BY HOLLY RUDIN-BRASCHI | FROM THE FALL 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE

Learn some slack-key ukulele techniques courtesy of Hawaiian musician George Kahumoku, Jr. Plus, learn his arrangement of the classic tune “Meleana e.”

“On your upcoming Maui trip, don’t miss the George Kahumoku, Jr. Slack Key Show!” my sister-in-law Cate advised. “George has two shows a week at the Napili Kai Beach Resort.” Most weeks, “Uncle George,” as he is affectionately known throughout Maui and to students worldwide, features a famous slack-key artist as headliner and then fills in the bill with local guitar and ukulele artists. I never expected that Cate’s enthusiastic suggestion would have such an enormous impact on my musical journey as an ukulele instructor, author, and player. After that first show eight years ago, I was completely hooked, and I have been one of Kahumoku’s students ever since, studying both privately and at his yearly Maui Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele Workshop, which has now been going strong for 26 years.

George Kahumoku, Jr., who is 70, has been dubbed by some a renaissance man. He is best known, of course, for being a multiple Grammy and Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning slack-key guitarist, ukulele virtuoso, and singer with more than two dozen album credits, including such gems as Tutu’s Favorite Songs: Melodies of Old Hawaii, three volumes of Classic Hawaiian Hulas (with Daniel Ho on uke), Paniolo Slack Key: Songs of the Hawaiian Cowboy, Maui Slack Key Christmas, Hymns of Hawaii, and Drenched in Music. In all, he has composed and published over 2,000 songs, chants, and melodies and is also the founder of the Hawaiian Music Institute at the University of Hawaii Maui College. Beyond that, though, Kahumoku is a poet, storyteller, artist, sculptor, high school and college teacher… and farmer—he helps feed the homeless with meals he personally prepares from his three-acre sustainable farm, where he grows over 300 varieties of produce (including many Hawaiian plants) and raises sheep, goats, cattle, ducks, and chickens.

Kahumoku proudly traces his name back at least to the end of the 19th century, when British explorer George Vancouver “dropped off cattle at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island,” he relates. “When his ship sailed to return to England, a 15-year-old boy named George Kahumoku stowed away. While off Nova Scotia, the first mate fell overboard. Most English and Spanish sailors at the time didn’t know how to swim, but the young Hawaiian did! Kahumoku jumped into the icy waters and saved the first mate. When the ship finally returned to England, in 1894, Kahumoku was knighted for his good deed. I am the eighth George Kahumoku, a descendant of that original knighted George Kahumoku! When I played for Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, I was taken into the records room and saw the original decree that made Kahumoku a knight.” 

Music has been a family affair for the Kahumokus for generations. “I grew up with 26 cousins in the same household,” George says. “All the kids in our ohana [family] learned music from my great-grandfather Willy Kahumoku; my tutu [grandmother] Lottie Haae Kahumoku; my mom, Aileen; dad, George Kahumoku Sr.; and all my aunties and uncles.” George Jr. started playing slack-key ukulele at age three and slack-key guitar at eight. At 11, he played his first slack-key performance at the Forbidden City nightclub in Waikiki. “I made $27.10 in tips for one song!” he says.

By 13 he was the slack-key guitarist for a group called the Climax 5, which took second place in a battle of the bands at the Waikiki Shell in front of an audience of 20,000 people. In his early 20s, he and his brother Moses formed the Kahumoku Brothers, initially playing at the Mauna Kea Beach Westin Hotel, then traveling as Hawaiian music ambassadors opening over 200 Westin hotels throughout the world. In the late ’70s, they accompanied renowned hula instructor Edith Kanaka’ole and her hula halau (school) on her classic album Hi’i poi I Ka Aina Aloha. George was also in charge of the opening day festivities of the famous Merrie Monarch Hula Festival held in Hilo, Hawaii, for almost 16 years.

Beginning in 1980 and lasting over a decade, Kahumoku—along with master Hawaiian guitarists Dennis Kamakahi and Cyril Pahinui—played an annual teaching residency at a Sheraton hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, a series initiated by country guitar great Chet Atkins, who loved slack key and wanted to perpetuate the genre. By 1995, Kahumoku had released his first album, E Lili u, and was entrenched at the Mauian Hotel on Maui, where he started teaching slack-key guitar workshops to help fill up the 44-room hotel during the lean summers. When he added ukulele to the workshop, the response was huge, with four ukulele students registering for each guitar student. This was the seed from which his wildly successful current summer workshops at the Napili Kai have grown.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper into George Kahumoku Jr.’s slack-key ukulele style. 

