As mentioned in previous blogs, I brought home a Koa Works tenor from my recent trip to Oahu. It was the first 'ukulele purchase since the very first one (Leolani super-soprano) that I actually had a chance to test before buying it. This 'ukulele blew me away when I played it in Oahu and was a great companion during my vacation there. However, not all is rosy since I brought it back. In the first 2 weeks I've had it in Minnesota, it has developed what looks like a 2 inch finish crack in the back and the bridge is starting to lift! This is obviously alarming as I've tried my best to keep it humidified in the dry Minnesota winter. Rich Godfrey, the builder, has agreed to fix it for me so I am sending it back to Hawaii. I'm really sad to see it go as it is truly a joy to play. Despite this setback, I think I have had it long enough to do a review of it.
First the specs:
-Koa top, back , and sides.
-Ebony faceplate, fretboard, and bridge.
-Molokai deer antler nut and saddle.
-Ebony fretboard binding.
-Ebony top and back binding.
-Abalone top purfling, rosette, headstock logo, fretboard position markers.
-Grover gold geared tuners.
I'll divide up the review into sections, starting with looks:
This is a very cool looking 'ukulele in my opinion. It has a very distictive and good looking headstock with what looks like some sort of a honu logo inlaid with abalone. The bridge is also of a distinctive shape that's reminicent of an upside down crown or "W". The abalone rosette and purfling looks very fine. I assume the abalone used here is of high quality and compared to the abalone used on the Honu concert, it looks a lot finer and makes the Honu's abalone look a bit coarse in comparison. I'm not sure what grade of koa is used for this uke, but I'm guessing AA or AAA. It has some light curls but no dramatic flame curls seen on some other high end ukes. It does look very classy and surprisingly good outdoors under sun light. Taking a closer look atht he uke reveals some nice little details such as pin-striping (looks like a very thin piece of light colored wood) around the body and fretboard bindings and between the headstock and the faceplate. The back has some wood pattern that looks kind of like a spaceship from video games such as Space Invaders. Kind of interesting. It is finished with gloss laquer and to me it looks very sharp all around.
It is pretty much a standard tenor sized uke. Its body is a little bit wider and longer than the Pono cedar top tenor. It is comfortable to hold and the nut width is just a tick under 1.5", which feels good to me. Playability is outstanding. It plays as easily as anything I've played and feels better than anything I've played. In fact, the most outstanding aspect of this uke for me is the way it feels while playing it. It's hard to describe, but when I strum or pick the strings, the way the sound and vibrations fill the senses is pretty much perfect. This is the first uke I've owned that I love for how it "feels" while playing as much as how good it sounds. I wish there's a better way to relate that feeling but all I can say is that it's unlike anything else I have and is only matched by a couple of other very high end ukes I tried in Oahu.
The workmanship is outstanding, at least from what you can see. Everything looks very clean and well crafted. Looking into the soundhole, I do not see any trace of glue residue or wood shavings. The kerfings used in this uke are among the smallest I've seen, even compared with some soprano ukes. Perhaps that has something to do with the great sound. The gloss finish looks nice and reflective. The only blemish on the workmanship is that for some reason, the seams where the body bindings are joined, are very visible and I can feel that seam with my fingers. I guess that's not a big deal since those are pretty small seams. But it would have been nice if those seams are sanded smooth so you either can't feel them or they are very slight. As a whole, this is a top class 'ukulele when it comes to workmanship. However, as I mentioned in the beginning of this review, it has developed a couple of problems since I took it home. I guess the high-end nature of this instrument also meant that it is high-maintenance. I don't really fault the workmanship for it though, as I'm pretty sure the builder didn't build it with the Minnesota winter in mind.
This, of course, is the most important thing for any musical instrument. This Koa Works tenor scores extremely high on this front. It has a very solid, crisp, and clear, yet full, sound. I talked about the feel earlier in this review, and when a string is picked, I hear a very solid note accompanied by a vibration in the instrument that is just sublime. The string balance is outstanding, where no string overpowers the other strings. The notes sustain all the way up the fretboard. The high notes really do sound amazing. And it produces very nice sound whether you pick or strum it hard or soft. It also sounds awesome when you slide the notes while strumming. I think I was actually sold on this 'ukulele while playing a passage from "Going to California" where you slide the E & A strings from the 3rd fret to the 7th fret then to the 10th fret. It really sounded almost mystical to me and I was mesmerized by it. Whether it is picked or strummed, the sound is top of the line all the way. I'm sure there are better sounding ukes around, but they would have to be downright heavenly to top this. By the way, it does have excellent volume, as good as any uke I have. But when you play it, volume doesn't really seem that important anymore because you're so taken by the sound. Well, at least I am.
This a tricky thing to rate. On one hand, you definitely have to PAY for a uke such as this. After all, it is a luthier built 'ukulele, and Rich Godfrey appears to build at most a dozen a year. On the other hand, I definitely feel like the sound and feel is completely worth the money. If you try to figure out the "sound to dollar" ratio for ukes, something like this would no doubt lose to cheaper ukes such as a Kala, assuming one can even quantify the "sound to dollar" ratio. Is it 8 times better than a Kala tenor? Perhaps it's not. But there is not even the slightest doubt that it is much much better, and like most things in life, the better it is, the more you have to pay for it. For me personally, I feel that it is money well spent, even with the issues that cropped up. I know this because I already miss it dearly despite only having sent it out about 3 days ago. The other ukes I have doesn't come close to offering the satisfaction while playing, not even the Pineapple Sunday. So I hope it returns to me in good shape soon, as it is really quite a special experience for me to play it.
What can I say? This Koa Works tenor blew me away when I tried it in Oahu, and it is still every bit as outstanding as I initially thought after bringing it home. Playing it is truly an experience. Again it's hard to describe, but this uke seem to actually connect with me while I'm playing it, like the sound is somehow penetrating my body or something. I can't stress how good it feels for me to play this 'ukulele. I have a couple of custom ukes due in a few months. What this Koa Works tenor has done is to set the bar exceedingly high. I would be overjoyed if those custom ukes can match the level of sound and feel this uke provides to me. Yes, it experienced some problems moving to Minnesota, but hopefully I can do a better job with the winter conditions when it returns back to me. I look forward to that day very much.