Hawaii Music: Instruments

Hawaii's musical instruments are an important part of the islands' musical culture

Hawaiian Harmonies

The diversity of Hawaiian music calls for the use of an eclectic blend of instruments, which create the melodies of the islands. The music of the islands adds the perfect exotic soundtrack to any vacationer's getaway to the islands of Aloha.

Traditionally, instruments like various kinds of drums and flutes were played during Hawaiian ceremonies, celebrations, and rituals to add rhythm and melody to religious chants and prayers. Ceremonies like the hula called for the playing of specific instruments that were very important to the performance. Here are some Hawaiian instruments that were, and some still are, in dance rituals:

  • kâ`eke `eke - made of bamboo pipes or tubes of varying lengths, this instrument is played by holding it vertically and tapping it on the ground or a mat kuolokani-- large ancient timbrel drum

  • nî `au kani – a harp made of thin wood nîau (coconut midrib)

  • `ohe hano ihu -- a nose-flute made of bamboo that was played to accompany chants, but more popularly for romantic serenades

  • pahu -- this large drum is the most important instrument in the performance of the hula. The base of most of these drums are made from either a hollowed out coconut or breadfruit tree, and the head of the drum out of shark skin.

  • pahu pa`i -- also a shark skin drum used during the performance of the hula

  • papa hehi -- a foot-board that is danced on

  • -- the shell of a large triton conch or helmet shell that is used as a ceremonial trumpet. Its loud sound has been known to reach over two miles and is produced in the manner in which it is blown, not by the breath itself. Ancient Hawaiians used the pû to announce the arrival of someone on the islands, and now it is used to mark the opening of pageants, ceremonies, and performances.

  • pûni -- a small knee drum made of coconut shell and fish skin

  • `ûkêkê -- a bow with two or three strings threaded through holes at one end

  • steel guitar-- the steel guitar is also known as the lapsteel, because it is held on the lap while played with a steel bar. Along with Hawaiian music, the steel guitar is also used in blues, "hillbilly," country and western music, rock and pop, and the music of Africa and India.

  • slack key guitar-- named for its slacked or loosened strings, which creates an open chord, the slack key guitar accompanies Hawaiian chants and rhythms


The instrument most associated with Hawaiian music would most likely be the ukulele, possibly the Aloha Islands' most popular instrument. The ukulele, which means "jumping flea," is a small, four-stringed version of guitar. It can be heard in Hawaii's most popular musical genres, including the music of its most well-known recording artists, the Beach Boys. So popular has the ukulele become throughout the islands that the unique-sounding instrument is often considered the voice of Hawaiian music.

History of the Ukulele

The arrival of the ukulele on the Hawaiian islands has been accredited to a Portuguese immigrant who came to the island of Honolulu in 1879. He brought with him the Madeiran Portuguese braguinha, a stringed instrument related to the cavaquinho. Quickly adopted into Hawaiian music, it was called the taro-patch fiddle, or in the native Hawaiian language pila li'ili'i, meaning "little fiddle." The braguinha was combined with another stringed instrument called the rajão, and that eventually evolved into the ukulele. There is some dispute about where the name of the ukulele originated, but most believe it was named after the ukeke, the only indigenous string instrument to Hawaii.

The ukulele became known to the rest of the world in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. It was a part of one the Hawaiian exhibit, which featured a guitar and ukulele ensemble called the Royal Hawaiian Quartet. The audience was taken by the sound of the ukulele, and the Hawaiian exhibit was considered to be the most popular at the exposition. Hawaiian music gained tremendous exposure, and was a great success on the mainland United States, which lasted until after World War II. In fact, Hawaiian music was so popular that it outsold any other genre of music on the mainland in 1916.

The Ukulele Now

Presently, the ukulele is used in various styles of modern music, including reggae, rock, and traditional Hawaiian music. Played both as a rhythmic and leading instrument, the ukulele has undergone some changes since its peak of popularity. Types of ukuleles include the standard four-stringed instrument, tenor and baritone ukulele, and there are even six-, seven-, eight- and nine-string instruments being made.

The sounds of Hawaiian music are infused by a number of different instruments, with the most popular being the ukulele. While vacationing on the Aloha Islands, you will more than likely hear some of its traditional tropical melodies, which will add some cultural flair to your island experience.

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