If you look at the Hawaiian word for slack key, ki ho`alu, it literally means to loosen or slack the key. “Key,” in this context, refers to the pitch of one or more strings on the guitar. As for who came up with the term, no one seems to have a definite answer. All that is known is that the vaqueros (Spanish cowboys) brought the guitar to the Hawaiian Islands and the Hawaiians picked it up and created the slack key style.
According to slack key legend Cyril Pahinui, slack key is essentially a Hawaiian term for what is more commonly known as open tuning. He says that when he met and played with Chet Atkins in Nashville, Tennessee, Atkins told him that the tunings he was using in slack key were what Atkins considered open tunings. “He said, ‘Cyril, we call this open tuning’,” recalls Pahinui, who spent seven years in Music City working with Atkins. “Everyone has their own lingo, like in country western they call it drop D.”
Even though slack key and open tuning use similar tunings, like open C and open G, for example, slack key does have a distinct sound, influenced by Hawaii’s tropical surroundings and relative isolation. Think of it like two people speaking the same language but with their own regional dialects.
Slack key is a finger-picked style of playing guitar. Some players, like Ledward Kaapana, use only two fingers, while others, like Keola Beamer, use all four on their picking hand. Most play with their fingers only, but Sean Robbins likes to use finger picks. According to Robbins, one thing that hasn’t happened yet is someone playing slack key with a flat pick.
Learning slack key is almost like an oral tradition. Pahinui and Robbins, both say the same thing about learning the style: you sit and watch. “I’m sure that some people have developed a more sophisticated way of teaching it,” explains Robbins, “but this is how most of the players I know learned. It’s a lot of observation and very few questions.”
Pahinui learned directly from his father, Gabby Pahinui, whom many consider to be one of the originators of slack key. “When I was growing up, I wanted to see my dad’s tuning, and he said to me, ‘Son if you want to learn, watch with your eyes and listen with your ears.’ Just by listening and watching my dad play, I picked up the tunings.”
Legend has it that certain tunings were closely guarded family secrets. “The old school way was to pass down tunings only to members of your family,” explains Robbins. “When uncle Cyril was growing up, first learning to play slack key, he would wait until his dad (Gabby Pahinui) put his guitar away for the night, and then go grab the guitar thinking he would figure out his dad’s tuning.”
Turns out Gabby “slacked” his strings every time he put his guitar away. (Detuning the guitar even further from whatever key it was in when Cyril was listening). Though Cyril eventually figured out his dad’s tuning, it shows how it wasn’t something you’d go around sharing with people, even within your own family. This started to change as the generation of players currently considered “living legends” realized that, if they didn’t start sharing with people, slack key would die away. Today, Cyril Pahinui, Ledward Kaapana, and the other slack key masters teach classes.
Pahinui says the first thing his dad told him, regarding slack key, was to learn chords. “‘You can pluck all night,’ he told me, ‘but if you don’t know your chords you’ll be in trouble, you won’t be able to accompany anybody.’ Now I can play with just about anybody in jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, Hawaiian, and country western.” That served him well with Atkins, in particular, who once told him that he sounded like three guitar players in one on his 12-string acoustic. “What a compliment coming from Chet,” he reflects.
The best thing about slack key, according to Pahinui, is that it’s fun. “Playing guitar, there’s no age limit,” he chuckles. “Most of all I have fun. I just love to play with anybody.”
For more on slack key guitar visit the website dancingcat.com where you can find a wealth of information regarding its history as well as detailed explanations of various tuning methods and the Slack Key Info Book, which lists recommended listening, charts of recorded tunes, and a summary of non-recorded songs. It’s available in pdf format!