THE HAWAIIAN BLUES

Ki ho‘alu, translating to “loosen or slack the key,” refers to the tuning keys at the head of the instrument. In a typical slack-key ukulele tuning, the open strings form a major-type chord. For instance, “Taropatch,” or C tuning (G C E G), is a C major triad. “Slack key was the assimilation of three Spanish guitars [bass, rhythm, and lead], played as one simply by loosening a few strings,” Kahumoku explains. “Early Hawaiian players slacked the strings to create hundreds of personalized tunings, many of which are still tightly held family secrets. My dad knew over 120 tunings on the guitar and ukulele and my brother Moses knew or created over 150 tunings. I know about 80 guitar and 15 ukulele tunings. 

“Slack key is also known as the Hawaiian version of American blues,” he continues. “Both genres developed simultaneously in different parts of the world and in cultures that required teamwork to survive in harsh environments—the blues in the traditions of African American slaves, slack key in the traditions of ancient Hawaiians.” 

Hawaiians blended Spanish guitar techniques like fingerpicking, hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonics (chimes), slides, and damping with rhythms of ancient chants and traditional Hawaiian mele [songs and poems] to mimic Hawaiian yodel and falsetto singing techniques. When ukuleles came onto the scene in the 1880s, slack-key guitar players adapted the style to the new instrument. 


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Both slack key and blues are based on different musical structures that invite improvisation and virtuosity. There is, for instance, the 12-bar chord progression common to so many blues songs. In blues, the melody line follows the chord structure, allowing performers to improvise over set harmonies. In contrast, slack-key harmonies support the melody line of the verse, so individual songs have unique chord progressions.

IN THE SWING OF THINGS

Slack key is traditionally based on a swing or shuffle feel. [For more on swing, see Daniel Ward’s lesson in the Winter 2019 issue.] This laid-back rhythm, also found in blues and jazz, was quite possibly adopted around the early 1900s by Hawaiian musicians when mainland musicians started visiting Hawaii, and certainly by the time the first records made it over to the Islands. Swing rhythm matches the rhythm of the hula dancers’ feet and swaying hips. Both hula kahiko (ancient hula) and hula ’auana (contemporary hula) are danced in four-beat choreographic sections. This translates in music notation to common(4/4) time, or four quarter notes to a measure. 

In slack-key fingerstyle, the notes are typically allowed to ring as long as possible, with the picking hand hovering over the strings, and the wrist and forearm positioned away from the soundboard. (Kahumoku sometimes loosely anchors his ring finger on the soundboard below the strings, but his right hand is relaxed and constantly mobile.) Each note is picked as a free stroke, with the finger only touching a string when played, rather than a rest stroke, in which the finger picks a note and then comes to rest on an adjacent string.  

The most common slack-key fingerpicking patterns involve eighth notes played as individual strings, or as double- or triple-stops, which can be played with individual fingers or strummed with the thumb or index finger, depending on the player’s preference. Once you learn some basic patterns, as shown in Example 1 (p = thumb and i = index), you can mix them up or invent your own to use in any slack-key song you play.

slack key ukulele lesson notation example 1

ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS

Kahumoku finds that the traditional song “Meleana e” (“Maryann, heed me”) serves as a great introduction to slack-key ukulele because it is simple and contains three essential elements. The first is the turnaround—a two-measure, three-chord phrase played at the beginning and end of a song, as well as in between verses. When used as an intro and outro, it is often repeated to allow hula dancers to enter and leave the stage with a side-to-side choreography called ka holo (to run). The basic turnaround (as in bars 1–2, 3–4, etc.) is based on the II7–V7–I progression (D7–G7–C in the key of C major). 

The second element is the walkup, typically a three-chord progression in which a single chord shape is moved chromatically (fret by fret) up the fretboard. Walkups are optional and are usually played directly after turnarounds. They are used to signal the next verse or placed just before the last chord of the song to signal the song’s end. Musicians may choose to add one, two, or three walkups before starting the next verse. In “Meleana e,” Kahumoku includes these three walkups in three different chord shapes to help you practice. (See measures 18–21 and 23–26.) 

