1. What is
Hawaiian slack key guitar?
Ki Ho'alu -- Hawaiian slack key guitar, is a fingerstyle guitar
artform created by Hawaiians in early 1800's when guitars were first
introduced to Hawaii. The traditional form combines altered tunings
and a method of self-accompaniment (thumb plays rhythm and fingers
play melody) to make music that is soft, sweet, and very soothing.
2. How did guitars
come to Hawaii?
The popular story is that three Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) were
hired on contract to come to Hawaii and teach the Hawaiians how
to manage cattle. Mexican longhorn cattle had been introduced as
a gift to Kamehameha I in the late 1700's. These cowboys taught
the Hawaiians and when they returned to their families on the mainland,
they gave their guitars to their Hawaiian friends. The Hawaiians
didn't know the chord fretting positions on the guitar neck or how
to tune the strings relative to each other... so they loosened the
keys (tuners) until the strings sounded nice strummed open... and
then because there were only a few instruments and none to accompany,
they created a technique of self accompaniment described earlier.
3. When did singing
become a part of the music?
Before the guitars arrived and slack key was created, there were
only percussive instruments and chant (3-5 note monotone range).
Original slack key was used to accompany hula and chant. It was
primarily a solo instrumental style. Singing came to the islands
with the missionaries in the mid 1800's. Singing began to be added
to the music of Hawaii in the late 1800's. It became popular in
the early 1900's when the 'entertainment' industry began. Slack
key was always a family tradition. The style was contemporized with
other instruments, singing, foreign rhythms and chords to make it
palatable to hotels, lounges, and other entertainment venues. The
traditional style of slack key was kept in the families and would
sometimes be played after the venues closed.
4. How many tunings
are there in slack key?
To my knowledge, no one really knows. I've documented over 25 fairly
common tunings and this leads me to believe there are probably many
more. Many families, including our own, have special family tunings
that are rarely shared. In the old days, if you came upon someone
playing slack key and they didn't know you, they would stop playing
and even de-tune the instrument so that their family music and tunings
would remain exclusive to the family.
5. Is a special
instrument/guitar needed for slack key? No.
Slack key can techniquely be played on any stringed instrument. Nylon
stringed guitars are beautiful for slack key although steel strings
are more convenient for playing in many tunings. This is due to the
memory of the nylon string. After retuning, it will try to reshape itself
to the original tuning causing the instrument to go quickly out of tune
on the next song. Today there are special instruments that are designed
just to be played in a slackened tuning. They are called baritone guitars.
Their neck is slightly longer and the design allows the soundboard to
receive enough tension and vibration even in the slackened tuning to
create the most beautiful sounds and frequencies.
6. Can you play
slack key on the ukulele?
Certainly. Sandy does. She plays in a particular slack key tuning
for rhythm and uses another for fingerstyle slack key ukulele (GCEG
instead of standard ukulele tuning GCEA).
7. Why is slack
key so endangered?
This artform was only passed on within families... from an elder
master... to a chosen child. So much was lost when a master passed
on without having found the apprentice to carry the tradition forward.
Slack key, in it's traditional form, is a lifetime commitment to
learning, playing, and creating. Getting your fingers and thumb
on the same hand to do two different things (thumb playing rhythm
and fingers playing melody simultaneously) is not easy and so many
players become frustrated by the learning curve. When you change
to a new tuning, all the relationships of the notes on the neck,
the chords, the harmonies, the bass notes... all changes... and
it's like learning a new instrument. This is much more difficult
than learning new songs and techniques all in the same tuning. One
final reason is that slack key, in the old style, is less commercially
acceptable for radio, hotel, lounge and other entertainment formats
which means it's not financially lucrative for young players starting
out. It's much easier for them to quickly learn and play modern
forms of music and get paying gigs.
Everyone has the kuleana (responsibility) to ho'omau (continue the
tradition) of the gifts and talents they have been given in this
lifetime. Every week at the Hanalei Family Center, we have the opportunity
to share the history of slack key guitar and ukulele with audiences
from around the world. Not everyone gets to come to Hanalei though.
And so, we created a musical documentary -
Slack Key Story - to tell the story of slack key and share 17
musical tracks. Help us perpetuate the knowledge... Purchase
a CD for your local school, music teacher, college, library,
family and friends. And if you are a teacher, representing a school,
etc. and do not have the budget to purchase a CD, please
email us... we'll send you one, our compliments!
E Ola Mau Ki Ho'alu - Long Live Slack Key "Tuning the Universe...
One String At a Time"