The student became the legend |

The student became the legend

Makana was taught by the legendary slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth and carries on the traditions of slack key while taking it to new heights.
Photo by Kim Huynh |


WHAT: The Center for the Arts presents: Makana

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: 314 W. Main Street, Grass Valley.

TICKETS: $22 for members and $25 for general admission


Coming from the islands of Hawaii, Makana is an internationally known slack key guitarist, singer, and one of Hawaii’s cultural ambassadors to the world.

Recognized as one of the top guitarists in the U.S. by Guitar Player magazine, Makana’s songs range from his traditional Hawaiian roots to original tracks that cover many themes.

Slack key beginnings

Born and raised in Honolulu, Makana started singing when he was 7 years old with the Honolulu Boys Choir. From there he picked up the ukulele at age 9 and at age 11 he found an interest in slack key guitar.

Makana had a young mentor by the name of Bobby Moderow Jr. who taught Makana the early progressions of slack key guitar and the style of Kane.

“It was great having Bobby as my teacher, he became a big brother to me, because all the other slack key guitarists were much older,” said Makana.

Learning the slack key guitar can be tedious at times and it has steep initial learning curve, mostly because slack key is like having multiple instruments on one guitar.

“What makes slack key unique is that alternating bass, rhythm and melody are played in uniquely Hawaiian tunings that create the impression that there are three guitars playing at once,” said Makana. “Slack key is like having an entire orchestra. The reason why we are able to do that is we tune the guitar to intended notes so we don’t have to hold those notes.

“We use the guitar like it’s another musician.”

Not only did Makana learn from Moderow but he also had a slack key guitar legend, Sonny Chilingworth, take him under his wing as a protege.

“Like my kumu (teacher) Uncle Sonny Chillingworth, one of Hawaii’s legendary performers: growing up in Hawaii exposed me to both a melting pot of ethnicities as well as a constant influx of sounds from around the world.

“My various records reflect those diverse ingredients, and I am blessed to have deep roots, having learned from the slack key masters as a young boy.”

Slack key guitar was held in high regard in Hawaii and trying to find a teacher can be difficult.

“This was a very personal private style of music,” said Makana. “The tunings were secret and I had to learn the them by ear.”

Taking slack key to the next level

After learning from legends of slack key Makana was getting multiple offers from record labels for his unique sound and strong voice.

“I chose at a very young age to keep with the slack key guitar,” Makana said. “I had offers to sway me to the pop side of things but I chose to stick with the tradition of slack key.”

By sticking to the traditional side of things Makana has been able to travel all over the world sticking to his roots but also branching out and putting his spin on the style.

He has performed in venues worldwide ranging from China’s Tianjin Opera House to The White House, toured nationwide with Jason Mraz, opened for Sting, Santana, Gotye & Elvis Costello, Bad Company and Joe Walsh.

Makana is also featured in the Academy Award winning movie, “The Descendants,” starring George Clooney.

When Makana isn’t traveling he does spend some time teaching others and keeping the slack key guitar style alive and well.

“I try to teach when I’m on the road sometimes via skype or calls,” he said. “But I really want to take slack key into new realms.”

As slack key guitar is typically a traditional style, Makana is taking it to new levels.

“After the tour I plan to start working on an EP under a new brand that is a combination of piano and slack key in an acoustic folk focus,” said Makana. “And after that I will be working on a concert documentary on slack key guitar.

“I have a vision of bringing slack key to the world.”

Currently, Makana has been on tour all over the Pacific Northwest but he will be ending the tour in Grass Valley at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Center for the Arts.

“Grass Valley and Nevada City are my favorite which is why I am ending the tour there,” said Makana. “I love mining towns, I love the vibe there. It’s my favorite place to visit. Just good vibes for me all around.”

Contact Prospector Editor Sean Jordan at 530-477-4219 or

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