Weird Al Yankovic guitarist Jim Kimo West: From Grammy-winning parodies to slack-key guitar
Decades of cleverly witty parodies and hilarious Grammy-winning recordings grace the résumé of Jim Kimo West, the long-time guitarist for Weird Al Yankovic. However, on his own West opts for a different approach, experimenting with slack-key guitar instrumentals that help define Hawaiian folk music. But any sampling of West’s latest adventure into the genre, Na Lani O Maui-Maui Skies, instantly crushes any stereotypes the unenlightened may have about that musical style. This is a record that pays homage to Hawaii without, for the most part, sounding at all like typical Hawaiian music. West explained his lifelong affection for slack-key guitar, a genre that is currently acquiring mainstream attention with the new critically acclaimed George Clooney drama The Descendants.
What was your first exposure to slack key guitar music?
I made my very first trip to Hawaii way back in 1985 and by some strange twist of fate, ended up in the little town of Hana, Maui which is quite remote and very Hawaiian. The family I stayed with had a large collection of Hawaiian and Polynesian music on vinyl, including a lot of slack-key records and cassettes. I had heard of slack key before, probably because I was a fan of Ry Cooder but hearing this music for the first time really hit home, especially hearing it in a setting like Hana which is so rich in natural beauty and Hawaiian culture. The first recordings I heard were several albums by the Gabby Pahinui Band and others by Gabby and “Atta” Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, and Ray Kane. And they are still my favorites to this day!
Were you already an experienced guitar player at that point?
Yes, I had been playing guitar for a quite a while, both acoustic and electric, and I was already familiar with open tunings from playing blues, slide guitar and folk music. The Hawaiian name for slack key is “ki ho’alu”, literally “loosen the key” and it is the “slacking” of the strings that creates the open tunings used in slack key. Of course, there’s more to it than just open tunings – it’s a way of playing and even more so, a way of living that is at the heart of this music. Hawaiians say it is the sound of the heart and soul expressed through the fingers.
How did learning how to play slack key affect your own style?
You know, I didn’t immediately “learn” slack key; for years I just enjoyed listening to it. Maybe in the car, driving the Hana Highway or on the 405 freeway in L.A., it was always a great way to relax and just soak in that magical Hawaiian elixir. By the early ’90s I had noodled around with it a bit but it was a profound event that set me on the slack-key path. I had been living in Hana part-time and a close friend of mine, James, who was a chef, came out to visit for a week or so. My girlfriend and I showed him all the local secret spots by day and every night was a different culinary adventure – nothing like having a chef for a house guest! Anyway, a few weeks later back in L.A., we found out that he had passed away suddenly at age 28 or so. It hit me hard and I turned to my guitar for comfort. Within an hour or so, I had composed by first slack-key song, “A Lei For James.” Within a year or so I had quite a few others and had a lot of encouragement from my Hawaiian friends, too.
I think learning slack key has somewhat influenced my acoustic style but, more importantly, I think it has given me an appreciation of what a deep connection to history, to the “ ‘aina” – the land and to the culture can mean when writing and playing music. The music we create is itself a messenger – it leaves a unique legacy that perfectly describes a place in time, and without written words.
Slack key has its origins in Hawaii, but your take on it is not stereotypically Hawaiian. Was this a conscious decision?
No, not really. I wasn’t really interested in learning faithful covers of classic slack-key songs; it would be pretty hard to beat what “da bradduh’s” had been doing, that’s for sure! I was more interested in writing my own tunes and, of course, a lot of my other influences – blues, folk, ragtime and jazz – came along for the ride. There will always be traditionalists but it is more exciting to me to create something new. Slack key and music in general is a living thing, always mutating and becoming something new. But I do try to instill the spirit and essence of ki hoa’lu in the core my compositions.
What is it about slack key that inspires you?
The sound of slack key is a warm and compassionate and full of aloha – it is music that perfectly reflects the real physical and cultural landscape of Hawaii. That sound, no matter where I am, always brings me home! The other thing is the wonderful sense of discovery that you get when exploring the many different open tunings in ki ho’alu and inventing your own. Every tuning has its own set of chord shapes, and you really follow your ear when composing in a new tuning, since your previous chord knowledge is useless! I also love the different resonances you get from the open strings, chords, harmonies, and patterns that would be impossible to create in standard tuning. And even the physical feeling of those resonances against your body when you’re playing.
You’ve been Weird Al Yankovic’s guitarist since the beginning of his highly successful career. How did that partnership come about?
I had moved to L.A. in the early ’80s to further my music career. My good friend, bassist Steve Jay and I had played in some bands back in Florida and had got the job to play on Al’s very first record. He called me one day to invite me to an audition. An accordion-playing parodist had some gigs and a record deal and needed a band. I have to say, I was somewhat mortified but what the hell, it was a paying gig! I soon realized how amazing a talent Al was and before long we had a hit record, videos on MTV and tour buses and limos, etc. Not what I would have ever expected but it’s been a wonderful partnership.
Your work with Yankovic is quite different than what you do on your own. How did you become such a versatile musician?
Well, I started on acoustic guitar and it’s always been a big part of what I do. I did play I a number of bands in my formative years, some where the music was mostly original and some that were cover bands. I’d try really hard to nail the guitar parts if that was the job and got pretty good at that, which helped me later in with Al. I’ve always loved all kinds of guitar styles and really have diverse musical tastes which I think helps make one more well-rounded musically. I can learn fairly complex music by ear and love creating guitar arrangements from piano music or orchestral scores. In fact, I’m self-taught. I like to say I have a “perfect record” – no formal lessons or music classes. Not that I’d recommend that or anything.
Which of your songs with Yankovic are you most proud of and why?
There have been so many over the years. I guess as a guitarist I’ve always loved “Genius In France,” Al’s Frank Zappa tribute. As far as deciphering guitar parts on a cover, I’d say “TMZ” on the new record wins; I think there were about 20 tracks on the original. I also do some production on Al’s records. The Lady Gaga send up, “Perform This Way,” was quite involved and I did a lot of sound design and programming on that one!