Slack Key Guitar Playing - the Elusive Artform
Slack key guitar is a fingerpicking style which has been kept well hidden by its most notable exponents. Finding books, records or tutorials on slack key guitar playing is a series of dead ends where recording studios and music publishers have stopped recording and publishing and guitar players who specialize in slack key playing prefer to play for family gatherings rather than look for ways of spreading the word about their art.
We often associate the guitar and the ukulele with Hawaii but they are fairly recent imports into the Hawaiian culture. Understanding the way the guitar was introduced into the country is a matter of whose version of the story you like best. One version says that American and Spanish cowboys were invited to work in Hawaii in the mid-1830's to help with the newly imported cattle population. Another story is that Hawaiians were helping the Argentine navy with something or other in Monterey, California. Whatever the truth is, the Hawaiians took to the stringed instruments and adapted them to their own culture and ways of expressing their feelings.
Anyway, let us shed some light on the unusual name for this guitar style. The name "slack key" refers to the practice of changing the tuning of the guitar by turning the tuning keys so that the strings are loose, or "slack". The end result of this adjustment is usually an "open tuning" which means the guitar is tuned so that the open strings sound a chord. But apparently sometimes slack key guitar players play in standard tuning, so apart from the tuning, what distinguishes slack key from other fingerstyle guitar playing? Well, there is the repertoire. Slack key guitar playing usually accompanies songs whose themes are rooted in the Hawaiian country - the mountains, the palm trees, the sea - south sea island stuff.
The G major chord turned out to be a popular open tuning for the Hawaiian guitarists. This is D G D G B D, from lowest to highest, and they called it Taro Patch tuning. Another kind of tuning was called Wahine tuning and included a major seventh, for example D G D F# B D. Another slack key tuning is called "Gabby's C" and is C G E G A E.
Another aspect that makes slack key special is the unique use of standard finger-picking techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and harmonics. These guitar techniques are used in highly personal ways with the guitar player sometimes using different tunings and techniques for the same song according to how he feels at the moment. Slack key playing has a wide variety of modes of expression. Some players will stick to playing a melody with very little variation, others love to improvise on their basic themes. Other guitar players love the chime effect achieved by the use of harmonics.
If you are interested in listening to some Hawaiian slack key guitar playing, some names to look out for are Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan, Moses Kahumoku, George Kuo and Ray Kane. These are among some of the most prominent composers and players of slack key guitar. If you look on YouTube for slack key guitar videos you will find a handful uploaded by a few dedicated guitar players who are working on spreading the word about this beautiful art form.