Impressions of Ordering a Custom Ukulele

ailevin

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Last week I ordered a Wow Concert ukulele built by Alvin 'Pops' Okami from UKESA, and I thought I would share my experience here for several reasons. Back in January of this year, I ordered my first custom built ukulele from Pops, a Wow Soprano. Both the build process and the end product ukulele gave me a great deal of joy and I'd like to share that. This time around it is not only a new ukulele for me, but it will the first concert scale Wow ukulele for Pops. While this may just be my own raging case of UAS, I expect others may be curious about both why and how the disease may progress in this particular direction. The last reason that I decided to create this thread is that there has been a surprising amount of interest and support for my Impressions of One on One Lessons thread. Perhaps my newbie experience here may be of some help to others as well.

Unlike the Lessons thread where I have tried to anonymize the teachers and focus only on my own experience, here Pops Okami and @efiscella are central figures in the story. I want to be able to share both pictures and discussions that I have with Ed and Pops, though I intend to summarize and paraphrase rather than quoting entire email exchanges. I am responsible for errors, omissions, and opinions that I post, but of course I got their permission before starting this thread. I am still going to focus on my impressions, and I don't intend to make this an advertisement for a particular ukulele maker. Yet, I am quite smitten by my Wow Soprano, and appreciate the rapport I've developed with Ed and Pops, so I am not going to pretend this is some sort of unbiased review. It is merely my subjective impression of the experience.

Rather than repeating a bunch of background stuff I will just refer you to the initial posts in the One on One Lessons linked above for background on me, and the NUD: Wow Soprano thread for background on my first custom ukulele, Pops, and Ed.
 
In mid April, about two week ago, I ordered some strings from UKESA. This led to a brief email exchange with Ed and I asked if Pops Okami had ever built a concert scale version of the soprano I've been enjoying so much. I knew he had done a tenor version, but I really wasn't looking to replace my Christmas Miracle KoAloha tenor (NUD here). Ed explained that Pop's thought of it as "next project", but would have to make new jigs for it, so he was waiting for the first order. Ed thought that the ballpark price for a concert version of my soprano would be roughly double the price of the soprano.

After thinking about it for a week or so, I sheepishly mentioned to my wife that I had asked Ed about having Pops build me a concert size ukulele. I was suprised, but not shocked by her reply. "Go for it. You are so crazy about that little soprano. I'm sure you will love his concert." I am very lucky to have a partner in this ukulele journey who is almost as crazed as I am. Later that day I emailed Ed to say I would be honored to be first in line for a concert Wow.

I figured I might be in for a long wait since this was a totally new project, and for Pops that means a great deal of thought and experimentation. I think of it as ukulele R&D (research and development). Pops is both very creative and very curious, so every build is an evolution of the design and exploration of possibilities, even when it is a model he has built before. In this case, even though the materials were basically the same and he had the plan for the soprano as a jumping off point, he was designing and building on a larger scale. There were certain to be more challenges and opportunities with the first concert build.

I couple days after the emailed order, I asked Ed if he could estimate how long it would take. Ed told me that he had spoken with Pops and that my concert was going to the top of his list. Because it is a totally new project, it would be hard to "free up his mind" for anything else. Pops has to build new jigs for the concert and build prototype(s) to test the design and work out any kinks. Ed estimated it would be at least a month, and that he would keep in touch when there was progress. So I settled down to wait for news.

BTW, in case you haven't already figured this out, all my communications with Pops are via email with Ed. Sometimes it feels like Ed is the Pops whisperer, but I think that is mostly because of the years that Ed and Pops have spent working together. On the other hand, Ed often forwards emails between Pops and me directly and even via Ed I feel like I am in very direct communication with Pops and in a certain limited framework, we know each other well. I look forward to visiting Oahu at some point in the future and meeting Moms and Pops in person.
 
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I can't wait to hear how this one turns out. I love Pops' work, and I strongly prefer concerts. The idea of a concert Wow intrigues me greatly!
 
Just to get the timing right, that last email from Ed was at 2 PM my time last Friday April 28. Having settled in for the wait, I was surprised to get another email at 6 PM titled Prototype. The first thing that came up when I opened the email was this picture:
PrototypeBody252580.jpg

Talk about lightning response! I didn't realize that Ed's conversation with Pops in the 2 PM email had taken place several days before. I was still amazed that he had prototyped the body of the ukulele that quickly. I usually think of a prototype as some sort of model either not built to scale or using different materials, but this is a first build of a Concert Wow body. I love the grain of the Englemann Spruce top.