A third component is the use of mele verses. Usually two to four lines long, all verses are sung to one melody and are repeated twice. As in ancient Hawaiian chant, the first time a verse is sung it is known as a call because it is sung by a soloist. The verse is then repeated as a response and is sung by everyone either playing or listening. Each verse of our example song “Meleana e” is two lines. Between the two lines of each verse, Kahumoku adds a phrase in pidgin Hawaiian that many performers enjoy adding to this song, “Shua la, e ono la!” (“She is sure delicious to the senses!”) Note: There is no letter S in the Hawaiian alphabet; so “Shua” is pidgin for the English word “sure.” Typically the last verse of every song and chant starts with the phrase “Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana” (“Let the story be told”), a line from ancient Hawaiian mele, which indicates to players and listeners that the song is “pau” (done). Though the notation here shows only a sample verse, Kahumoku explains, “‘Meleana e’ has over 200 verses because musicians are constantly improvising lyrics.” 

Then there’s the concept of pa’ani (play for fun). In slack-key tradition, soloists are invited by the leader to improvise the melody in place of a sung verse. Pa’ani are usually played after a couple of verses are sung. One or more soloists may be called to “take the pa’ani.” “I never play a song the same way twice,” says Kahumoku, “because slack key is all about improvisation.” 

To begin learning harmony improvisation, Kahumoku suggests practicing chord substitutions as you learn “Meleana e,” pointing out that for any given chord, there are several positions or voicings on the ukulele fretboard. “For pa’ani, any voicing can be substituted for another voicing of the same chord,” he says. To help you memorize the positions, he encourages practicing the shapes shown in Example 2 (with G-C-E-G tuning).

slack key ukulele lesson notation example 2, chord shapes and variations

To learn melody improvisation and to hone your playing-by-ear skills, Kahumoku suggests plucking the “Meleana e” melody on one string. Next, learn to pluck it in three different places on the fretboard. Lastly, “Forget all you learned and feel your way through the music while staying within the chord progression and melody. This may not come to you overnight. So relax, have fun, and keep in mind, practice makes progress!”

Meleana e (Traditional, arr. by George Kahumoku, Jr.)

Meleana e ukulele music notation (Traditional, arr. by George Kahumoku, Jr.)

GETTING STARTED ON SLACK-KEY UKULELE

When slack key is played on a guitar, a low note played on a low string resonates constantly. This pedal tone is intended to accompany melody notes picked simultaneously on higher strings. To achieve this sound on the ukulele, George Kahumoku, Jr. suggests using a low G string. High G is mostly for strumming. A low G string gives more depth of sound, better for slack fingerstyle,” he says, adding that it’s also preferable to hold the uke with a strap, which facilitates picking-hand accuracy.  

Though two-, three-, or four-finger styles all work in slack key, Kahumoku prefers the thumb-and-index fingerpicking style. Playing at home or just for fun, he picks with his fingers, but for teaching and performing slack key he uses nylon finger picks for sound clarity and accuracy—and to protect his ukulele. He says, “They don’t injure the soundboard of your instrument.” 

To learn Kahumoku’s two-finger style, try using nylon thumb and index fingerpicks if you don’t have strong fingernails. As for hand placement, to get an authentic slack-key sound that mimics the clear, twangy sound of a steel-guitar string, Kahumoku plays between the ukulele’s bridge and soundhole. “This position not only provides sharper harmonies but also individual string clarity if I am dampening some of the strings with the palm of my hand in order to emphasize the strings I am plucking,” he explains. “When playing with no electronic amplification, I keep my right hand away from the hole to get more sustain and volume. —HRB

book cover for ukulele basics – chords and harmony

Ukulele Basics: Chords and Harmony is a collection of six easy-to-follow but in-depth Basics lessons from instructors and frequent Ukulele magazine teachers Jim D’Ville and Fred Sokolow, plus the great composer/player Daniel Ho, will guide you through easy chord variations, harnessing the power of certain chords, demystifying the famous Circle of 5ths, and understanding moveable chord shapes.