A Word With Hawaiian Classical Guitarist Ian O’Sullivan


Ian O’Sullivan is a classically trained guitarist and composer from the North Shore of O’ahu. Well-versed in Hawaiian music and the ‘ukulele, in addition to the Western classical repertoire, Ian has performed internationally and throughout the United States, including Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall. In 2013 Ian released his first solo album Born and Raised, featuring his original compositions alongside the music of fellow Hawaii composers. In 2016 he released his second album Songs for the North Shore– a set of original compositions written for specific places with stories from the North Shore of O‘ahu. O’Sullivan ranks among the best guitarists in the state; and became the first person from Hawai‘i to earn a master’s degree in guitar from Yale University and one of only two students in the country to receive a full scholarship to the program. Ian taught classical guitar at the University of Hawai‘i and currently at the Kamehameha Schools’ Kapālama Campus. He makes his Mike Luce Studio debut on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. Ticket info below.

What inspired you to combine classical and Hawaiian music?

 When I was studying guitar at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, I played all of the standard classical guitar repertoire, which is what you do in a typical guitar program. But I felt during those years I didn’t play any music by Hawaiian composers because typically Hawaiian guitar music is not written down in the Western classical music tradition, it’s taught orally. I just learned what everybody else learns around the world… [but]I didn’t play any Hawaiian guitar composers. I found that completely bonkers because Hawaii is so synonymous with the guitar. There was definitely something missing here, and I wanted to make a contribution. I’m so familiar with the genre, as well as growing up in Hawaii and knowing the music so intimately that I could have my own voice and make a contribution to the classical music canon from the lens of a Hawaiian. What inspired me was the lack of music, and the desire to be able to separate myself from the herd.

Do you have a favorite brand of guitar that you play?

I have a guitar that was built in West Perth, Australia by Paul Sheridan, and it’s a very loud guitar. They’re called concert classical guitars because they’re able to project and fill a concert hall basically without amplification. If you listen to a Goodall guitar, those are some of the finest steel-string guitars, and run upward of five thousand dollars. My concert guitar costs about almost nine thousand dollars, and it has about three or four times the volume of a high-end steel-string. I nicknamed it the “Cannon.”

As a classical guitar teacher, have you seen some promising talent?

 I have a young student named Aaron Cardenas, and he came to me as a sophomore. One of the first things he told me was that he’d really love to go to Yale too. I taught him for several years, and a few years ago he actually did like I did. He was the second guitarist from Hawaii to receive a full-tuition scholarship to Yale University and got his master’s in classical guitar.

Are you currently working on new material for your next release?

I just recorded a new album, which is going to be out before Christmas. It’s a duo CD I did with my cousin Patrick Leonard. He’s a traditional slack key guitarist from the “island” of Berkeley, California. We don’t have a title yet, it’s so new. It’s going to be a slack key guitar album. My first two CDs featured classical guitar. I’m actually playing ukulele as well as the classical guitar but in slack key tunings.

What can folks look forward to at your upcoming Mike Luce Studio concert?

Craziness! I tell a lot of stories. I like to contextualize my music because I don’t sing. I’ll be performing some of my own pieces about the North Shore of Oahu, where I grew up. That’s sort of how I approach my concerts… I will tell the story of the song, what it’s about, what to listen for, what my inspirations are, before I perform so that the listener can really attach themselves to the music and come along for the ride.

Ian O’Sullivan in concert at the Mike Luce Studio

Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. Doors: 6 p.m. Show: 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, (808) 885-6868 or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Kamuela.

This interview was edited for space, clarity and continuity.

Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the managing editor of Big Island Music Magazine.


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