How Blues and Folks Tunings Compare to Slack Key Guitar Tunings in Hawaiian Music History

By  M. Keala Milles, Jr.

No history of Hawaiian Music is complete without a study of the rise of the Hawaiian slack key guitar.

The slack key guitar is a major feature of modern Hawaiian music. Although it is only a recent addition to the long traditions you will find throughout the history of Hawaiian music, it is easily the most widely celebrated form of playing.

However, Hawaiian music is not the only place you will find this strategy of changing guitar tunings in order to produce a sound better suited to your style of playing.

When the guitar was first introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the early 19th century, Hawaiians changed the strings so that rhythmic accompaniment would be easier to play behind the chants they were already used to performing. Different families also invented their own tunings, creating a variety of styles.

Similarly, Western musicians used slacked keys in order to adapt the guitar to suit certain styles of music, particularly the folk and blues genres. These types of music follow a similar mindset as early Hawaiian music in that the guitar could serve as a kind of support for the lyrics being performed by the singer.

Below are the most common Hawaiian slack key guitar tunings traditionally found throughout the history of Hawaiian music. Besides this is also a chart of common alternate tunings for slide guitar, something common to both folk and blues music. Just as Hawaiian families who lived in specific regions of the islands had their own ways of tuning the guitar, so do some artists of specific regions in the United States have their own way of tuning.

As you can see, some of the tunings are the same for both traditions, though named differently.

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