I thought the ruler was there to show me scale, but reading past the picture I learned that Pops was unhappy with this first prototype. The ruler is in the picture to show me that the face isn't even. Pops said he was making adjustments and starting over. I had a real mix of emotions. First was the excitement of seeing my ukulele, or at least a precursor of my ukulele taking shape. Then there was the general shock that it was happening so quickly. Finally, while I was not disappointed, it was a prototype after all, I was mildy horrified that starting over might mean that this beautiful piece was headed for the bin 😲.

Having this feedback from Pops through Ed is a big deal for me, and a motivation in getting another custom built instrument. As with the soprano, I feel like I am almost in the shop watching over his shoulder. I see the progress, I see the setbacks, and I get to better appreciate Pops's creative and problem solving process. It's not that I am having a major influence on the design, though I had discussions with Ed and Pops about what I wanted on the soprano. It is more about the opportunity to be involved in this way and to anticipate the finished instrument. I'm getting to enjoy my new ukulele as it is being made. I think that gestation is a reasonable metaphor, it's like a relation you build when expecting a child.
 
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Yesterday, May 1, I got an email from Ed titled, Koa side banding. Actually it was two emails, the first with a brief message from Pops asking Ed to send me a picture of the process of putting in the Koa bands. Pops said it was a very time consuming and tedious process. The second email had the picture:
Sidebands252580.jpg
I really wasn't sure if he was prototyping here to work out the banding process or if he is able to reuse the sides in multiple prototypes. Also, the soprano has the banding top and bottom, so I presume the concert will as well.
 
I apologize for all of these back to back posts with no breathing room for anyone to get a word in edgewise. However, I had a backlog of emails and I want to get up to date. Yesterday, Ed forwarded me a message from Pops that I want to quote verbatim. I think it paints a picture of Pops, and also of our dynamic. Ed had sent Pops my post to a thread called String Theory where I tried to explain schematically at a very high level the physical interplay of the strings with all the part of the ukulele. Here is Pops's reply to Ed:

Pops: Boy! Is Alan a scientific nerd or what.
I got lost about the middle of his explanation but hung in
reading to the end which
He could have saved all
of the complex verbiage
by simply saying that utilizing different types of
woods to achieve different
tonal effects, volume, sound, resonance, etc, can
be done IF the craftsman
has an “EAR” to recognize
outstanding acoustical differences that various
combinations of woods produce when utilized for
differing parts and areas
of the ukulele. Pops’ ears
have had the experience
of shaping and creating
the sound for the instrument that was his major at the university of
Hawaii which was the oboe
so this background in the
area of creating a uniquely
beautiful oboe sound was
indispensable when he
embarked on the journey to
create an ukulele that would be unrivaled in the acoustic and design arena
of the ukulele world. I don’t
necessarily need any kind
of scientific knowledge but
simply an outstanding pair
of well-functioning ears along with a pair of gifted
hands and simple creative
imagination that can conjure up the original ukulele
body designs that have never been thought of has me feeling so thankful and
grateful. I’m just glad that
Alan has a good pair of ears
that can recognize clearly
what an excellent ukulele
looks and sounds like with
the Wow that he seems to
have been smitten by. So my conclusion is that he
does possess a good pair
of ears and I am delighted
that he is ordering the next
size up which I am working
on.
Gotta pick up breakfast from Zippys and go to Long’s for our weekly early
morning shopping.
Have a great day,
Al
 
I apologize for all of these back to back posts with no breathing room for anyone to get a word in edgewise. However, I had a backlog of emails and I want to get up to date. Yesterday, Ed forwarded me a message from Pops that I want to quote verbatim. I think it paints a picture of Pops, and also of our dynamic. Ed had sent Pops my post to a thread called String Theory where I tried to explain schematically at a very high level the physical interplay of the strings with all the part of the ukulele. Here is Pops's reply to Ed:

Pops: Boy! Is Alan a scientific nerd or what.
I got lost about the middle of his explanation but hung in
reading to the end which
He could have saved all
of the complex verbiage
by simply saying that utilizing different types of
woods to achieve different
tonal effects, volume, sound, resonance, etc, can
be done IF the craftsman
has an “EAR” to recognize
outstanding acoustical differences that various
combinations of woods produce when utilized for
differing parts and areas
of the ukulele. Pops’ ears
have had the experience
of shaping and creating
the sound for the instrument that was his major at the university of
Hawaii which was the oboe
so this background in the
area of creating a uniquely
beautiful oboe sound was
indispensable when he
embarked on the journey to
create an ukulele that would be unrivaled in the acoustic and design arena
of the ukulele world. I don’t
necessarily need any kind
of scientific knowledge but
simply an outstanding pair
of well-functioning ears along with a pair of gifted
hands and simple creative
imagination that can conjure up the original ukulele
body designs that have never been thought of has me feeling so thankful and
grateful. I’m just glad that
Alan has a good pair of ears
that can recognize clearly
what an excellent ukulele
looks and sounds like with
the Wow that he seems to
have been smitten by. So my conclusion is that he
does possess a good pair
of ears and I am delighted
that he is ordering the next
size up which I am working
on.
Gotta pick up breakfast from Zippys and go to Long’s for our weekly early
morning shopping.
Have a great day,
Al
No apologies necessary. So enjoying following the process.
 
