Slack-key guitar is a unique Hawaiian form that features a steel-stringed guitar with special tuning played in a finger-picked style. Guitars came to the islands in several waves, first with European sailors, then with Mexican and Spanish cowboys who were brought to the island to control an overpopulation of cattle, then finally with the Portuguese in the 1860s, who introduced the steel string guitars that are popular with slack-key players today.
The unique tunings used for slack-key guitar allow for a rich, romantic sound. Many tunings are used, with the guitar often tuned to a major chord or tuned to contain a major 7th note or with the top two pitches a wide fifth interval apart.
Gabby Pahinui helped bring slack-key guitar to the forefront of Hawaiian music with his recordings beginning in the 1940s. Before that time, guitar was a minor instrument in Hawaiian music, with vocals and percussion being the primary sounds in traditional songs. Pahinui was hugely influential and helped mold the players who followed, including Sonny Chillingsworth, Leonard Kwan and Ray Kane, who continued to record up until the '80s and '90s. A new generation of slack-key players, including Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana and Peter Moon came to prominence in the '70s and continued to record into the next millennium.