Hawaii’s Slack Key Guitar Music
…a great sound for locals and visitors

By: Ed Stone

Visitors to Hawaii will usually think of the “Don Ho-type” of steel guitar music when conjuring up the typical sounds of these beautiful and enchanting islands. Not often enough do visitors have the opportunity to hear a very popular style created here called the “slack key.” Recently, on one of my visits to Honolulu, I enjoyed the best of introductions to this Hawaiian classical style of music. (Click here for information on the history of the slack key guitar.)

When three of the world’s best Hawaiian slack key (ki ho’alu) guitar players’ get together, the sound they produce reflects a talent and love for music, as well as a harmonious friendship. The sounds they generate set the highest standards for others to achieve, and…when all three musicians are playing the finest Taylor guitars, the pinnacle of an acoustical stringed instrument’s timbre is achieved. Period.

George Kahumoku, Jr., Ledward Kaapana, Ben, Ed and Ozzie Kotani at Sam Choy's Restautrant.

This is exactly what happened recently in the Island Guitars Store in Honolulu. The business is located on the second level of the Ward Warehouse Shopping center at the corner of Ward Ave. and Ala Moana Blvd. where nearly two-dozen Taylor guitars are displayed on two walls of this upscale music store. On a Wednesday afternoon in June, you don’t expect too many customers to be gathered in this “somewhat out-of-the-way” location. But, George Kahumoku, Jr., Ledward Kaapana and Ozzie Kotani, the world’s best slack key players, drew quite a crowd as I listened and took photographs for this article.

First, we gathered for lunch at Sam Choy’s Restaurant on Nimitz Highway. I had briefly mentioned this restaurant to a local and their immediate response was, I sure hope you’re hungry, because they are known for their heaping portions. It was true, my barbequed chicken with all the fixin’s was falling off the plate. Amazingly enough the lunch became secondary. George pulled out his guitar in the restaurant and demonstrated to me how to “really hear” the best sound from a Taylor guitar. With the end of the guitar neck clenched very lightly in my teeth and my index fingers pressing my ears closed, George provided me with the most beautiful and the clearest sound I have ever heard. I was willing to risk looking very foolish for the experience of not only hearing, but also feeling the music throughout my entire body. Yes, you might even call it a celestial moment. One, I certainly will not soon forget.

George Kahumoku, Jr. shows me how to hear the "real sound' of a guitar.

After lunch, a phone call to Island Guitars, a distributor of Taylor, set us up for the ideal place for me to hear these three master slack key guitar players and shoot photos of them. Upon arriving at the store we were greeted by Jim Danz, senior partner/administration/sales and David Chang, junior partner/night manager/sales. We were led to the outstanding display of Taylor guitars. These three pickers were like kids in a candy store. George chose a 12-string 655CE, while Led selected a Doyle-Dykes Signature Model (DDSM Limited) and Ozzie took the Taylor 714. Each of these musicians own and play the Taylor Guitar as their “instrument of choice.” George plays the 12-string 655CE in the studio, which is currently owned by the famous George Winston. Led plays several Taylor Guitars both on tour and in the studio. Ozzie plays on appearances and in the studio the six-string Taylor 714.

The pickin’ began and the store was filled with the most beautiful music ever. Sales came to a screeching halt. The customers gathered round while passers-by came in to check out the incredible sounds wafting from the store. Photos were being taken and the playing was certainly taking center stage. Island Guitars had never before created such a spontaneous commotion as this. One gentleman standing on the side was visibly moved and wiping tears of emotion from being at such an awesome and unexpected occasion. He was obviously a big fan of George, Led and Ozzie. Others tapped their feet and enjoyed every note. Not wanting the session to end, I tried my best to stretch the photo session for as long as possible, for I too noticed this was a moment for the scrapbook.

After the session, I spoke with the three masters of the slack key guitar. When asked, “what makes the Taylor so different?” They all three provided the same reasons in their own words. “The Taylor is consistency in sound. I can pick up a C-model and it will sound the same, no matter where I am playing,” said George Kahumoku. “It is very accurate. I use the whole fret board, down to the 22rd fret. When it gets past the 12th fret, other guitars will start ‘flatting out’ on you and it is not accurate,” he stated very firmly. Led indicated that he will tune his guitars, depending on the model to fit the arrangement and/or the accompaniment. Ozzie is “very sold” on the Taylor. He stated that he uses only Taylor for teaching, public appearances and for studio work.

This was my first introduction to slack key music. Having spent the last 30 years in Nashville, Tennessee, with 15 of those at the Grand Ole Opry, I have been around a few stringed instruments. However this lesson in stringed instruments will go down as one of my musical highlights. The best comparison and compliment I could make to these three virtuosos of Hawaii would be to say the experience was like meeting “three Chet Atkins.” To describe this music style…let’s just say it is a cross between classical guitar, with a hint of mariachi and a pinch of “high brow” country. A diverse blend of warm peaceful melodies peppered and spiced to make a unique Hawaiian sound…especially when played on a Taylor.

Behind the music, (or perhaps we should say in front of it), these three exceptional slack key performers have chosen to make their living playing and promoting Hawaii’s own music style…the slack key. To really appreciate the above story, you certainly need to know about George Kahumoku, Jr., Ledward Kaapana and Ozzie Kotani. Of course, they all play Taylor guitars and each has their individual reasons for selecting their particular make and model.

The following are brief biographies of these three master slack key guitar players.

George Kahumoku Jr.

George Kahumoku Jr.

George Kahumoku Jr. is a master slack key guitar player. George is also a songwriter, worldwide performer, high school teacher, former principal, sculptor and storyteller. He is sometimes called Hawaii's Renaissance man. He began playing music professionally at the age of 13 with the legendary singer/songwriter Kui Lee. After graduating from Kamehameha Schools in 1969, George earned a BFA degree at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California.

