Author: Daniel, Bert

Slack Key

There may not be all that many bluegrass fans out there who like Hawaiian music but I am definitely among those who do. When the weather starts to turn cold, I love to pop some Hawaiian music into the CD player, turn up the heat full blast, and imagine that Iím relaxing on a black sand beach on the big island.

Itís not uncommon to see a ukelele or two at a bluegrass campout. A uke can add a nice spin to any jam session if itís played right. Of course the resonator guitar is a staple of both bluegrass and Hawaiian music. And Iíve been to festivals where Hawaiian musicians were booked right along with bluegrass bands. The audiences were definitely happy with the mix.

My first visit to our fiftieth state was about twenty years ago and thatís when i really fell in love with their music. One evening I dined across the street from my ďbudgetĒ hotel in Kona. I watched the sun extinguish itself into the Pacific, while enjoying a perfectly grilled Opakapaka. The stage act came on and I was hooked from the first note. I ordered extra food and drink just to have an excuse to stay through the whole performance.

During the break I approached the guitarist and asked about the music he had been playing. It had such a relaxed joyful lilt, totally unlike any music I had ever heard before. This was not your typical Don Ho Hawaiian lounge music. This was a music that sounded natural, authentic and truly from the heart.

Thatís how I learned about slack key. The name comes from a retuning made on the guitar in order to finger pick in open chords. Certain strings are tuned down, slackened, in order to achieve the effect. And what an effect it is! If youíre stressed out and anxious, you might go to your doctor and get a Xanax prescription. But take my advice, get a CD by George Kuo or Moses Kahumoku. Play that and youíll be cured without being medicated. The flow of Hawaiian slack key music puts you in a frame of mind that will restore your spirit.

Those of you who play guitar might have some fun loosening your low E string to D. Now take the next string over and tune down from A to G. Your high E string is also slackend to a D. Now 7ouíre in DGDGBD, the so called taro patch tuning, which is the most common Hawaiian slack key tuning. Play around with it and have some fun.

It might be a little like playing the banjo in fact. Look closely at those last five notes in the taro patch tuning. They are in the same tuning as a five string banjo except that the banjoís fifth string jumps an octave. In my last column I wrote about how I was becoming hooked on the five string banjo. Well, the reason I was reminded of slack key music today as I prepared to write my column was because of the banjo. As I struggle with learning the instrument, sometimes I feel like Iím trying to play slack key guitar! When I play Home Sweet Home it sounds more like Hawaiian music than bluegrass perhaps. (Not necessarily a bad thing).

There are at least fifty distinct tunings for slack key guitar. Some are open minor chords, sixths, whatever. ďDobro tuningĒ GBDGBD is also a slack key tuning. Bluegrass is no stranger to alternate tunings, for example Bill Monroeís eerie cross tuning for My Last Days on Earth. Old time fiddle and banjo use lots of different tunings. Bluegrass stage acts can be pretty fast moving but sometimes I wonder if it might be worth the time for a band to either quickly retune or pick up extra pre-tuned instruments to add a different flavor to the music.

Music is such a fun journey. Bluegrass wouldnít be the great music it is today if it hadnít absorbed influences from many other styles. Iím sure glad that the Dobro got incorporated into the music. Some people refer to that instrument as a Hawaiian guitar. If youíve never listened to slack key, my advice is to give it a listen and maybe youíll find it creeping into your bluegrass a little bit too.
Posted:  12/8/2013

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