Thursday, February 19, 2009


A couple of months ago, during the holiday season, musicguymic had put up several nice ukes at a limited time lower sale price. Coupled with a cashback promotion sponsored by Microsoft, where you got up to 30% off your purchase, it made a few of those ukes irresistible to me. I purchased a Kelii tenor and a Kanile'a super tenor during that time. This review will be for the Kanile'a super tenor.

I had been eyeing this particular Kanile'a super tenor on MGM's store because in addition to being curious about the super tenor sound (I had played a couple before but didn't spend a lot of time on them), this one looked like it had some nice curly koa. I found myself checking the "Kanile'a" page of the store often to see if this one was still there even though I had no intention of buying it at the regular price (I think it was $999 with a "Best Offer" option). Then one day it went on sale for $780 while the Microsoft cashback was up to 30% with a $200 cashback ceiling. I decided to pull the trigger on it a couple of hours before MGM was to put it back up at the regular price (he told me this after my purchase). I figure for $580, this was too good to pass up. Let's see if I was right.

Before going into the rest of the review, here are the specs:

-Tenor scale with wide lower bout "super tenor" body
-1.5" nut with
-Nubone nut and saddle
-Curly koa faceplate veneer
-Grover nickel open-gear tuners
-Solid curly koa body
-Mahogany neck
-Rosewood fingerboard and pin bridge w/black plastic pins
-MOP position dots on face and side of fingerboard

This ukulele is a Kanile'a exclusive "super tenor". It has a regular tenor scale length but a wider than normal lower bout (the upper bout might be wider too, but I'm not sure). I personally don't think this is a good looking body shape. To me, it looks like a fat kid's face with some puffy cheeks. Just not that attractive. Another problem with the "super tenor" shape is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to get a good fitting case for it. MGM shipped this uke to me in a Ko'olau baritone case. While the case provides enough room for the body, it is way too long for this uke. The end result is that you need a much larger case than a typical tenor, which is not very good for traveling. The uke is pretty secure inside this case and does not appear to move around, so I guess that's not too bad.

The body depth of this ukulele is actually a little less than a normal tenor such as a Kamaka tenor, so perhaps the goal of this "super tenor" body shape is to have a bigger soundboard rather than a much larger body volume. I believe the body shape is to facilitate a deeper tone. I'll cover that a little later in this review. The neck is a little thinner than I expected. My Kanile'a super soprano, which was about a year older than this ukulele, has a thicker neck, and past Kanile'as I've played had thicker feeling necks. I think they probably re-worked their neck tooling so they are a bit thinner. I think they're fine either way, and the new neck by itself feels pretty normal. Only when compared with the older neck does it feel thin. It has more of a shallow U-shaped profile (most necks are more of a C-profile), which again feels a little different but fine to me. Overall the ukulele feels very light despite the large appearance. That's usually a good thing as lighter ukes usually resonates better and have nicer tone. It feels as light or lighter than the other normal sized koa tenors I have, so I think Kanile'a did a good job making it as light as they can.

This particular uke features some medium curl koa on the body, and Kanile'a called it a "Deluxe" with the "DLX" designation after the model number "K-1 ST". When I got it in person, it didn't look quite as curly as it did on the online pictures. When you hold it at some angles, it looked really plain. But at some other angles, you do see quite a bit of curl, so I guess it has some "3D" qualities to it. Kanile'a seems to use more figured koa in their basic line of instruments than other Hawaiian makers, and this one does have some nice wood. Certainly above average. It is finished with Kanile'a's UV cured finish, which is a nice mirror gloss that seems indestructible. Of all glossy finishes I've seen, this UV cured finish seems to be the most mirror-like and durable. It is a nice consistent finish with none of the rough spots that seem plague other Hawaiian makers such as Kamaka, KoAloha, and G-String. I personally like glossy instruments and this finish is as good as any factory finish I've seen.

Being a current model Kanile'a, It features Kanile'a's T.R.U. bracing design, which has braces that have holes drilled to lighten their mass and touch a smaller area on the soundboard. In theory this allows the soundboard to vibrate more freely and provide better tone. In practice, when playing this super tenor with its large soundboard, it feels like a trampoline and very much like custom built instruments I've played. It has really nice feedback in feel. This wasn't very evident in the smaller soprano body of my Kanile'a super soprano, but with the bigger body, I think this bracing system works very well.

When I received this ukulele, it was strung with the factory Aquila high-G all-plain tenor strings and the action was a little higher than I'd like (I'm a bit spoiled by the custom King and Kepasa that were setup with very low action). I thought the sound was very good, with a nice full and boomy sound, but there seems to be something missing. I took those Aquila strings off and switched to a set of "custom" strings consisting of D'Addario and Savarez strings I had purchased a while ago, and it seemed about the same. A couple of weeks later, I took those strings off and lowered the action at the saddle and re-strung it with a set of Worth CTs. It was then this uke became an elite instrument. With these Worth strings, it still had the nice deep boomy sound, but also had great clarity and complex tone. I played this uke back to back with my other ukes and I found it to rival my King tenor in sound and feel. It has excellent note clarity, great volume, and good sustain and intonation. It also feels as good to play as the custom ukes, with the aforementioned trampoline sensation and very nice action (adjusted by me). Frankly I was pretty shocked by how good this ukulele turned out. At the deal I scored this uke at, it's like getting a custom level instrument for import money. Even at full MSRP of $990 for a K1-ST, this ukulele would be worth the money because it just sounds that good. There is a soundfile at the end of the review so you can hear it for yourself.

So overall, I'm thrilled with this ukulele. Right now it ranks number 2 on my ukulele lineup rankings behind only the great King tenor and ahead of awesome ukes such as the Kapasa Gypsy Rose and Koa Works tenor. Believe me, it's not easy to put this one ahead of a $2000 uke such as the Koa Works, but I just found that I personally like the tone of this ukulele a little more. I think Kanile'a really does make some fine ukuleles. I have not play a ton of them, but each one I've personally tried have sounded very good. This super tenor, with the ugly body shape and all, sounds awesome. I feel like I've committed highway robbery getting this ukulele for $580 and would have no problem recommending this uke at $990 if you can get past the ugly shape. With sound like this, that should be easy.

Here's a soundfile of Blue Roses Falling played on this Kanile'a super tenor.

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