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Uncle Raymond Kane Style Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar Techniques by Mark Nelson

Guitar techique that will get you lei'd ...


by Chris Loeffler

Hawaiian slack key guitar is one of the world’s great guitar traditions. Called ki ho`alu in Hawaiian, it developed in the 19th Century. Legend has it the first guitars were brought by cowboys imported from Alta California to deal with wild cattle. By day, the paniolo taught the Hawaiians to rope and ride, by night they serenaded them with the soft sounds of Spanish guitars..


By the mid-20th century slack key had almost died out- no one wanted to hear this quiet, back country music. A series of ground-breaking recordings in the late ’40s by Gabby Pahinui changed all that. In the early 1970’s a young musician named Keola Beamer wrote the first-ever slack key instruction book. Since then the style has bloomed, thanks in no small part to pianist George Winston and his Dancing Cat Records. Slack key artists regularly tour North America, Europe and Japan and players from all over the world are discovering how satisfying it can be to play.


Although most players prefer steel-string acoustics, slack key may be played on any guitar. It’s a fingerpicking style characterized by a strong, steady bass played with the thumb. Melodies, often harmonized in sixths; trills, slides and chimes (harmonics) are varied by each player in highly individualized styles. As one Hawaiian musician said, “I don’t care what notes you play, I just want to feel your aloha.”


Ki ho`alu means “loosen the key”-it refers to retuning some of strings to create a harmonious sound. There are hundreds of slack tunings-most players stick to a few that define their personal style. Tunings have wonderful names like Taro Patch (D-G-D-G-B-D low to high); Drop C (Also known as Leonard’s C, after Leonard Kwan) (C-G-D-G-B-D), and Double Slack (a.k.a G Wahine or Namakelua’s Tuning) (D-G-D-F#-B-D).


All of which brings us to Uncle Ray Kane.



Widely considered the original slack key ambassador, Ray Kane opened many doors for this beautiful and unique guitar style. Uncle Ray was one of the first slack key masters to play public concerts and tour internationally,  bringing the music of the islands to all corners of the globe. Slack key guitar was an honored tradition that players were hesitant to share with outsiders, and Kane’s willingness to perform in documentary films and teach broke from that tradition as he began witnessing the erosion of his culture. "If we don't share slack key, we'll lose it," he says. "That almost happened once, so we have to watch out."


His outgoing personality, which earned him status as one of slack key's most beloved and colorful characters,. can be traced back to a deep family tree of famous Hawaiian musicians, including Andy Cummings, Genoa Keawe, Marlene Sai, and Mekia Kealakai. Despite a these musical roots and a father, Herman "Manu" Kane, who was an extraordinary slack key player who left the family when Kane was two, Kane’s desire to learn slack key forced him to look beyond his family for lessons at the age of nine.


"Back then people wouldn't teach you unless you were family," Ray says. "But I was a good diver, so I made a deal with Albert Kawelo. I gave him fish and he gave me lessons." Ray also credits the radio with teaching him songs in the early days. "Back then I used to take my guitar everywhere," Ray says. "My favorite spot was Zablan's beach. It was so quiet at night. There was nobody around. I'd sit and play and watch the moon shine down on the waves."


Kāne developed a deceptively simple and distinct style across many open tunings by plucking or brushing the strings with only the thumb and index finger of his right hand and performing hammer-ons and pull-offs with his finger moving up and out, instead of down and in.


In 1961, the Tradewinds label invited Ray to make his first recordings. "It was a great experience, but there was no money in it," he says. "I had a family, you understand, so I just played out a little on the weekends.: The new attention the 1970’s brought to traditional artists in Hawaii, elevated Kane to the position of media celebrity and a role model for the young. In 1973, the newly created Hawaiian MusicFoundation asked Kane to perform formal concerts, something new for slack key. It brought the music and musicians to an entirely different audience. "I don't know why they picked me," Ray says. "I wasn't famous. I wasn't playing steady anywhere. I was just trying to stick to the style I learned back in the 1930s. Maybe that's why, but the next thing I knew people were asking me to play all over the place. All kinds of people came to those concerts. They'd just sit there and listen, then applaud after each song. I was in a state of shock."


Kane peppered his performances with humor, an engaging counterpoint to the soft, romantic music he performed. "Hey, sometimes it makes me cry too," Ray says. Medical problems saw Kane ducking from the public eye for a decade before returning to teaching and performing in the 1980s. "I like to teach one-on-one. I tell all my students to do it your own way, from the heart. And don't talk stink about the other guy. Humble yourself. Play the best you can and share what you know."


In 1987, in recognition of his performing and teaching, Kane received a National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowship, the nation's highest honor for a traditional artist. He was also recognized by the Hawaii state government and the city & county of Honolulu. That same year, Ray appeared in Robert Mugge's Hawaiian Rainbow documentary and made triumphant appearances across the Islands.  -HC-




Old Time Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Complete Tablature by Mark Nelson


Learn to Play Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar by Mark Nelson








Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 


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