Slack Key Guitar: A Hawaiian Tradition
The Beachcombers in Baltimore circa 1964
Slack-Key Guitar Defined
Slack key guitar is a little known yet widely used variety of finger-style guitar technique that originated in Hawaii. Ki ho’alu(Key-hoe-ah-lew), as it is known in the Hawaiian language, literally means “Loosen the key”. By loosening the tuning keys on the guitar the strings are “slacked”. The traditional or standard guitar tuning is E-A-D-G-B-E. The most common slack-key tuning, also nicknamed “Taro Patch”, equates to a G-major chord and is D-G-D-G-B-D. There are many variations; Wahine tuning: D-G-D-F#-B-D, Mauna Loa tuning: D-G-D-D-G-D, Ni’Ihau tuning: D-G-D-E-A-D and my personal favorite which is a variation of Taro Patch that lowers the top 2-string a whole step from standard tuning to D-G-D-G-B-E. Slack-key guitar is finger-style technique which employs the thumb to play the bass notes and the other three fingers of the right hand to play the melody. Harmonics are also widely used which is a chime sound that is achieved by lightly touching the finger(s) of the left hand to certain frets while picking the corresponding string(s) with the fingers of the right. There is even a “needle & thread” technique attributed to slack-key guitar whereby a large needle suspended from a piece of thread held in the players mouth is dangled over the sound hole resting lightly on the strings, as the strings are picked the needle vibrates producing a dulcimer sounding tone.
In 1832 King Kamehameha III employed Spanish and Mexican vaqueros(Cowboys) to teach Hawaiians how to manage the growing herds of cattle that had been a gift from England to the island nation in the 1700’s. The vaqueros brought guitars with them on their journey to the islands much to the delight and fascination of their Hawaiian apprentices who came to be known as paniolos or Hawaiian cowboys. Paniolo is probably a variation of the word “Espanol” or Spanish. When the vaqueros left Hawaii some of them left guitars as gifts to their paniolo counterparts. The paniolos began to experiment with different tunings, usually tuning the guitar to a major chord. By playing the bass notes with the thumb and the melodies with the other fingers the early paniolos inadvertently created a new guitar technique commonly referred to as finger-style guitar. The paniolos began to incorporate this finger-style technique with their native Hawaiian music adapting it to native chants and hula which evolved into the Ki ho’alu style of today. Many contemporary acoustic artists use this finger-style technique without realizing that it all began in Hawaii.
During the reign of King David Kalakaua(1836-1891) Hawaiian arts and music were highly supported by the monarchy. In an effort to preserve the Hawaiian culture of art, music and dance(Hula). Kalakaua encouraged a revival of these ancient traditions at the same time embracing newly introduced instruments such as the guitar and ‘ukulele. The guitar was played at his coronation in 1883 and a new form of hula, “Hula ku’i” was unveiled. The Hawaiian word “Ku’i” means “Combine the old and new”. King Kalakaua was a man of vision who sought to preserve the Hawaiian kingdom and the continuation of it’s native traditions through art and music. He is also credited with composing the lyrics to Hawai’i Pono’i, the Hawaiian national anthem among others. Queen Lili’uokalani(1838-1917) was the last Hawaiian monarch and younger sister of King David Kalakaua. Aside from being Hawaii’s first published native author(Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen) she was also a talented composer and musician playing the guitar, ‘ukulele, piano and organ. Her most famous composition, “Aloha Oe” translated as “Farewell To Thee” was composed during her imprisonment in I’olani Palace as a result of the illegal and needlessly hostile United States takeover of the Hawaiian government in 1893. In 1999 a book of her musical compositions was published by the Lili’uokalani Trust titled: The Queen’s Songbook.
