It was almost 100 years ago that Hawaii experienced what must have felt like a sonic revolution: In October 1920, the engineer Marion Mulrony, a friend of Alexander Graham Bell, transmitted speech and music signals from the Electric Shop, in downtown Honolulu, in what was the island’s first radio broadcast.
To commemorate this milestone, a composer and singer for the Royal Hawaiian Band, Elizabeth Kahau Alohikea (1881–1939), wrote “Radio Hula.” This tune, along with her song “Alekoki,” ranks among the most popular Hawaiian numbers of all time.
The preeminent multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and composer Ledward Kaapana has made “Radio Hula” one of his signature numbers. In concert, Kaapana plays the piece solo, with a refreshing, improvisatory feel. This transcription captures Kaapana’s performance on the 1994 album Led Live—Solo (Dancing Cat Records) and encapsulates a lot of what’s great about slack-key guitar: a sweet melody propped up by a rolling Travis-style bass line, chiming harmonics, and lots of subtle ornamental variations throughout.
Into the Taro Patch
Slack-key guitar, of course, refers to an instrument that’s tuned lower than standard, and one of the most common tunings in Hawaiian music is taro patch, or open G.
If open G is new to you, here’s how to get into it: Starting in standard tuning, lower strings 1, 5, and 6 by a whole step each, while leaving string 2, 3, and 4 alone. Your open strings should now form an open G chord, with the root on string 5 and its fifth (D) as the lowest note. One of the advantages of this tuning is that it allows you to play major chords with a first-finger barre and add melodic embellishments with the other fingers.
That All-important Swing Feel
This interpretation of “Radio Hula” owes much of its charm to a laid-back but steady swing feel. If you’re unfamiliar with this rhythmic approach, which is essential to much jazz and blues, it’s important to understand it before you pick up your guitar. You can think of it like this: Instead of being played evenly as written, eighth notes are rendered long-short, at the approximate ratio of 2:1.
In other words, the notes on the ands of beats—like all of the up-stemmed notes in measure 8, save for the 12th-fret D on beat 3—are played slightly after they would be if played straight rather than swung. If this is at all confusing, spending some time listening to the recording should help clear things up. The feel is more important than precision.
With such an attractive assortment of ideas represented in the notation here, it is tempting to plow through “Radio Hula” and learn it as quickly as possible. That isn’t the most sensible plan, though. Unless you’re the hottest fingerpicker, it’s preferable to tackle the piece in bite-sized pieces, making sure that you can play each morsel with perfection before moving on.
Kaapana plays with a thumbpick as well as an index-finger pick. Alternatively, you could use your fingernails or bare flesh, and also use your middle finger in addition to your index on the melody notes. Note that while the bass pattern is notated strictly in single notes, Kaapana sometimes brushes his thumb against an adjacent string(s) when picking, perhaps inadvertently. Feel free to do the same at periodic intervals for added texture.
Some other general pointers: In many cases, it might be best not to think of the music in terms of its separate components—namely, a melody and a bass line—but as vertical slices, paying close attention to where the bass notes and the melody line up. In bar 8, for instance, this simultaneity only happens on beat 3, and the following measure on beats 1 and 3. If you work through the music methodically like this, the alternating bass line and syncopated melody should come together naturally.
There are other spots, like the more active melody lines in bars 13 and 14, where it might be beneficial to isolate the up-stemmed notes. A potentially tricky area occurs in measure 14, beat 2, where the melodic leap of a perfect fourth, from the ninth-fret B to the 14th-fret E, requires an impressive stretch, with your first finger fretting the lower note and your fourth finger catching the higher one. Make sure that you can play all of those eighth-note triplets with absolute precision before adding the thumb-picked bass pattern.
If some of the melodic embellishments are at first too difficult to pull off—like the grace notes (quick flourishes, indicated with small notes) in the first half of bar 31 and elsewhere—simply omit them. Speaking of embellishments, your ultimate goal in learning “Radio Hula” is to take it beyond what is notated here. Learn all of Kaapana’s moves and get them into your muscle memory—without losing sight of the easy swing groove. With any luck, you’ll then be able improvise your own little variations on this Hawaiian classic or add some of these ideas to other songs.
Radio Hula – Music by Elizabeth Kahau Alohikea
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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