Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar
The indigenous folk tradition of slack key guitar began—most scholars believe—sometime around the 1830s when Mexican cowboys brought acoustic guitars to the Hawai’i. Despite its ever-presence and importance to Hawaiian identity, slack key wouldn’t start finding its way onto commercial recordings until the 1940s, when Gabby Pahinui and the rest of his three-piece band recorded “Hi’ilawe” for Bell Records. Since then, slack key guitar has shifted in and out of the mainstream, sometimes relegated to backyard jams and hole-in-the-wall bars, sometimes intermingling with the mainstream and becoming popular music.
On Pitchfork, I wrote a guide detailing slack key’s rise in popularity and the important players that codified its language into the Hawaiian musical lexicon. Here, I’m providing a roadmap for how it’s evolved over the decades, beginning in the ‘60s when major labels started to take notice. What you’ll find is a mix of the essential and the unconventional—but all of it shows the endless possibilities of a simple style of play where the creativity of the musician is most important.