The Story of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in 9 Albums

Slack key guitar is the sound of Hawaiian fellowship, protest, and love for native land. Most scholars trace the origin of the indigenous fingerstyle technique—named for the fact that the strings are tuned “slack” so that chords can be played open, without fretting—to the 1830s, when Mexican cowboys brought guitars to Hawaiʻi, hired by King Kamehameha III to teach Hawaiian cowboys how to properly herd their cattle. When those Mexicans headed back home years later, some of them left their guitars behind. However, they probably didn’t teach the Hawaiians how to play; instead, the Hawaiians experimented with the instrument, re-tuning it to suit an established repertoire of traditional Hawaiian song known as mele. The resulting style of play evolved into slack key—a distinctly Hawaiian sound with complex patterns of rhythm, bass, and a leading melody all handled by one player on an acoustic guitar. It would become synonymous with the identity of the islands.

Despite existing for over a century prior, slack key wouldn’t find its way onto recordings until 1946, decades after other styles of Hawaiian music already made the leap across the Pacific Ocean to the contiguous United States. Even then, its commercial appeal remained limited. While hula and steel guitar were weaving themselves into the fabric of American popular music, slack key stuck close to home, propagating the same way it has ever since its humble beginnings on the ranch: as an oral tradition, through a strict relationship between a master and a student. Many players developed their own tunings to suit their performance needs or styles of play, which would often become defining hallmarks of each teacher-student lineage.

The particulars of slack key would remain fiercely guarded secrets, with fingering techniques, tunings, and the history, mythology, and meaning of songs sometimes being known only to a single family. Gabby Pahinui, slack key’s most influential player and standard-bearer, famously refused to instruct his own sons, insisting that they learn only by careful observation and develop their own unique voices. “If they want to watch what I do, fine. If they don’t, fine,” he said when asked about his philosophy on teaching.

It wasn’t until the Second Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s—a period of renewed interest in aspects of Hawaiian culture suppressed by nearly 80 years of American colonization—that slack key guitar would finally have its moment in the mainstream. Young native Hawaiians sought to learn the rapidly disappearing Hawaiian language and hear stories of the way natives used to live; the songs of slack key, frozen in time by their very nature, gained new value as educational tools. Performing slack key became an act of protest and an assertion of what it means to be Hawaiian, and the keepers of this knowledge assumed new roles as elder statesmen. On the nine releases selected below, a story emerges of how a little-known indigenous folk music transformed into an empowering voice for the revitalization of an endangered culture.


Various Artists: The History of Slack Key Guitar (released 1995, recordings from 1946-1950)

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