So what the heck is “slack key?”

Slack-key guitar is a fingerstyle genre of guitar music that originated in Hawaii. Its name refers to its characteristic tuning: the English term is a translation of the Hawaiian ki hoalu, which means “loosen the [tuning] key”. Most slack-key tunings can be achieved by starting with a classically tuned guitar and detuning or “slacking” one or more of the strings until the six strings form a single chord, frequently G major.


In the oral-history account, the style originated from Mexican cowboys in the late 19th century. This paniolo (a Hawaiianization of españoles—”Spaniards”) gave Hawaiians the guitars and taught them the rudiments of playing, and then left, allowing the Hawaiians to develop the style on their own. (Musicologists and historians suggest that the story is more complicated, but this is the version that is most often offered by Hawaiian musicians.) Slack key guitar adapted to accompany the rhythms of Hawaiian dancing and the harmonic structures of Hawaiian music. The style of Hawaiian music that was promoted as a matter of national pride under the reign of King David Kalakaua in the late 19th century combined rhythms from traditional dance meters with imported European forms (for example, military marches), and drew its melodies from chant (mele and oli), hula, Christian hymns (himeni), and the popular music brought in by the various peoples who came to the Islands: English-speaking North Americans, Mexicans, Portuguese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Tahitians, and Samoans.

The music did not receive a mainland audience during the Hawaiian music craze of the early 20th century, during which Hawaiian music came to be identified outside of Islands with the steel guitar and the ukulele. Slack key remained private and family entertainment, and it was not even recorded until 1946-47 when Gabby Pahinui cut a series of records that brought the tradition into public view. During the 1960s and particularly during the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the 1970s, slack key experienced a surge in popularity and came to be seen as one of the most genuine expressions of Hawaiian spirit, principally thanks to Gabby Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, Sonny Chillingworth, Raymond Kane, and the more modern styles of younger-generation players such as Keola Beamer, his brother Kapono Beamer, Peter Moon, and Haunani Apoliona.

Many currently prominent Hawai?i-based players got their starts during the Cultural Renaissance years: Cindy Combs, Ledward Kaapana, George Kahumoku, Jr., his brother Moses Kahumoku, Dennis Kamakahi, Ozzie Kotani, three Pahinui brothers (Bla, Cyril, and Martin), the Emerson Brothers and Owana Salazar. These artists and slack key, in general, have become well-known outside of Hawaii largely through George Winston’s Dancing Cat Records record label, which has most often showcased the music in solo settings.

One indication of slack key’s increasing visibility beyond the Islands is that when The Recording Academy instituted a GRAMMY Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album, the first four winners were slack key collections produced in Hawai?i: Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2 in 2005, Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Volume 1 in 2006, Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar—Live from Maui and “Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar – Live in Concert from Maui.” Players from outside Hawaii have also taken up the tradition, for example, Chet Atkins (who included slack key pieces on two of his albums), Yuki Yamauchi (a student of Ray Kane’s an advocate of Hawaiian music in Japan), and Canadian Jim “Kimo” West (perhaps better known as guitarist with “Weird Al” Yankovic).

“Slack Key” In Use

Ki ho’alu is often characterized by the use of an alternating-bass pattern, usually played by the thumb on the lower two or three strings of the guitar, while the melody is played on the three or four highest strings, using any number of fingers. Many ki ho’alu players incorporate various embellishments such as harmonics (chimes), the hammer-on, the pull-off, slides, and damping. Slack key compositions exhibit characteristics from indigenous Hawaiian and imported musical traditions. The vamp or turnaround (a repeated figure, usually at the end of a verse) is descended from the hula tradition, and other harmonic and structural features are descended from himeni and from the hula ku’i encouraged by King David Kalakaua.

Nearly all slack key requires retuning the guitar strings from the standard EADGBE, and this usually (but not always) means lowering or “slacking” several strings. The result will most often be a major chord, although it can also be a major-seventh chord, a sixth, or (rarely) a minor. (There are examples of slack key played in standard tuning, but the overwhelming majority of recorded examples use altered tunings.) The most common slack key tuning, called “taro patch,” makes a G major chord. Starting from the standard EADGBE, the high and low E strings are lowered or “slacked” to D and the fifth string from A down to G, so the notes become DGDGBD. As the chart below shows, there are also major-chord tunings based on C, F, and D.

Another important group of tunings, based on major-seventh chords, is called wahine. G wahine, for example, starts with taro patch and lowers the third string from G to F#, making DGDF#BD. Wahine tunings have their own characteristic vamps (as in, for example, Raymond Kane’s “Punahele” or Gabby Pahinui’s 1946 “Hula Medley”) and require fretting one or two strings to form a major chord. A third significant group is Mauna Loa tunings, in which the highest pair of strings is a fifth apart: Gabby Pahinui often played in C Mauna Loa, CGEGAE.

There are many slack key tunings—George Winston has identified fifty—with some tunings only commonly used for a single song, or by particular players. Mike McClellan and George Winston have developed schemes that organize the tunings by key and type. The chart below follows their categories and naming conventions.

Common Slack Key Tunings

This exercise will use the G Major, or “Taro Patch”, so you’ll need to tune to D, G, D, G, B, D

Though much of this passage looks the same, it has rather intricate movements that will really work up your slack key playing. I’ve included a PIMA chart below the tablature to help you. In all actuality, here you are only using your thumb and index finger to play this passage. For now let’s not worry about the low or high melody notes. This fingerstyle in slack key guitar should be plenty to work with for now.

Measures 1 – 3

* Remember to tune to: D, G, D, G, B, D (lowest to highest)

You play Measure 1 twice. You then play Measure 2 once. Then you play Measure 3 twice. Don’t forget the eighth rest at the end of Measure 3. Remember that these are all eighth notes, except for the “4 to 5” (not a hammer on – just a note change) which is in 16th notes.

Measures 4 – 6

The same information from above applies here, but now we’re playing on a few different strings. Everything else applies.

PIMA Legend:

As with any PIMA legend, you can always work with what you are most comfortable with. However, since all of these are “P’s” and “I’s” I would recommend trying it as you see it. You can always add a few open notes here and there. I did because it felt comfortable. The only thing I made sure of was that when I added a few open notes, they were played in conjunction with another series of notes instead of playing on and off beat. That keeps the passage from getting too confusing.

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