Hawaiian String Instruments

By | April 9, 2021

Hawaiian music found its popularity in the United States in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Hawaiian string instruments have an unusual history. They made their way to 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 the unique Hawaiian sound.


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 craftsman and instrument maker. Soon the ukulele emerged, with its size from the traditional braguinha, a Madeiran guitar-like instrument that usually plays the lead. The ukulele is set as a rajao, which is also a Madeiran guitar-like instrument, but rajao usually plays accompaniment. Hawaiians were fascinated by the instruments 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 kings of Hawaii composed songs sung and played with the ukulele.

Ki Ho ‘alu

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’ turn off the key’, and that’s exactly what these guitarists do. One or more strings on a classically tuned guitar will be ‘released’ or ‘dropped’ to form a chord, often a G major. Banjos and other string instruments have this property, which simply means that if you play two or more unshielded or open strings together, you form a complete chord.

Steel string guitar

Taro farm workers began playing steel string guitars by laying them flat in their yards. The atmosphere is similar to ki ho alu with a DGDGBD tuning for G major. This setting allows a sock of the open strings to play a G major chord. The steel string guitars have a nut extension that lifts the strings away from the neck, so even if you lower the strings with a barbell, you do not string on the neck of the guitar. You can change an acoustic guitar to sound like a Hawaiian steel string guitar by replacing the nylon strings with steel strings, changing the setting on three strings, and adding a nut string.