• Keola’s C (‘Wahine’) tuning •

C-G-D-G-B-E

• OVERVIEW •

An quick-to-reach Open C variant mixing two 5ths and 4ths with a major 3rd. Popular in Hawaii, where it is known as ‘Keola’s C’ after modern slack-key legend Keola Beamer (or C ‘Wahine’. The Honolulu maestro – who hails it as “one of the easiest and most user-friendly” tunings – uses it to explore fresh chords and mellifluous natural harmonics (ho’opapa), teaching its deep-toned power to students for decades.

 

Greek mathematician Dr. Costas Kyritsis notes how CGDGBE simultaneously spans the full open tunings of several Eurasian folk lutes – including the Greek bouzouki (GDG and DGBE), Celtic bass bouzouki (CGDG), and Turkish bağlama (CGD). And, almost exactly halfway around the world from Honolulu, it is used amongst the incredible guitarists of Madagascar – according to modern master Germain Rakotomavo (who created his own deep-set variant) “the way Europeans tune…it’s for playing chords. But this way, it sings!“.

 

n.b. In Hawaii, ‘Wahine‘ isn’t just one tuning, or even one ‘shape’ (like Vestapol). It’s a tuning family: including all that are designed around a maj. 7th interval from the slack root. Consequently, Wahine-tuned songs tend to feature frequent leading-tone resolutions, played as ‘0-1’ hammer-ons on the maj 7th-tuned string (here, 2str). Given these axioms, there are of course other ‘C Wahine’ layouts (e.g. CGDGBD, a.k.a. ‘Leonard’s C‘) – and also Wahines in other keys (e.g. Fmaj, as CFCGCE). In Beamer’s words, “Wahine tunings are…generally darker and more evocative than the major (‘Kāne‘) tunings. There is the very real element of tonal coloration.” The word itself means ‘woman’, or ‘female surfer’, derived from the Maori language via Tahiti…

Pattern: 7>7>5>4>5
Harmony: Cmaj9 | 1-5-2-5-7-3

TUNING TONES •

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• SOUNDS •

In Beamer’s words, “The low C goes on forever, undulating across the space of a room like a big blue wave. Listen to those low notes…a pretty cool violation of normal guitar principles! What is going on here? The sound of a normal guitar is a paradigm…a structure that we human beings ‘think through’, a filter of sorts…What if the structure of our thinking was different? The slack-key guitar is a different paradigm, a different way of thinking”. Hear his evocative ‘trio overdub’ setting of ‘Imi Au Ia ‘Oe below.

 


  • ‘Imi Au Ia ‘Oe – Keola Beamer (2012):

“In a small koa church, my Grandfather’s voice would carry this song up along the pews, reverberating against the windows. As a small boy I would stand next to him, holding my hymnal, not knowing about Good or Evil…Just listening to the sound of the old man’s voice, and watching the skylarks high above the open fields…” (Beamer describes the origins of the song)


 

Beamer’s fellow slack-keyers have also used it extensively: e.g. Gabby Pahinui and Ray Kane’s versions of Hi’ilawe (-1), and plenty of Ledward Kaapana’s output with his bass-playing brother Nedward. Kaapana is said to have showed Wahine tunings to Nashville fingerpicking pioneer Chet Atkins, who used it on several songs (Ave Maria, Flop-Eared Mule, Wildwood Flower, Waiting for Susie B, and Pu, Uana Hulu: the latter a dedication to Pahinui).

 

Atkins in turn inspired fingerpicking virtuoso Leo Kottke to try this one on his 12-string (Owls, -2) – and the layout’s easy reachability (just two twists from Standard) means it turns up independently across a range of other genres too. Notable users include Fleetwood Mac (Never Going Back Again, cp.6), Pavement (Zurich is Stained), John Butler (Spring to Come), Soundgarden (Mailman, Limo Wreck), Richard Thompson (1952 Vincent Black Lightning), and many more.

 


  • Pu, Uana Hulu (Remembering Gabby) – Chet Atkins (1996):

“Asthmatic as a child, Atkins [learned] banjo on days when he had to stay home from school: ‘I’d play it until the strings broke, [then] just rip a wire out of the screen porch and tune ‘er up again. It took me 20 years to learn I couldn’t tune too well, and by that time I was too rich to care.’…He traded either a pistol or a farm wagon for his first guitar.” (Chet Atkins)


• NUMBERS •

6str 5str 4str 3str 2str 1str
Note C G D G B E
Alteration -4 -2 0 0 0 0
Tension (%) -37 -21 0 0 0 0
Freq. (Hz) 65 98 147 196 220 330
Pattern (>) 7 7 5 4 5
Semitones 0 7 14 19 23 28
Intervals 1 5 2 5 7 3
  • See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!

• RELATED •

—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…

  • Kabosy (this with 1str -2): from a far-flung guitaristic island
  • Cello (‘Haircut’) (this with 3str +2): adding to the run of fifths
  • Atta’s C: a concise Hawaiian layout with versatile application

• MORE INFO •

—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…

  • Global CGDGBE: learn more about Keola’s C from its inventor on his own slack-key tuning pages, and also see Jeff Peterson’s Wahine pageKoke’e song lesson, and Richard Thompson’s demo – plus a Chetboard discussion, Roger Hess & Scott Jones’ analysis of Leo Kottke’s use, and more musings from guitar theorist Dr. Costas Kyritsis (I hail the insights and astonishingly broad ambitions of his online music writings!)
  • Pacific etymologies: see the Merriam-Webster entry for ‘wahine‘, covering the term’s import to Hawaii from the Maori language family, likely via Tahiti (“enormous waves, which are perfect for surfing, are an attraction of the Polynesian islands…as more and more girls and women grabbed their boards, ‘wahine’ took on the new meaning of ‘female surfer’…”)

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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!

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