Sam Wise caught up with LA-based Hawaiian slack key guitarist and ukulele player Daniel Ho as he laid plans for his visit to the London Acoustic Show in association with Yamaha Music London.
LA-based Hawaiian slack key guitarist and ukulele player Daniel Ho might be the nicest man in the world – but he’s also a little crazy (in a good way, you see). Nothing else can explain the extraordinary mental feats involved in learning to perform polyrhythmic pieces on the four strings of a ukulele. Acoustic caught up with him as he laid plans for his visit to the London Acoustic Show in association with Yamaha Music London.
You play ukulele, slack key guitar, and piano, but which one would you keep in a zombie apocalypse?
Definitely not the piano because tuners might be hard to find, and it would be too heavy to carry. If living involved a lot of travelling, and I had to walk a lot, I would choose the ukulele, but if I could stay still and farm and fish, I would choose the guitar. Compositionally, piano is my main instrument, but actually I take the ukulele everywhere I go, and the techniques translate to guitar, and you know, in a zombie apocalypse, you have to be practical, right?
How does the rich and instantly recognisable musical history of a place like Hawaii affect a musician growing up there?
I write songs about the ocean and paradise, and my feelings are closely associated to the tropical breeze, the rain, the surfing; so it definitely has a place in my sound. When I play acoustic guitar, it’s 99 per cent of the time in a slack key tuning, so there’s uniqueness to it, but I don’t necessarily play in a traditional Hawaiian style. I think it’s just my fusion of what I like; I love classical music, I love Bach, and I love acoustic sounds, so I don’t do anything on the electronic side; I think my music is just a mishmash of things that are dear to me.
You’ve been playing for many years, and made many acclaimed albums winning numerous Grammys, but your website is only offering your most recent one. Do you think that the age when recorded music was king is dead?
It’s changing; I don’t think it’s passed, though if it’s related to revenue, then maybe. There’s always a need for change in the music, the way we deliver it, and everything else. My website is actually in redevelopment, so we do have my entire back catalogue available, it just hasn’t been added to the redeveloped site yet. Major labels are doing this thing called 360, so if they sign an artist, they have their hand in absolutely everything from T-shirt sales, live performance – everything. We just do our own thing, I have my own label and money is not high on my list at all. I just want to leave a good legacy, and make music available to people who love it.
Talk us through the new album; what are some of the key themes?
Well, there’s an arrangement of ‘Silent Night’ on Hawaiian instruments, where I play all the instruments; I have a couple of people guesting on one track, but the thing I’m proudest of is the first track, ‘Na Pana Elua’. In the last few years, I have been heavily involved in world music and this piece is based on an Indian polyrhythm that a tabla player taught me; 10.5 quarter notes is one of the rhythms, and seven eighth notes is the other. I wrote the melody in one, the seven dotted quarters, and I played both at the same time on the ukulele. Then I used an ipu heke, which is a traditional Hawaiian percussion instrument made from a gourd, which I used for the kick and snare-type rock rhythms, and the harmonies are pretty jazz styled; lots of extended chords and dissonances. I also used an udu, which is an African instrument, and played a partido alto rhythm on the agogo bells, which is normally in 4/4, and put it in 10.5.
I also used an acoustic bass from Ohana, so the core of the piece is on that and ukulele, but we have shakers and triangles and all sorts of other percussion giving Latin elements to the song. It’s really a world music piece in that it fuses all these things together. It took me many months to work out how to play that rhythm and all those parts together. It’s probably the most special piece to me, and it represents this direction that I’m taking of learning about other cultures and putting them together with my own. It’s kind of addictive because we get so used to playing in 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, and rhythm just doesn’t get examined as much as it could be, but in African and Indian music you have this rhythmic complexity. The best way to learn it is to try to compose in it, walk around tapping it out; I found you can even march in seven dotted quarter time! I don’t mind if a drummer is playing it, but I cannot stand an electronic sample playing four beats exactly the same every time; it’s far too redundant for me to hear that same hi-hat sample every time. If a drummer were doing it, then at least the hi-hat doesn’t open exactly the same way every time.
How does it feel for someone who grew up in the heart of ukulele country to see it spreading all over the world like it is now?
