Slack Key Guitar

Slack-key guitar originated in Hawaii. The style originated from Mexican cowboys in the late 19th century. These paniolos provided guitars and taught the Hawaiians the basics of playing before they left Hawaii and then the Hawaiians had to develop their own style. The Hawaiians incorporated what they had learned from the Mexican and Spanish music into their traditional chants, songs and rhythms creating a new form of guitar music.

Slack key guitar was adapted to accompany the rhythms of Hawaiian dancing and the harmonic structures of Hawaiian music. Traditional Hawaiian music was promoted as a matter of national pride, under the reign of King David Kalkaua, and drew its melodies from chant (mele and oli), hula, Christian hymns (hmeni), and the popular music brought in by the various peoples who came to the Islands: English-speaking North Americans, Mexicans, Portuguese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Tahitians, and Samoans.

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. Slack key remained private and family entertainment, and it was not even recorded until 1946-47 when Gabby Pahinui cut a series of records that brought the tradition into the mainstream. During the 1960s and 1970s, slack key experienced a surge in popularity principally thanks to Gabby Pahinui, Atta Isaacs, Leonard Kwan, Sonny Chillingworth, Raymond Kne, and the more modern styles of younger players such as Keola Beamer, his brother Kapono Beamer, Peter Moon, and Haunani Apoliona.

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. It is a very individualistic tradition, and each guitarist plays quite differently from each other. 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.