High-end Ukulele Connoisseurs: Who's your favorite builder?

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Doesn't have to be one of the high-end luthiers; maybe you've tried a handful and still prefer your Kamaka. I'd classify "high-end" as customs or stock models costing $2k or more.

So, who's your favorite? And why is that uke your favorite? What makes one better than the other when at that level, they're all amazing?
 
Wow, what a loaded question. There are so many great builders, both 1 person builders and shops that have their quality designs and builds down to a science. And there are so many that I have yet to try. But for me a high end uke has a "feel" that is hard to put into word. You just know when you play it that someone very experienced spent some very personal time focused on this uke. Sound to is also going to be wonderful (another hard to qualify attribute) because a master builder knows how to get the best out of the piece of wood they are working with, as wood is never the same. Then on top all that is the person behind the tools. In most cases this person really cares about producing the best possible build and sound they can, and are always pushing the envelop of how much sound you can coax out of the small ukulele body. And these people tend to love to talk about/share their passion, so when you talk with them that comes across strong!

With my very limited experiences with the "so many" great luthiers out there today, three luthiers rise to the top of my list and for 2 different reasons. The one that I am lucky enough to have found one of their ukes, and one who's name comes up often is Chuck Moore. As a 1 man show, he is in the top of the class for impeccable build quality, for sound, and for design/beauty. So rare to have all these qualities in a single person, and a great person he is too. And he's down to earth to chat with, he'll take time to help a newbie learn something he's mastered (like steel string lap guitar, and in my case steel string lap uke). He's the perfect example of a great person at the top of their craft!

Another luthier, and my personal hero, is Alvin Okami (aka Pops KoAloha). Throughout his long luthier career, his design and build innovations have created a factory built ukulele that is famous for its very consistently wonderful sound. BUT after most of us have retired, and with the KoAloha legacy now being run by his 2 sons, Pops decided he's not done improving the craft yet! So he's started another "one man (and woman with his wife Moms)" brand - UKESA under which he's building one-off customs. And having worked with him on a several ukes, he's still chasing a better sounding instrument! Ok so at 80 maybe his builds aren't what they were in his prime, but who's are (I can say the ukes he's built for me look and SOUND amazing)? But the fact that his mind is still always innovating for a better sounding uke, along with skills from having built literally 1000's of ukuleles is a combination that's hard to beat! Case in point, who would have thought that building a uke from Pine and Spruce would create a sound unique both in voice and volume (and at a reduced price from the exotic woods). Pop's UKESA WOW is just that!
(Side note... in a few days I will be able to include experience with KoAloha's Red Label ukes into this post. Stay tuned for a NUD)

And finally (with my limited exposure of the ukulele greats) is Joe Souza and Kanile'a. Joe, like Pops is another great example of a one man builder who's designs and innovations have created a shop that builds both amazing customs and consistent shop ukes. And like Pops, Joe and sons are always pushing the design envelop for a better sounding (and looking) uke. I don't have much personal experience with Joe (except when he sold me his prototype 2019 Platinium Edition Pineapple tenor, the one Kanile'a used for it's marketing material, right off the finishing room shelf) but his postings on his state of the art designs and builds, and his desire to reforest Hawaii so there is Koa for future ukuleles show his love for the craft and the earth!
 
I’m afraid I’m not a high end connoisseur, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents anyway.
I have to agree with Rick that Chuck Moore is at the top. Go to the Moore Bettah website and look at the gallery pages. His work is unbelievable. Unfortunately for me a ukulele in the 8-10 thousand dollar range is beyond my budget.
Pops is also a hero of mine and although his personal creations are well below the $2K price line, I think the history and creativity and incredible quality of his work makes his ukuleles priceless.
I would also include Aaron Keim of Beansprout. His incredible knowledge about wood and his craftsmanship as well as his dedication to using reclaimed materials puts him high on my list of great luthiers.

Edit: Ken Timms. Of Course!!
 
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My direct experience is limited to two. I have custom builds by Allen McFarlen (Barron River) and John Kinnard. Both (concerts) are faultless, stunningly beautiful, impeccably constructed and musically perfect in my opinion. I’m not worthy of either.

If I were able to order another custom, it would be from Noa Bonk at Ko’olau.
 
Like Patty, I'm fortunate enough to have 2: Barron River and Kinnard. And I agree with her comments on them both. But I would say that we're both worthy of them. It's about the enjoyment of them, not our skill, IMO, (as long as we didn't go into debt to buy them.) And I enjoy them both immensely.

