Aloha Plenty Slack Key in a Hanalei Taropatch
                                               "Tuning Your World To Aloha!"                            Photo Courtesy of Steve Alterman
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Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is Hawaiian slack key guitar?
Ki Ho'alu -- Hawaiian slack key guitar, is a fingerstyle guitar artform created by Hawaiians in late 1700'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 1700's. These cowboys taught the Hawaiians and when they returned to their families on the mainland, some 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.

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Hungry for More?
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"


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