"Hale Kula" translates as "schoolhouse." In this section of our web site you will find educational and reference materials related to Hawaiian music, history and culture.
KI HO`ALU ~ HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY GUITAR
Origins and Tunings
Just what is Hawaiian slack key music? As a folk art, it is relatively new -- approximately 160 years old. It's a style of music shaped by tuning and plucking various stringed instruments. Primarily played on guitar, it has been adapted to the ukulele and autoharp. It is not usually taught by formal methods. Rather, it is taught by observing, listening and doing.
The precise origin of Hawaiian slack music is obscure. Guitars may have arrived in the Islands with the whalers who came in the wake of Western explorers. More likely, the vaqueros from California (then part of of Spain's possession, Mexico) carried guitars in their gear when they arrived in the 1830's (at the invitation of King Kamehameha III) to teach Hawaiians how to rustle cattle. The Hawaiians didn't learn, or choose to use any of the Spanish tunings. Instead, they invented their own. (It should be noted that the Hawaiians learned to fancy the sound of the guitar decades before its more famous Portuguese cousin, called ukulele by the Hawaiians, made an appearance in the Islands.)
In Hawaiian slack key guitar tunings, the six open strings are tuned to create a major chord. Over the years, many different tunings and personal techniques have evolved. Guesses on how many tunings exist range from dozens to hundreds. To be successfully assimilated, a slack key tuning must be easy to finger. The strings must not be so loose as to lose the characteristic resonating bass nor tightened to the breaking point. Some of the tunings such as "Taro Patch" are widely known. Others are known only to individual artists or retained by families who hand them succeeding generations like family heirlooms.
The basic and most popular of the many ki ho`alu tunings is the G Major or "Taro Patch." Starting with the standard E-A-D-G-B-E guitar tuning, "slack" the bass E to a D, the A to a G and the high E to a D. Your guitar will then be tuned D-G-D-G-B-D, with each of the D strings an octave apart. Examples of other tunings include: C Major (C-G-E-G-C-E) also known as "Atta's C," and C Wahine (C-G-D-G-B-D) aka "Leonard's C."
Fingering involves plucking one string at a time--no chords. The right thumb sounds each of the three lowest strings; the forefinger, the 3rd string; the middle finger, the 2nd string; the ring finger; the top string only; and the little finger is used only to "bell." The arm and hand hardly move, only the fingers are busy. Fingers of the left hand stop one string at a time. To create a melodic sound pattern, advance and delayed stopping ("slurs") as well as stopped and open strings are used.
Barring with the left hand, stopping two or more strings at a time, strumming, chords, striking or pressing the strings with the right hand--all are foreign to authentic Hawaiian slack key music.
Different tunings create different harmonics and effects resulting in a wide variety of personal styles. A slack key buff can usually identify the player by the "hand" or who the player has taken as model. However tunings and fingerings vary, Hawaiian slack key music has a distinctive character that sets it apart from all other musical styles.
Once you've mastered the technical aspects and have developed your coordination, the next step is to achieve smoothness and lightness of touch--as is the case with anything, it'll take devotion and practice, practice, practice. We hope you give it a try, we're sure you'll find it challenging and rewarding.
Before reading on, here's a listing of slack key instruction materials gleaned from a recent search of the Hawaii State Library (Main Branch) catalog database:
The Art of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar. Homespun Video, c. 1995
Kinnaman, Hal. Early Hawaiian Slack Key Melodies for Guitar. Honolulu: Ho`ike Publications, c. 1982
Kwan, Leonard. Slack Key Instruction Book. Honolulu: M. V. Williams-Tufft/Tradewind Recording, c. 1980
Loo, Ronald J.K. He Kalana Kakau Ki ho`alu, Helu `ekahi (A Slack Key Notebook), Number 1. Honolulu: R.J.K. Loo, c. 1985.
Loo, Ronald J.K. He Kalana Kakau Ki ho`alu, Helu `ekahi (A Slack Key Notebook), Number 2. Honolulu: Pila Nahenahe, c. 1992