Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It's "Kay-Li-Ee" for Kelii

Kelii (pronounced "Kay-Li-Ee" as told by the shopkeeper at Lahaina Music in Maui) has always seemed to be the forgotten brand among Hawaiian made ukuleles. While ukulele enthusiasts routinely talk about the "K" brand Hawaiian ukuleles (Kamaka, KoAloha, Kanile'a, Ko'olau, and G-String - OK, so G is not K...), Kelii usually seemed to be left out of the conversation. Yes, there has been discussions about Kelii ukes among various ukulele forums on the internet, and pretty much all of it positive, you will probably agree that compared to the other "K" brands, Kelii is very much a minor player when it comes to brand recognition.

Since most of the Kelii discussion I've read about had been very positive, which paints Kelii ukes as equal to the other "K" brands but at about 3/4 of the price, I've always wanted to try one. My first chance came about a year and a half ago, when MGM had a custom Kelii mango/spruce-top super-soprano for sale at about $350 or so. It was fairly blinged out and the price seemed very good. However at the time I didn't want to spend that kind of money (funny, now that I think about it) and made a lower offer for it. MGM declined and the uke was bought by someone else later on. I kind of regretted that and waited for the same model to appear later but it never did to this day. When I went to Oahu in January of 2008, I played a bunch of ukes but only came across a grand total of one Kelii ukulele. I think it was a concert and looked kind of shopworn and I didn't think that was a good representation of a Kelii ukulele. I later learned that Kelii had been concentrating on their import Koa Pili Koko line and had not produced many Kelii ukuleles lately.

So my curiosity about Kelii ukuleles was never really satisfied until this past November, when I scored Kelii tenor from MGM that was on sale for $450. I mean, a solid koa ukulele made in Hawaii for $450? Sign me up! So how does this ukulele measure up? Let's check the stats first:

-Solid koa body
-Mahogany neck
-Grover friction tuners
-1.5" rosewood nut
-Tenor scale (slightly long at 17.25") rosewood fretboard w/3 position dots in MOP
-Rosewood bridge with rosewood saddle

The first thing you notice when holding the Kelii tenor is the very thick neck profile. It feels very thick and wide compared to all other ukuleles I have. But the second thing you notice while holding it is that it's a very light ukulele. Despite the thick neck and thinner than normal body depth, it feels very balanced and light in my hands. I really like the feel of the neck and am definitely impressed with the weight and balance Kelii achieved with this ukulele. Besides the aforementioned thick neck and thin body depth, it has more of a "bowled" back than most ukuleles I've seen. It's not really bowled like an Applause uke, but the curve is more pronounced than other traditional tenors I've tried. Other unorthodox touches include rosewood nut and saddle. Kelii is the only maker to my knowledge that uses rosewood for nut and saddle material. I don't think it affects the sound or anything, and it makes for a more unique ukulele.

This is a standard model Kelii tenor and has the bare minimum of adornments (i.e. no bling whatsoever). However, it does have some pretty nice koa. From the pictures posted here you should be able to see some light curls on the koa body. It is nicely bookmatched and well put together. The workmanship is perhaps not the most flawless I've seen, but certainly pretty good. A peek inside the soundhole shows a pretty tidy interior with almost no glue residue. In keeping with the slightly unorthodox style of the Kelii ukulele, the bracing inside appears to be done using koa instead of the more common spruce braces. Also, instead of kerfed linings for the top and back, it uses a solid un-kerfed strip of wood bent to the shape of the top and bottom. Perhaps using these braces and linings saves on production costs, but I'm not entirely sure.

When I first got this ukulele, the action was a bit higher than I'd like, so I sanded down the saddle and got it to a more comfortable playing height. In about a week or so after that, the action felt lower than I had set it at, indicating that the neck had moved a little bit. The relative humidity here during the winter is about 20, so I think a little bit of neck movement is entirely within reason, even with 2 humidifiers in the case. And since it has not reach the point of buzzing, the low action is welcomed. As setup right now, it is easy to play and offers a very pleasing sound. I think the sound gives off an "island" vibe more so than my Kanile'a and Kamaka tenors. It has more of a woody sound with good sustain and volume. It sounds like something Iz would be strumming while singing Over the Rainbow. Check the soundfile at the end of the review to hear it for yourself. Personally, I prefer the more "robust" sound of the Kanile'a and Kamaka, but I think the Kelii offers a very high quality sound and is certainly distinctive. For all the unorthodox qualities it has, I think it probably is the most "traditional" sounding tenor out there.

Overall, I think Kelii definitely belongs with the other Hawaiian "K" brands. I hope they get back to regular production of Kelii ukuleles soon because they are certainly a great value. Right now they are pretty rare, so if you come across one, better grab it before it's gone.

Here's the soundfile. Guess which song is played on the Kelii???


Sho said...

Thanks for the info on Kelii. I'm on vacation in Honolulu right now and am looking for an uke in the $300 range and was considering a Kelii model (I'm just a newbie, so a Kamaka might be a bit too big of an investment right now).

From your review, it sounds like a Kelii might be a good buy for the price. The mp3 you also provided is really great. Thanks!

Lon said...

nice review. if given a choice between this tenor and a traditional honu tenor (i think both are priced similarly) which would you get or recommend? i do not have the luxury of trying either (being in ca), so i will have to get online. thanks. lon

GX9901 said...


I'd probably take the Kelii just because it is made in Hawaii. I have not played a Honu traditional tenor before, so I can't comment on how good it is. But if the Honu deluxe concert I had is any indication, it should be a great uke as well. I think Kelii is a good bet though.

Lon said...

Thanks for the reply GX.

You mentioned that you got a Kelii from MGM a while back, and that the action was too high. Do you think this is true for all Kelii ukes? I ask because I am between a Kelii and Honu tenor (both solid koa). I am upgrading from a Kala KA-S, which is a tad small for my liking (but still playable).


peaceair said...

Very nice review...
And your playing cool...
From your review, I bought Kelii Soprano(All KOA), it is very good one...
Thanks again.

^^ Koreanvegan

Erwin said...

Greetings from the mean streets of Pasadena! thanks for your review. I'm a charango newbie thinking of adding ukulele to my list of things I'm a newbie to.

I've been looking at the Kelii brand on HawaiiMusicSupply and am debating between it and Anaole brand.

I would love to hear your thoughts/comparison.


Anonymous said...

I am very much in agreement with your review of Keli'i but I disagree in terms of I think the neck, while wider, had a very thin profile, especially in the lower registers. I have the bronze series concern so perhaps it is different, but it puts me in mind of the neck profile of the old Martins. Anyway, yes, Keli'i is a very respectable ukulele.

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