Interested in exceptional Tenor Ukes.

Milesaway71

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I saw here that I had been registered with UU in 2008, but has to be under a different email addy that long ago, so I've re-registered a new account. I had only posted in 2 threads, as mLKauai, because at the time I was very active on Fleamarket forum as my "home" forum back then.
Sort of lost contact with the gang there in the last 10 years, and when I go back to FM there's lots of "crickets". A lot has changed since 2008.

Around 2010, my opinion was fixed that a really good custom tenor uke, was much better (for my purposes) than just about any name brand uke you could buy off the shelf. Today some of the bigger name brands have "top shelf" ukes that have incorporated excellence in their build and quality that matches or outperforms any private custom build.

I live on Kauai, and there's not a lot of exposure to the exploding art of ukulele builds, and I'm going to try and dig into UU and hope to find discussions about all this. Maybe someone can refer me to threads that discuss this?
 

UkeStuff

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Are you looking for larger established brands, or for custom builders?

And being from Hawaii, you are probably already aware of The Ukulele Site, which carries most of the top models in the world.
 

Milesaway71

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I am on Kauai, and we don't have any of the really great uke stores that I think are on Oahu, where the major brands are.
I don't know enough about it since 2010 or so, but the major builders like Koaloha, Kamaka had basic models, then they were making customs for pro players.
I am guessing today they still sell the basic models, but may have levels of quality going up to ukes that are pro level, like Jake, Tolentino, Brittany Paiva, etc... is there basic, intermediate, and pro levels? Ko'olau has Pono, and then upper levels too.

is there discussion about what they do with the builds on the pro level uke that elevates them from the basic... not just the looks but the build differences.
I am pretty sure those differences are also built into the great custom individual builder's ukes we see ... IMO that's why they are priced higher, and in demand by pro's that need excellence in tone and playability. You know, a blinged out Kala is not a top level Ko'olau for example.
So what I mean is where is the discussion about this?
 

merlin666

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The first uke store I ever went to was Scotty's at his old location in Kalaheo and this got me interested in ukulele. I have since been back a few times at the new location in Lihue, as well as to most uke stores on Oahu and BI and compared to most including HMS, Scotty's has a top notch collection. Only store ever where you can compare six string ukes of all three K brands side by side. And for luthiers, you have Raymond Rapozo and all of his tenors that I had a chance to look at various stores on Kauai were outstanding. So from my point of view Kauai is uke paradise (and home of UU I think).
 

Milesaway71

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Yea Aldrine is from here, and I saw he had a custom Kamaka; that was years ago. I met Ray Rapozo, I had one of his. I bought a couple Koaloha tenors from Scottys in Kalaheo way back for someone on the mainland at a good price.
Some well known custom guys today, I won't mention names, when starting out, their ukes were hit and miss... one was great, another the tone not as good... I'm talking about ukes that are used for more than just strumming rhythm, but for solo playing too, where every note must ring out.

If you ask me, I have heard sound clips, a custom tenor from Kamaka or Koaloha, Ko'olau, their high priced ukes, I mean $4-5K are ALL amazing. But that puts price way up there. I wonder if the $2k to $3k ukes, like Kamaka sells to stores, are built with the same attention to tone. I wouldn't think so but we should be able to find out about build differences.
 
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merlin666

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I don't think that there is much in terms of quality, playability, or tone that a 2k+ uke adds to a $1100 uke. What is added are prime materials and decorations that will give the owner a sense of status that shows good taste and wealth to get it. This is not necessarily paired with the accomplishments as a player, but hopefully all top players can also afford an instrument that shows their status. But you will also see the occasional teenager with a Deluxe or Custom who has rich parents who not only buy him a BMW but also the uke of his liking.
 

pmorey

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Do yourself a favor and get in touch with Brad Donaldson over in Kekaha. He is reasonably active here on UU (used to be BuzzBD but was having account troubles on the new site and may now be UkelBldr51)
 

Kenn2018

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Today some of the bigger name brands have "top shelf" ukes that have incorporated excellence in their build and quality that matches or outperforms any private custom build.
Not trying to be snarky, but that's a pretty sweeping statement. Not sure how you could back that up.

The K-Brands make very fine instruments. Their custom, or made-to-order ukes are custom builds made by their luthiers. Though they may outsource specialty work such as Inlays.

Ko'olau makes nothing but custom orders.

Kanile'a has an excellent Platinum model that changes every year. It's their top model made in very limited numbers by their luthiers. Often incorporating new technology in their design. They also have a Diamond model and Signature models that well-known performers help to design.

