Legend and Legacy: Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar with Ledward Kaapana
When I think of Hawaiian music, I first think of the ukulele, but slack-key guitar is just as uniquely Hawaiian. Ledward “Led” Kaapana is a ukulele virtuoso, but to my ear, he shines brightest when playing slack-key guitar. As a guitar player myself, I was curious to hear him perform in the Story Circle at the Folklife Festival.
As it turned out, that day’s performance wasn’t the only time I would encounter Kaapana. In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts had awarded him the country’s highest honor for excellence in the traditional arts, the National Heritage Fellowship, and I was responsible for partnering with ethnomusicologist Mark Puryear to interview him for an upcoming project with the NEA.
I learned that the term slack-key is both a style of playing and a unique tuning. The guitar is tuned from standard (E, A, D, G, B, E) to essentially an open G chord (D, G, D, G, B, D). When Kaapana explained this tuning structure, I recalled that I had played with the same tuning before. Prominent rock groups such as Creed and Alter Bridge are well known for using this tuning, but I had no idea it was originally developed by native Hawaiians. Why did the Hawaiians create this unique tuning? As Kaapana explains, it was out of necessity.
“When the Mexican cowboys came to the Big Island to help the Hawaiians upgrade their cattle, they brought their guitars,” he said. “When they left, they left their guitars, but forgot to teach the Hawaiians how to tune them. So, the Hawaiians created their own tuning.”
Necessity certainly does breed innovation.
Kaapana is one of the most renowned Hawaiian musicians in the business. Since the 1970s, he has released numerous albums, including fourteen bestsellers with his brother Nedward Kaapana. He continues to tour the world and has been nominated for multiple GRAMMY Awards.
It was a privilege to work with Kaapana, and what I learned from his performances and interview enlightened me both as an artist and an admirer of traditional music. I’m already playing a bit of slack-key guitar.
Sean Baker is a video production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He has a degree in anthropology from Indiana University, with a particular interest in visual storytelling.