Slack Key ‘Ukulele

Slack key guitar (ki ho’alu) is a traditional Hawaiian way of tuning and playing the guitar. While more limited, the ‘ukulele can successfully be used to play in a slack key style and is relatively easy to learn.

If you’re not familiar with the slack key sound, I would recommend immersing yourself in it before you try and play it. Legends of Slack-Key Guitar is a great album that captures some of the many sounds the style can offer. There is also this several-song video of Ledward Kaapana playing slack key ‘ukulele:

Uncle Led would be my hero even if he didn’t play ‘ukulele, but he does so he is my baseline reference for anything slack key uke related.

So first a 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 the ‘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. However, the general consensus is that slack key is a style, not a tuning.

More from Uncle Led:

“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.'”

~Ledward Kaapana

Tuning For Slack Key

So if it’s a style, you do not need to tune your ‘ukulele differently to play slack key. But sometimes it makes songs easier. 

An almost-requirement is a low-G string. This drops the pitch of a typical ‘ukulele G string down an octave for a linear sound and, more importantly, gives you a powerful bass drone. For more on low-G strings, head over to the Strings page. If you remain with a high-g string you’ll find you get a more Troy Fernandez-sounding slack key style.

C Taropatch

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 C taropatch. To create this open C tuning, you tune the A-string down one whole step to G. Strumming all the open strings with this tuning gives you a C major chord instead of the normal C6 of standard tuning: G C E G.

C Wahine

The second most common tuning is C wahine. A Wahine slack key tuning adds a major 7th interval to the open strings to create a Cmaj7 chord. This requires you use a finger to create a major chord instead of using the open strings, but it makes the V7 chord a one-finger chord as well. To tune your uke to C wahine, slack the A string down to G like you do for taropatch C. Then also tune the C-string down a half-step to a B note. This creates a G B E G string lineup.

Alternating Bass

An alternating bass line is what drives much of 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 low strings, but working off the the low-G or C-string will work in a pinch.

Basically, with slack key you try and hold chords around your melody. This allows you to pluck any string and get a complementary harmony note. For instance, when playing melody over a C chord you can use the open C string to generate a bass tone. When playing over G7 you can use the low-G. Even if you aren’t playing strums, you can hold the sound of the harmony out just by putting steady emphasis on the root note of the chord. This is great for playing in the key of C, but makes other keys a challenge.

Since you want to keep the bass pattern as consistent as possible, you often end up playing picking patterns. Here’s what you might use for a C to G7 chord. Notice how the bass goes C note/G note on the C chord and G note/D note on the G7 chord. This 1-5 movement is a common and pleasing bass sound.

G |-----0-----------0--------|-----------0-----------0----|
E |-----------0-----------0--|-----1-----------1----------|
C |--0-----------0-----------|--------2-----------2-------|
G |--------0-----------0-----|--0-----------0-------------|

Here’s a generic slack key run over a G7 chord in taropatch C:

G |-----12----12----10----10---|-----9-----9-----7-----7----|
E |----------------------------|----------------------------|
C |--------11----------9-------|--------7-----------5-------|
G |--0-----------0-------------|--0-----------0-------------|

Notice how you return to the open low-G every few notes to maintain the G7 sound as you move down the neck. It doesn’t have quite the feel of the 1-5 bass, but it does the trick.


6th intervals form a huge part of slack key as they outline the sound of chords over a bass note while adding nice harmony to melody. There are two shapes you’ll use on the 1st and 3rd strings. An angle that looks like this:

G |--7--|
E |-----|
C |--5--|
G |-----|

And a less-steep angle that looks like this:

G |--5--|
E |-----|
C |--4--|
G |-----|

With these two shapes you can fit a harmony around every note in the key.

Here is the full pattern along with the chords each fits over:

G |--2--4--5--7--9--10-12--|
E |------------------------|
C |--0--2--4--5--7--9--11--|
G |------------------------|

You can also get juicy chromatic sounds from adjacent shapes that are at the same angle. Like this – same shape, just moving it up by one fret:

G |--7--8--9--|
E |-----------|
C |--5--6--7--|
G |-----------|

Using a chromatic movement on only “one side” of the shape is also common. So instead of playing shapes, you’d just use the connecting note from one string or another:

G |--7-----9--|
E |-----------|
C |--5--6--7--|
G |-----------|

Try targeting one shape that fits over the chord you’re playing over. Then use in-between, non-chord shapes to connect the dots. For instance, over a G7 I could play:

G |--7-----9--10-11-12--|
E |---------------------|
C |--5--7-----9--10-11--|
G |---------------------|

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.

Three slack key or Hawaiian style songs:
Ledward Kaapana Tribute tab
Glass Ball Slack Key tab
TNC tab