Kamaka also offers custom orders. With a lot of features not offered on their standard models. They also have performers who are sponsored by the company and consult about designs and builds. You'd have to look on their website or call them for more info.

To be honest, I don't know how high the Ko'Aloha uke models go. Red Label, Gold Label. Black Label.

Nice as these custom made ukuleles are, I'm not too sure that they outperform Luthier-made instruments from MooreBettah, Petros, Hive, Kinnard, Hoffmann, Ono, LFdM, Oya, and many others that I can't think of right now.

What exactly is your criteria? You have to tell us precisely what you mean. All designs? All sizes? All necks? All types of bracing and glues? All materials? Or just that they look pretty?
 

Kenn2018

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The biggest thing that a professional player does is have the action of an instrument adjusted to his/her style of playing. Next is to use strings that they like on the instrument they play for their own enjoyment. Often that is NOT the one they play in public. Some name artists can own hundreds of instruments. Others have a handful of ones they bond with.

Lots of excellent professional players have one or two off-the-shelf ukes they like and that's it. With little or no modifications made. Others have bespoke instruments that are made for that performer to their specifications. Some get new instrument(s) every year or several times a year because they wear them out. Others get their favorites repaired as often as needed.

I have had professional players use my Ko'Aloha and play wonderful, intricate classical pieces on it. Then change up to a bluegrass or jazz piece. It almost makes me weep to know that I will never attain that level of skill, knowledge or ability. I am a mediocre player who can make a great instrument sound very, very ordinary. I know pros who can pick up an inexpensive Kala laminate and make it sing.

There's no magic instrument that will make me sound like a professional. Or even an advanced amature.
 

Milesaway71

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I don't think that there is much in terms of quality, playability, or tone that a 2k+ uke adds to a $1100 uke.
If you were correct I would buy an $1100 plain Kamaka or Ko'olau tenor right now.

Some price differences will be for binding, inlays, appearance of the wood...but quality, playability and tone are EXACTLY what I would expect for the extra dollars.
Factory made tenor ukes have been adding any kind of bling you want a under $1000 price points for years, but the topic of this thread has nothing to do with cosmetic improvements.

Let's take Kamaka and Koolau tenors:
Their standard tenors have no binding or special inlays... I assume they are partly "hand made" to a certain extent: I mean they aren't all-factory made like the Pono brand. They run around $1k or more (?) and you can pay over $3k for their "better" tenors with cosmetic add ons. (I'm not checking the online prices so I'm estimating)

Custom ukes, for one thing, are more hands-on builds i.e. hand tuned top-woods for optimal tone. Action and intonation is another.
I've marveled at the tones that Jake and other pros get out of their customs and I know for sure you can't get that from a standard model.

Are these $3k tenors the same in quality (playability, and tone) as their "custom" made to order tenors that go for over $3k? (ie the Jake model is around $5k ?

Basically this is what I'm interested in finding out. I'm not a pro but I do play both rhythm and solos so every note is important.
When I talk about the difference between a great custom and an off the shelf standard or whatever level its all about the playability and tone; volume, projection, sustain.

I will add here that for those that haven't seen this, with a tenor uke, or a baritone, It's harder to get those mid and high note tone qualities tuned in like that of a concert or soprano. It has to do with the scale length imo.
If you have played a Koaloha concert, or a vintage Martin concert, or a vintage Martin soprano, standard level, the tones just ring out with volume and sustain like nobody's business. They're awesome.
When I moved into tenor size I was really shocked at how dull most standard issue tenors sounded; even Kamaka and Koaloha... and vintage Martins. Of course Iz and Peter Moon killed it on Martin tenors but how many pros use a standard tenor?

My experience as a tenor customer, back in 2005 up to 2010 or so, has been with just a couple good builders, i.e. William King and Talsma.
King had just started building ukes (he had been making good classical guitars) I was impressed with his skill and he put out lots of info on each build he was making. I took a chance and it paid off... he got really popular, people lined up for custom builds, but the business wasn't profitable enough to allow him to quit his full time job in computer tech or something. I ordered a few from him over those years and also passed a couple on to others in Hawaii, at one of the Guild shows.
I had heard that Talsma's beautiful work was also a player's dream so I bought one from him and it was great as well.

Thanks for all the replies. I don't have notifications figured out here yet so I'm late seeing these.
 

roastbeast

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Where are these base model Ko'olaus for $1k?? They start at $2.5k new from what I've seen and should not be grouped with Kamaka production models.
 

