawaiian steel guitar players, most notably Sol Hoʻopiʻi (1902-1953). In the modern era, the late Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio grew up in Hawaiʻi, where he was inspired by Gabby Pahinui. In 1961, he produced and recorded the Pure Gabby album, which was eventually released in 1978.

Although Hawai'i's guitar tradition is the richest in the Pacific, many other Polynesian countries also have guitar traditions closely related to slack key. For example, in the Cook Islands, especially on the island of Aitutaki, it is called Ki Mamaiata (or sometimes Ki Amoa), which translates as "early in the morning," a favorite time to play guitar there.

More slack key guitar recordings are now available in Hawaiʻi and on the Mainland and other countries, and several guitarists are touring more often outside of Hawaiʻi. With these factors and the increase of techniques and influences of today's players expanding the range of slack key guitar, the future looks good for kī hōʻalu.

Dancing Cat Records produced albums, mainly solo, by some of the best players. The entire repertoire of each of the players were recorded, as well as experiments beyond. The guitarists include Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kāne, Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaʻapana, Cyril Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, Ozzie Kotani, George Kuo, Moses Kahumoku, and others.

If you are in the Beginning Realm of your slack key guitar lessons, continue your study now with Taro Patch Tuning.