Slack Key Guitar

Alicia Bay Laurel and Hawaiian music elder statesman Bobo Brown perform at the Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival in July 2002, in Hilo, Hawaii

What is slack key guitar, I am sometimes asked. Is it an instrument, or is it a style of playing?

“Slack key” in Hawaiian pidgen and “ki ho’alu” in Hawaiian both refer to the non-standard tunings of guitar strings used in a style of guitar playing that evolved in Hawaii during the Victorian era.

In guitar parlance, standard tuning (EADGBE from bass to treble) serves as the basis from which most western music, including classical, jazz, rock and roll, country, and folk, is arranged for guitar. However, in flamenco, in Mississippi Delta blues played with a bottleneck, and in the improvised open-tuned guitar music pioneered by John Fahey, the guitar is tuned other ways, and the music is often communicated on paper in a system called tablature instead of sheet music (which classical guitarists follow) or chord charts (commonly used in pop, country and folk music).

Like these other non-standard tuned styles, slack key is finger-picked rather than strummed with a pick. Although Hawaiian slack key evolved from Spanish open tunings brought (along with the guitar) to Hawaii in the nineteenth century by Argentinian cowboys, the rhythms of early Hawaiian slack key often reflected the popular North American music of the day—ragtime piano, with its altnernating, synchopated bass.

Since its emergence into popular music during the Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970’s, slack key guitar continues to grow in popularity. Keola Beamer’s album In the Real Old Style put slack key on the radio in Hawaii back then; he’s still pioneering musically with ki ho’alu in a masterful way.

To my ears, the most creative and skillful of all the Hawaiian singer/songwriter/guitarists, Keola Beamer, arm in arm with his mother, Nona Beamer, who defied the strictures of colonial rule to re-introduce the ancient forms of hula and chanting to Hawaii, which she had learned as a child from her grandmother. She was a mentor to me.