During the past forty years, George has produced and contributed to many albums including three with his brother Moses, as The Kahumoku Brothers, in the 1980s. In 1979, he received the highest honor in Hawaii's recording industry, a Na Hoku Hanohano Award, for his work on Auntie Edith Kanaka`ole's album “Hi`Ipoiika `Aina Aloha” (“Cherish the Beloved Land”). In 2000, he won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award again, with fellow slack-key artist Daniel Ho, for their album “Hymns of Hawaii.” George has played slack key guitar in documentary films extolling the cultural richness and music of the Hawaiian Islands, including the soundtrack for the David Kalama/Meleanna Meyer film `ONIPA`A (Kalama Productions).

George enjoys sharing his music. When he is not in the studio he is traveling the world and performing to such audiences as the Queen of England or the Premier of China. He states that when walking out on stage he knows he doesn't have long with those people in the audience. So he relaxes, has a great time, and gives them a great performance. During his annual concert tours on the mainland, George holds slack key workshops as frequently as possible. Each summer he holds the annual slack key workshop on Maui, with other greats such as Ozzie Kotani, Led Kaapana and Keola Beamer. This workshop is one of the great musical experiences in the Islands today, and the result of George's belief in sharing and celebrating the music of Hawaii.

Led Kaapana

Led Kaapana

Led Kaapana is now in his fortieth year as a professional musician. Upon meeting this gentleman, you are captured by his big smile and warm personality. He personifies the aloha spirit. His hard work and easygoing attitude have earned him a reputation as one of Hawaii's most beloved traditional musicians. A master of the slack key guitar, Led is also accomplished on the 'ukulele, autoharp, bass, and steel guitar. Led blends his ability with an infectious joy for performing and a rascally sense of humor. This makes him not only a pleasure to hear, but also fun to be around.

Led grew up in a musical family in the tiny village of Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii. His brothers and sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors all played something. "We didn't have electricity, no television, not even much radio," he says. "So we entertained ourselves. You could go to any house and everybody was playing music."

Led has toured Europe and the Mainland with other slack key guitarists. These include Cyril Pahinui, and steel guitarist Bob Brozman. In 1986, he and Brozman became close friends, on stage and off. "He's like a brother to me," says Led. Under the auspices of the National Council for Traditional Arts, Led has toured nationally three times with a host of top country, blues and jazz guitarists. Of these great players, he feels especially close to dobro wizard Jerry "Flux" Douglas. "Flux always blows me away," Led says. "He's a master of the metal bar." In 1999, Led opened for Bob Dylan, at the request of Dylan's band, and for bluegrass sensation Alison Krauss, with whom he's recorded.

Led formed Hui 'Ohana with his twin brother in 1972. His brother, Ned, played the bass while his cousin Dennis Pavao was the falsetto singer and rhythm guitarist. Through fourteen albums and countless live appearances, they proudly maintained Kalapana's musical traditions. Afterward, Led stayed with the trio format, creating I Kona, which has released six albums to date.

In 1998 he recorded the album, “Waltz of the Wind.” For this session, Led packed up his guitars, ukuleles and autoharp and came to Nashville for an all-star session with Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, her brother - bassist Viktor Krauss, her husband - guitarist Pat Bergeson, Sonny Landreth and others. "That was a real dream come true," he says. "It was a real honor to meet them and share the music. That's something I'll never forget. I just want to say mahalo (thanks) to all of them."

Ozzie Kotani

Ozzie Kotani

Ozzie Kotani is a respected teacher, arranger, composer and accompanist as well as a solo performer. He has played the slack key guitar, for over 20 years, representing it on the Mainland, in Spain and Japan, as well as all around the Hawaiian Islands. Like the late slack key master Sonny Chillingworth, with whom he studied, he freely interjects his own personality into his playing, preserving and expanding the tradition.

Ozzie grew up in the Honolulu neighborhood of Pauoa. He learned some `ukulele in the fourth grade as part of the statewide music and culture curriculum. In high school, he took a strong interest in slack key when he heard on the radio one of the great instrumentals from slack key guitarist Keola Beamer's album, “Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in the Real Old Style.”

"I was captivated by his sound," Ozzie recalls. "I somehow managed to learn some elementary slack key by listening to a tape of Keola over and over. Not having the faintest idea how to tune, I experimented. Some of the harmonics gave me a clue to the melody strings." Ozzie also developed a distinctive four-finger picking method. "Many people insist I'm a classically trained guitarist when they watch or hear me play. This could not be further from the truth!" In 1975 Ozzie enrolled in Peter Medeiros' slack key class at the University of Hawaii Continuing Education Program. In 1976 he began studying privately with legendary Sonny Chillingworth.

With the guidance of his teachers, the influence of recordings and long hours of practice, Ozzie established a style of his own. His completely unique guitar techniques are instantly recognizable to aficionados of slack key. He recorded his landmark first album, “Classical Slack” in 1988. It is an all-instrumental and mainly solo collection of his compositions and his great interpretations of Hawaiian standards.

When asked what sets him apart form the other slack key players, he says that is it not easy for the novice player or listener to tell. He explains his uniqueness are his frequent use of the nylon string guitar, a distinctive, vocalizing approach to ballads, his use of atypical chord progressions, rolls played with the thumb and three fingers and a stand-up bass-type sound on the low strings on the first and third beats of the measure.

Ozzie returned to the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1986 to teach slack key for the College of Continuing Education and Community Service. "The main thing I want to do with my playing and my teaching are to give back to others what Sonny so patiently shared with me."

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Read More on the History of the Slack Key Guitar by Keola Beamer
Listern to Ledward Kaapana on YouTube