Slack key, called ki ho'alu in Hawai'ian, is a style of guitar playing and tuning that is unique to the Hawai'ian Islands.
My own introduction to ki ho'alu came through my uncle, John. After losing his lifelong partner to pancreatic cancer, his son to AIDS, and his mother to a broken hip, all in less than a year, he was in a deep depression and drinking himself to death. A guitarist all his life, he had lost interest in music and in living.
One day, he wandered into a bookstore in Berkeley, California, where he heard what he described to me later as "the sweetest melody ever played" coming over the store speakers. Asking the clerk what was playing, he was told that it was Keola Beamer's "Mauna Kea - White Mountain Journal" CD. Uncle Jack bought the CD, brought it home, and fell in love with the music.
He began studying with Uncle Ray Kane and became something of a haole prodigy. He came back to life and rejoined the living. He found out the true meaning of aloha and then he spread that love and beauty to everybody he knew.
Slack key is beautiful. It is healing. It is gentle and it is true aloha. It has an interesting history, too.
When most people think of Hawaiian music, they think of lap steel guitars, Aloha Oe, hula dancers, and the ukulele. The ki ho'alu (loosen the key, slack key) guitar tradition is not something that many casual listeners listen for. Slack key is an incredibly beautiful and harmonic guitar playing style.
When guitars were first brought to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1830s by Spanish vaqueros, they were played mostly on the cattle ranges and not given much notice by the locals. When the vaqueros returned to their native lands a few years after they first arrived, some of them gave their guitars to the local Hawai'ians.
With a limited number of guitars and guitarists, the locals worked out a way to get a full sound out of one guitar. They did this by playing the melody on the higher strings and picking the bass and rhythm on the lower.
The ukulele and lap steel arrived in Hawai'i some sixty to seventy years after the guitar did, and after the slack key tradition had begun solid development.
The term "slack key" does not imply bad tuning, but instead, alternate tunings. There are tunings in multiple keys, ranging from the standard EADGBE to the Taro Patch G Major tuning of DGDGBD. Within these keys there are hundreds of variant tunings, some of which have been deep family secrets for generations. The standard tuning categories are Major, Old Mauna Loa, Mauna Loa, Wahine, and miscellaneous. Often different tunings within the same key are used when several guitarists get together to jam.
Slack key guitarists of note include Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, George Kahumoku, Dennis Kamakahi, and Keola Beamer. Many of these and other artists' recordings can be found through Dancing Cat Records.