Saturday, January 12, 2008


Being in Oahu for a week means I got a chance to check out plenty of 'ukuleles that I had no chance to try back home in Minnesota. While I didn't turn the trip into a "uke run", I tried to work in the visits to the music stores within the flow of our vacation. I played as many ukes I could get my hands on within the time I had to do it and I will put down my impressions of them to the best of my recollection. This will help me remember some things about the ukes I played on this trip (I started writing this during the trip so my memory is fresher regarding the ukes I played). I did not give all of the ukes I played equal play time or attention, so this is by no means the final word on any of them. Rather, this is just some impressions on a bunch of ukes through the perspective of one person, me.

A couple of notes:

1. It seems that my brain does not decern the sounds of a low-G strung ukes very well, so if a uke was strung low-G, I mostly just strummed a few chords and moved on.

2. Several of the same ukes were played at different locations, so I will write about the same uke in several locations if that's the case.

3. I will organize this by the location I played them at and in chronological order.

Here it goes:

At Shawn's house:

-Keith Ogata: I played both the side port version and the top sound hole version. These are a little larger than the average tenor and barely fit into a Lanikai tenor case. The koa wood body looks great and the shape is very distictive. They have a punchy sound that I would describe as "dry", which to me means it's tone isn't as complex as some others I played at Shawn's. The side port one has a more "in your face" sound and is the one I preferred. Both are loud and are easily worth the asking price.

-Ken Potts: I played a super concert mad of koa with maple sides. I did not like the feel of it because the outer strings are almost right at the edge of the fretboard. I believe it had Hilo strings so that didn't help things. It sounded fine but didn't leave much of an impression.

-Koa Rythms: I played a koa tenor. These are extremely high end custom builder ukes. Looked very nice. I don't remember much about the sound because frankly I knew it was out of my price range so I didn't spend too much time on it. It was still very cool to check it out.

-Koa Works: I played a koa tenor. These are also very high end custom builder ukes but they cost a bit less than Koa Rythms. I really liked its distinctive headstock and bridge shape. It didn't have the most curly koa on the body, but it does have subtle curls and is well built. Shawn told me these are his favorite player ukes and are extremely consistent. I played it quite a bit and was gripped by its awesome sound. It is very loud and has a very clear yet deep voice. Those qualities are almost mutually exclusive from ukes I've played before this trip. The notes ring and sustain all the way up the fretboard. The sound almost seems mystical to me as I strummed it. And the way it vibrates as you strum with the notes popping out of the uke has to be experienced to be understood. This was the one that made the biggest impression to me and is the one I'm bringing home. Its sound and feel just exuded awesomeness that I have not experienced previously in an 'ukulele.

-Ko'olau: I played a series 400 tenor. This one was also way out of my price range. I played it a little bit and was not particularly moved by its sound, although I admit I didn't really focus too much on it. It didn't help that it was tuned low-G, which makes it harder for me to tell the sound quality. At this point I thought maybe Ko'olau was overrated. My opinion would change later during this trip. It did look awesome, with great curly koa body and nice decorations.

-Moore Bettah: I got to play a couple of ukes made by Chuck Moore. I would say my experience with these is incomplete because Chuck intentionally leaves the action very high so the player can adjust it to his or her liking. So the playability of these were not good when I played them. Sure look nice though.

-Pahu Kani: I tried all 4 Shawn had on hand. Two super tenors (19 inch scale), one 8-string tenor, and a super concert. These are great looking works of art. I didn't spend too much time on the super tenors and the 8 string, but spent quite a bit of time on the super concert as I was seriously thinking about getting it. These are the most distictive and cool looking 'ukuleles I have ever seen. They also sound very good. The super concert was especially nice sounding to me, even though it was strung with low-G string. They are a bit heavier than I expected, but that didn't impact the sound. I really liked these.

-T's Ukulele: I got to try a Martin 5K concert replica made by Takahashi Shinji. Again it was well out of my price range so I didn't play it for very long. But it looked awesome and I think it sounded very nice too. Definitely a very cool piece.

At KoAloha factory:

I played most of the ukes they had hanging at the show room. The highlight was the tenor Sceptre. It had a very loud and solid sound. I would describe it as a more macho Pineapple Sunday. It doesn't sound quite as high pitched and harp-like as the P.S. I was very impressed with its sound. Another one I liked a lot was surprisingly the 6-string Imaikalani. I had a Lanikai solid spruce top 6-string at one time and did not like its sound that much before getting rid of it. This KoAloha sounded very nice. So nice that I might contemplate getting one down the road.

At Hawaiian Ukulele Shop in Aloha Tower:

-Kamaka: I played a tenor. It's well built and it sounded and played very good. I definitely think it's worth the asking price of $850. However, to me it is clearly not on the same level as some of the ukes I played at Shawn's. Nothing wrong with that, as Shawn's ukes cost considerably more.

