Guitar Stories - Slack Key & Beyond
(Westernmost Records)


The sound of Hawaiian slack key guitar is about as close to fretboard heaven as you can get here on Earth. One guitarist who successfully brings the time-honored Slack Key guitar sound into the 21st century is California-based guitarist Jim “Kimo” West. In 2015, Jim released his latest masterpiece CD Guitar Stories – Slack Key & Beyond on his Westernmost Records label. The album features track by track liner notes by Jim, discussing the origins and influences of certain tracks and the various guitar tunings used on each song. The sound of Guitar Stories is very Hawaiian influenced yet there’s also a harmonious chamber music / symphonic sound featured throughout the album, especially on the lush sounding “’Iolani Palace Waltz”a track that echoes ancient Celtic music and old English folk music—a kind of instrumental madrigal, with the guitar featured as the main instrument. In addition to his acoustic guitars, the CD also features Jim’s baritone guitar, moog guitar and percussion. A number of players assist, including string players: Simone Vitucci, Ben Powell, Erik Rynnearson and Craig Eastman (strings), along with Marty Rifkin (steel guitar) and a host of other players. Some of the tracks are reminiscent of the famous Hawaiian guitarist Kapono Beamer, but there’s plenty of original ideas in play to help separate Jim from the wide range of Hawaiian music guitar practitioners out there. Simply put, Jim “Kimo” West’s Guitar Stores is one of the most beautiful sounding acoustic guitar albums of the year. Guitar fans looking to explore the wonders of Hawaiian style instrumental music need to listen to Guitar Stories. www.JimKimoWest.com

mwe3.com presents an interview with

: Can you tell the readers where you’re from originally and where you live now and what you like best about it? What are some of your favorite cities in the U.S. and also other countries to visit or perform in?

Jim Kimo West: I was born in Toronto, Canada and my family moved to Florida when I was about nine. I started out playing guitar professionally there when I was about 16, and in my late twenties I moved to Los Angeles to further my career. The great climate and wealth of musical possibilities that LA provided made it the perfect place for me to live. I have played music in all fifty states and most of Canada and much of Europe. I have a long relationship with Hawaii so I’d have to say that’s my favorite place in the world to spend time and perform, especially Maui and Kaua’i. I do also enjoy going to new places. I was recently in Scandinavia and I have to say, I do love that part of the world!

mwe3: When did you first pick up the guitar and can you remember your first guitar? After playing and studying for a while what led you to the sound of Hawaiian guitars and early on, who were some of your choice guitar influences in Hawaiian music and how about favorite current Hawaiian guitarists that you listen to?

Jim Kimo West: I was about twelve years old when I first took my older brother’s neglected guitar out of the closet. It was a no-name archtop with only three strings. My brother came from the “folkie” era and when he saw my interest, he bought me new strings, a capo and an instruction book. I immediately went to town and learned a few chords and even “wrote” my first tune the next day. I still remember it! I listed to his folk records and learned finger picking, which has been an important element in my playing style today. My parents then bought me a 12 string, which I loved and eventually a solid body electric. My first real electric setup was a Fender Tele and a Bassman amp-not too shabby!

As I got more into heavier rock, I traded those in for a Les Paul and Marshall amp when I was about sixteen. After to moving to LA in the early 80’s I was invited to join a friend on a trip to Hana, Maui - a very small rural town and one of the most Hawaiian areas in the state. I fell in love with the place and heard “slack key” guitar for the first time on LPs and cassettes there where we stayed. It was an enchanting sound that seemed to be deeply connected to the physical environment and since I had some experience with open tunings, it was a style I could understand from the technical standpoint.

The first slack key record I heard was one by Gabby Pahinui, the most legendary of all slack key artists. He brought slack key from the back porch to the public stage with his recording of “Hi’ilawe” in 1946. His records were “chicken skin” as they say (goosebumps ), and his voice seemed to be channeling ancient Hawaiian chants. I also fell in love with records by legends such as Sonny Chillingworth, Atta Isaacs, Raymond Kane and Leonard Kwan. Once I started playing slack key I discovered the newer (at that time) generation of players: Keola Beamer, Ozzie Kotani, Ledward Kaapana etc. through the great Dancing Cat record series that George Winston put out. The great thing about these records was the inclusion of very thorough documentation, which helped me discover many great tunings.

mwe3: How many different guitars are you playing on Guitar Stories. What are are some of your current favorite guitars including the electric guitar and how did you become involved with the moog guitar and the acoustic Baritone guitars?

Jim Kimo West: I use a number of acoustic guitars on this record. My main axe for fingerstyle is a Taylor 514 CE which is a mahogany / cedar construction and then I also used anther Taylor 814 LTD which is Brazilian rosewood and spruce, most for strumming. I also used a 1970 Martin D-18, which is a guitar that needs no EQ at all-it just sounds perfect as is! Then I made much use of a Tacoma Thunderchief baritone acoustic, which is amazing. That guitar is not made any more unfortunately - it sounds great and plays very well. When you put that guitar in an open tuning the lowest string can be an A, which really moves some air!