The sound of the Kinnard is my favorite, though it's great to have some variety and be able to choose whatever strikes my fancy that day. (Or even more likely, enjoy them both during a practice session.)

I admire Moore Bettahs but likely will never even be in the same room as one. And I'm not someone who would want a lot of bling, though MB's sound great, too, (based on TUS sound samples.) Same for Cornerstone and Petros. Ono ukuleles deserve a mention, too. And many more that I've never had the chance to experience but are no doubt a delight to play.

We're lucky to have lots of fantastic ukuleles, (and many well under the high-end price range), to choose from, and can find the sound, feel and appearance of a ukulele that makes us happy and inspires us to play music. We're all chasing different sounds and appearances for our ukuleles, but most likely someone out there is building just what you're looking for.

Edit to add:
Both Patty and I play concert sized ukuleles, and I think that might be part of why we both ended up the same builders. Just a guess. But maybe it would be helpful for people to include the size of the ukuleles they're mentioning, since it could be that choices would vary depending on if you play soprano, concert, tenor, baritone, or prefer a 16" concert, or some other variation.
 
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The question is too broad. I have a kamaka which is my beater, a Rob Collins which is my everyday uke, and I am currently awaiting my Beau Hannam baritone. Yeah, they're awesome. But ask me something specific and I'll be happy to expatiate.
 
I like Kamaka as my favorite high-end team builder. Some luthiers make shinier ukes than Kamaka, but high-ender than that just means you have too much money and can't figure out a charity to donate to.
 
High end custom doesn't mean over $2000. Bruce Wei Arts in Vietnam has built me tenor and bass ukes over the last 10 years for $450 to $1100 US. A few months ago he built me a solid spalted maple tenor cutaway thinline satin finished uke, designed like the Kala Travel, that came out great. I just ordered a solid mahogany with the same design for $805 (discount from $875) including express shipping to Los Angeles.

Spalted thinline frt bk.jpg
 
But for me a high end uke has a "feel" that is hard to put into word. You just know when you play it that someone very experienced spent some very personal time focused on this uke.
Something about the ease of playing and the way the sound just leaps out of the instrument, responsiveness to dynamics...I know what you mean.

Part of what triggered this question was seeing some members on here who have a lot of high-end ukes but end up selling some of them; I always wondered how they figure out what to part with, especially when they are essentially swapping one for another. What makes the newer one better? What makes a Ko'olau better than a Pepe Romero? I guess to some degree the specs will be different, but both instruments are going to sound amazing and play amazingly. Is it more about looks at that point? Although I definitely get the phenomenon of having an amazing instrument and just not bonding with it for some reason.
 
I like Kamaka as my favorite high-end team builder. Some luthiers make shinier ukes than Kamaka, but high-ender than that just means you have too much money and can't figure out a charity to donate to.
I disagree that higher-end is not necessarily worth the cost.

For me, #1 is the sound. If the Kamaka sound is your favorite sound, (and it's a good one, IMO), then #2 is the feel of the instrument. If it's not comfortable to play, you'll never really enjoy that great sound.

Appearance is not that important to me, unless I didn't like the appearance and it would take away from my enjoyment. But, sure, I like a good looking ukulele too, if that meets my #1 and #2 criteria. (And cost becomes a factor there too. I wouldn't necessarily pay more for something that only enhances appearance.)

We all play different styles, (strum in a large group, strum as accompaniment to our singing, solo fingerstyle, and so on), and different ukuleles might fill different needs.

The ukulele plays different roles in our lives. For some, it's an occasional hobby, for some it's a profession, for some it's our main hobby and the main thing we spend our entertainment/non-essential money on. Maybe there is no need to stream music or movies/shows when you can play a great ukulele instead. Maybe you'd rather skip traveling and would rather play that ukulele. Maybe...well, you get the idea. We all have different priorities on where to spend any disposable income, and do what fits our situation. And it's all good.

This is a great group of people. I bet even those with Moore Bettahs or other super expensive ukuleles have figured out what charities they like to donate to.
 
just to obfuscate Joyful Uke's post, hete are my priorities:

1. appearance
2. playability
3. sound

My reasoning is that sound is a given. For this amount of money the intonation is going to be on point. So I never give it a thought. Playability also is never a consideration. I am not the kind of person who insists on a nut width of 34.74892493 with a string spacing of 27.123498747; Just build the darn thing and I'll adapt.

That leaves appearance. The other categories are in the hands of the luthier, but the player has some say in the appearance. That's what I employ most of my mind on.

