Ian O’ Sullivan: Guitar, Ukulele and a Little Humor

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When classically trained guitarist Ian O’Sullivan takes in a beautiful Hawaiian landscape, the musician in him takes over and adds a cinematic soundtrack to what he’s witnessed. Throughout his two-hour intimate concert at the Mike Luce Studio last Friday, Ian gave the audience numerous examples of his creative songwriting process.

Blurring the boundaries between classical guitar and Hawaiian music, the 36-year-old musician said he borrows ideas from French composer Revel who was inspired by the noise of water and interpreted it into musical sounds. In O’Sullivan’s case, he spoke a lot about several breathtaking nature spots on O‘ahu’s North Shore like the 400-year old Loko Ea fishpond in Haleiwa, Mount Kaʻala, and even the cows that roam the North Kohala pastures on the Big Island. “I was driving past all of these cows, and thought, ‘Oh My God! Organic food… Ocean views… I want to be you!’” O’Sullivan recalled the 2014 experience that motivated him to write “Kahuku.”

O’Sullivan’s first instrument was the ukulele and not the guitar. He talked about his humble musical roots in Mokulēʻia, the O‘ahu North Shore community, and learning to play “The Ice Cream Man Song” on ukulele by ear. “It was the only piece of music I could hear regularly every Saturday morning. I developed this musical intuition then – I don’t have perfect pitch, but I can ‘smell’ a melody. Yeah, I play by a sense of smell,” joked the guitarist. Besides being a great storyteller, he has a sense of comedic timing. “If you have a problem with it, I’ll see you out in the parking lot after the show,” was the recurring punchline throughout the night. “It’s what you came for, right? Guitar, ukulele, and a little sarcasm.”

Before earning a master’s degree in guitar from Yale University, one of only two students in the country to receive a full scholarship to the program, O’Sullivan acknowledged that he experimented with electric guitar in a rock band called Damn Sexy during his high school years. “We played Nirvana and Metallica, and I wore all black. It was a phase.”

Watching O’Sullivan play guitar is like watching a skilled artist paint. His long fingers on his left hand stretched apart to hit impossible chords and create buttery tones – bell-like when he taps out harmonics. He demonstrated a strange tremolo effect and achieved harp-like tones too. The guitar is obviously his prized possession. As he explained in our recent interview, his concert classical guitar was built in West Perth, Australia, by Paul Sheridan. Without any amplification, it can fill a concert hall with sound. O’Sullivan appropriately nicknamed his nearly nine-grand instrument “Cannon.”

Ian O’Sullivan’s handwritten setlist

O’Sullivan used a handwritten setlist to reference, but often moved songs around to set the flow, and added in “Radio Hula” to keep things fresh.

The guitarist teaches music five days per week at Kamehameha Schools on Oahu. For the past seven years, he has arranged music for a guitar ensemble in Ben Verdery’s masterclass on Maui. “It’s an opportunity for classical musicians to get exposure to the Hawaiian repertoire by learning a Hawaiian song,” O’Sullivan said.

The new Mike Luce Studio Unplugged Series experience is like having an artist play for you in your living room. There’s less formality – a convenient snack bar is only a few feet away from the seating area, and both the crowd and the performer seemed more relaxed – the guy in front of me kicked off his slippahs for the second half of the show. The Kahilu’s crew set up a new stage and seat configuration. The stage is now crescent-shaped with a semi-circle of audience chairs surrounding it. The part-time performance area is beginning to feel more like a nightclub and less like a backstage zone for entertainers. Maybe a neon Mike Luce Studio sign out front and photos of acts that have played the Theatre in the hallway would be a nice touch too.

The guitarist returned to the stage for a two-song encore played on the ukulele, and signed CDs and answered questions after the show.

O’Sullivan will be releasing a new CD (yet to be titled) around Christmas that he recorded with his cousin Patrick Landeza, a lifetime achievement recipient at the 2019 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. To help with printing and promotion, the duo has just created a gofundme project with a goal of $3,000. You can pick up the CD for $15 or a digital download for $10.


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.

Photos: Steve Roby

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