“Nelson is a musician who possesses that rare combination of insight and talent necessary to successfully transcend conventional concepts of genre and culture” – John Berger, Honolulu Star-Bulletin
The Hawaiian slack key guitar is one of the world’s great guitar traditions. Called ki ho`alu in Hawaiian, it developed in the 19th Century. Legend has it the first guitars were brought by cowboys imported from Alta California to deal with wild cattle. By day, the paniolo taught the Hawaiians to rope and ride, by night they serenaded them with the soft sounds of Spanish guitars..
By the mid-20th century slack key had almost died out-no one wanted to hear this quiet, back-country music. A series of ground-breaking recordings in the late ’40s by Gabby Pahinui changed all that. In the early 1970’s a young musician named Keola Beamer wrote the first-ever slack key instruction book. Since then the style has bloomed, thanks in no small part to pianist George Winston and his Dancing Cat Records. Slack key artists regularly tour North America, Europe and Japan and players from all over the world are discovering how satisfying it can be to play.
Although most players prefer steel-string acoustics, slack key may be played on any guitar. It’s a fingerpicking style characterized by a strong, steady bass played with the thumb. Melodies, often harmonized in sixths; trills, slides and chimes (harmonics) are varied by each player in highly individualized styles. As one Hawaiian musician said to Mark, “I don’t care what notes you play, I just want to feel your aloha.”
Ki ho`alu means “loosen the key”-it refers to retuning some of strings to create a harmonious sound. There are hundreds of slack tunings – most players stick to a few that define their personal style. Tunings have wonderful names like Taro Patch (D-G-D-G-B-D low to high); Drop C (Also known as Leonard’s C, after Leonard Kwan) (C-G-D-G-B-D), and Double Slack (a.k.a G Wahine or Namakelua’s Tuning) (D-G-D-F#-B-D).
Growing up in Southern California, Mark was aware of slack key and Hawaiian music from an early age-he even went so far as to sing Kaua i Ka Huahua`i, (also known as The Hawaiian War Chant) for an elementary school talent show! Although the sound of slack key influenced his guitar style and compositions, it wasn’t until the 90’s that Mark began to study the art form seriously, traveling to Hawai`i to study with some of the greats and seeking out old recordings of the master musicians of yesterday. He began sharing what he’d learned at music camps around the country, finding growing numbers of students interested in this gentle art. This in turn led to coauthoring Learn to Play Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar (Mel Bay) with Hawaiian slack key Master Keola Beamer. Old Time Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar is a book and CD set featuring challenging transcriptions of 24 classic and original slack key pieces. His long-awaited method book, Mastering Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, is out now.
Mark’s unique Island-style guitar brings together elements of traditional slack key, Celtic finger-picking and country blues. He’s equally at home playing a classic Polynesian song such as Pua Sadinia or Nanea Kou Maka I Ka Lealea, a bottle-neck take on a Leonard Kwan gem or a compelling slack key arrangement of a Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk jazz standard. He has profound respect for his teachers and all the wonderful players who have gone before, without whom there would be no slack key today, and the desire to share his love of slack key with everyone.