I discovered the Moog guitar a number of years ago and it has been used on a lot of recordings in places where I want a “pad” type of sound. Rather than use a synthesizer, it gives me a more organic way of achieving that with guitar. It essentially is an electromagnetic guitar that can sustain notes and chords indefinitely by applying a variable amount of magnetism to the strings while you play. It is otherworldly and very inspiring!

There isn’t much electric guitar on the record but my electrics of choice are two Tom Anderson guitars, one a Strat- style and one a Tele- style. I also like my old Silvertone solid body with DeArmond pickups. I have a number of amps I use but tend towards using my Fractal Axe FX II for electric sounds. I also use this unit on tour with Weird Al.

mwe3: What is your background in other genres of music? In addition to Hawaiian music, what other styles and genres of guitar music influenced you early on including rock, jazz and classical guitar music? Who are some of your favorite rock, classical and jazz guitarists?

Jim Kimo West: I started playing in rock bands when I was sixteen so that is a huge part of my musical background. I still love to rock and I get to do that a lot in my regular gig as guitarist for “Weird Al” Yankovic. I am totally self-taught. I have a perfect record-no lessons or music classes at all! I bought books, taught myself to read, learned music from my more schooled band mates and listened to a lot of records! In the early ‘90s I had a unique chance to study orchestration due to a job I got for 20th Century Fox. China had bought a number of classic Fox films to distribute there but they needed to be dubbed into Chinese. Since most of the original elements were lost, whenever there was dialog the music and sound effects had to be replaced. Using a cheap sampler I hand-played all the parts of the original score to create a seamless transition from the original. There were thirteen films with scores by many famous composers like Bernard Hermann and Alfred Neuman so I essentially learned orchestration from them by taking apart their scores!

I started getting into jazz just before my introduction to Hawaiian music. I didn't really learn a lot of standards and all but I was really hungry to learn the harmonic concepts of jazz, which I love to employ from time to time. That being said, I’ve never had a legit jazz gig but who knows, maybe one day… I did learn a few classical pieces when I was teaching myself to read but I realized early on that this course of study was pretty intense and there were far fewer girls interested in classical guitarists! I have so many favorite guitarists but if were to name just a few I’d say Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Breau, Paco DeLucia and Michael Hedges were all great innovators in their respective idioms.

mwe3: Is Guitar Stories a different type of album for you in that, in addition to the Hawaiian guitar sounds you also mix in Spanish music and even West African music? After hearing Guitar Stories, it sounds like you take to other genres of guitar music very naturally and effectively.

Jim Kimo West: Well thank you! I really was ready to present another side of myself with this record. I do love Hawaiian slack key guitar but I have explored that genre for quite a while and I had so many other ideas to expand on. I had so much fun doing that, and I’m ready to do more musical exploration soon!

mwe3: How do you write music in general? Because you use so many different guitar tunings on Guitar Stories, do you choose the tunings first or does the song or composition determine the tuning? Is melody the most important element in your music or do you go after a certain sound dynamic or arrangement? I say that because track six on Guitar Stories – “’Iolani Palace Waltz” has such a great melody and arrangement. Is that one of the most beautiful tracks you’ve done yet?

Jim Kimo West: I have been directly inspired to write many songs by the simple discovery of a new tuning. I find having a completely different harmonic palette under you fingers is very inspiring. It’s like your ear is leading rather than your fingers, as your existing chord and finger position knowledge doesn't apply anymore.

I do like to improvise and try different techniques… sometimes ideas just seem to spring up in that process. I have written pieces like “My Hawaiian Heart” in twenty minutes, which always blows my mind! I do love melody and I tend to sing along with the guitar part as I am developing it as that helps me create a more memorable tune. If a melody is singable, it tends to have more staying power, I believe.

When I travel I always have a guitar with me and at least, a small handheld recorder. When I come up with something I like, I record it immediately so as to not forget it. Then I transfer my musical ideas to my laptop where I then go through them, delete some and categorize the others. Guitar Stories was partly a result of expanding on some of these stored ideas.

mwe3: Are certain guitars better for different tunings than others? Does the different tuning at all affect or put undo stress on the guitar itself? Does retuning or detuning a guitar affect the wood or strings and what are your favorite tunings to play? I was very interested in the Anuenue tuning, on the beautiful sounding “Mauna Kea Meditation”, a track which is truly sublime sounding.

Jim Kimo West: I am usually de-tuning strings but in some cases I am raising a string a whole step or even a minor third. I use light gauge so that’s not too much of an issue. In the case of lowering strings a lot, I might switch to a medium gauge for that. Or if it needs to be even lower I will use the baritone.

Sometime a certain amount of “floppiness” in the strings can be great for getting more vibrato and expression - it’s a little more “rock” and great for single note lines. Many electric players detuned, Hendrix for example, and used very light strings like .008’s for a very big vibrato and ease of playing.

