Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thoughts about the Jake Shimabukuro signature model...

How about a little controversial post from the Ghetto???

A few days ago someone posted about the receiving the Jake Shimabukuro signature model (video here) tenor ukulele on the Ukulele Underground forums. It is the 25th example in a limited edition of 100 ukes build by Kamaka and sold via a lottery system several years ago for the price of $5500. Assuming this is either the latest one, or close to the latest one completed by Casey Kamaka, they have over 70 of these still to be built and delivered to owners who won the right to purchase this model.

It doesn't take long from reading this blog that I'm pretty much a Jake Shimabukuro junkie. I try to learn every Jake song within my playing capability (still can't play 3rd Stream, I'm afraid). I order custom ukes that pay homage to Jake's uke. I attend Jake's concert almost every time he comes to town. So it's a little weird that I really have not felt much desire or jealousy for this Jake Shimabukuro signature model. Yes, I think it looks great and despite never having played it (not many people on the face of this earth have), I have no doubt that it should be a superb sounding instrument. Why do I not feel much lust toward it? I guess it might make a semi-interesting post to examine it.

Ok, so the first thing that throws me off would be the $5500 price tag. Although judging from my stash o' ukes it might look like I'm a pretty extravagant person, in reality I rarely lust after something I can't afford. Yes, I've spent much more than the asking price of this ukulele on ukes, but I've never spent that in one shot. I actually don't think $5500 is too outrageous for one ukulele, but up to this point I haven't been truly interested in a uke in that price range because I don't consider it something I can comfortably afford.

Now let's take a look at what that $5500 buy (without having actually examined one in person, of course, so we're dealing with some hypotheticals here). You get a tenor sized ukulele with some seriously nice master grade koa that's trimmed with the same abalone and red piping around the purfling and rosette. You get an ebony fretboard with the "JS" monogram logo inlaid on it. You get a solid headstock in the same shape as the one found on Jake's previous ukulele with what looks to be some Schaller tuners on it. Also part of the package is a nice Ameritage case and some documentation telling you it is a Jake Shimabukuro model. The first problem I would have with this is the fact that this uke does not have a slotted headstock. Slotted headstocks have become wildly popular with uke fans because of Jake Shimabukuro. I find it a bit disappointing that his signature model does not come with one. Sure, the Kamaka slotted headstock takes a lot more work than the regular solid headstocks. And the Gilbert tuners found on Jake's actual ukulele costs $160 per set. But you'd figure $5500 would be able to cover that. My guess is that they want to keep Jake's ukulele unique, and I can understand that. But how about doing a modified slotted headstock without the binding around it? People buying this uke want to pretend to be Jake (I certainly would), why not provide them with the full slotted headstock fueled experience?

Another fundamental problem with this program, in my opinion, is that Kamaka is essentially building 100 identical custom built ukuleles and discontinuing their custom program for the general public (I think they build a few for some artists). I believe the lottery occurred in 2006, so assuming they've built 30 of the 100 ukes so far, it will be another 8 to 10 years before they are able to accept custom orders again. So instead of some cool and special one-off custom Kamakas out there, we get 100 cool and special but identical custom Kamaka ukes for the next decade. Sure 100 ukes is but a drop in the bucket in the ukulele universe, but it seems to me the world would be more interesting if people got to order specially designed customs from Kamaka. As much a Jake fan as I am, I really would rather have my own initials on a ukulele I paid $5500 for instead of Jake's (you didn't see me putting "JS" on my Glyph did you?) regardless of how much of a hack I am at playing the ukulele.

I know some people would argue that having a proper Jake Shimabukuro signature model would make it hold its value a lot more instead of true customs, and I completely agree. These JS signature models could be turned around for a minimum $3000 profit today by the lucky winners who got to purchase these ukes from Kamaka. But speaking personally, the more I spend on a uke, the more I'd want to play it (i.e. put dents and scratches on it) and the more I would feel like having it as a family heirloom. So at least for me resale value would be a non-issue. I know many people treat expensive instruments with kid gloves and want to keep them pristine, but I feel that if an instrument is truly worth the high price, it must be a great player and therefore needs to be played. One of these JS ukes in my hands probably would lose value from all the strum marks I'd put on it.

It may sound like I'm bad mouthing this ukulele. I hope you can read carefully and understand my point, which is not at all bashing this model. I think it is a great ukulele and I would certainly take one if I could. But I'd really rather have a proper Kamaka custom with a slotted headstock, my initials on the fretboard, and other custom appointments I'd want. And I guess that would the point of this post. Thanks to the existence of this model, that's not going to be an option until perhaps a decade later.

So, if you own one of these babies and you're reading this, please don't feel offended. I truly think you're very lucky to own such a great ukulele and you should be ecstatic to pretty much own a piece of Jake Shimabukuro. But I will gladly strum away on my custom Kings and Glyph in my little corner of the ukulele world.

Peace, Love, and Ukulele baby!


bazmaz said...

Dude - splendid post. This is also happening (and has for some time) in the guitar world.

You are right - considering its heritage I am sure it will be a great sounding and playing uke. As a limited run, it will also look stunning with all those loveliest pieces of wood selected just for it.

It will also, I am sure, hold and gain value.

But... and its a HUGE but. $5500. Absolute nuts.

All of that said, I have been known to buy limited vinyl records, books etc for inflated prices, so is that any different.

For me though, If I had $5500 to blow on a uke, i would probably spend £1-2,000 and pocket the change quite happily. Diminishing returns..

Ronnie Aloha said...


I agree with your post completely. As one who had actually filled out the paperwork for the JS I can say that the only thing that held me back was the price. Although I knew I could resell it for more I also knew that I would NEVER resell it (unless dire circumstances demanded it.)

I'm much happier with my semi-custom Moore Bettah which was not even close to the price of the JS. I would also have been extremely disappointed that the JS didn't have a slot head after paying for what I would have envisioned as a identical copy of Jake's actual instrument.

It would have been fairly easy to make a jig for the slot head that would have reduced the manufacturing process. Perhaps they could have used the slot head that Brian Tolentino has (with the standard Kamaka "crown" on top of the slot head) if they wanted to keep the flat top slot head unique to Jake's uke.

Anonymous said...

dude you got some of the stuff wromg in here, it aint gonna take 10 years, more like 3 years, cause im getting a custom made from casey and i talked to him and he said like 3 years to finish all of them, and yeah they didnt put the slotted head because they wanted jakes to be original and unique.

Unknown said...

I feel like Kamaka is still trying to get the Martin guitar family tradition feel with ukuleles. They could probably stand to be a bit more successful, even with the success they already have, if they let customers pick their appointments and truly have their dream instrument. It frankly seems a bit snobbish to decline customers dreams just because of the amount of effort involved.

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: