Hawaiian String Instruments

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Hawaiian music was influenced by many other cultures.
Hawaiian music was influenced by many other cultures.

Hawaiian music found its popularity in the United States during the late '60s and early '70s. Hawaiian string instruments have an unusual history. They made their way into Hawaiian culture from Europe and various Caribbean islands. The continental United States also had some influence in the development of the music that now has that unique Hawaiian sound.

  1. Ukulele

    • The ukulele was developed by a Portuguese instrument maker.
      The ukulele was developed by a Portuguese instrument maker.

      Probably the most popular Hawaiian instrument, the ukulele traces its origins back to Portuguese immigrants who came to Hawaii to work in the fields. One of these farmers, Manuel Nunez, was a master craftsmen and instrument maker. Soon, the ukulele emerged, taking its size from the traditional braguinha, a Madeiran guitar-like instrument that usually plays the lead. The ukulele is tuned like a rajao, which is also a Madeiran guitar-like instrument, but the rajao usually plays accompaniment. The Hawaiians were intrigued by the instruments the foreigners played and called it a ukulele, which roughly translates as "jumping fleas." Soon, the ukulele became synonymous with Hawaiian folk music, and many of the kings and queens of Hawaii composed songs that are sung and played with the ukulele.

    Ki Ho'alu

    • The ki ho'alu is a finger-playing method unique to Hawaii. A slack-string guitar is used, which was introduced to Hawaiians by cowboys in the early 1800s. Ki ho'alu means "slacken the key," and that is exactly what these guitarists do. One or more strings on a classically tuned guitar will be "slackened" or "dropped" to form a chord, frequently G major. This is a practice common on other instruments and is sometimes referred to as open tuning. Banjos and other string instruments have this characteristic, which simply means that if you play two or more unfretted, or open, strings together, you will form a complete chord.

    Steel String Guitar

    • You can alter an acoustic guitar to sound like a Hawaiian steel string guitar.
      You can alter an acoustic guitar to sound like a Hawaiian steel string guitar.

      Taro farm workers began playing steel string guitars by laying them flat on their laps. The tuning is similar to the ki ho'alu, with a D-G-D-G-B-D tuning for G major. This tuning allows a strum of the open strings to play a G major chord. The steel string guitars have a nut extender that raises the strings away from the neck, so even when you are depressing the strings with a tone bar, the strings don't touch the neck of the guitar. You can alter an acoustic guitar to sound like a Hawaiian steel string guitar by replacing the nylon strings with steel strings, changing the tuning on three of the strings and adding a nut extender.

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  • Photo Credit hawaii image by csaba fikker from Fotolia.com tuning the ukulele image by Shirley Hirst from Fotolia.com guitar image by Mikhail Olykainen from Fotolia.com


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