Playing ukulele in a Hawaiian style is one of the most appealing sounds a musician can strive for. It’s not easy, but this rich musical heritage is the heart of the ukulele and worthy of study by every player.
The Hawaiian Sound
With an abundance of TABs and sheet music these days, it’s easy to learn the notes or chords for any song. It’s much harder to capture the sound and musicality of a genre.
This is what makes Hawaiian music challenging for a lot of people. They play the notes and strum the chords to a song, but it doesn’t sound anything like the recording.
We’re all so familiar with popular mainstream music that it’s simple for the average uke player to strum a version of “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Mustang Sally” and sound convincing. You know how it should feel and sound.
Capturing that feeling in Hawaiian music takes the same amount of familiarity with the sound of the style.
Listen to Hawaiian Music
In order to play Hawaiian music on your ukulele, you have to be extremely familiar with how it should sound. If you haven’t heard it, you can’t play it.
I recommend putting nahenahe (sweet sounding) music in your ears as often as possible before and during your efforts to play Hawaiian style. Here are some of my favorite Hawaiian albums to recommend:
- Tropical Storm by Peter Moon Band
- Hui ʻOhana by Hui ʻOhana
- Karen by Karen Keawehawaiʻi
- Vol. 1 by The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band
- All Hawaiʻi Stands Together by Dennis Pavao
- Guava Jam by The Sunday Manoa
- Acoustic Soul by John Cruz
- Barefoot Natives by Barefoot Natives
- Street Tapestry Vol. 1 by Big Island Conspiracy
- Eddie Kamae Presents The Sons of Hawaii by The Sons of Hawaiʻi
- Hoʻolu by The Waiʻehu Sons
- Footprints in the Poi by George Kahumoku, Jr.
- Hapa by Hapa
- Best of The Hawaiian Style Band by The Hawaiian Style Band
- Facing Future by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
- Hawaiian From the Heart by Keoki Kahumoku and Herb Ohta, Jr.
- Leabert Lindsey by Leabert Lindsey
- Makani ʻOluʻolu by Na Palapalai
This is not at all a comprehensive list, but any or all of these would be very informative to your understanding of Hawaiian music.
Some titles are out of print and can only be found on vinyl. Check eBay. They’re worth tracking down.
Something to keep in mind is that the Hawaiian sound is a lineage. Just because you like a certain modern Hawaiian artist doesn’t mean you can get the whole picture only from listening to them. You should absorb their influences and their influence’s influences as well. This might mean setting aside some of your biases and listening to old music that’s “slow” or “boring” to your tastes.
To me, Hawaiian music and the ukulele sound stems largely from our environment. The wind, the waves, the forest, the dryland. But even if you can’t experience Hawaiʻi firsthand, get outside and enjoy the majesty of the natural world wherever you live.
Take your uke on a field trip to the park or to the lake/river/coast. Any time spent slowing down and feeling the outdoors will get you closer to understanding the sound of the music.
Hawaiian Playing Style
Once you have a feel for the sound you’re aiming for, the next piece is finding your part. The ukulele in a Hawaiian style, as most people imagine it, plays a flip-flop role between strumming and fingerpicking, sounding like a whole band.
More commonly, the ukulele is used as a rhythm instrument. After all, even if you can play a paʻani (solo break), the entire rest of your job will be contributing to the harmony part and maybe playing some fills.
Whether or not you want to continue in a rhythm role or break off to play solo arrangements, you’re going to want a strong background in strumming. Hawaiian strumming and harmony is deceptively simple. The majority of strums fit onto an 8th note grid. Variations in how the rhythms push and pull is what gives it a signature feel.
The chords to a Hawaiian song are usually very simple. I IV V7 usually covers traditional style songs. Sometimes there is a II7 for the vamp or elsewhere in the song. You can look the chord progression up for most common songs.
Look at a sheet to quickly understand the chord structure or to study the words, but keeping your eyes glued to it should not be necessary. Use your ears.
Learning the Melody
Since most people wanting to learn Hawaiian style ukulele are interested in a solo style like Led Kaapana or Herb Ohta, Jr. or Troy Fernandez play, the melody is going to feature heavily into your part.
In order to set yourself up for easier self-accompaniment, usually you want to learn the melody in an ukulele-friendly key like C, G, F, or sometimes A. Since the uke is tuned to C6, if you can fit the melody primarily on the E- and A-strings, you’ll have the easiest time in the key of C.
Get familiar with the melody, but don’t get attached to the specific fingers. They’re going to get shuffled around when you start adding harmony strums.
Playing the melody by itself is lovely, but for a solo ukulele player, it’s usually a little too sparse. You’ll want to put some chords around the melody.
To do this, you have to marry the melody note with the harmony it’s being played over. The trick is that the melody should always remain the highest note. This makes it easiest to hear in a group of notes.
If the melody is E and, at the same moment in the song, you’d be strumming a C chord, you need to figure out how to play a C chord with an E note in the highest-sounding position.
This could either be
000X, depending on what octave you want the E note to be in.
I wrote a lot more about this in my solo arranging article.
One of the things that sets Hawaiian style solo arranging apart is the emphasis on a big, open, ringing sound. If you can play a chord/melody combo with open strings, usually you want to go for it.
The lower down the fretboard you play, the bigger the sound you’ll get. Avoid muting the strings prematurely so they can ring out and carry the harmony without needing to be continuously attacked.
“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 because 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.'”
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.
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.
Ukulele-Chords.com is one of the few dynamic chord sites that takes the time to display slack key chords. It’s a good resource for those wanting to play more obscure songs in a slack key tuning.
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.
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.
...C..........................G7.......................... 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:
.....F..G..C..G..C..F..G.... 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 page. There are so many turnarounds you can use that almost any combination of notes in a scale could work.