Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, or Kī Hō’alu, is an approach to playing (generally acoustic but sometimes electric) guitar based on the following 2 characteristics: TUNING and TECHNIQUE.
The strings are tuned relative to each other so that when strummed open (without fretting) the final result is a CHORD. Doing so emancipates the fretting hand from having to hold chords- the guitar is already holding a chord for it (there are exceptions, of course). Often (again, there are exceptions) some of the strings are “slacked” or loosened, hence the name “kī hō’alu” (“to slacken or relax”). It is of interest to note that “alu” also infers the kaona (hidden meaning) of “combined” or “acting together”. Which signifies an aspect that is CRUCIAL to defining “slack key” (explained in the next section). But there exists a further benefit to tuning, or “slacking” the strings: tuning to a chord and not having to hold chords is what really gives Hawaiian Slack Key its unique sound. The reason is that it allows us to touch the strings LESS. When we touch the strings, they stop ringing- fingers act as dampeners. The beauty of Kī Hō’alu is that when we are playing in the root key (i.e.: tuned to “G” chord and playing in key of “G”), we don’t have to hold a chord to make the guitar sound beautiful- and that means the strings, when struck, RING and RESONATE! They create a droning effect, and that conveys the magical resonance, the illusion that there is more than a single instrument playing. It truly is beautiful and unique to slack key. You will note that many slack key songs have the player only fretting the two high strings (i.e.: Gabby’s “Ki Ho’alu” off PURE GABBY) This is common, and allows the bass strings to ring constantly (without being fretted) while the high strings are quickly fretted and released to mimic bird sounds, and other uplifting mimicries of nature. (note: Keep in mind, the genre is incredibly complex, and each ‘ohana legacy differs, but I am attempting to convey the basic constructs as conveyed to me by my various Kumu).
Once tuned, or slacked, the picking hand undertakes the action of self-accompaniment generally executed via the following means:
a) Thumb performs an alternating bass line (there are variations) generally utilizing the top 3 thickest (bass) strings. This is an essential element to slack key in its pure form. This is what makes the guitar sound like multiple guitars, and it is very hard to do. Many players learn the melodies of Hawaiian mele but fail to master the bass part. Uncle Ray Kane as well as Uncle Sonny Chillingworth were VERY STRICT about this. Now, when you listen to Peter Moon (Sr), and the Gabby BAND (not solo) recordings, the two of them aren’t playing the bass a lot of the time.. that is because they had multiple instruments accompanying them.. this is still often considered “slack key” as they used the tunings and the melodies of Hawaiian mele, however, for the sake of defining the genre, we must INCLUDE the alternating bass accompaniment with thumb. And of course, when we review Gabby’s solo recordings, he presents his mastery of this bass technique in a myriad of ways.
b) Fingers of picking hand execute the primary melody of the piece. This usually occurs on the two or three highest pitched strings, but of course varies broadly.
c) Both thumb and pointer finger occasionally impart what I call a faux rhythm, to infer the illusion of an accompanying background strumming rhythm guitar. This is more apparent in styles like Gabby’s solo work as well as that of Atta Isaacs. It is a technique that is very difficult to articulate/ teach, therefore it is rarely incorporated, but it is witnessed in the playing styles of the legends.
The combination of these 3 parts played simultaneously on a single guitar in slacked or “open” tuning is what comprises the basic approach to guitar known as Hawaiian Slack Key.
And then there is the cultural implication. For, slack key guitar, in the Hawaiian style, can not be performed simply with mere technical knowledge or prowess- it must come from the soul. What I mean is, a direct knowledge of the values, a direct experience of the sheer mana and beauty of Hawai’i Nei, the influence of Kupuna, a heart filled with aloha- not intending to garner praise, but rather to express love for Hawai’i, some place within her, some feeling for another- the expression of ALOHA- this is interwoven into the very fabric of the music. Without this, slack key becomes mere technique, something the old timers would never approve of, nor recognize as Kī Hō’alu. As Uncle Led once said, slack key is the way we love each other, the way we share our Aloha with each other. In a way, Hawaiian slack key guitar is a language indigenous to Hawai’i.
Some players come to Hawaiian Slack Key from other genres. The following is merely my opinion: it is very, very difficult to come to Kī Hō’alu after learning other guitar styles and to be able to kani like the old timers did. Kī Hō’alu is a language, and to speak it the way our Kupuna did, I believe it must be one’s first language. I don’t mean that one cannot create beautiful slack key music after having learned jazz or classical or bluegrass or rock’n’roll: they most certainly can, and beyond that- they can bring a unique sensibility to the art form. However, to kukakuka in the old style, to truly vocalize in the Hawaiian way on the guitar, Kī Hō’alu must be a player’s first introduction to the instrument. This is my experience. When we listen to those who come to slack key from the outside world, we can hear it in their playing. There is nothing wrong with this- I am only saying this to emphasize its importance to the perpetuation of this fine tradition: we must encourage the keiki to learn Kī Hō’alu at a young age. Because the art form is complex, the idiosyncrasies of players experienced in other non-Hawaiian approaches tend to seep into their playing from bottom up rather than top down– meaning, the foundational understanding and approach as articulated by native practitioners is subject to deeply rooted habits and techniques already present in the muscle memory of the musician. This is art, and is beautiful; but this, over time, also serves to DILUTE a tradition already threatened by lack of practitioners. Just as we recognize in hula the need for a Kumu and an empty mind to begin the journey, so does the same apply to this cultural heritage.
Slack key is evolving. I myself am participating in its evolution. HOWEVER: as far as I go outside of the ways my Kumu taught me, I also go deeper back into their music, their approaches, their mana’o. To this day I can still kani all of the songs I was taught by my Kumu just as I learned them as a young boy. (I just recorded an album of some of the songs Sonny taught me- exactly the way he showed them to me.) This is the key: to continually ho’i back to the ROOTS and refresh our connection so we may serve as conduits for future generations. And in that sense, Kī Hō’alu’s PURITY must be understood, valued, and considered, always.