Add Aloha to Your Picking(2)

March 18, 2005

Until recently you had to go to Hawaii to hear slack-key guitar. That''s changing, thanks to new records, festivals and increased radio play. One of the world''s great guitar traditions, Ki Ho''alu derives its name from the many open tunings used to play simultaneous melody and accompaniment. Combining steady thumbed bass notes with intricate fingerpicking, slack-key adapts well to both solo and group settings. You can add its exotic sounds to any style of playing.

Not all Hawaiian guitarists slack their strings. Ex. 1 comes from Matt Manewa, a busy Big Island guitarist who plays in standard tuning exclusively. This figure is derived from the intro and turnaround vamp for "Hi''ilawe," an old song made popular by Gabby Pahinui in 1955.

Matt plays this with a pick, though fingerstyle works well too. After thumbing the downbeat, use a rapid upward brush to sound the arpeggio. Notice how hammering into the tonic anticipates beat three. This is characteristic of Hawaiian guitar. Play the passage slowly, and repeat as often as necessary. You''ll know you have it right when everyone in the room starts smiling.

Ex. 2 is another version of the "Hi''ilawe" vamp, this time in a C Wahine (sometimes called "Keola''s C," for Keola Beamer, who uses it wonderfully). Wahine tunings -- the word means "woman," by the way -- always include a major seventh; you just naturally have to hammer-on back to the tonic. This tuning is easily accessible to mainland guitarists as the basic chord forms and fingering remain the same on the top strings. Simply slack the sixth string to C and drop the fifth string a whole-step to G.

Here are a pair of turnarounds in Keola''s style (Ex. 3). Every player has at least one unique version -- that''s part of what gives slack-key its soul. Brahdah Matt said it best: "I don''t care what notes you play as long as I can feel your aloha."

You can learn more about slack-key guitar on the Internet. One place to start is the Maui Music Page: Hawaiian Music Island ( offers an online concert calendar. Keola Beamer''s site is chock-full of slack-key info and history and offers tab and audio files -- even some embarrassing anecdotes (

 Listen to Example 3

MARK NELSON is currently collaborating with Keola Beamer on a slack-key instruction book for Mel Bay Publications.

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