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Hawaii music from the golden age

The guitar was likely introduced to Hawaii around 1832 by Spanish and Mexican cowboys, who were hired by King Kamehameha 3 to teach Hawaiians how to deal with cattle overpopulation. In the evenings, the cowboys would play guitar around the campfire and intrigued Hawaiian onlookers with this new, weird instrument. Unfortunately, the cowboys were  in Hawaii to work, and therefore would not have sufficient time to actually teach how to play guitar. When the cowboys left, some of them gave their guitars away as gifts.

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Hawaiians incorporated what they had learned (and not learned) about playing the guitar into traditional songs, chants and rhythms, creating a genre of music entirely unique to Hawaii.

The period between 1930 and 1960 is known as “The Golden Age of Hawaiian Music”.

In the early 1930s, instruments became amplified. Where the steel guitar had struggled to make itself heard in crowded dance halls, it could now function as a lead instrument. It quickly became a staple of Hawaiian music.

While the Great Depression affected the recording industry in America, Hawaiian music seemed completely immune to economic hardship. The “hapa haole”(half foreign) music that had begun in the early 1900s skyrocketed in popularity in the 1930s.

After World War II, Hawaii’s own record industry was booming, focusing on “local music for local people”. Bell Records in Honolulu released a plethora of classics by upcoming artists like George Kainapau, Johnny Almeida and The Kalima Brothers.

Instruments & Music Theory

Besides the spanish guitar, the Ukulele and the steel guitar are well known instruments used in Hawaiian music.

Electric Steel Guitar
This special guitar technique was originally invented by Joseph Kekuku around 1890. The specifics around exactly how he came up with it remains a mystery. The most popular telling of the story says that a young Kekuku picked up a railroad spike while walking across train tracks. When he later returned to his dormitory to practice guitar, he had a moment of inspiration. Kekuku pulled out the railroad spike and slid it across the guitar’s strings while strumming, producing a completely new sound. Kekuku of course did more than just slide a piece of metal across some strings. He continued to refine the technique, creating a smoother piece of metal (or “steel” as it is called) for a cleaner sound and modifying a guitar by slightly raising the strings, making it easier to play without the fretboard interfering.

The Kala’au is a pair of wooden concussion sticks used as a percussive instrument by striking them together. It is often used to accompany traditional dance along with Hula singing.

The Ukulele is a small guitar-like string instrument. It has four nylon strings that are tuned differently to the classical Spanish tuning.The ukulele was derived from a small four-stringed guitar, originally from Portugal. It was introduced to Hawaii in the 1870s.
Carl Ray VillaVerde playing 'Keep Your Eyes On The Hands' on ukulele

Hawaiian Falsetto singing
Falsetto singing is often used in traditional Hawaiian music. This was also called leo ki’eki’e or high voice. Hawaiian falsetto singing differentiates from western falsetto in the way that the transition to the high notes is exaggerated.

(Ryan) Kamakakehau Fernandez
Richard Ho'opi' -i "Hawaiian Rainbow"

Slack key tuning
Slack key tuning, or as it is known in Hawaii Ki ho aloo (to loosen the keys), involves retuning the guitar from the classic Spanish tuning, by loosening or “slacking” the strings.

It is a synthesis of traditional Hawaiian falsetto singing with elements of Western music. The different styles of playing the guitar such as sliding, hammer-ons and pull-offs mimic the falsetto and vocal breaks in Hawaiian singing. Slack key is learned through imitation, rather than the study of written tablature or scores.

Major chords were the most popular chords, especially the G Major Taho Patch tuning. Wahine Tunings were also popular, these included a major seventh note. Tuning the guitar in this way, will produce an open chord when strummed. The classic Spanish E-A-D-G-B-E tuning does not sound “good” when strumming all six strings without holding them down, this could have been one of the reasons why the Taho Patch and Wahine tunings were used instead. Tuning a guitar without knowing the “correct” way to tune it, would most likely make someone gravitate toward more immediately pleasant-sounding results.

Harry Koizumi - Slack Key Guitar Tuning
The Lim Family | Nā Mele (full episode) | PBS HAWAIʻI


George Kainapau,
Johnny Almeida,
The Kalima Brothers,


100 Years of Hawaiian Music (Keany, Michael. 2010)
Slack Key Guitar Tuning (Koizumi, Harry. 2012)
How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed American Music | At the Smithsonian (Shah, Haleema. 2019)
Na Leo Hawai'i: Musics of Hawai'i | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (Folkways Recordings, Smithsonian. 2014)