Acoustic Aloha: Makana Schools Us on Hawaiian Slack Key

“How a player thinks affects their whole life on the guitar,” claims Makana.
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“How a player thinks affects their whole life on the guitar,” claims Makana. “Slack key philosophy is the opposite of shredding with the fretting hand. It’s all about the picking hand. Fretting is involved, but touching the fretboard kills string resonance. Slack key is all about letting the guitar ring, creating the illusion of multiple guitars.” Makana came to GP’s attention when he narrowly missed snagging top honors at GP’s 2008 Guitar Superstar competition. He stood out from the electric shredders naturally, and his acoustic playing came from a place of soulful tradition. Notable slack key master Sonny Chillingworth taught Makana hand to hand, and Makana has made it his mission to spread the style far from its exotic origin.

Makana is also on a mission to clear up common misconceptions. He preaches about how slack key goes far beyond the quaint folk music found in touristy hotel lobbies. The impossible fingerpicking fluency and hellacious hammer-ons of his signature instrumental “Napo’o Ka La” prove his point. Check out the soundtrack during the closing scene of The Descendants [starring George Clooney] to hear Makana’s uncommonly dark slack track, “Deep in an Ancient Hawaiian Forest.” Makana even applies slack key—and his powerful vocals—to protest music. He wrote “We Are the Many” as an anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement, and “Fire Is Ours” as a Bernie Sanders anthem.

“You can do anything once you put in the time to learn slack key,” he claims. “Getting fluent on the technical intricacies takes two years of utter boredom [laughs], but after you get past that—it’s awesome. I want more players to discover that freedom.”

What does slack key mean to you?

Slack key is a way of tuning, and a way of playing. Different cultures have slack key. It’s a colloquial phrase that basically means playing in open tunings. The strings are usually tuned down, or “slacked,” but they can also go up. I’ve created tunings that defy convention by going low to high, and then lower and higher again. The studio version of “Deep in an Ancient Hawaiian Forest” is tuned B, F, D, A, F, D. “Napo’o Ka La” is in an original tuning, as well. Instead of DADGAD, it’s GADGAD.

How is slack key rooted in Hawaiian history?

The Hawaiian slack key I grew up with is called “Ki Ho’alu.” History goes that Mexican cowboys—vaqueros—brought the guitar, and taught the Hawaiians how to manage cattle. That’s how the paniolo came out—the Hawaiian cowboy. They jammed by the campfire at night. When the vaqueros eventually departed, they left some guitars behind with the Hawaiians.

History says they forgot to teach the Hawaiians how to tune. I don’t believe that. Taro Patch tuning, which is open G, is also Spanish G tuning. Many tunings common in Hawaiian slack key already existed. Dropped C is a classic slack key tuning that’s simply open G with the bottom string tuned down to C [low to high: C, G, D, G, B, D]. But there are also tunings unique to Hawaiian slack key, or very much associated. C6, or “C Mauna Loascreams Hawaiian. [Low to high: C, G, E, G, A, E.] Lots of steel guitarists use it.

Most people associate steel guitar with Hawaii. Do you play lap steel as well?

No. That’s a different discipline, but what you said is true. Hawaiian music was the biggest selling genre in the world from 1916 through the mid-1920s, due to Hawaiian swing jazz and the advent of the steel guitar by Joseph Kekuku.

Meanwhile, slack key was kept at home. It was not performed for the public, and it wasn’t recorded until the ’50s. It almost died out. Hawaiian culture was either bastardized by Hollywood, or heavily oppressed by the missionaries. They even outlawed using the Hawaiian language in public. Slack key cowboys were hardcore about keeping their music. Old timers have told me that a slack key player might deny his own son from playing his guitar rather than teach him. It was that personal.

I was fortunate enough to have my uncle Sonny show me his transcription of the steel-guitar song “Maui Chimes” into slack key. It’s in Taro Patch tuning, and other than the alternating bass line, the entire song is all chiming harmonics, which is a hallmark of slack key.

What are the primary hallmarks of slack key as a way of playing?

The Hawaiian style contains three essential elements: An alternating bass line, what I call “faux rhythms” where you throw in a little brush stroke to simulate a rhythm strummer, and the melody. Playing the melody on the top two strings with lots of sliding up and down the fretboard is a huge part of what we do—as well as open chord voicings and syncopated variations on the bass theme. If you compare it to, say, Travis picking, you’ll find a lot more syncopated things going on simultaneously. It gets highly complicated. You really have to separate like a drummer. That’s why there’s a steep learning curve for slack key, and very few people do it.

