Slack-key (ki ho’alu) is yet another genre that the ukulele can successfully cover and is relatively easy to learn, but has many opportunities for advanced players. Usually it is played on a guitar. Usually. Slack-key music is really beautiful. If you’re not familiar with it, I would recommend Legends of Slack-Key Guitar. There is also a short clip of Ledward Kaapana playing slack key ukulele on the Ukulele Fest 2003 Youtube video. There is also a video of him playing ‘Opihi Moemoe on Youtube.
So first the disclaimer… The term “slack key” is kind of a touchy thing. Does it mean a tuning? Is it a style? Can it even be played on ukulele? It’s all a matter of opinion. To avoid ruffling any feathers maybe it would be best to call this page just “Hawaiian Style Ukulele” and say we are using “alternate tunings”. That said, the general consensus is that slack key is a style, not a tuning. Ledward Kaapana sums it up nicely:
“When I was young my Uncle Fred told me you can play slack key in Standard tuning. He said, ‘It’s easy, jus’ press the right strings’. Jus’ press’ was something he would always tell us when we’d ask him a question. One time when we were playing I asked him, ‘Uncle Fred, what key this?’ He told me, ‘Boy, no worry what key, jus’ press.’”
So if it’s a style, you do not need to tune your ukulele differently. But sometimes it makes songs easier. To play “slack key” ukulele you probably need to put a low-G string on your ukulele (unless you are just playing “Hawaiian style” like Troy Fernandez in songs such as TNC). I recommend a Worth low G because they are unwound and don’t squeak or grab your fingers.
The most commonly used slack-key guitar tuning is open G (taro patch). Since the ukulele is tuned five steps higher than the guitar, that turns into open C. To create an open C tuning, you tune the A-string down to G. Now if you strum the strings you hear a C major chord instead of a normal C6.
A bass line is what drives the slack key sound and keeps the harmony sounding full. It is kind of tough to pull off on the ukulele because of the limited amount of strings, working off the the low-G or C-string every few notes will work.
Harmonics are popular in slack-key music so try to ingrate them into your playing. If you don’t know how to play them, check out our lesson on How to Play Harmonics. Try a snazzy ending in open C tuning by strumming the 12th fret harmonics followed by the 7th, 5th and back to 7th fret harmonics. Then end by holding the 17th fret on the bottom (G now) string and strumming the strings.
You also need to know turnarounds. Figuring them out by ear is probably the best way to learn them. You can get some of the basic standard tuning ones from the picking vamps tab. There are so many turnarounds you can use that almost any combination of notes in a scale could work.
Here are a couple more tunings to play with:
- C Wahine – low-G B E G. Just lower the C string down one half-step from taro patch C. If you are tuning relative and working from the top matching pitches, low-G 4th fret will sound the same as the open 3rd string, 5th fret of the 3rd string will be the same as the open 2nd string, and the 3rd fret of the 2nd string will sound the same as the open bottom string. Top to bottom: 4-5-3. The basic chords will be: C – 0100, F – 2112, G7 – 4310.
- G Wahine – low-G B D F#. Relative frets: 4-3-4 top to bottom. Basic chords: G – 0001, C – 0121, D7 – 2100.
Three slack key or Hawaiian style songs: