A True Passion For Slack-Key Guitar

Slack-key guitarist Pancho Graham. Coco Zickos photo

Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Pancho Graham has a passion for perpetuating music – and he owes it to a broken leg he suffered while surfing 10 years ago. The North Shore resident was bedridden for two months. As a carpenter, he couldn’t work, and as a musician he couldn’t play any gigs. There wasn’t much else he could do other than pick up a guitar and start practicing.

“It was a misfortune that I broke my leg, but the good fortune was that I got off into a good direction,” he says.

Prior to the accident, Graham was known for primarily playing bass.

“A lot of people are still kind of shocked to see me playing guitar these days,” he says.

Now a full-time slack-key guitarist, Graham performs his soothing melodies for audiences across the state. Most recently, Graham, who wrote the song Pine Tree Slack Key that was featured on The Descendants‘ soundtrack, returned from Honolulu, where he played in concert with other artists from the album.

The song originated from his solo album of the same name recorded and released in 2010, which was nominated for a Na Hoku Hanohano award in 2011.

“Slack key is beautiful and it’s really not that hard,” says Graham, who mostly plays for diners at North Shore restaurants such as Kilauea Lighthouse Bistro.

“When you hear it, it’s absolutely beautiful,” agrees his wife Gubby. “It’s like classical music with a Hawaiian feel.”

Music has been instrumental in his life since Graham was a child. He picked up his first instrument, an ‘ukulele, around the age of 10 and played in parks on O’ahu.

When he was a mere 13 years old, Graham won a talent contest and recalls being excited about the first time he was actually paid to play.

“At that age, you already had people who you love to listen to and you’re all excited about music. To be able to do a little of it yourself kind of gets you hooked,” he says, noting that he won around $25.

Graham’s first introduction to Hawaiian music, however, came from his mother, who moved to O’ahu in the 1930s.

“She loved Hawaiian music,” he says.

“His mother also fostered his talent and bought his first guitar,” says Gubby, a professional equestrian.

Another influence early in his life was his older brother, Kaua’i attorney and judge Max Graham.

“You wanted to do everything your older brother was doing, which is really great because your older brother will give you a jump-start on things,” he says regarding Max, who also is a musician. “His claim to fame is that he mentored me.”

As far as professional influences are concerned, slack-key pioneer Gabby Pahinui is on the top of Graham’s list.

Pat Cockett and Carlos Andrade, with whom Graham formed a group called Na Pali prior to his solo venture, also are among his musical “heroes.”

“They’re both great slack-key players; real original – straight out of the roots,” says Graham, who played bass with the group.

Though he mostly performs on his own now, one of his most memorable experiences was in Berlin with musician Taj Mahal, whose eclectic music blends Hawaiian and the blues.

“Here we were, at this hot club downtown in a cellar full of smoking Europeans,” recounts Graham. “To do a performance for people like that and to have them go crazy and really love it, that was a really big hit.”

Still, the best thing about trips like that for Graham was always coming back to Kaua’i, which he has called home now for many years. The first time he visited the island was in 1965, when he played for the Kailua High School band, which held a concert at Kaua’i High School.

“Back then Kaua’i was so country, it was pretty exciting for us from O’ahu,” he recalls.

Surfing, feeding chickens at his home in Moloa’a and playing slack key has become the ideal life for Graham now.

“It’s something that really works for me,” he says.

“He’s been a musician all the years we’ve been married. It just comes from him. He found his fountain,” says Gubby. “Pancho is a true lover of slack key, and in his own gracious way has introduced it to many visitors and local folks at his various gigs on Kaua’i as well as weddings.”

The most important thing, Graham reminds himself as he’s playing, is to not get too wrapped up in his thoughts.

“It’s good to think as little as possible and play as well as you can,” he says.

Otherwise, self-doubts can be internalized.

“You get a lot of great feedback from people that keeps you playing. When someone comes and makes a nice comment, you really appreciate what you do. It reaches out to people,” he says.

For more information, visit panchograham.com.