What’s a good example from your catalog?

I believe “As the World Tunes” is one of my finest pieces. It’s a single 12-string solo recording in C6 tuning, and incredibly hard to play. The trick is playing the very non-traditional triplet rhythms in the bass line while playing crazy leads. It’s very piano-like. There’s a lot of sound coming out of that guitar.

Which guitar is it?

That was a 12-string Taylor. I’m not a big fan of Taylor’s 6-strings, but I appreciate how their 12-strings are built so solid and they don’t fall out of tune.

What strings hold your tunings best?

I’ve always used D’Addario’s medium gauge strings—the EJ17 Phosphor Bronze set that starts with a .013. I never use coated strings. They’ll last a long time if you stay in one tuning, but I’ll snap them because I change tunings for almost every song. I change strings every show.

Your main guitar looks beat up enough to have a good story.

When I started playing, I made a deal with my parents and old uncle Sonny. Once I’d learned 20 slack key songs on a cheap guitar, they’d get me a better one. When I was 13, and having upheld my end of the deal, they gifted me a Takamine EN-10C. I wrote and recorded all my songs on it. That guitar was like my best friend. In 2005, my house got burglarized, and it was stolen. It was famous in Hawaii because it was so distinctively worn-looking, but nobody could find it. I found this one of the same year, make, and model on eBay. Within a year, this guitar essentially became that guitar because of the way I play—particularly near the soundhole where my plucking fingers hit the top. I actually had to rebuild that area because the whole thing caved in.

You’ve got righteous nails on your plucking hand, and you use metal fingerpicks, as well, correct? I use plastic nails with gel tips on my right hand. I’m weaning off metal picks, but I still use them on my thumb and first two fingers for extremely challenging, harddriving rhythm patterns.

You’re known for filling a room with big acoustic sound. What’s your secret?

All my friends have fancy, expensive guitars. But when it’s plugged in, I swear this is the largest-sounding acoustic guitar ever. Part of that has to do with the way I have my double pickup system set up. First, that old Takamine piezo pickup and preamp system is one of the finest factory systems ever made. Additionally, I mounted an L.R. Baggs M1 pickup in the soundhole parallel to the two thickest strings. I run through either a Baggs or a SansAmp D.I., and then use a crossover to send only the low end to the P.A. subs. When I use a low tuning, it starts to shake the house.

Do you use any other signal processing?

I tried using an octave pedal, but I don’t want to sound like a bass and a guitar. I want my guitar to have a full-spectrum wooden sound. I’m a big fan of sustain. For years, I used a Boss DD-5 Digital Delay, but now I’m in love with the Earthquaker Dispatch Master because of the tape-like quality to its delay and reverb. I used it a lot on my newest CD, Music You Heard Tonight, which I only sell at shows.

That’s an interesting idea. You essentially made a straightforward studio recording of the tunes you play most on tour.

It’s that plus a bunch of new songs. I didn’t record it live, but it basically sounds like I do live right now. We used a pair of Schoeps microphones on the guitar, as well as the direct signals from the Takamine and the Baggs. D.I. guitar usually sounds like crap in the studio, but when we added reverb from the Dispatch Master and blended in the direct signals just below the mics—it was magic!

Your show includes a lot of singing in a powerful, classic folk style.

Right, I’m a folk guy. For guitar players, I’d recommend the recording I made in 2009—Venus and the Sky Turns to Clay: The Instrumental World of Makana. I stretched the slack key tradition way out in my original style. I played some 12-string, nylon string, and even some electric guitar.

What are you working on for the future?

Well, I’ve just been invited to open on the upcoming arena tour for Bad Company and Joe Walsh. I’m also working on two new records. I’ve made a career of playing alone, and now I’m ready to make music with other people. I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan, and I’m currently auditioning musicians for band kind of like Crosby, Stills & Nash meets Pink Floyd. I’m in Los Angeles half the time, so we’ll see who works out. I’ve got a huge body of Floyd-like songs that I’ve been sitting on.

I imagine that’s a challenge when you’re labeled as the “Hawaiian Guy” who plays in a rather esoteric, exotic acoustic style.

The biggest challenge I and the few other slack key players face is the stigmatizing of Hawaiian music. People have this anachronistic concept of it. Slack key is one of the most sophisticated acoustic guitar styles in the world, and one of the least known. Even if players aren’t interested in Hawaiian music, once they discover slack key and start messing with it, they can apply the techniques to any music.