A Brief Slack-Key Guitar and
Hawaiian Music History Lesson

By M. Keala Milles, Jr.

When you hear about Hawaiian music history you are probably inclined to imagine the majestic, flowing sounds of slack key guitar. In Hawaiian, the style is called ki ho’alu, which means “loosen the key.” This musical style is the most modern form of traditional Hawaiian music, and is probably most widely celebrated.

Guitars were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1830s. Early in the 19th century, Europeans began travelling to Hawaii, bringing with them the “gut string guitar,” a precursor to the modern nylon-string “classical” guitar.

During this time, King Kamehameha III also began hiring Mexican and Spanish vaqueros (cowboys), to teach Hawaiians agricultural and livestock strategies. These cowboys were known as paniolos in Hawaiian.

These immigrants brought their guitars and, as they played around the campfire during evening rest periods, locals were enthralled by the complexity of sounds they could make.

When the workers left for their respective homelands, they left behind their six-stringed instruments, but didn’t teach the Hawaiians how to tune them. Hawaiians quickly began adapting the instrument to their own preferences, marking an important moment in Hawaiian music history.

Much of this adaptation led to the “slacking” of the guitar strings in order to find the pleasant sounds achieved when strumming the open strings of a slack-key guitar.

The sounds of the slacked strings also aligned with probably came about because of the fact that Hawaiians were still comfortable with their traditional “musical” forms, mostly the chant (mele). Throughout Hawaiian Music history, words were more important than melody; these new instruments helped to change that. Slacking the strings, though, would minimize the need for technical understanding that went into playing the guitar, allowing the player to pluck a rhythmic accompaniment between the lyrics in a simple, yet beautiful way.

King David Kalakaua is often credited with bringing the guitar into the mainstream of Hawaiian musical tradition. During his reign he wanted to ensure historical and cultural responsibility but also recognized the influence of outside communities. He encouraged the incorporation of new instruments when preserving ancient musical styles. This led to the development of a new dance form called the hula ku’i, which basically means a “dance to music.”

In contrast, the hula used to be performed solely with a chant or using rhythmic instruments only. The development of this style led to improved melodic development in Hawaiian music.

Kalakaua was succeeded by his sister, who came to be known as Queen Lili’uokalani, in 1891. She was the only female to rule the islands and the final reigning monarch to take the throne before the U.S. overthrow in 1893. Though her reign was short it was also one of the most significant; as was her life. She was a remarkable poet and lyricist, penning one of the most popular and beloved songs in the history of Hawaiian music, Aloha ‘Oe.

Today it is hard to deny the influence the slack-key guitar has had on the Hawaiian music history. As a matter of fact, the tradition of the slack-key guitar, while not ancient, is one of the most celebrated in all of Hawaii today.

Read more about Hawaiian History

Hawaiian Islands History

Hawaiian State Flag

Hawaiian Legends

Legend of Hanauma Bay

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