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Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar


I’ve been waiting for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month to write a little bit about Hawaiian slack key guitar. But honestly, I listen to this beautiful and relaxing genre of music much more than one month out of the year. Whenever I’m feeling stressed or anxious, the watery and ethereal recordings of slack key can loosen my knots and put my hackles down in just a matter of minutes.



It was my friend and roommate Billy Bliss who turned me on to this music back in the late 1990s. Well, his father did. “Gentlemen, dinner will be ready at 6:00 PM. Cocktails in the den at 5:00. Please dress appropriately.” Billy’s dad glanced at his watch and added, “I hope you fellows like smoked tri-tip.” I was still a bit full from our lakeside lunch, but Mr. Bliss had been smoking that cut for the better part of the day and it smelled amazing.


Before leaving for Tahoe, Billy had asked me and our friend Ted to pack some collared shirts and sweaters because his father took cocktail hour seriously. Billy’s dad was an incredibly inspiring guy. In his 70s, the man’s library smelled of the old leather-bound books that crowded his shelves and his desk was dotted with small woven baskets overflowing with stone arrowheads he had found over the past few decades on his daily walks around the lake.






As we were changing out of our swim trunks and into our dinner clothes upstairs, I thought that Billy, Ted, and I looked ridiculous with our slicked-back hair, sweaters, and sunburns on a relatively warm summer evening. But I really respected Mr. Bliss and wanted to make a good impression. His den was outfitted with a small bar and long polished wooden benches cut from old growth logs. And his art collection was an impressive array of classic western themes and Polynesian paintings. Thinking about it now, I wish today’s guys were less into man caves and more into dens. Mr. Bliss poured me a bourbon over ice. I thanked him and we talked about his collection of Hawaiian art and his lifelong love for the South Pacific. “Speaking of Hawai’i,” he said, “let’s put on one of my favorite record albums.” His eyes lit up enthusiastically when our conversation turned to the music of Hawaiian slack key guitar and the genre’s most notable player, Gabby Pahinui.






Having originated in Hawaii, slack key guitar is a style built on a myriad of open tunings and a dexterous arpeggio technique wherein a single guitarist’s thumb and fingers are simultaneously playing two – sometimes three (bass, rhythm, and lead) separate parts on the same guitar. The name for this indigenous style of six-string playing comes from slacking the standard guitar tuning. There are so many different tunings, that no historians of slack key guitar know exactly how many exist. But scholars of Hawaiian culture have traced the genre back to the 1830s, when King Kamehameha III hired Mexican and Portuguese ranchers to teach the paniolo Hawaiian cowboys about cattle-herding techniques. After some of those ranchers left behind their acoustic guitars, their Hawaiian protégés adapted the tuning and playing of the instrument to accompany their traditional “mele” music.





image_5.jpgMr. Bliss set his drink down and walked over to the stereo system. After a few seconds, soft strumming began to seep out from the old walnut hi-fi speakers and the room warmed up with the lively bounce of Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs’ 1969 album Two Slack Key Guitars. He handed me the record sleeve and explained how this was one of his favorites – two of the biggest slack key guitar legends from the band Sons of Hawaii playing and singing together. I was immediately drawn to the Atta Isaacs-sung song “I'm-A-Livin'-On-A-Easy” and its freewheeling narrative that romanticized a chill island lifestyle of minimalism involving a bottle of whiskey and a woman named Maggie. After the first side finished, Mr. Bliss flipped the vinyl over, gently placed the stylus on side two and said, “If you listen to this...I mean stop and really listen, you can hear how much fun they’re having.”

He picked up his drink and swirled it around a couple times before adding, “You can hear their history of family and friendship in this music.”