Sonny Chillingworth

Slack-key is hardly a dying art … Anyone who’d say so just doesn’t know where to go to hear this kind of music … even with Sonny playing regularly at Honey’s in Waikiki, as he did before at Honey’s down the country in Kaneohe… 

  • Jean Sullivan, Liner Notes, Waimea Cowboy 

Those of you who know my story know already that I did not come into this world loving Hawaiian music. Despite growing up on the East Coast, I was born into a family that loved Hawaiian music. My father was a steel guitarist, and so our home was always filled with the sounds of the LPs that featured the stars of the Hawaii Calls radio broadcasts despite that this music was losing popularity share in Hawai`i and the reality that there were few remaining steel guitar legends. In the 1970s Hawaiian music was evolving to no longer rely upon its once signature sound. But my father was stuck in the Hawaiian music of another era. And I was not a fan. 

Fortunately, we had many friends on our coast who happened to be Hawai`i expats, and when they would return from their annual visits home, they would bring me suitcases filled with the latest releases (often on 8-track tapes, which is pretty indicative of the era). These records captivated my imagination, and so even while my friends were trying to turn me on to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Peter Frampton, the new guitar sound from Hawai`i was more my speed. I did not know at the time that the “new sound” was actually a very old sound given new life in the hands of some young masters. Slack key guitar dated back – anecdotally, for there are no written records of such things – to the early 19th century when Mexican cowboys were invited to Hawai`i to teach the locals how to corral their then newly acquired herds of cattle. According to lore, the Mexicans and Hawaiians would sit around a campfire at night sharing songs, but this was the first appearance of the guitar in Hawai`i, and so the Hawaiians had no idea how to play. When they left, the Mexicans left behind their guitars as tokens of their newfound friendship with the Hawaiians. But they failed to tell their Hawaiian friends how to tune the guitars. And this is akin to taking all of the keys off a typewriter and asking a blind man to put them back on in the correct order. 

But ultimately the joke would not be on the Hawaiians but on the world – for the curious and inventive Hawaiians came up with their own methods for tuning the guitars, each guitarist arriving at a tuning that suited their vocal range, remembering where to put their fingers even if nobody else could figure out their special tuning. In fact each player’s tunings became a sort of collateral, a proprietary intellectual property – some guitarists keeping their tunings strictly within the family, instructing their children and grandchildren to guard the tunings with their life. The rest of the world would eventually catch up and realize the new melodic and harmonic possibilities afforded the guitarists by rearranging the order of the strings and their pitches to their liking. And soon such revered guitarists as Chet Atkins, Carlos Santana, Ry Cooder, and Eric Clapton were making the journey to the mecca of this playing style and seeking out the masters for further instruction. And one of these masters was a then still very young Sonny Chillingworth. 

When I first heard Sonny’s records, it was clear that he was experimenting with fusing traditional Hawaiian music with such non-traditional influences as rock, jazz, classical, Latin, and country. Sonny could do it all! But what really interested and captivated me was that it was the first time I had heard slack key guitar played on an electric guitar for up to that point it had largely been an acoustic guitar tradition. At the time, Sonny was one of only two young lions performing slack key guitar on an electric guitar – and, to be precise, a Gretsch Chet Atkins model guitar. (So it is fitting – if not a little ironic – that Chet Atkins should pay a visit and seek out the slack key masters.) 

What many may not remember is that before the multiple club engagements and the release of what ultimately turned out to be eight full-length albums before his passing in 1994, Sonny was the one who helped Don start it all at his parents’ joint in Kane`ohe. For a while before they managed to recruit the rest of the gang that would become the Honey’s house band, the evening entertainment there featured simply a duo – Don on organ and Sonny on guitar. But with Sonny’s slack key guitar style, he was as good as any three other musicians – providing rhythm guitar, occasional lead guitar, and a running bass line. As you have already read here, Flip McDiarmid captured some of this magic when he visited Honey’s Waikiki one evening with a portable tape recorder. Regardless of the genesis of these recordings or the motivations behind them, ultimately we should be thankful that we have this permanent record of an important era in the history of the entertainment scene in Hawai`i and the evolution of the slack key guitar. Listen to Sonny relaxedly breeze through a song that has since become a slack key standard thanks to him – “Hula Blues” – and then show his speed and agility on his own (now oft-copied) “Whee Ha Swing.” 

As a slack key guitarist myself, I still thrill to hear the early recordings of one of my heroes. But these were not Sonny’s first appearances on record. 

Next time: Sonny’s 1955 debut on record and a worthy 1958 follow-up… And more from the Honey’s Waikiki gang…


Trivia: Who was the other slack key guitarist of the 1970s who preferred an electric guitar? (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you’re a fan of Hawaiian music. Hard if you’re only a casual listener to Hawaiian music.) 


Direct download: 05_Waikiki_Swings.mp3
Category:After Dark -- posted at: 6:05pm EDT