Atta Isaacs and the Holy Grail of Slack Key

atta isaacs

I am amazed at times that with the vast quantities of information available on the internet how sometimes it can be impossible to even locate some basic facts or stories relating to an individual. But thankfully with one important set of liner notes posted on-line I recently was able to learn more about the elusive slack key master and legend Leland “Atta” Isaacs.

In playing different slack key tunings, one tuning that I have always enjoyed is Gabby’s C Mauna Loa tuning. Recently while doing some reading up about it on the interwebs, I reminded of another C tuning that is often referred to as “Atta’s C”. I realized that in the world of slack key this tuning is often glossed over as just being some creation by Atta Isaacs, one of Gabby’s friends and members of his “Hawaiian Band”. But as I began to explore and dissect this tuning more the subtle complexity and genius of this very versatile tuning was revealed to me.

While slack key tunings by nature tend to be very freeing by way that they open up the strings and allow for melodic embellishments in the treble register, they can be limiting at times in their ability to express some complex chord voicings in the bass regions. But in analyzing this tuning I could see that Atta’s C tuning was able to accomplish both! Not only that, I also discovered another important facet of this tuning. With most open tunings you are limited to playing in the given key of that tuning. For example in open G you are essentially limited to playing songs in the key of G, unless you retune. But as I learned the different chord fingerings for Atta Isaacs’ C tuning I began to discover that it was quickly adaptable to playing in G, F or D, or even A with relative ease. This way you could stay in the same tuning and play in various keys as long as you could figure out the various chordings in the tuning. No need to constantly retune!

So it was in making these discoveries and searching on-line that I came across these very important liner notes from a compilation album released on Cord International Records. Without these liner notes, there was very little if any information to be found about Atta Isaacs. These notes can be found here and I recommend you read them, especially the first 12 or so pages. Here you will find quotes and stories from his immediate family and personal friends that shed some light on this very humble, quiet and happy man. Here you are able to read about his friendship with Gabby, his approach to music and most importantly about his development of this very important slack key tuning,

For me the most fascinating and telling quote comes from his son-in-law: “His contribution of creating that tuning and also the required chord patterns or fingering which allows the artist to play in any key without the need to retune, is the holy grail of Slack Key. As elusive as it is for the rest of us, Atta’s tuning is the age old quest that Slack Key artists have always dreamt of finding.”

There is even a story about how he exactly came up with this tuning: “He instinctively began to search for that perfect tuning. Every waking hour, as soon as he came home from work, was spent tuning and re-tuning, playing various chords to no avail. Time went on and turned into years. But he was persistent and determined to find it. In his search he talked to a close, elderly, family friend who was knowledgeable about music and chords. It was from this meeting that the ‘seed’ was planted that eventually brought forth the creation of that perfect C tuning that would eliminate constant re-tuning and or the need for taking additional pre-tuned guitars onto the stage. This was our mother’s account: “One night Pops was tuning and playing his guitar like every other night. He slacked one of the strings, began playing and shouted, Nola, I got it! I got it! This is the one!” It was just before I was born in 1953 when he ‘found it’. Tweaking the chords and perfecting his craft developed throughout the years that followed.”

Truly amazing stuff. Over these past few days I have come to realize and appreciate the genius that was Atta Isaacs and his C major tuning. I think it is something that should be studied and preserved along with the other great inventions of Hawaiian music like the steel guitar and the ukulele. To experience this pick up the compilation album “The Legendary Atta Isaacs” and hear for yourself.

Get a little taste and take a listen to one of his most famous tunes “How’d You Do” an instrumental classic written by Andy Iona for the steel guitar. Here you can hear his use of jazz chord voicings, his laid back style and emphasis on the easy going swinging groove of slack key playing. And so I leave you with his music and another telling quote from his son-in-law that further explains how important Atta is:

“Whether it was a gift from the creator or just raw talent, I would like to somehow have Atta recognized for his marvelous contribution to Slack Key music. His contribution of creating that tuning and also the required chord patterns or fingering which allows the artist to play in any key without the need to retune, is the holy grail of Slack Key. As elusive as it is for the rest of us, Atta’s tuning is the age old quest that Slack Key artists have always dreamt of finding. But now that he has taken it with him, artists again must resume that quest. Atta’s historical achievement has come not even once in a lifetime, but only once in history.”

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