I'm not saying this to bash other people. They do them and I do me. And this is what I do.
 
My direct experience is limited to two. I have custom builds by Allen McFarlen (Barron River) and John Kinnard. Both (concerts) are faultless, stunningly beautiful, impeccably constructed and musically perfect in my opinion. I’m not worthy of either.

If I were able to order another custom, it would be from Noa Bonk at Ko’olau.
Go for it Patty, I have a Ko'olau tenor and its the ukulele I would run into a burning building to save.
 
just to obfuscate Joyful Uke's post, hete are my priorities:

1. appearance
2. playability
3. sound

My reasoning is that sound is a given. For this amount of money the intonation is going to be on point. So I never give it a thought. Playability also is never a consideration. I am not the kind of person who insists on a nut width of 34.74892493 with a string spacing of 27.123498747; Just build the darn thing and I'll adapt.

That leaves appearance. The other categories are in the hands of the luthier, but the player has some say in the appearance. That's what I employ most of my mind on.

I'm not saying this to bash other people. They do them and I do me. And this is what I do.
I wish playability were not a consideration for me. When a fretboard is too much for my small and arthritic hands, the pain is very real. That’s one reason I turn to custom builds—not looks, and not because I have deep pockets, but because I need a skinny nut and a radiused fretboard.

As for bling, the less the better. Please, no fancy pictorial inlays, NO abalone.

Finally, for me sound is more than intonation. That’s a given. I want interesting tone and clear pure notes that stand out and are sustained.
 
I have a basic Ko’olau the KC10 which I love, and is a concert, I would definitely get a custom Ko’olau as a concert from them when I save up.

For me, I think for any high end it depends on how it feels and sounds to you as well as the materials. Kamaka for me never disappoints. KoAloha also has a lovely sound but not for a pick with me, which is how I like to play; however, my Naupaka I like a lot more than just koa KoAloha.

My only custom is a baritone and it’s mango, I wasn’t sold on the sound port but Jesse, the luther, at Heritage Ukulele said it preferable and it does feel for me like I’m swimming I the sound. So I would not get a custom without it in the future.
 
I have three tenors, a Kamaka, a Kanilea and a KoAloha. The Kamaka is a semi custom, the Kanilea a custom and the KoAloha is a demo model.
Hands down the Kamaka is the best of the three for my ears. Second is the Kanilea. I tune the Kanilea down one whole step. The sustain was a bit dull in standard re-entrant tuning. I rarely play the KoAloha any more.
 
That’s what makes this whole ukulele thing so interesting! I have just about the same ukes as @peanuts56 and I feel almost the opposite about mine.
For me the KoAloha has by far the most beautiful sound. It’s my go to uke. The Kamaka comes in second in the sound department for me and I tend to play the Kanile’a the least.
Of course we both have different likes and dislikes AND even if they are basically the same ukes they are different instruments. I wonder, if peanuts and I swapped ukes would we feel the same?
But again, that’s what make all this so interesting. We all have different ideas about what good and what’s better.
 
Something about the ease of playing and the way the sound just leaps out of the instrument, responsiveness to dynamics...I know what you mean.

Part of what triggered this question was seeing some members on here who have a lot of high-end ukes but end up selling some of them; I always wondered how they figure out what to part with, especially when they are essentially swapping one for another. What makes the newer one better? What makes a Ko'olau better than a Pepe Romero? I guess to some degree the specs will be different, but both instruments are going to sound amazing and play amazingly. Is it more about looks at that point? Although I definitely get the phenomenon of having an amazing instrument and just not bonding with it for some reason.
Oh boy, I am hoping I say this correctly. All of the luthiers mentioned here are wonderful and there are a ton of luthiers who are great and not mentioned. Also, the custom shops of brands like KoAloha and Kanile'a and Kamaka should not be discounted. I have been on UU since 2011 and in all of that time, there were always luthiers who everyone was crazy about. Like Luthier of the month, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. There are fans of Ken Timms and Brad Donaldson and so many others. These are all great ukuleles and the trick is to find the builder who is right for you. I remember when I was a new member and in my area of the country, the only ukes available are Cordova, Lanikai, and Makala. There was no way to try the ukes made by luthiers and brands mentioned on this site. So, I started buying and playing and then selling. I wanted to try every brand that people raved about. I remember when I wanted to learn about fine wine and I read books-- books are okay but you have to taste them. You have to educate your pallet or those words mean nothing. UU Marketplace helped me to educate myself about ukulele by having access to some of the best, sold by people who really loved and cared for their ukes, even the ones they were passing on. Without UU, I would never have acquired the great ukes I have today.