The Anuenue tuning is one I developed when I was recording my first CD, Coconut Hat, on which I used it for a few tunes including “ Cereus”. It is essentially a major 6 + 9 tuning. It has very close voicing in the string pitches so one can get very dense chords similar to what one can get on a keyboard. It is: D A D F# A B, low to high. The highest two strings are usually replaced with slightly heavier gauges.

mwe3: Another standout track on Guitar Stories is “Daydream At Jumbo Rocks”. How does the Joshua Tree National Park inspire you and tell us something about the Mahoe tuning? That track is so unique sounding and also can you tell us how you met Marty Rifkin, who adds in steel guitar?

Jim Kimo West: Joshua Tree National Park is an amazing place. I used to go there a lot and it’s hard to believe that such a place exists two or so hours from LA. The air is so clear and the landscape is just surreal with impossible rock formations and unusual cacti, and the night sky is incredible. It is definitely a place that inspires many.

The Mahoe tuning is another one of mine that I used starting with my first CD. “Mahoe” means “twins” in Hawaiian language and this tuning has two strings with the same pitch. Besides the obvious “drone” sound it allows some interesting voicings as a one fret difference between the two adjoining unison strings creates a minor second, not always easy to get in standard tuning.

I met Marty Rifkin many years ago when I was producing demos and tracks for independent artists. He was hired to play pedal steel on a country project and we have been friends ever since. He has played on a few “Weird Al” tracks as well. He played a non-pedal Fender lap steel on this track and quite beautifully, I might add. Marty has played with so many legends such as Springsteen, Dwight Yoakum, many others and sometimes joins me at my live shows.

mwe3: Tell us where Guitar Stories was recorded. Do you get to record and write music in Hawaii a lot or do you mostly work on the west coast? What’s new and interesting in Hawaii for you these days? You must be an expert on the Islands as many of the tracks on Guitar Stories are dedicated to elements of scenic wonder in Hawaii.

Jim Kimo West: I have been recording and engineering almost as long as I have been playing guitar. Actually I think started playing with tape recorders before I started playing guitar. I have always had a personal home studio so all my records are recorded there in Los Angeles. It’s quite well equipped with nice preamps and outboard gear and is based around a Mac Pro set up. When I travel I also carry a small portable set up with a Mac laptop, interface and two microphones so I do record in hotel rooms when I have to. I believe the main guitar part in “Iolani Palace Waltz” was recorded in a hotel room actually.

I have been going to Hawaii for over thirty years now and have seen many changes. The one that is most obvious is the shift of land ownership towards wealthy vacation homeowners and away from the local populace who are being priced out of their own homeland. There is also a very visible Hawaiian sovereignty movement now. It is a much delayed response to the illegal annexation of Hawaii, which was a sovereign nation, in the 1800’s by what was essentially a consortium of wealthy and powerful businessmen. Perhaps one day I will be able to apply for a Hawaiian passport!

Hawaii has been a lifelong inspiration for me. I have got to know many beautiful areas very well and sometimes I have to pinch myself when I walk those pristine beaches and hike the primeval forests. Hawaii is a very isolated speck in a huge ocean so one’s perspective is very much expansive and spatial in a way, I guess. Just as Hawaiian folk music is an extension of the “aina” or physical environment, I would say my own slack key compositions are directly inspired by the places and people I know in Hawaii.

mwe3: What is it like working in the band of “Weird Al” Yankovic and are you still working with him? Have you done albums with Weird Al as well or only appear on tour?

Jim Kimo West: Playing with Al is great fun and quite musically challenging as well. We cover a multitude of styles from polka to dubstep! It is a thrill to play for big crowds and to exercise my rock and roll chops, to travel to new and exciting places and meet lot’s of people. Besides all that, Al is a very nice guy and a joy to work for.

Yes, I play on all the records. On the first two records, our then- producer, Ric Derringer played most of the solos but it’s been all me since then. Besides guitar I also do a lot of the MIDI and synth production and programming on the CD’s - something I have learned to do from many years working as a composer for film and TV and doing record production.

mwe3: I know Guitar Stories just came out but, have you had any time yet to consider what directions you might be wanting to go in next as far as writing and recording and future concerts in 2016?

Jim Kimo West: I have a few projects in the works. One is going to be another slack key record but one with a modern ambient, almost dreamy feeling. I also have a record in the works with slack and steel guitar master, Ken Emerson, as well as a collaboration with a fantastic group of players in Singapore and India. All very exciting stuff. Then of course there will be Guitar Stories, Vol II !

On January 17 I will be playing the So Cal Slack Key Festival in Redondo Beach, California. There I will be doing some duets with Jeff Peterson, a fabulous player from Hawaii. I also will be opening for Muriel Anderson at Ruth B. Shannon Center at Whittier College on January 20. I plan to do a series of shows with Ken Emerson in March then head to Hawaii in May for some gigs. Beginning mid-June I will be back on the Mandatory World Tour with “Weird Al” again.


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