I think it’s wonderful. I love to see ‘Dancing Queen’ being played by a uke group in Australia; to me, it’s an instrument, and I love to see even the designs evolve into real high end ukuleles being built by classical guitar luthiers, with Spanish heels and fancy adornments, or waterproof ukuleles being made available at the low end. One of my songs, ‘Pineapple Mango’, which is a three-chord song, I put together a video of players from all over the world playing it; it’s called ‘Pineapple Mango Around The World’. I did it to show all the different clubs, and share them and their work with everyone else.
What do British uke players need to know?
Nothing! I think there’s a lot of incredible British ukulele players like George Formby, and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. It would be an exchange more than anything, and there’s a lot we can learn from them as well.
Slack key guitar is not much known on these shores – can you tell us a bit about it?
It’s a traditional Hawaiian style of playing; generally open tunings, like a G chord, which we call Taro Patch. It isn’t really a tuning alone, but it’s typical Hawaiian phrases in that tuning. I use a tuning called G Kilauea. Essentially, it’s the bottom three strings tuned down a whole step, changing the tonal centre to G, and approaching the guitar like an orchestra. I think of it as a bass section, a harmony section, and melody. You end up with DGCGBE, and making those Gs there means that the I, IV and V chords are all there as open strings, which is sort of a goal of slack key guitar, to make it smooth and sweet. That’s pretty much the tuning I’ve been using for 19 years. I didn’t know that I could find something that could function that well, but a lot of it came from that compositional background, and taking that compositional approach for functional reasons. If you take standard tuning, you have the I, IV and V chords available in the key of A, but then the G string is there and you always have to finger it. Then you also have this E, which would fit nicely, but you’re always using it to play melody. So, this tuning is better in those ways; I even wrote a book about it, and in the 19 years since I haven’t found anything better. Also, of course, having your own tuning means that people can’t easily find the voicings you’re playing. I do also play standard tuning if I’m strumming, because G Kilauea is better for picking.
Talk us through the instruments you use…
My ukulele is a Ko’aloha, made in Hawaii. I’ve been endorsing them for 20 years. It’s a custom spruce top, Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and it’s a fine instrument for live music. I am most interested in tonewoods, and my background is in classical guitar, so I like cedar tops. I also like spruce tops, but to me, cedar is a little warmer, and also it’s softer, so maybe the luthiers can’t go as thin. The spruce cuts through really nicely, but it doesn’t have the visual appeal of koa. You really need rosewood for the back and sides, not ply or anything like that; low end ukuleles always use ply, and instruments coming from China will always have been built heavier to cope with humidity and with the shipping – and so they don’t fall apart. Pepe Romero Jr is another guy who makes really nice classical style French polished ukuleles – really thin, light woods. Jack Johnson uses his guitars and ukes – as did Paco de Lucia. For guitar, I am playing the new silent guitar by Yamaha. There have been several generations now, and this is the prototype of the third generation; it uses acoustic modelling to create the acoustic tone around the bodiless instrument. For me, it’s better than any acoustic instrument I’ve played because it gives me that acoustic sound, but with zero feedback. The previous generations didn’t really get the acoustic sound right, but since they designed this acoustic modelling, it does put all of that harmonic complexity in around the piezo tone. I just played it at a big folk festival in Australia, and I was complimented by the sound people for both the ease of getting it sounding good, but also the tone. My preamp is a Bose T1, which I absolutely love, parametric EQ and all that, and great mic modelling, so I can get really close to the sound I get in the studio live, and carry it around in a little box.
What are your future plans, recording and performing wise?
My next record is a ukulele classical guitar duet recording with Pepe Romero Sr. We’ve done a couple of songs, and I’m putting together all the music and arrangements for that. I recently won producer of the year at the Golden Melody Awards in Asia, and I do a lot of world music stuff out there. I’m kind of sticking with the world music and classical things, and trying to learn and grow and develop as a musician as much as I can. I’ll also be coming to the London Acoustic Show in September to do a slack key guitar workshop as well as a ukulele workshop.
Daniel appears at the London Acoustic Show on September 12 and 13 2015 in association with Yamaha Music London. Daniel will appear at Yamaha Music London Presents… Saturday Night Unplugged following the first day of the London Acoustic Show. More info here.