Slack key is one of Hawaii’s greatest musical traditions. The finger-picking guitar style called ki ho’alu literally means “loosen the key.” The guitar strings are loosened or “slacked,” so that it sounds as a chord when strummed open without fretting. Tunings are often based on major tonality and frequently use a major 7th or 6th note. The thumb performs an alternating bass line, while the fingers of the picking hand execute the primary melody of the piece. Hawaiian families have passed on their own tunings, techniques, arrangements and repertoire throughout the generations, and each unique tuning produces the resonance behind the melody.
The ki ho’alu tradition is flexible, and guitarists will often play the same song differently each time, sometimes changing the tuning or tempo. Unique sounds comes from techniques like the hammer-on (plucking a note and fretting the string for a second higher tone) and the pull-off (plucking a fretted string and pulling the finger off for a second lower note). Some special techniques include using chimes (harmonics produced by lightly touching strings at certain frets) and slides (where treble notes are slid up in pitch to sound another note). Other techniques mirror the vocal stylings of yodels and falsettos based on ancient chants.
Happening today, the Hawaiian slack key guitar and ukulele concert, “For the Birds,” will feature songs and stories describing its rich history. Award-winning concert artists, Doug and Sandy McMaster, continue to perpetuate the knowledge and experience of the endangered art form of traditional Hawaiian slack key guitar and ukulele. Guided by the kupuna, they have dedicated their lives to continuing the tradition of slack key music.
This family-friendly concert takes place from 3 to 5 p.m. at Hanalei Family Community Center.
On Tuesday, their Heart of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele Concert happens from 6 to 8 p.m. at Princeville Community Center.
And on Friday, another slack key and ukulele concert will honor the iconic Raymond Kane from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Hanalei Family Community Center. Tickets are $10-25 for all three events. Don’t slack off, come out and support this unique musical tradition.
John Steinhorst, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at (808) 652-5024 or firstname.lastname@example.org