Contemporary Slack-Key and Dancing Cat Records
The recognized authority and premier slack-key guitar music production company in existence today is Dancing Cat Records(Link listed below) which was started in 1985 by the famous pianist and acoustic guitarist George Winston. According to Dancing Cat, the modern slack key guitar era began in 1946 with the recordings of “The Father of the Modern Slack-Key Era”, Philip “Gabby” Pahinui(1921-1980). Gabby’s unique style of solo slack-key performance became the cornerstone of slack-key proliferation throughout the Hawaiian islands. He also became the inspiration for many notable slack-key artists including; Leonard Kwan, Sonny Chillingworth, Keola Beamer, Atta Isaacs, Ray Kane, Peter Moon, Ozzie Kotani and Gabby’s own sons Charles, James aka Bla & Cyril. The soundtrack of the 2011 movie The Descendants starring George Clooney featured native Hawaiian slack-key artists Keola Beamer, Sonny Chillingworth, George Winston, Gabby Pahinui, Ray Kane and Sol Ho’opi’i among others. Compilations of many of the recordings of these groundbreaking slack-key artists are available through the Dancing Cat website. Many steel and lap guitar tunings are derived from slack-key tunings. The famous Hawaiian acoustic and electric steel guitarist Sol Ho’opi’i, a distant relative of mine, often used Taro Patch tunings and is credited with influencing country steel guitarists such as Joaquin Murphy and Jerry Byrd. Sol applied his Taro Patch tunings to modern jazz and contemporary standards as well. Through the years slack-key guitar has gained momentum and continues to appear in the music of notable contemporary guitarists such as Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, Marcel Dadi, Doyle Dykes, Leo Kotke, Phil Keagy, Albert Lee, Merle Travis, Jerry Reed, Joe Pass, Steven King, Charlie Byrd, Ry Cooder, Ed Gerhard, Antoine Dufour, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Andy McKee and Don Ross to mention a few.
Tradition and Legacy
When my father and namesake Walter Holokai left Peahi, Maui in the wake of WW-II to join the highly decorated 442nd Combat Regiment he took with him a deep love of traditional Hawaiian music and hula. At the end of the war he settled in Baltimore, Md., married my mother and ergo; yours truly. An accomplished musician, he wasted no time establishing a Hawaiian band; The Beachcombers(Pictured), that performed at various venues in the greater Baltimore, Md. area during the 1960’s. In addition the band featured Audrey Lee’s Hawaiian Hula Troupe complete with male Tahitian knife and fire dancer, Kamuela. It was intensely exciting for me as a young boy sitting amid grass skirted hula dancers shaking colorful ‘Uli ‘Uli(Feathered Gourds), drums beating out native rhythms as malo(Hawaiian loincloth) clad Kamuela danced, twirling huge hooked knives and fire batons for crowds of awestruck spectators. Some of my fondest memories of my father are performing with him on stage playing the ‘ukulele as my very young sisters Lanileo and Monique Leialoha danced the Keiki(Children’s)Hula. Although my brother Scott Naniho was only a year old at the time of our father’s death we both have carried the family tradition of guitar into our adult lives. Much as Gabby Pahinui passed the torch to his sons Charles, James/Bla and Cyril, Scott and I have sought to pass on our passion for music to our own children all of whom are accomplished musicians.
From it’s humble beginnings around the chuckwagon campfires of the Paniolo slack-key guitar has evolved into an integral part of contemporary finger style guitar technique. Although slack key may have started with finger style playing, it also appears in the rock, metal and neo-classical guitar genres. Groups like the Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Metallica, Dream Theater, Alice In Chains, Foo Fighters, Guns and Roses, Megadeth and Papa Roach use dropped or slacked tunings in many of their recordings. As the early Paniolos quickly discovered, the guitar is a player friendly instrument that encourages creative innovation and technique. The most important notes on a guitar are those that sound good to your ears.
Walt Jr. and Band at an outdoor venue.
Brother Scott at Fletcher's in Baltimore, Md.
Son Mike & Daughter Loryn Play Together
Daniel Holokai Live At The Filmore
Loryn & Ellen
Nephew Ben and his Les Paul
Nephew Trebor Lee
Nephew Nick plays blues at an open mic venue.
Daughter Sarah & Orchestra Friend
Son-In-Law Steve Hierro Rocks!
Granddaughter Sophia Hierro Loves Her Violin
Loryn & Orchestra Friends
Smokey Mountain Lullaby
Dancing Cat Records
- Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Recordings by Dancing Cat Records
The recognized authority for slack key Hawaiian guitar.
Candy Rat Records
- CANdYRAT Records
Fingerstyle guitar artists many use alternate tunings derived from Hawaiian slack key tunings.