- Feb 3, 2008
Note: Instrument does not come in the Ameritage case
Coming to Purchase the Kamaka Jake Blue
Growing up in Hawaii, Jake Shimabukuro was a local celebrity. It’s crazy to know he’s 42 now, and still king of the instrument—although many outstanding ukulele artists have also come up in the years since Pure Heart. Despite following Aldrine’s online instruction since the UU team’s IamHawaii days, I never had the talent nor patience to be one of those artists—so the closest I might ever get would be owning an instrument similar to his.
In fact, when I started playing ukulele over 10 years ago, I dreamt two grail instruments: a copy of Jake Shimabukuro’s slotted headstock tenor from Kamaka, and a KoAloha Tenor Sceptre. To my knowledge, Kamaka didn’t take custom orders back then unless you were genuinely talented, so that was out of the question. Thankfully, Sceptres are more accessible and Alan at KoAloha hooked me up with one which I love dearly.
But, when the Jake Blue was announced at NAMM 2017 (more accurately, I saw it in the corner of someone’s YouTube booth review), I knew that I had to have one and immediately emailed Andrew at TheUkuleleSite.com. I probably bothered him every three months after that until the instruments finally shipped from the factory this month. One random morning this April, I woke up to an email from Andrew with pictures and sound samples from the HMS team of the two in-stock instruments. I normally snooze for about 30 minutes, but that morning, I leaped out of bed, turned on my computer, examined the pics, brought out the Sennheiser headphones, listened to the clips half-awake, and immediately pulled trigger on an example that had the lighter honey-colored wood. (In the end, it was purely an aesthetic preference because both sounded wonderful.)
The shopping experience with TheUkuleleSite was seamless. Also, the ukulele came with no tax, free 2 day shipping (immaculately packaged), and free setup—pretty great!
Aesthetics, Style, and Fit and Finish
This is certainly a grail-level instrument.
Immediately, the silvery-green abalone inlays surrounding the body and soundhole draw your eye when opening the case. The blue accents that give the instrument its name really do make the instrument and differentiate it from others which have “only” an abalone purfling. The one element that I had never seen anywhere before was the outlined logo. I imagine that this was quite difficult to achieve with two organic materials and required very fine workmanship—but the result is impressive and makes the headstock look much higher-end. Other accoutrements are quite subtle; for example, I didn’t notice the ebony trim around the soundhole for the first few days. The end strip is also so casual that I didn’t pay attention to it until I read the specs.
Overall, the fit and finish of the instrument is spectacular. Certainly in the upper echelons of the most refined of any instruments I’ve experienced. There’s no random glue anywhere and the inlays and bindings are flush and flawless as far as my eyes can tell. The Gilbert tuners which help to give Jake’s instrument its signature chunky headstock style are 100% necessary here and really complete the look. Also, I’m not sure if this is a recent production feature, but I thought the laser etching where the neck connects to the body was a nice touch.
As for the wood itself, preferences in appearance of koa is a personal matter, and I’ve historically found that Kamaka tended to use more wood that tended to be more on the subtle side. On my Jake Blue, the curl is definitely there throughout the instrument as you can see in the pictures; however, in person, under regular indoor lighting, it’s far more subtle—sometimes I almost have to look for it at the right angles. When I first opened the case, I had imagined something more obviously punchy and flashy, but after getting used to it, I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
Pricing and Value
You cannot talk about this instrument without acknowledging the price. The ~$5,000 price tag probably puts off a lot of buyers—especially for an instrument that has someone else’s name on the fretboard. I haven’t inquired with Paul at KoAloha what one of his masterworks cost (or how many years I’d have to wait to even be considered), but whoever you choose as your maker, you’d have quite a bit of choice and could get your own name on the fretboard if looking to spend in this neighborhood on an instrument. That said, there’s something to be said about chasing heroes….
Also, the “value” (separate concept from “price”) for this ukulele is not absurd. If memory serves, the first run of 100 Kamaka-JS collaboration ukuleles sold for ~$5,500 (~$6,800 today adjusted for inflation) via a lottery system in 2006/2007 and then were trading in the secondary market for in the neighborhood of $10k when I had been looking—far out of reach. It didn’t even have a slotted headstock! It did come with an Ameritage case and [I believe] a Fishman Matrix pickup. But aside from a fancier case and a free pickup, with today’s production model, you’re still getting an instrument made by Casey Kamaka with top-of-the-line appointments. To be clear, because the Jake Blue is a production instrument, I do not expect it to appreciate in value the same way the original limited run instruments did—but all the better because then I’ll never be tempted to sell.
Tone and Playability
As for the way the Jake Blue sounds, I was admittedly unimpressed when I took it out of the case and tuned it up—sounded a bit dull and lifeless dead versus what I had heard in the HMS clips. But I figured that this might just be the strings and instrument needing to settle into its new home again after shipping. Indeed, after a few days of re-tuning, that seems to have been the case.
After making itself at home, the tone on this instrument is spectacular. Particularly on the C, there well-rounded bass response, and strumming down to the A really lets chords sparkle. Sustain is excellent, and I expect the instrument to open up more with time and age. However, even today, it’s well-balanced, full, and frankly, if the tone is good enough for the guys on the HMS team who have the chance to play a ton of nice instruments, and good enough for Jake to play on stage, it’s certainly good enough for me.
Playability is what you’d expect. The action is straight down the fairway—not as low as it could go, but somewhere in-between on the more conservative side to avoid any potential buzz. Weight distribution and balance when holding the instrument is also great despite having what I’d expect to be a heavier headstock. And I didn’t appreciate it at first, but the subtle bound ebony fretboard is buttery smooth to slide along. Finally, I haven’t had the best of luck with pickups…and frankly, no legitimate use for them…so I opted to keep this one fully acoustic figuring that this would help to optimize the tone with no extra holes or wiring or batteries in the body.
Questions for the Experts
I do have a few questions about this instrument that maybe someone on UU can answer:
- What strings did it come with? D’Addario J71s?
- How do they make the signature blue outline? It almost looks like a dyed streak in the ebony under a loupe, but I really can’t tell.
- Was Jake involved in the making of these instruments in any way?
Appendix: Kamaka HF3-D4I (Jake Blue Edition) Specs
- Body Size: Tenor
- Overall Length: 27.5”
- Scale Length: 17”
- Frets: 18, 14 to Body
- Headstock: Geometrically Slotted Flat Top
- Headplate: Ebony
- Logo: Green Abalone Heart with Agoya Shell Outline
- Tuners: Gilbert with Abalone Dots and Snakewood Buttons
- Neck: Mahogany
- Fingerboard: Ebony with Jake's Signature in Mother of Pearl at 12th Fret
- Body Wood: Premium, Full Curly Koa
- Bridge: Ebony with Bone Tie Block Strips
- Saddle: Compensated Bone
- End Strip: Ebony
- Soundhole Binding: Ebony
- Rosette: Green Abalone Heart with Blue Accent
- Top & Back Binding: Ebony with Blue Accent
- Purfling: Green Abalone Heart with Blue Accent
- Finish: Gloss
- Case: Kamaka Logo Hardshell
Link to TheUkuleleSite Pictures and Video