• C6 (‘Mauna Loa’) tuning •



A C6 known in Hawaiian kī hō’alu (‘slack-key’) as C ‘Mauna Loa’ – named after the world’s largest active volcano, which has erupted continuously since rising from the Pacific seabed over 400,000 years ago. The tuning’s regular stack of three perfect 5ths (6>5str, 4>3str, 2>1str) bring a similarly balanced solidity. Popularised by the great Honolulu master Gabby Pahinui from the 1940s onwards, and since used by many others.


n.b. The term ‘Mauna Loa‘ in fact refers to a ‘tuning category’: referring to any layout in which the two highest-pitched strings are separated by a perfect 5th. Maybe the name arose in reference to the ‘high-up stability’ shared by the strings and the volcano. Also see the maj. 7th-based ‘Wahine‘ category.

Pattern: 7>5>7>2>7
Harmony: C6 | 1-5-1-5-6-3


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Used by various Hawaiian guitarists – notably slack-string legend Philip Kunia ‘Gabby’ Pahinui (e.g. Mauna Loa), who rose to stardom after a tough upbringing in Honolulu’s impoverished Kaka-ako district. As a child he was forced to leave school to shine shoes and sell newspapers on the street corner – but eventually rose to exalted status, touring globally and taking the music of his islands to countless new ears. In George Winston’s words: “Gabby revolutionized the [guitar], and was revered for soulful vocals…creative improvising, dynamic flair, and rhythmic mastery“.


(Plenty of other Hawaiian pieces are in ‘Old Mauna Loa C – e.g. Keola Beamer‘s E Ku’u Morning Dew. Old Mauna Loa, a.k.a. ‘Niihau’, also lowers 1str by a tone (C-G-C-G-A-D) – although, as above, the phrase is also used more generally to refer to a category of tunings: any that have an adjacent maj. 6th and maj. 2nd pair, with the 6th being the lower of the two notes – in this case, the A-D pair. ‘Normal’ Mauna Loa does not satisfy this condition.)


  • Mauna Loa – Gabby Pahinui (1978):

“[Pahinui] was the Man…I’d never heard anybody play guitar and sing like that…You meet folkloric people, and you meet great players, but this guy seemed to be able to do everything…” (Ry Cooder)

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6str 5str 4str 3str 2str 1str
Note C G C G A E
Alteration -4 -2 -2 0 -2 0
Tension (%) -37 -21 -21 0 -21 0
Freq. (Hz) 65 98 131 196 220 330
Pattern (>) 7 5 7 2 7
Semitones 0 7 12 19 21 28
Intervals 1 5 1 5 6 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!


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

  • Teardrop (this +2, but 1str left at E): booming nylon tuning
  • Atta’s C: another Hawaiian Cmaj layout, differently shuffled
  • Rakotomavo: a slack C11 from another innovative guitar island


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

  • Gabby Pahinui’s musical life: see a brief overview in my Altered-Tuned Artists article, and read a RootsWorld interview with Gabby’s son Cyril and fellow master Ledward Kaapana (“Cyril…recalls his younger days on Oahu: ‘The families used to get together, backyard jam and party! Invite family and friends and start creating music’. In this way, the youngsters could look on, and listen to the old hands, and learn almost by osmosis…”)
  • Mauna Loa & more flamin’ mountains: see Mauna Loa closer-up with soaring footage from National Geographic, and also check out a rundown of other local volcanoes – plus, since we’ve been examining the origins of Hawaiian tunings, why not check out Scientific American‘s explanation of how Hawaii itself came to be? (n.b. also see Fuji tuning)

Header image: Mauna Loa’s perpetual eruption

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!

“An intrepid guitar researcher…”

(Guitar World interview)

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