I have a couple more communications from Ed and Pops. I've learned that Ed met Pops via email and that their relationship evolved via email over seven years before they actually spoke in person in 2019. I also found out I was not the first to use the phrase Pops Whisperer. Pops has his own workspace in the KoAloha factory. When Ed was there in February the KoAloha guys called Ed the Pops whisperer. I appreciate that Ed is sharing some of Pops's emails to him, as well as sharing his own insights.

Pops complimented me for preferring the Wow, so there is a bit of mutual admiration here, but I thought Pops's take on the differences between koa and his Wow design were worth sharing. He said that the long standing tradition of using koa has to a certain extent defined the ukulele sound. After all, the company he founded is named KoAloha. Instead, for the Wow Pops uses select pine back and sides with an Englemann Spruce top. Pops goes on to say: "Acoustically, the Wow has more clarity of tone, volume and has a totally different outspoken voice that will grab anyone’s attention. The sustain factor is also more than noticeable."

I certainly agree with his assessment. However, I would add that the Wow is a logical evolution of the KoAloha sound. My Wow Soprano in high G sounds very traditional compared to my tenor, but it is still a bit more guitar-like in its tonal character than a Kamaka. And my KoAloha tenor sounds a bit more guitar-like than my wife's Kamaka tenor. The thing about the Wow soprano, is what Pops called a totally different outspoken voice. When I play it, even if I am alone I feel like saying, "Are you hearing what I'm hearing?"
 
In an email yesterday, May 2, Ed told me he had sent the initial posts of this thread to Pops. Pops replied that he agrees with my description of his process and he appreciated my comment that a new model is not just a matter of scaling up all the pieces and assembling it. The experimentation phase is very time consuming, and then each individual instrument has to be worked on until he is satisfied with the sound.

Pops also said that the second prototype was a no go due to some alignment and measurement issues. The next line was kind of a shocker for me, and I will quote it directly:
"So to prepare for more things that still could go awry I am preparing to make not one​
but 8 concert Wows. I am well on the way so any more disruptions can be nullified by simply grabbing the next pieces until the perfect one is flawless."​
I was and am speechless.
 
Oooh!!! I definitely want to be added to the Pops’ Concert list. I adore my soprano, but concert is my absolute favorite size. Just pulled out my Wow yesterday, and was thinking about how remarkable they are. Tone, sustain, projection, and even fingerpicking is super fun! I have one with a curly maple back, and wonder if all pine sounds different… Thanks for taking us along on your build journey! Pops is a treasure and it’s so special to have one of his instruments.
 
Rosie, for me, the curly maple is not quite the same as all select pine back and sides. Close but not quite the same. Let me tell you what I mean by that. I have had the luxury to be able to play all of Pop's different Wows, one after another. Individually. Every Wow I ever played excelled in "Tone, sustain, projection, and even fingerpicking." Any one of those Wows, Supa Wows, AO's, Bangers, and Hui's (all versions of the Wow) sound awesome by themselves, however, when compared, side by side, those with the select Pine back and sides I would give the edge to. There is just a little more Tone, sustain, projection, and even resonance with the select Piine. Hope this helps. It is for this reason that when @rhiggie and I requested Pops to build the tenor Wow, we requested the select pine back and sides. We were basing our choices on the best possible sound. I will say that the curly maple is beautiful and sounds awesome.
 
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The one difference in my experience is that I meddle as little as possible (I'm not saying you are meddling; I only mean that my guiding principle is to meddle as little as possible). I tell the luthier what my deal-breakers are. For example, I must have a florentine cutaway or it must have 19 playable frets. Then I just walk away and let the luthier's talent and experience dictate how to incorporate my wishes into an instrument. The outcome is a surprise to me and it is more than I expected. That's how I do it. My assumption is that I don't know jack about building instruments, so if I micromanaged the process I would get an inferior product.
 
