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View Full Version : Is There a Traditional Hawaiian Ukulele Sound?



FrankB
04-26-2014, 07:56 AM
And if there is, which makers best represent it? I have a couple of solid Kala tenors (very nice), and have a Martin Koa concert that rings and resonates like a steel string guitar. The Koaloha and Kamaka ukuleles I've owned/own do not have that jangly sound which oozes out of the Martin. Martin has been making ukuleles almost as long as Kamaka, but I don't know if they sold many in Hawaii 90 years ago. I don't know what a vintage Martin sounds like either.

Times change, and musical styles evolve, sometimes rapidly. Jake's Koa Kamaka sounds rather dry (unplugged) compared to some other brands I've heard. I'm still trying to decide whether the relatively woody tone of my Kamaka is better than the jangly, highly resonant tone of the Martin. I do know without a doubt that the Martin's resonance can be a bit much sometimes, and actually bothers my ears. OTOH, there are certainly times when it sounds good. The Koaloha I had fell somewhere between the Martin and Kamaka in terms of resonance, and all three have about the same volume with Oasis strings.

Are there any pros who would exemplify a traditional Hawaiian sound? Is anyone interested in a traditional Hawaiian sounding uke? I'll use a Martin 0015 vs a D-28, and say the 0015 suits blues playing better than the D-28. Maybe a poor comparison, but the only one I can think of besides a realflamenco guitar like a Paco de Lucia's Condes, and a Yamaha "flamenco". Those guitars are separated by a great deal of cash, so I'll say using a Conde for flamenco, and a classical guitar like Paco Pena sometimes used.

hmgberg
04-26-2014, 08:46 AM
Sam Kamaka Sr. apprenticed with Manuel Nunes, the self-proclaimed inventor of the ukulele. It is true that he was among the three Portuguese craftsmen who traveled on the Ravenscrag that landed in Hawaii in 1879. The Hawaiian ukuleles made between 1910 and 1915 that I have played, which granted represents a small sampling, all sound similar: loud, punchy, but boxy. They were somewhat crudely made, which I think is part of their charm, without bridge patches (which contributes to their high volume, yet boxy tone), and without raised fret boards, so they were virtually unplayable past the 7th fret.

Sam Kamaka struck out on his own in 1916, along with the second wave of Hawaiian makers, including Kumalae, who won the Gold Award at the Pan Pacific Exhibition in 1915. This exhibition marks the start of the first ukulele craze. Initially, Kamakas were were shaped like, built like, and consequently sounded like other Hawaiian ukuleles. However, in 1928 Kamaka patented the pineapple ukulele and began producing them. If you have the opportunity to tour the Kamaka factory, Fred Kamaka will tell you that they were charmed enough by the sound of the pineapple, that they strove to make even their figure-eight shaped ukuleles sound as much like the pineapple as possible. It was notably less punchy, more of a balmy and lilting sound, in my opinion...generally warmer, relaxed, if that makes sense. I do believe this sound is identified as a traditional Hawaiian sound. I think the Kamaka factory strings are are hold over from the original timbre of the early pineapple. Chuck Fayne, who loves Kamakas, particularly the early pineapples, uses Kamaka strings.

Martin started making ukuleles at the same time that Kamaka established his factory. Martin soprano ukuleles of that vintage are loud, have more sustain, and are jangly. I think they are not particularly Hawaiian sounding, although some notable Hawaiian players use or used them (Ohta-San, Eddie Kamae).

It seems to me that there is a universally preferred ukulele sound (at least from what I read on UU) that is not what I would describe as traditional like either the first wave or Kamaka's unique sound; folks want as much volume, sustain and brightness as possible. In many ways, Koaloha ukuleles exemplify these characteristics. I have Kamakas and Koalohas, and I really love them both. Yet, when I think about Hawaii and what I consider to be an Hawaiian sound, it's Kamaka all the way, albeit with fluorocarbon strings.

Ukejenny
04-26-2014, 09:04 AM
I would love to have a Kamaka concert.

I wonder how close the Ohana SK 28 comes to getting in the ball park of a "traditional" sound, since they are designed to be reminiscent of the early instruments.

Dan Uke
04-26-2014, 09:45 AM
What's interesting is. Ohta San and Iz played a Martin for part of their career. when I think of Hawaiian, I think of short sustain

hmgberg
04-26-2014, 09:57 AM
What's interesting is. Ohta San and Iz played a Martin for part of their career. when I think of Hawaiian, I think of short sustain

I agree about the short sustain. I'm pretty sure that Ohta-San uses low-G Kamaka strings. Check out the videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32pQP8UGQdU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqwo6yGswOk

I'm not sure what strings Iz used, but there seem to be two wound strings involved.

hmgberg
04-26-2014, 10:03 AM
I would love to have a Kamaka concert.

