Volume 8, Issue 1, December, 2008

Slack-Key on the Harp Guitar

by Pete Bradshaw


Slack-key guitar is a beautiful style of music from Hawaii. It features rich major harmonies and great resonance made possible by various open tunings.

Well, for resonance, what better instrument than a harp guitar? Not only that, but with the sub-basses a whole new world of harmonics and even minor slack key is possible, too.

If you are not familiar with slack key guitar music, try listening to some examples before going too far with your own playing. Sample some Keola Beamer, or get a copy of one of Dancing Cat Records’ compilations. Then explore the sounds and moods those players create. Unlike a lot of other guitar music, slack key may not stretch your ability to hit the right note – you will find many wonderful pieces for which you can easily play the notes; however, getting the right feel into the music will be an adventure.

The first question I always get is “what tuning is that?” And that’s a good place to start here. There are long lists of tunings on the web and in instruction books. The examples and sample piece for this article are in Leonard’s C Wahine (named after Leonard Kwan, one of the great players of the 20th century). This tuning works well with Bennett-tuned sub-bass strings, either five or six string, so that makes re-tuning faster for us. Here is it, from low to high for the guitar neck and sub-bass strings:

Neck: C G d g b d1
G1 A1 B1 C D (G)

The last sub, in parentheses, is optional and included in case you have six subs on your guitar. The rest of this article and all of the examples and practice piece assume five subs.

Note that in Leonard’s C on a harp guitar with five subs, two of the strings are at the same pitch (both tuned to C), and with six subs, another two are at the same pitch (both tuned to G). That’s OK, and even handy. More on that later.

Getting Started

Here are a few things to explore in any new tuning. TAB for all of these examples is compiled in the accompanying document Slack Key Music on Harp Guitar – Examples.

1. Sixths

All slack key tunings just cry out for playing melodies harmonized in sixths (well, maybe guitars cry like that no matter how they’re tuned). Look for sixths all over the neck of the guitar. Try to play scales in sixths – that will be useful later on.

2. Sixths with leading bass notes

A good way to get the feel for a tuning is to play a sub-bass string followed by some nice sounds up top, working up a scale that way. This example has the same sixths with some sub basses leading them. Experiment with different bass notes for each degree in the scale.

3. Chords of the root, 4th, and 5th

Finding these chords is essential before composing anything. As I explored this tuning, I began to realize that it may be called “C Wahine”, but it’s very strong in G (D'oh! No wonder the F chords were hard to find). So G is the root, C is the fourth, and D is the fifth.

Try the chords in example 3. We have an open G just like in G tuning (called Taro Patch tuning in slack key), and the incomplete G at the twelfth fret (it’s missing it’s fifth – the D) is a classic ending chord.

4. Harmonics

Hoo-yah! Now we’re talkin’. There’s nothing like a harmonic on a harp guitar sub-bass. Example four has some bass-treble combinations, using the center harmonic on the sub-basses and various harmonics on the trebles.

Experiment with harmonics. How about harmonic below and normal above? How about the opposite? Play each sub-bass as a harmonic nice and loud and then explore the trebles.

Just as on the guitar neck, there are two ways to stop a string when playing a harmonic.

1.      With a finger of the left hand, by reaching up and around the neck of the guitar (or down from the top, if you like), while plucking the string with a finger of the right hand.

2.      With a finger on the right hand, while plucking the string with a different finger of the right hand. There are many possible combinations, but here are two that many people use:

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A.  Stop the string with the index finger of the right hand while playing the string with the middle or ring finger.

B.  Stop the string with the index finger or middle finger while playing the string with the thumb.

I prefer the first technique on the sub-bass strings because I get a clearer sound. Its disadvantage is that it takes a long, long time to move the left hand between the neck and the harp strings.

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5. Turnarounds

A turnaround is a particularly Hawaiian way to end a phrase, and as soon as you play one you’ll get the idea. Try the examples and invent a few of your own.

