story by Becky Maltby
photos by Brad Goda
When Jeff Peterson was a guitar major at the University of Southern California in the early ’90s, he held a work-study job in the music practice room. Across the street stood the Persian domes and white arches of the Shrine Auditorium, home to the Academy Awards and huge concerts. As Peterson gazed out of the practice room’s large window one day, he saw his musical heroes gathering at the Shrine to celebrate. It was the day of the Grammy Awards—utterly alluring to a young music student. … and utterly inaccessible.
Fast forward a decade to 2005. For the first time since the Grammy’s inception in 1959, the awards include a Hawaiian music category. A handful of excited musicians from Hawai‘i have donned tuxedoes and lei and are soaking up the award-show media blitz. Peterson slides into a limo with his wife Kahealani, producer Charles Brotman and a few of the other guitarists who appear on Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2, the compilation CD that has brought them all to the world’s biggest night in music. Peterson, now back in his college town, has earned his entrée onto the red carpet.
This time, the show is not at the Shrine but at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The slack key group, thrilled to be nominated, feels a win is a long shot. Their competition reads like a who’s who of Hawaiian music: The Brothers Cazimero, Willie K, Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom, Keali‘i Reichel, Ho‘okena. But slack key’s appeal has caught on and the night brings a victory. “As soon as they said the word ‘slack,’ we just jumped out of our seats,” Peterson remembers. “We were so blown away. It was one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had.” Peterson, along with his fellow musicians, floats to the podium to accept the gramophone statuette before being whisked backstage into a waiting throng of reporters.
Watch Peterson play and you’ll see a tall, lean figure bent over the guitar, meticulously picking the strings, expression intense. His is the quintessential image of a musician, lost in concentration yet relaxed, creating a symphony from one instrument. At thirty-four, he is a master of slack key, jazz and classical guitar. He has released three acclaimed solo CDs, played with Eric Clapton, performed for Bill Clinton.
But success hasn’t changed Peterson’s humble nature. It all started, he’ll tell you, in the rural pastures of upcountry Maui. Eagerly, Peterson describes growing up in Makawao town as the son of a true paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. “There was a wonderful cabin on the Haleakala Ranch called the Peanut House where I was first exposed to live music,” he recalls. “There was no electricity in the cabin, and my father and his friends would sit around the fire and play for fun. It really inspired me, so I would pick up a guitar and try to play. I was five or six, and the guitar was about as tall as I was. I learned to play by listening to recordings, playing the same small segments of a song over and over again until I finally got through the whole thing. I would spend hours doing this. It drove my brother crazy.”
The guitar is as much a part of Hawai‘i’s paniolo culture as the saddle—Spanish cowboys, arriving in the Islands in the 1830s to teach cattle-herding techniques, introduced the instrument to the Hawaiians, who then experimented with the tuning and created slack key. What exactly is slack key? Even Peterson admits it’s complicated as he patiently and enthusiastically explains the finger-style technique. “Slack key literally means to loosen the tuning keys. There are many different tunings that have evolved,” he says. “Sometimes you actually tighten the keys.” An essential aspect is the phrasing. “It imitates the same style as [Hawaiian] falsetto singing. There’s what’s called ‘alternate bass,’ a really important part, where your thumb plays back and forth on different bass notes. That’s like the heartbeat of the music…. It’s almost like a band playing on one instrument.
“I feel very blessed to be able to share a connection with my Hawaiian heritage through music,” Peterson says. His talent for slack key matches his love for it—while picking up a guitar may be no big deal for the son of a Maui ranch hand, earning acclaim in a revered indigenous art form is a different matter. Brotman, who recently produced Slack Key Guitar: The Artistry of Jeff Peterson, considers Peterson one of the genre’s most innovative artists. “I’ve heard Gabby [Pahinui] and I’ve heard Sonny Chillingsworth,” Brotman told the assembled guests at Peterson’s CD release party in October. “They’re great, but Jeff does stuff that none of those guys ever did.”
Peterson arrived at USC with a musical disposition shaped by old Hawaiian cowboy songs and high school rock bands. In college, he became fascinated with jazz and classical guitar, studying and honing his skills while at USC and later at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. He credits the trio of musical styles he loves—slack key, jazz, classical—for opening doors to a world of collaboration and experimentation. “I have always had an open mind with music and appreciate many different styles,” he says. “Hawaiian music often has a swing feel and is full of improvisation, like jazz. Classical guitar technique involves plucking the strings in a similar way to slack key. The same sort of logic of developing phrases can transcend any genre, and the emotional impact and aesthetic of music can be very similar regardless of style. In a way, all music is connected.”
Through his bread-and-butter gig—playing in the lounge of Michel’s in Waikiki’s Colony Surf Hotel—and his now stellar reputation, Peterson has caught the ear of such VIPs as Lost producer/director Jack Bender and fellow musician/former president Bill Clinton. For Clinton, Peterson played a small dinner party on Kaua‘i. “It was only about six people,” he says, “Chelsea, Hillary and Bill and their friends. Clinton has so much charisma. I was playing slack key, and he was really interested in it. He told me how he was a huge jazz fan, so I started playing jazz music. Then they invited me to dinner, and afterwards they set a big bonfire on the beach, and I was jamming for them. The next morning, they invited me to come back. They decided they wanted me to play on a yacht, so I had another day to hang out with them. A few days later, Clinton sent me a letter and a signed book…. He seemed so genuine and interested in people’s stories.”
And then there was Peterson’s day with Eric Clapton. “When I was going to college at USC, I received a call to audition for a commercial,” he remembers with a smile. “I was chosen, and I was very nervous because I had no idea what they were expecting, [but] the filming was easy. When I thought it was all finished, they asked me to do one more scene and mentioned that someone was going to walk up to me. As I sat there wondering what was going on, Eric Clapton walked up and asked if he could join me. I acted like a total ham and was practically jumping for joy. They got exactly what they wanted for the commercial. And then I had the chance to hang out with Clapton for the rest of the day. We talked about music and played together. I haven’t tried acting since. I figured that I couldn’t top that experience.” HH