I wonder how close the Ohana SK 28 comes to getting in the ball park of a "traditional" sound, since they are designed to be reminiscent of the early instruments.


Judge for yourself:

Ukulelezaza on an Ohana Sk-38, Aquila strings

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kgQE1AaM5A

Ukulelezaza on a ca. 1930 Martin Style 3, Aquila natural gut strings

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ76gusiXa4

FrankB
04-26-2014, 10:43 AM
hmgberg,
Thanks for taking time to answer my question, and provide the videos. The Kamaka's sound is what I think of as Hawaiian, and when my 26-yr-old guitar/violin playing son heard my Koaloha, he proclaimed, "That sounds like a ukulele!" Tone has always been much more important than volume to my son, and he's heard some awful violins In the past 20 years.

I told my wife that her Martin's sound was not arrived at by accident, and we've certainly had enough pass through the living room lately. She had a little jam session with two,other players yesterday at the office, and one did not like the Martin. He's a singer as well, and its bright tone and loud volume would have been too much.

guitharsis
04-26-2014, 11:13 AM
I agree about the short sustain. I'm pretty sure that Ohta-San uses low-G Kamaka strings. Check out the videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32pQP8UGQdU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqwo6yGswOk

I'm not sure what strings Iz used, but there seem to be two wound strings involved.

I love these videos. Have been using low G Kamaka original stings on my Ohta San.

guitharsis
04-26-2014, 11:14 AM
Judge for yourself:

Ukulelezaza on an Ohana Sk-38, Aquila strings

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kgQE1AaM5A

Ukulelezaza on a ca. 1930 Martin Style 3, Aquila natural gut strings

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ76gusiXa4

Great playing Enjoyed both and demonstrated the difference well.

UkerDanno
04-26-2014, 01:09 PM
In my mind, a vintage Martin soprano oozes the Hawaiiian sound. A lady in our uke club is from Hawaii and just loves my style 0, that's all I can say about it. I've been curious about the Ohana SK-28 also.

hmgberg
04-26-2014, 04:42 PM
hmgberg,
Thanks for taking time to answer my question, and provide the videos. The Kamaka's sound is what I think of as Hawaiian, and when my 26-yr-old guitar/violin playing son heard my Koaloha, he proclaimed, "That sounds like a ukulele!" Tone has always been much more important than volume to my son, and he's heard some awful violins In the past 20 years.

I told my wife that her Martin's sound was not arrived at by accident, and we've certainly had enough pass through the living room lately. She had a little jam session with two,other players yesterday at the office, and one did not like the Martin. He's a singer as well, and its bright tone and loud volume would have been too much.


I'm not surprised that your son identifies the Koaloha's as a quintessential ukulele sound. As I wrote, I think a lot of players agree, at least in terms of a contemporary ukulele sound. However, I don't think the players of the 20's, say, were after the same sound. All of that rapid strumming that Smeck did on his Martin Style 1, for example, wouldn't have worked on a larger bodied uke fitted with fluorocarbon strings. I suppose what I'm suggesting is that technology has something to do with how the sound is defined at various times in history.

Honestly, the longer I play, and the more ukuleles I play, both vintage and contemporary, the more I am inclined to try to discover each one's potential by messing with different strings and tunings until I am happy with them all, as opposed to pursuing a particular sound. But, I think for a "traditional" Hawaiian sound, the Kamaka has great potential. Part of it is that woody tone as you describe it. While my Kamaka concert is not as in-your-face dynamic as my Koaloha concert, I find the Kamaka more versatile. With fluorocarbon stings, it has a very pleasing, sweet ring. When I have tried different strings on it, Kamakas and Aquilas, it sounds very different. I tried different strings on the Koaloha and found that I don't like it at all with anything other than a set of light fluorocarbons. That's what I mean when I say that the Kamaka is more versatile.

There was a thread recently about Collings ukuleles. I was surprised to read that one member sort of fell out of love with hers after a while. But, I do understand the sentiment. I have experienced the reverse as well. The Kamaka is a good example of that for me. I liked it as soon as I got it, about four years ago. But over time, I have grown to love it more. Playing it makes me happy almost immediately and now every time I pull it out, it seems to sound better than I expect it to.

mm stan
04-26-2014, 06:48 PM
I do believe the traditional hawaiian sound really comes from the short scale sopranos...they were crudely made and had that cha lang a lang sound...
cheap chinese sopranos are crudely made and may come close to this today...

Doc_J
04-26-2014, 07:07 PM
I do believe the traditional hawaiian sound really comes from the short scale sopranos......

:agree: I agree with Stan.

A Koa reentrant soprano is it for me.

hawaii 50
04-26-2014, 07:52 PM
I do believe the traditional hawaiian sound really comes from the short scale sopranos...they were crudely made and had that cha lang a lang sound...
cheap chinese sopranos are crudely made and may come close to this today...

yes Stan I think you hit the nail right on the head....best description I ever heard....
where you been?