I learned something else in all of this trial and error. Just because I did not gel with a certain luthier or brand is not because there is something wrong with them. The truth is that for some, I just was not ready. My skills were not there. I know the rule of thumb is to buy the best uke that you can afford, but in my early days, if I played a KoAloha Sceptre, a Kanile'a, and a Kala, it all sounded like the Kala. I owned a 1976 8-string Kamaka tenor made by Sam Kamaka, Jr and I just could not play it and get a good sound out of it. Now, that does not mean that Sam was not a good Luthier-- it was me. I bought so many Kanile'a and wanted to love them but I just could not-- but now I do. I had a custom Joe Souza early super tenor that I ended up selling. Oh, how I wish I could have that back. But all in all, it was fun!!! And I realized I don't need "the best uke" or "the best luthier" because in reality, the best is what is best for me, not what everyone else says. Each of these luthiers are artists and it is important to experience all that they have to offer. I have learned to enjoy the ukulele experience and the world of ukulele people.

One more wine analogy which I hope helps to drive home my point of view. There is a Sauterne from France that is super expensive- Thousands of $$$$$ ($5,000+) per bottle. I wanted to taste it so badly and I eventually found a wine tasting where we all pooled our money together and this wine along with other brands of the same, but not so expensive. We liked all of the wines that came first and then for the big moment when we got to taste "IT". We were all ready for it to kick our ass. It had to be off-the-charts great because everyone was talking about it being great. As we all tasted at the same time, I could see the fog in everyone's eyes. it did not kick us in the ass. What made that wine so great was that it was in perfect balance. it was subtle. It was in perfect harmony. It was not too acidic, not too alcoholic, not too sweet (it was a sweet wine), but perfectly balanced in every way. the reason it was that way was due to the care that the producer took to make it. Once my pallet was educated with that wine, I now find the $40 bottle of the same type of wine perfectly acceptable and my goal is to try new wines with the hope of discovering the next $$$$$ bottle of wine. Same for ukes and Luthiers. I have played the best but now choose the ones that touch me. the ukes that I can play well. the ukes that I can afford. And the ukes that touch my soul and the name of the luthier or brand is just not as important.
 
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I like Kamaka as my favorite high-end team builder. Some luthiers make shinier ukes than Kamaka, but high-ender than that just means you have too much money and can't figure out a charity to donate to.
Wow... ukulele bigotry rears its ugly head! This judgmental statement really has no place in any discussion in this forum. It is offensive and personal.

Something about the ease of playing and the way the sound just leaps out of the instrument, responsiveness to dynamics...I know what you mean.

Part of what triggered this question was seeing some members on here who have a lot of high-end ukes but end up selling some of them; I always wondered how they figure out what to part with, especially when they are essentially swapping one for another. What makes the newer one better? What makes a Ko'olau better than a Pepe Romero? I guess to some degree the specs will be different, but both instruments are going to sound amazing and play amazingly. Is it more about looks at that point? Although I definitely get the phenomenon of having an amazing instrument and just not bonding with it for some reason.
I am fortunate enough to have a few superb ukuleles that I can play. And fortunately, I have no restrictions on having to keep or sell any of them.

Each of them brings something different to the joy of ownership and playing. Of course, there is significant overlap, but differences of note. True of looks, sound, and feel.

My first custom was a Kinnard long neck soprano. By chance, I went to the SF Ukefest (hosted by C. Lin and Ukulenny) and Kevin had a booth there with samples. I had been trialing the three K's (bought a KoAloha) and was totally wowed by the Kinnard. A few months later I decided to order one.

I started early with KoAloha and love everything about the ones I have owned. So I was able to get a 25th Anniversary Red Label which I still adore. Sound, looks, feel... all suit me well.

Perhaps two years ago, I was awestruck by the Barron River ukuleles that showed up at TUS and Ukulele Friend. So I ordered one, getting a bargain since the price was in AUD and would have been a great buy even in USD (still true). I got one of Allen's final set of 2800 year old Sitka spruce. And it looks beautiful and sounds great. It has a compound radiused fretboard and makes beautiful music.

Each of them is distinctly different in looks, sound, and feel. And each is great. Fortunately, I don't have requirements for nut width or string spacing. So I can keep and enjoy all. OTOH, if I had to give any up (for unforeseen reasons, really), I would be happy with the other two.

Oh, BTW, my MB is strung low G so it doesn't unfairly compete with the others ;) .
 
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