Most Hawaiian songs are built on a series of chords that repeat in short cycles. Learning the family of chords and how a basic numbering system works to identify chords in progressions and keys can really help as you memorize songs, change from one key to another, improvise, compose, and develop your ear.
Any major scale consists of seven notes. Each note can be given a number. Here are the numbers and four scales–C, D, G and F
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C D E F G A B
D E F# G A B C#
G A B C D E F#
F G A Bb C D E
If you build a chord on each note in a scale you get this sequence:
Major Minor Minor Major Major Minor Diminished
These chords are often giving Roman numerals to identify where they appear in any given key. Major chords have upper case Roman numerals (I) and minor chords have lower case Roman numerals (ii). Dominant seventh chords have upper case Roman numerals with a 7 (V7). The seventh chord in the chord family is diminished(viidim).
Here is the chord scale for the keys listed above:
I ii iii IV V vi vii(dimishished)
C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
D Em F#m G A Bm C#dim
G Am Bm C D Em F#dim
F Gm Am Bb C Dm Edim
The most commonly used chords are the I, IV, and V or V7 chords. These are the major chords in the chord family. Hawaiian chord progression often change minor chords to dominant 7th chords: ii and vi often become II7 and VI7. A good example of this is a vamp that II7 V7 | I |
II7 V7 | I |
D7 G7 | C | in the key of C
E7 A7 | D | in the key of D
A7 D7 | G | in the key of G
G7 C7 | F | in the key of F
Here are some popular Hawaiian song progressions to study. Think of the progression as a series of Roman numerals and then try them in different keys.
1. Kalena Kai
I | I | V7 | I | V7 | I | V7 | I | V7 | I |
C | C | G7 | C | G7 | C | G7 | C | G7 | C |
Try this in D, G, and F. We are only using the I and V7 chords in this song
I IV | I | I V7 | I V7 | I V7 | I |
C F | C | C G7 | C G7 | C G7 | C |
We use the IV chord of F in the key of C in this song. The rest of the progression uses I and V7 chords.
I | I7 | IV | I | V7 | V7 | II7 V7 | I | II7 V7 | I |
C | C7 | F | C | G7 | G7 | D7 G7 | C | D7 G7 | C |
G | G7 | C | G | D7 | D7 | A7 D7 |G | A7 D7 | G |
This song uses a dominant 7th I (I7) chord in the second measure leading to the IV chord in the third measure this is a very common chord motion that is used again and again. Look for it in other songs you play. A C7 chord pulls nicely to F for example. This progression also uses a II7 chord pulling to the V7 chord. This is a very typical Hawaiian vamp in bar 9 and 10 but is also used early in the song at bar 7. Vamps are two bar phrases that end each verse before a new verse starts. It is a break in the vocal melody and a moment for hula dancers to koholo (pause before the next verse) and kahea (call out the first words of the next verse). It is also a moment for an instrumental break. The steel guitar often takes a solo here but ‘ukulele and slack key guitar also works beautifully for pa’ani (solos) during vamps.
I | I7 | IV | I | VI7 | II7 | V7 | I | V7 | I |
C | C7 | F | C | A7 | D7 | G7 | C | G7 |
G | G7 | C | G | E7 | A7 | D7 | G | D7 | G |
F | F7 | Bb | F | D7 | G7 | C7 | F | C7 | F |
This song uses the same first four bars as Puamana then uses a cycle of dominant 7th chords going VI7, II7, V7, I. This is called the cycle of fifths. VI is the “V” of II. II is the “V” of V, and V is of the V of I. This cycle is used often in Swing and Jazz music. This had a very strong influence on Hawaiian composers. See how many other songs you can find the have II7 V7 I or VI7 II7 V7 I progressions. There are many! Remember that vamps can be V7 I or II7 V7 I. A II7 V7 I vamp could be substituted in Ulupalakua for example. Listen to recordings and see if you can hear the difference between these two types of vamps. Also see if you can start hearing parts of chord progressions. V7 to I or the I7 to IV pattern for example. There is a great amount of repetition of these ideas and with some practice your ear can start to hear the chords before you even pick up your guitar!