Milesaway71

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Where are these base model Ko'olaus for $1k?? They start at $2.5k new from what I've seen and should not be grouped with Kamaka production models.
I hope its for a good reason... you mean the ones without binding or any cosmetics? Are they worthy of the price?
I don't see or much about them but back in early 2000's they were highly revered. One guy I knew paid 3k for a custom Koolau tenor spruce/rosewood with binding and was thrilled (playability and sound). He played some popular tunes that were specially written/arranged for uke; and the sound was up there. that was over 10 yrs ago and it would cost a lot more today.

I have a hard time agreeing with a store owner that carries Kamaka, who says the only difference between the basic Kamaka tenors and the more expensive ones is cosmetics.
Not trying to be snarky, but that's a pretty sweeping statement. Not sure how you could back that up.
What I said was Kamaka, Koaloha do make custom builds for pros that cost a lot and are AS GOOD AS OR BETTER than the deservedly successful private builders. what do I need to back up? Its true. All you have to do is listen to those pros. "As good as" is obvious. Am I incorrect for saying "or better"?
You got me thinking about that; you may be right. In my experience all builders learn as they go along and some of their pieces are better than others they've made. If they are successful over time they incorporate what works to get to excellence on a consistent basis.
 

Milesaway71

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The biggest thing that a professional player does is have the action of an instrument adjusted to his/her style of playing. Next is to use strings that they like on the instrument they play for their own enjoyment. Often that is NOT the one they play in public. Some name artists can own hundreds of instruments. Others have a handful of ones they bond with.

I have had professional players use my Ko'Aloha and play wonderful, intricate classical pieces on it. Then change up to a bluegrass or jazz piece. It almost makes me weep to know that I will never attain that level of skill, knowledge or ability. I am a mediocre player who can make a great instrument sound very, very ordinary. I know pros who can pick up an inexpensive Kala laminate and make it sing.

There's no magic instrument that will make me sound like a professional. Or even an advanced amature.
I think you are right in focusing on the setup of the uke being adjusted to their style. Not sure if you know Makana the excellent slack key guitarist. He also writes his own musical pieces in other styles so his guitar is versatile. He has used an old Takamine guitar for ages and the sounds he gets out of it are magic.
If I were a pro I would insist on having the setup, strings etc where I want it if I were to perform and feel it was worth listening to.
I have played a few regular gigs, but I have to struggle to play correctly; the timing, the dexterity needed is tiring.
I know some pros can play great and be comfortable like taking a stroll in the park, but as far as I know most pros spent countless hours practicing... then they perform so much they are always playing.
Btw talking about setup, somehow I fell into playing my best on a custom scale tenor. I first had an 18" long scale tenor but had William King build one with a 17 5/8" scale which is my daily driver, for over 10 yrs, and I am not comfortable at all with 17 or 18.
 

LukuleleStrings

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I reviewed the Kamaka Jake model and compared it to my standard HF3. I liked the Jake model more because slotted headstocks are cool, the tuners were awesome, and it had more than one side dot.

But tone wise, it sounded like my HF3.

Regarding Ko’Olau and Pono, I think there was a time when Pono could have been looked at as the import line of Ko’Olau, but things have changed. Noa doesn’t take orders anymore and instead makes whatever he wants and then it’s put up for sale. It’s a two-man shop and they pretty much hand-make everything.

Within the Pono line, though, the higher-priced models usually start to include radiused fretboards, more bling, gloss finishes, and prettier woods.
 

Milesaway71

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I reviewed the Kamaka Jake model and compared it to my standard HF3. I liked the Jake model more because slotted headstocks are cool, the tuners were awesome, and it had more than one side dot.

But tone wise, it sounded like my HF3.

Regarding Ko’Olau and Pono, I think there was a time when Pono could have been looked at as the import line of Ko’Olau, but things have changed. Noa doesn’t take orders anymore and instead makes whatever he wants and then it’s put up for sale. It’s a two-man shop and they pretty much hand-make everything.

Within the Pono line, though, the higher-priced models usually start to include radiused fretboards, more bling, gloss finishes, and prettier woods.
I would think the Jake and the ones that I was told Casey makes, like one a year (?)... are hand made, whereas do we consider HF3 as a production uke? I see they're $1500 now.
My other custom has a slotted head with Waverlys, and I don't get excited about that.
So you agree that the difference is cosmetic? 3 or 4 thousand more for the time it takes to hand make the purfling, binding and inlays?