At Ukulele House in Waikiki:

-MP Ukulele: I played an MP tenor made with what looked like a spruce sound board. It was very light weight and sounded great. Good playing action and nice tone up and down the fretboard. I believe it would be either $700 or $750 when ordered directly from Mike Pereira. That's a serious bargin for a great sounding tenor. It's at least at the level of the Hawaiian factory built tenors and perhaps a bit better in my opinion.

At Ukulele Pua Pua:

-G-String: I played a regular concert and a custom shop tenor. The concert really blew me away. I knew that G-Strings are quality ukes from owning a G-String soprano, but this concert really sounded great. Very light weight and resonant. It's like the soprano but on turbo steroids. Simply outstanding and probably the best concert 'ukulele I played on this trip. I got to play the custom shop tenor because Pua Pua didn't have a regular tenor when I asked to try one. This custom tenor is gorgeous and has all the bells and whistles such as radiused and bound fretboard, tuners on one side (telecaster style), and abalone inlays. I'm not sure how I feel about the radiused fretboard but it did play well and sounded great. I didn't think it sounded quite as good as the Koa Works tenor, but it's pretty close.

-Kala: I tried a curly mango (laminated) concert and was not too impressed with the sound. It's not bad, per se, but not close to the same level as the likes of the G-String concert and likely suffered by comparison to that G-String concert at Pua Pua.

-Kanile'a: I played a tenor and a super concert. Both had nice clear tone and played very well. The sound quality is at least as good as the Kamaka I played earlier. To my ears they are not at the level of the Koa Works tenor, but then again one should not expect that either.

-KoAloha: I played a KoAloha concert right after playing the G-String concert and was slightly disappointed by it. The G-String was clearly superior to my ears. Both ukes had the same factory Hilo (I think) strings so they were on equal ground. It's definitely not bad, but I wasn't blown away by it. Maybe I had too high of an expectation after hearing so much good things about it on the internet. Still, I think the only disappointment for me was that I didn't think it matched the G-String. It's very good on its own.

-Koa Pili Koko: I was very curious about these new imported ukes. I tried a concert and a tenor. These felt heavier than other similar sized ukes. They are very well built and sounded fine. I think they compare well against Ponos. Their prices are extremely attractive. Compared to a KoAlana, which I once owned, they are way heavier but also have much better workmanship. These should make outstanding beginner/intermediate ukes.

-Ron Yasuda: I played a concert made with Monkeypod. It didn't sound any better than the Hawaiian factory brands to my ears. It's probably at the same level, but it didn't make much of an impression on me.

At Aloha Stadium Swap Meet (tourist flea market):

-Kala: I played several Kalas of different sizes. They all seemed decent and are good values for the money. There was a solid spruce top tenor (I think it had laminated mahogany back/sides) that I thought sounded particularly good. I wouldn't take it over say a Kamaka tenor, but it was better than I expected it to be and is a good value.

-Kanile'a: One of the booths had a bunch of Kanile'as. I played many of them and they all sounded pretty good. In fact I think they all were clearer sounding than my Kanile'a super soprano. I was particularly interested in the Kanile'a "Super Tenor" and played one that was strung re-entrant. It had excellent volume but I thought it was a bit too "boomy", like maybe the C string is overpowering the other strings a little bit. Maybe it really is meant to be a low-G uke. I had always thought the Kanile'a super tenor looked pretty ugly (too fat) from pictures I've seen, but in person it wasn't bad at all.

-Tangi: I played a couple of cutaway tenors. I think the action was a bit high and they didn't sound all that special. They looked fine but I didn't find them compelling otherwise.

At Hawaii Music Supply:

-G-String: I played a concert Dolphin here. It sounded fine but didn't blow me away like the concert I played at Ukulele Pua Pua. I guess it's true that there are differences in sound even within the same brand & model.

-Kelii: I was hoping to try some Keliis on this trip but the concert at HMS was pretty much the only one I got my hands on. This particular one seem to have been there for quite a while. I don't remember why I thought that, but maybe it just seem a little shop worn or something. It was a deluxe model with some green abalone inlays. It sounded fine and is on par with with other Hawaiian builders. I just wish there were more available to try.

-Ko'olau: I played a series 400 concert and a series 100 tenor. The concert looked great and sounded very good. However it didn't seem to be as good as the G-String concert I played at Ukulele Pua Pua. It also didn't sound $3800 nice. The series 100 tenor, on the other hand, was superb. It had a satin finish on some very curly koa. It had a cool slotted headstock and wood inlaid "floral" position markers. I think it's an identical model as this series 100 "Floral". It happened to be strung re-entrant and I played and listened it for a little while. I think this was the only uke I played since the first stop at Shawn's that matched the Koa Works in terms of sound. It played and sounded awesome. As I played it at HWS, I actually thought the asking price of $1,700 was a bargin for it. It definitely made me a believer of Ko'olau.

-Pono: They had a lot of Ponos here. I played several of them of each size. They are decent sounding instruments but not especially noteworthy for me. There was a koa tenor that sounded quite nice, with some complex tones.