Riprock, this is the second build that Pops is making for Alan, and at no time was there meddling. When the first order was placed, we asked Alan what he wanted (the deal breakers). After that, Pops had the freedom to design and create. The second order was "make the same as the soprano, only in concert scale." I believe that Alan is on the same page as you. What he is doing is documenting the process and sharing his impressions for others. Never once did he come to us and ask us to change something. Many people love following the process of the build. it is one of the joys of a custom uke.

If I can share this bit of info from my observations with Pops, the builds are always better when the buyer allows Pops the freedom to be Pops. Much like your own style with the builds. Most people do that and as a result, the outcome is fantastic. On the rare occasions when they micromanage everything, I can't help but look at the final product and think, "It could have been so much more."
 
Efiscella,
Undoubtably I didn't make myself clear. I wasn't criticizing anyone in this thread. I was just saying that as a standard operating procedure I never meddle with the luthier. I am sorry if it seemed I was rebuking anyone; I was only stating what I do in the custom uke process.
 
@ripock: Is your minimal meddling principle general, or does it only refer to luthiers building custom instruments?

I am just teasing. I think I understand your approach, and it seems sensible. Set some goals and/or constraints and then let the professional apply his expertise. However, I wasn't sure how to interpret your comment in the context of this thread and I found the terms meddling and micromanaging a bit disparaging. My initial reaction was somewhat defensive. I couldn't tell if you were referring to documenting the interaction with Pops or to the interaction itself, or to a particular post. However, while I was composing this, I saw a new post pop up, and I read your clarification that you prefer minimal interaction with the luthier between the time the order is placed and the day that the instrument arrives. I also saw that Ed had lept to my defense prior to your clarification and well before this post.

The ground rules for my relationship with Pops were set by Pops and Ed during the building of my soprano. I didn't request pictures or regular reports, but I appreciated them. One of my guiding principles is that i do not forward or quote private correspondence without the permission of the originator. In my original NUD for the Wow soprano I got permission before posting pictures and videos from Pops's workshop.

I've had relationships with several violin makers and dealers over many years caring for my violins and bows. Like most things with the classical violin, those relationships were rather formal and I only had repairs and maintenance done. My experience in the world of ukuleles is quite different. It is less formal, more friendly, and generally more communicative. There is a different sort of light heartedness, and a supportive sense of community that extends to dealers and makers in my limited experience.
 
I am relieved that you understand. I wasn't counterarguing. You graciously stated your experience and I was offering mine, since we're talking about how we approach the process. We have different approaches and I thought my different tack would be germane and interesting to the thread; I didn't mean to be polemic.
 
I am relieved that you understand. I wasn't counterarguing. You graciously stated your experience and I was offering mine, since we're talking about how we approach the process. We have different approaches and I thought my different tack would be germane and interesting to the thread; I didn't mean to be polemic.
I appreciate your input here, and I have enjoyed many of your posts elsewhere on the site. I also agree with you that one should not meddle with or micromanage a competent artisan. In fact, when the soprano build began Ed warned me that while my instrument would be similar to what I saw on the UKESA site, Pops reserved the right to modify the design during the build. If I was not happy with the result, they would be happy to buy the ukulele back from me. I trusted Pops's skill and judgement in these matters, not to mention his hands and ears. After all, that is why I went to him in the first place. I could have ordered a KoAloha soprano, a fine instrument, and a relatively known quantity. However, I was intrigued after reading about Pops's approach, and I wanted something quite literally from his hands.
 
Alan, not only did I say that we would buy the ukulele back if you recall, you kept asking me to send an invoice and I did not until you saw pictures and you were happy with its development. You see, your order is the impetus to start the build, but once started, Pops is no longer just making an ukulele for you-- he is making it for himself. One of my jobs is to make sure that your "deal-breakers" are not forgotten in the build. Only when he is satisfied, will he let it go. I remember the day that he strung up your soprano. He played it all day and said to me, "You know this is a great ukulele when I can't stop playing it."

When Pops first asked me to help distribute the original Wow back in 2012, I did not understand why he would be competing with himself at KoAloha since Ukesa is not KoAloha, even though it is Pops and is made in the same location. What I have come to realize are two things: 1) that Ukesa is Pops retirement project which allows him the freedom to build and stretch the design and concept of ukulele - something that he cannot do at KoAloha which needs to have a consistent product every time, and 2) most of the people who order from Ukesa already own one or more KoAlohas. What they want is an instrument handmade by Pops. Pops so much wants to accommodate this desire that he has priced his custom ukes so that almost anyone can afford them. It is about a mission to do what he believes he was put on this earth to do and to make sure that whoever wants one of his ukes can get one.

Alan's soprano strung with low-G
 
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