Wasn't it the father who founded Koolau and originally did the building? I'm sure Noa builds fine ukes. Wasn't there another brother as well?

I wish I could be in the business just to sample all the different high end customs to compare.

So far I've only played my builder's customs, and another that was very good (Talsma)... they sound like real musical instruments right off the bat.
I've tried a lot of different production brands, including some so called "high end" productions (compared to Kala for example) like a $900 Kiwaya mahogany and a $1200 Maestro koa (overbuilt). Granted the set up that comes new is a little higher than I like, but the trebles range sounds tinny to me ( I play low G). I can't enjoy it... It's been so long since I played a Koaloha tenor, but it and Kamaka HF3 surely are better sounding.

I am so used to playing a slightly longer scale and wider nut than Kamaka, I'll possibly give Koaloha another shot; I think they are 37mm nut, before I give up. lol. I fear I'm playing the hell out of my favorite uke. For about 15 years, all the time.
As much as I love playing, I don't see me acquiring a $6k custom from Ukulele Friend's favorite builders. Not at the moment anyway...
I'm 72 yrs old and not exactly early in the game.
 

roastbeast

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I hope its for a good reason... you mean the ones without binding or any cosmetics? Are they worthy of the price?
I don't see or much about them but back in early 2000's they were highly revered. One guy I knew paid 3k for a custom Koolau tenor spruce/rosewood with binding and was thrilled (playability and sound). He played some popular tunes that were specially written/arranged for uke; and the sound was up there. that was over 10 yrs ago and it would cost a lot more today.

I have a hard time agreeing with a store owner that carries Kamaka, who says the only difference between the basic Kamaka tenors and the more expensive ones is cosmetics.

What I said was Kamaka, Koaloha do make custom builds for pros that cost a lot and are AS GOOD AS OR BETTER than the deservedly successful private builders. what do I need to back up? Its true. All you have to do is listen to those pros. "As good as" is obvious. Am I incorrect for saying "or better"?
You got me thinking about that; you may be right. In my experience all builders learn as they go along and some of their pieces are better than others they've made. If they are successful over time they incorporate what works to get to excellence on a consistent basis.
Yes, refering to Ko'olau 100 series.

Are they worth the price? I'll let you know after next week... 😏

Also, after a certain point as you get into HQ custom builds, quality of sound probably becomes subjective to the individual artist.
 

LukuleleStrings

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I mean, all Kamakas are hand-made to an extent. They make great ukes. It just felt like a lot of the price for the Jake model was put into figured wood and cosmetics. And Jake’s name of course.
 

Kenn2018

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From what I understand, the custom made ukes from Kamaka and Kanile'a use slightly different, more time-consuming to configure and cut, bracing. They use hand-selected wood blanks. Often from a reserve they have set aside over the years. The soundboards are tap-tested and carefully shaped and refined. With small shavings taken here and there to adjust and refine the sound.

I don't know if the luthier hand-makes everything, or he supervises and directs others who make the parts. I imagine it's a little of both.

Hide glues are often used. Not only for their acoustic properties, but also for their ability to be steamed apart to make repairs or revisions.

Things are made to meet the sensibilities and vision of the luthier and the person who commissioned the instrument.

I'll give an example: Pepe Romero, himself, hand-makes a very few custom ukuleles every year. They are created to a model design he has perfected over the years. To which he adds cosmetic touches to a client's preferences. Or modifies the uke slightly to accommodate the needs of the buyer. He has a wait time of, the last I heard, 1-1/2 years for a custom build.

His company makes a "replica" tenor that is based upon his custom design. It is a step above the standard Romero tenors. But it uses standardized parts. Pre-cut blanks. CNC cut necks. Batch-produced braces. It's still hand-assembled and detailed, but various people do different parts of the manufacturing, assembly and finishing. It's a very good tenor ukulele. But it doesn't sound as good or play as well as a custom Pepe Romero instrument.

Some professional players are very exacting about the instrument they play. They want the neck just so. The sound to be a certain way. Absolutely custom made to fit their needs precisely. Others go through instruments by the dozens every year. They find an instrument they like. Off the shelf. They have the action adjusted to their liking. They play it for a while and move on. Or they may use several during a performance.

Kimo Hussy is famous for using a lot of different instruments. Many are made for him. He still uses it for a while and then moves on. Because he loves to hear the differences in the builds, the woods, and to see the beauty in each of them.