6. Alternate Strings

Slack key music works well with subtle changes on repeats. Sometimes a simple change in tone is enough to make the music work. An easy way to achieve a change in tone is to use the same pitch for a note but play it on a different string, or play it open instead of fretted, etc. On the harp guitar there are duplicate bass notes as well.

Example 6 suggests an alternate way to play the first turnaround example. Look for more alternates, and you’ll also start playing other turnarounds without even trying. Be sure to experiment with the C sub-bass and C sixth string: the difference in tone between the two can be very expressive.

7. Minor Chords

On a six-string guitar in most slack-key tunings, major chords are everywhere, but minor chords are harder to find and lack the great resonance of the major chords.

On a harp guitar, though, some minor chords sound awesome. Example 7 suggests some minor chords. Try leading with the sub-bass note. Vibrato the trebles like crazy and you’ll get some very ominous sounds. Finally, try using harmonics on the subs and on any finger fretting a string at the 5th, 7th, or 12th fret.

Getting the Sound

Here are some ways to get a nice slack key sound.

1.      Slow down. See if you can play as slowly as the great slack-key players.

2.      Let the guitar resonate. Guitars sound great in slack key tunings. Harp guitars sound even better. To bring out the sound as much as possible, slow down and let the notes ring.

3.      Use vibrato freely. At a nice slow tempo you should have plenty of time to work the strings.

4.      Move the right hand a lot. Try using just tone to bring color to the music.

5.      Dig deep with your right hand, and angle your right hand fingers to produce big, round sounds. Try to keep the string on your nail (or pick) as long as you can before releasing it. Work at this in all right hand positions: near the neck, over the sound hole, and near the bridge.

6.      Try using a very light touch on certain notes on repeats. Sometimes play a note so quietly that you just hint that it’s there. Make your audience fill in notes they heard the first time through. Try to make the guitar sound like what you’d hear if one were playing in the distance with a gentle breeze blowing just enough so you can’t hear every note.

7.      Look for call and answer phrases. A lot of slack key pieces have very nice repeated phrases that sound great played in contrast to each other, e.g. loud/soft, round/sharp, etc.

8.      Play it like you mean it. A lot of slack key music is very personal. Choose a thought or an image and evoke it with the music.

9.      Use silence. It’s OK to let the guitar ring and then go silent. This is relaxing music – take your time.

Sample Piece

I’ll use “Lucy’s Lullaby”, which is about our very nice red-nosed pit bull (she’s very sweet), to illustrate the ideas in this article.

Have fun with it, and if you like the piece then invent a B part, add an intro, and play it like you mean it!

- Pete

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  1. Keola Beamer. The Art of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar. Homespun Video, 1995

  2. Mark Hanson. Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar. Accent on Music, 2001

  3. Wikipedia’s entry on Slack Key Guitar

About the Author

Pete Bradshaw says he can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to make music.  Classical piano lessons with Rachmaninoff protégé Boris Lang began at age 4.  When his 4th grade teacher offered guitar lessons, piano studies were soon left behind.  Pete’s next teacher set the groundwork for what he views as his path to the harp guitar with a Rachmaninoff prelude featuring a prominent descending bass line.  Years later, Goran Sollscher’s arrangements of Bach cello suites for 11-string guitar provided the next step.  It all came together when Pete heard instructor Stephen Bennett play harp guitar at one of Mark Hanson’s Accent On Music Guitar Seminars.  Like Bennett, Pete plays a Merrill Dyer copy and a new Wingert harp guitar (Pete’s with 7 sub-basses).  Maestro Bennett provided Pete’s harp guitar debut with a performance slot at the 5th annual Harp Guitar Gathering.  His recording debut soon followed with a track on Harp Guitar Dreams.  Pete’s music is inspired by classical and folk sources with a special focus on the Hawaiian slack-key guitar tradition. -FD

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