There is a mystique surrounding slack key guitar music – it is very personal, and can be very magical in feeling.
– Quote from Keola Beamer’s “A Brief History of Slack Key Guitar”

Three shows in three days, covering over 525 miles across 3 states, with 7 musicians. That was the East Coast swing of the 2015 Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival, and I’ll forever be pinching myself that I was a part of it. As a rabid fan of the festival for over 15 years having attended the event on Oahu, Maui, and Kaua’i, I’ll be the first to tell you to go see the show if you have the opportunity. The format is a fun one-stop-shop where you can watch guitarist after guitarist share their passion for slack key guitar, each in a different and unique way. While I may have dreamed about having a slot on the roster, the realist in me knew that it would never happen. Well, chalk one up for the dreamers because it happened.

It was exhilarating, scary, and awesome. My adventure was a roller coaster of victories (I played that song great!) and defeats (I flubbed that note, darn it!) but best of all – it was an incredible learning experience. Truth be told, you’ll learn more playing three consecutive days on the big stage with performers of this high caliber than you can woodshedding for an entire year at home by yourself. At least, that is the wisdom that I realized in the brief window between post-performance high and sleep-deprived low. Before I take a long nap, here are a few more take aways.

  1. Slack Key Guitar is in Able Hands
    Contrary to the many festivals that I’ve attended where the elder statesmen of slack key were well represented, the slack key festival shows in New Jersey (Dennis Flyer Memorial Theatre), Virginia (Wolf Trap), and New York (SubCulture) featured only young guns. In fact, I was the second oldest. Thank you, guys, for not calling me “Uncle!” Four guys in their 40s, one in his 30s, and two in their 20s. While traditional Hawaiian music has been eclipsed in popularity by Jawaiian and other styles in recent years, the guys who I watched over the weekend all have the passion and chops to carry the slack key tradition forward. Whether it was Ian who earned his masters in classical guitar performance from Yale or LT Smooth who holds a Ph.D. from YouTube, every single performer on the bill blew me away.

  2. Play From the Heart
    Have you ever gone to see Eddie Van Halen or Tommy Emmanuel or <insert your favorite guitar hero here> and you felt like you should just put your guitar away forever? Seriously, did you see LT Smooth shred on his acoustic guitar?! Well, all I can tell you is this. Pick up your bruised ego, take away what inspiration you can, and just play from the heart. Press with your fretting hand, pluck with your picking hand, and play loudly and proudly because nobody can tell your story as well as you can.

  3. Embrace the Process
    Everything is a process. Working through a new song is a process. Sometimes, it takes an hour. Sometimes, it takes years. I have a day job in financial services (that is a series of processes too, by the way) so I am not accustomed to taking to the stage every night. It was super cool to see how much better I could play on Sunday night compared to Friday night! Practice does make perfect, after all. The key is to keep plugging away and moving forward. Who knows? You might just be asked for your autograph someday. As unusual as that felt, thank you for that Wolf Trap!

Thank you to Ed Fiscella for suggesting inclusion of the NJ guys. A huge mahalo to Milton Lau for saying yes and inviting me to be a part of the Hawaiian Masters of Slack Key Guitar. Thank you to Danny Carvalho, Stephen Inglis, Chris Lau, LT Smooth, Ian O’Sullivan, my NJ brother Bill Wynne, special NY guest Claudia Goddard, and emcee Harry B. Soria. I do not know if I will be invited again in the future; but if I am, there is no doubt that I would say “YES!” Finally, thanks to everyone who came to support the shows. I remain a fan. The slack key festival is truly great. Aloha!

photos: Dave Gruen