At Good Guys Music and Sound:

-Kala: I tried various Kalas they had there. Most were decent but unremarkable. There was a spruce top tenor with the spalted maple back/sides that sounded and looked pretty nice. At this point I'm thinking a solid spruce top is the way to go for Kalas.

-Kamaka: They had a soprano and a concert. The soprano felt similar to the KoAloha soprano that was also there. It's in the same class. I thought the concert was pretty nice. It played well and sounded pretty good. While I wasn't blown away by it, it certainly was pleasant and I think I'd be happy to own it.

-KoAloha: They had several KoAlohas there. There was a Pineapple Sunday, a tenor Sceptre, a regular tenor, a soprano, and a Noah. The Pineapple Sunday had exceedingly high action and was not good to play. The Sceptre has the same strong sound I experienced at the KoAloha factory, but the intonation seemed to be off at the higher frets. Perhaps I tuned it wrong by ear, but it sounded fine at the lower frets. The tenor and soprano were good, but not especially notable. The Noah, however, was very impressive. It is at least as loud as the soprano, and perhaps a little bit higher pitched. It felt like a junior Pineapple Sunday. I was actually tempted to get it, especially since Good Guys had a very nice price for it. But since I really wouldn't have much use for it and lacking room to bring it back home, I refrained from getting it.

At Easy Music Center (Honolulu):

-G-String: Played a conert. It was very nice, but again did not blow me away like the one at Pua Pua did. I'm wondering if my ears have gotten used to the Koa Works tenor and it's getting harder to be impressed by ukes I tried at music stores. Having said that, this is still a top notch concert 'ukulele that should please just about anyone.

-Honu: Played a deluxe concert. It is basically the same uke as my Honu except it doesn't have a honu shaped bridge and has a satin finish. It was strung with Kala Reds. I thought it sounded pretty good. I'm not a fan of Kala Reds, so it would probably sound better with some Worth strings. I don't think it was quite a match for the G-String (itself having subpar strings), but pretty close, and noticeably better than the Kalas there.

-Kala: I tried the various Kalas there and they ranged from pitiful to OK. These were especially bad for some reason. There was an all-solid mahogany concert that sounded so bad I wondered what was wrong with it. It almost sounded like a silent uke (such as BugsGear Eleuke), except it's supposed to be acoustic. The sound board did look extremely thick, but I played other Kalas with similarly thick sound boards that sounded much better. There was a tenor with solid spruce top that sounded decent, so again, that's definitely the way to go with these ukes.

-KoAloha: Played a super soprano. It was OK but unexceptional. I was wondering how it would compare with the Kanile'a super soprano I have, and this one I tried didn't seem any better. It does have the brighter KoAloha tone, but I wasn't gripped by it.

At Dan's Guitars:

-G-String: Again tried a concert. This one sounded very good, about the same as the one I played at Easy Music Center. Definitely a top choice in Hawaiian factory made concert 'ukulele.

-Kala: They had a solid spruce topped tenor with splted maple back/sides. It sounded pretty decent. These have a slight twangy sound that I can't quite describe. Again, not bad for the money.

-KoAloha: The had several KoAlohas, including a tenor Sceptre, regular concert, concert pikake, super soprano, soprano, and Noah. The tenor Sceptre had exceedingly high action and frankly did not sound very good. Not close to the other Sceptres I played before. The 2 concerts sounded about the same, which is very good. I think I still prefer the G-String concert though. I don't remember much about the super soprano and didn't pick up the soprano. The Noah was again pretty impressive. It just has a sound that you don't expect from such a small uke. Maybe I'll get one for my daughters someday.

So that's pretty much everything I tried during my week in Oahu. Unfortunately for me I couldn't make it to Kaneohe to see musicguymic, but hopefully I could in a future trip. It was definitely very informative and fun to try out all these ukes, as it gives me a much better idea about what's out there. If you actually read this far, hopefully I have not wasted your time and you found something of use from this little exercise. Mahalo!


Dennis said...

Were you able to play the Pahu Kani with the Hawaiian Flag and the Islands as the holes? I seen that on Shawn's site and I curious as to how it sounded and played for you if you have played it... I purchased my Pono Mango in August and I'm already picking up the UAS bug... even though I'm still in the process of learning how to play the uke... when I get better that Pahu Kani is something I'm really interested in, and if Shawn still has it, I might fly home to buy it...


GX9901 said...

Hi Dennis,

I did not get to play the Pahu Kani with the Hawaiian flag since Shawn did not have it yet when I was there. The Pahu Kani's are nice ukes but all of the ones were strung with low-G so it was harder for me to test it out fully since I know almost no low-G tunes.

Which uke should I bring on my next trip to Oahu???

What's the maximum you'd spend on a ukulele case for your best uke?

If you could steal one of my ukes, which one would it be???

How curly do you like your koa? (preferably on a uke)

What's the maximum number of ukes a perfectly sane person should have???

Poll: How often do you play the ukulele???

Poll: Which guitar company's approach to ukes do you prefer???

Poll: What's your favorite type of headstock???

Poll: The new basic Collings concert uke (UC-1) sells for about $1k, your reaction is: