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Thread: NUD: AO soprano built by Pops Okami

  1. #1
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    Default NUD: AO soprano built by Pops Okami

    "AO" in Hawaiian means “new beginning” as well as being Alvin “Pops” Okami’s initials. For those unfamiliar, Pops is the founder and “patriarch” of KoAloha Ukuleles. He is retired, which means he chooses where to devote his time and interests. There is something special having an ukulele personally designed and built by Pops Okami when his creative juices are flowing. The care, love, and design innovations makes it a special ukulele in my collection.

    Appearance and build:

    It is a beautiful ukulele with the contrast between the light and the dark.
    - The soundboard is made of Engelmann Spruce, what Pops considers the best sounding wood among all available.
    - Backs and sides appear to be Bear Claw Spruce (not positive on this - will update if I learn differently). This is a perfect complement to the front soundboard.
    - Neck/headstock appears to be pine with a beautiful light pattern complementing the other woods.
    - Fretboard and bridge was upgraded to ebony with the body bound with ebony as well, giving a striking contrast to the light wood. There are 17 frets, joining the body at the 12th fret. I prefer this than having only 12 frets as I improve my skills.
    - Instead of fret dots, the third, fifth, seventh, and tenth frets have zebrawood bands (love this!) with matching zebrawood on the bridge and the bottom of the body.
    - The AO logo is inlaid on the headstock (Asking for this “AO” logo is what sparked some of his creative juices due to its simplicity, yet elegance in design)
    - Gotoh Planetary tuners! … in black, of course. This is a thoughtful upgrade by Pops for me.
    - And finally… a unique innovation on function and appearance: the “slant-away” upper body instead of a cut-away on one side to allow better access to the upper frets. Functionally I can vouch for it working as well as a cut-away but the slant-away changes the traditional upper bout shape to maintain its pleasing symmetry (and would work equally well for a left handed player).

    Sound and playability:

    It is loud and balanced. I have been comparing it with my KoAloha Pikake soprano. It has an equivalent sound and projection. My untrained ears notice that there is a difference in that the AO has a bit fuller and more balanced sound. Maybe a little less treble and a stronger midrange. Neither is better, just slightly different and subject to personal preferences. Pops had made an earlier model that was for me, but was unhappy with the projection and sustain of the model due to additional decorative changes he experimented with, so switched his effort to this one (giving me the choice between appearance and sound… how’s that for a quality control department and customer service?).

    The AO “feels” right. Neck is comfortable, it is lightweight, and the slant-away makes playing the upper frets easy. Having the Gotoh tuners starts every session off well.

    Criticism?:

    Well, if you are really fussy, you can see some glue marks if you get really close. I know this is important to some. It is not noticed when holding and playing it (about one foot away) and becomes forgotten when you start to play it.

    Summary:

    It is a special ukulele because it was personally built by Pops. It is even more special because he knew he was building it for me (Wow!). And it looks great and sounds great. And it is priced incredibly low for all that goes into it… it competes on price with the Ponos, Opios, etc. and is much less than the koa models that set the bar for Hawaiian ukuleles. If looking for a soprano, this would be my first (and last?) stop. And it is a limited edition model based on Pops availability and interests.

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  2. #2
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    Congrats..super cool uke! Would love to hear a soundclip!
    John

  3. #3
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    Very cool! Nice collector's item too I'd say. I hope you enjoy it greatly!

  4. #4
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    I am so very happy, David, that you like the "AO" and that you were kind enough to write a NUD review. As you eluded to in your review, the "AO" is now part of Pop's stable of Sopranos due to you. For any readers of this post, David, ordered a Wow Ukulele from me back in the spring. I sent him one of the WOW's that I had on hand and he loved it and wrote a great NUD review. To my surprise, he wanted to also get Pop's cutaway, called "The Star Spangled Banger". I put the order in with Pops but there were a few requests made that caused this to be a more custom ukulele. David saw a video where of an early prototype that had a headstock with "AO" on it. He asked if Pops could do that for this Banger he was ordering. Pops agreed but a couple of Months went by and still no Banger. I visited Pops in August and we were having dinner and he said, "I have to tell you about David's BANGER. I am changing the entire design. It won't just be a cutaway but a "Slant-a-way. The Fretboard will be upgraded from Koa to Ebony as well as the bridge and nut. The tuners will also be upgraded. I can't wait for you to see it and I hope that David likes it. I hope to have pictures in about a month."

    Well, as the weeks went by, I saw the "Banger" morph into the "AO" with all of the above, but also ebony binding, zebra wood accents, and Bearclaw spruce for the rear panel. Pops would take pictures and send to me, and then make modification after modification. Finally, just before Christmas he sent me the final photo and said, "I am sending it off -- it is done and will arrive by Christmas!" It was just gorgeous!!. So, I waited to hear the good news and I heard nothing. I contacted Pops and asked if it was sent and he replied that when he let the strings settle, he did not get the sound he expected and there was no way he was going to send an ukulele that was not tonally, the best. He began to deconstruct, checking everything out and finally found the culprit. He rushed out a new one and got it in the mail on Christmas Eve. And from this, the new "AO" ukulele was born.

    I am so glad that you like it. From this order, followed by all of Pop's experimenting, we now have the Wow (figure eight), Supa Wow (Slant-a-way), Banger (a fancier Supa Wow) and the "AO"(the best of everything-- simply stunning in looks and sound). I will include some photos below and the initial video that spurred the request for the "AO"headstock. Oh, the headstock has the letters "AO" with Koa inlay.

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    Last edited by efiscella; 01-23-2020 at 04:50 PM.

  5. #5
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    This is a great post and fantastic content. I love WhT everyone ois doing. I read the old posts and must say, I do like the slant Uke design better. Also, the more conservative head stick.

    From old posts, I see there was a kit version. Is that still being sold. If so link?

    Is POPs making more of the slant design finished product or was this just a limited run thing. I like the wood choices. Pine body and and neck but Engelmann spruce top. Love the goto UPT. I’d like to see a tenor for more room o the fretboard but soprano is very cool.

    Thanks everyone for posting. The videos sound great.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by M3Ukulele View Post
    This is a great post and fantastic content. I love WhT everyone ois doing. I read the old posts and must say, I do like the slant Uke design better. Also, the more conservative head stick.

    From old posts, I see there was a kit version. Is that still being sold. If so link?

    Is POPs making more of the slant design finished product or was this just a limited run thing. I like the wood choices. Pine body and and neck but Engelmann spruce top. Love the goto UPT. I’d like to see a tenor for more room o the fretboard but soprano is very cool.

    Thanks everyone for posting. The videos sound great.
    Thanks for the compliments. Let me try to answer some of these questions. There was a kit on the original Wow. I am lucky enough to have two of these because they never fully developed. The idea behind the kit was that Pops made the Wow, himself, in Hawaii, and the kit would be made in Thailand by Rebel and then sent back to Pops for inspection. The Pops Wow had Engleman Spruce tops but the Kit was 100% pine except for the Koa Fretboard. The kit was unfinished. Shortly after Pops got a few prototypes of the kit, I tried selling them but the responses pretty much went like this, "Why would I get a kit when I can get one directly from Pops for just a few dollars more?" This is not because the kits were expensive, but the idea behind the Wow was to make a truly "affordable quality ukulele" and the Wow's were not expensive. So, we never sold a kit. KoAloha decided that since they were moving into a new location and welcoming visitors, the kits would be rebranded from UkeSA to KoAloha and people coming to the factory could purchase a kit there, and make it right there at the factory with the factory staff. They did this for a while until they sold out of all the kits. So, for now, the only kits that I know to exist are the two that I have, but you never know when Pops will bring it back.

    Now, in regards to the shape of the ukes. Pops is so very much enjoying the comments and feedback from everyone here. I share all with him. He does not go on the internet himself or to the boards. It is just not him to do that, but he loves reading the feedback at the end of his workday. He wrote to me two weeks ago, "People say that I am a workaholic. I think Motivated is a better word." Because Pops is an international celebrity, people are always going to the factory and of course, they want to see him and take a photo with him, to which he obliges, however, this causes him to need to go into the factory alone on weekends, when the factory is closed, to work on these Wow, Banger, AO, and PineApple Sunday orders. There are a few more things in the pipeline, that I cannot speak about yet, but I can tell you that none, as of now, are tenors.

    So, what we discovered is that the slant-away is new and many like it, and Pops loves it, but others say they like the figure eight. Some like the 12 fret neck and some the 17 fret neck. Some like all Pine back and sides, and some want a Koa back, or maple back, etc. People like different tuners. I think Pops is seeing that there is no "one size fits all" and that each uke now needs to have some customization and he is building that customization ability in. I can tell you that Pops is so very excited about what is happening now and the feedback that I send him from you, the members, either through posts or PM's to me, keeps him super excited. Knowing Pops as I do, if he were a member of this board, he would be on here all day talking ukulele and never have time to make them -- I think this is why he chooses this relationship.

    Also, because these items are basically one of kind items, it is great when someone who purchases writes a NUD review. These ukes will probably never be on the regular review boards because they are not made for wide distribution. You pretty much let me know what you are interested, and then the journey begins as you develop your uke with Pops.
    Last edited by efiscella; 01-24-2020 at 07:10 AM.

  7. #7
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    I had the fantastic opportunity to play some of these when I met Pops last year as well -- they're pretty awesome ukes! I love how they felt to hold and the punchiness of the spruce was crazy. It's so typical for a KoAloha/Pops uke to project like that, but every time I pick up a new design and still get that kind of volume and response it still surprises me. Best of all was the weight and neck balance, it was a super comfortable uke to hold and play.

    He was super excited to show them off and I can tell he's inspired by them! Personally I'm just smitten with the Pineapple Sunday, so that's my go-to if considering a Pops-built uke.
    -Ben

    KoAloha Pineapple Sunday 6 String
    Kamaka HF-3 Tenor
    1928 Harmony Johnny Marvin
    Ohana TK-39
    c. 1970's Hikare Baritone
    Gretsch G9100
    Outdoor Ukulele Soprano #43


    Videos

  8. #8

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    I remember wanting a uke kit, but not having heard of them until they were unavailable. If I recall, they were still quite a bit cheaper than these UkeSA ukuleles. And if there weren't such a thing as having too many ukuleles, I'd still want one along with these UkeSA creations.
    But given the choice I'd rather pay more for a nicer uke made by Pops himself. That guy's a national treasure.

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by snowdenn View Post
    I remember wanting a uke kit, but not having heard of them until they were unavailable. If I recall, they were still quite a bit cheaper than these UkeSA ukuleles. And if there weren't such a thing as having too many ukuleles, I'd still want one along with these UkeSA creations.
    But given the choice I'd rather pay more for a nicer uke made by Pops himself. That guy's a national treasure.
    Back when the uke kits were available, I was selling the Harmony Wow (with the letter "H" on the headstock) for $360, and the WOW headstock Wow for $400. Dealers who were selling the kit (only in Hawaii) were charging between $299 - $350 for the kit, so anyone who asked me for a kit or Wow found purchasing the Wow much more practical since there was not a big difference in price. Here is an early video Pops made at the time to market the uke kits. it is a lot of fun! Many people were confused at the time, also. Since there was no website to show all the products and prices, people only saw posts from me, here on UU. Depending on which post they saw, that is what they went with. There was nothing to tie all the products together. Many were not making the distinction between the finished Wow and kit. After watching the movie on the kit, they decided NOT to purchase a Wow because they "did not want to assemble uke that was from Thailand" and I tried to explain that the Wow was made by Pops in Hawaii and had a Spruce top, and only the kit was all pine and manufactured in Thailand. To this day- there is still confusion, and I'm willing to bet that after these posts, there will be even more confusion- LOL. So, for the record-- the Wow, Supa Wow, Banger, AO, Papaloha Pineapple Sunday, and One-of -A Pine (Painted) Pineapple Sundays are all made by Pops, himself, in Hawaii. The kit from Thailand no longer exists.

    Last edited by efiscella; 01-24-2020 at 10:52 AM.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by snowdenn View Post
    I remember wanting a uke kit, but not having heard of them until they were unavailable. If I recall, they were still quite a bit cheaper than these UkeSA ukuleles. And if there weren't such a thing as having too many ukuleles, I'd still want one along with these UkeSA creations.
    But given the choice I'd rather pay more for a nicer uke made by Pops himself. That guy's a national treasure.
    Here is the final video -- the one that was actually used.

    Last edited by efiscella; 01-24-2020 at 10:08 AM.

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