New Uke Day (NUD) NUD: Pops KoAloha Soprano Wow!

ailevin

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My newest ukulele arrived this morning a day earlier than expected. It is the culmination of a series of surprises that began on Chistmas morning, when my wife properly shocked me with a KoAlohe KTM-00 tenor. I've discussed that instrument at length elsewhere, but it sparked my interest in the history of the KoAloha company, and I learned about the company founder, Alivn 'Pops' Okami aka Pops KoAloha aka Pops. In that week between Christmas and New Year's Eve, I learned that Pops had more or less turned over KoAloha to his sons and now had his own company, UKESA, that seemed to be a combination of custom ukulele shop and ukulele research and development laboratory. I liked the story of Pops' discovering how to build a non-koa (pine back and sides, spruce top) ukulele that sounded great. When he called it his Stradivarius I was hooked. After messaging with a few people here, I realized that Ed Fiscella, @efiscella, was a principal in UKESA and I started the process of ordering my ukulele. I wanted a quality soprano, and I also wanted something built by Pops personally. I really didn't know what I praticularly wanted customized, so I worked with Ed and Pops to get to what you see below. Ed warned me when we started that Pops modifies and experiments along the way, so it might come out slightly different from where we started. On the other hand, if I wasn't pleased with the changes that Pops made, they would be happy to buy it back at full price. From my point of view, anything that Pops wants to do to make a better ukulele is more than OK with me. It is his creativity and craftsmanship that motivated me to get this ukulele in the first place. Let me show you some pictures and I will return to the story.
PopsFront252580.jpgPopsBack252580.jpgPopsHead252580.jpgPopsLabel252580.jpgPopsLabelClose.JPGPopsSideRotate252580.jpg
As I said, it has pine sides and back, Engleman spruce top, sapele neck and headstock. The headstock is three layer sapele, ebony, maple laminate with Pops Aloha logo inlaid in abalone and Gotoh tuners. Fretboard and bridge are ebony and both are inlaid with abalone. It is 14" scale with 12 frets to the body and markers at 5, 7, 10, and 12. The front markers are full width double-depth abolone inlay. It also has fretboard side markers and a side sound port. The (laser etched?) label reads: CUSTOM MADE BY Pops KoAloha PAPALOHA HAWAII.

Considering that I ordered this January 1, I'm pleased it got here so quickly, yet Ed and Pops were apologetic about delays. Pops decided he wanted to add a mild curvature to the back and the existing jigs were not precise enough to do what he wanted to do, so there was a delay while Pops developed brand new templates and jigs. I notice a more bell shaped, Ohta-san style body compared to previous models. The curvature is very mild, almost unnoticable across the lower bout. Looking into the sound hole toward the end block, you cand see the curve on the bottom brace. Based on sound samples and Pops auditioning a similar model for me, I decided to have it initially strung with low G. I wondered it if was sacrilege to put a low G on a soprano, but I wanted the instrument to be consistent with what I am practicing on my tenor, and both Ed and Pops encouraged me to try low G. I also have a set of replacement strings in high G.

The best part of the process was the continual interaction with Ed and Pops during the build including .jpgs and now and then a .MOV as the build progressed. Not only did I feel involved, but I got to know Ed and Pops. Further, I was enjoying my ukulele before it even arrived. To give just one example, the curved back came about because of a custom ukulele that Pops was commssioned to build as a gift for Roy Sakuma (student of Ohta-san and teacher of Shimabukuro). He liked the tone with the curve, but doing it "free hand" was too much work, and this led to the newer high precision jigs. Just hearing that story and thinking about my ukulele being related to those folks, and I was floating on air.

Anyway back to NUD, my ukulele arrived. As I unboxed it, I wondered if they forgot the ukulele. It is light. I mean float away on a gentle breeze light. It weighs 354g. The Gotoh tuners are terrific. Presume the usual preamble and excuses: the strings have to settle, I have to get used to it, I don't normally play soprano, the solid wood has to open up, yada yada. I have not been able to put it down since it arrived. I keep picking it up to strum a few chords as I type this. First impression is that it doesn't feel like anything I've held beore. After a bit, I realize it has that amazing KoAloha action and it is very easy to play. That makes it feel like an extraordinarily petite version of my KoAloha tenor. But, in time I am back to the fact that it is unlike anything I have played before.

The sound is not what I expected. I expected it to be loud and I was concerned if it would be over trebley or harsh. The volume is good, the sustain is great, and the tone is mellow and gorgeous. With the smaller scale and smaller body it does bring out more of the treble, but the midrange is full bodied and the strings are well balanced, though the low G does sound thinner in tone than a low G on my concert or tenor ukuleles. Sound-wise it really is a petite version of my tenor--it has the signature KoAloha sound with a different equalizer setting. I don't have experience with spruce top ukuleles, but I am definitely a fan of this one. The articulation is very nice and I like the supplied flourocarbon strings. I notice the lower string tension at this scale. It plays very in-tune up the fretboard and the notes ring out nicely all the way to the top. The harmonics ring out too, even the pesky 5th fret harmonics.

So first impression is Wow!. Now I need a little time to try it out and compare it more carefully with my other instruments.
 
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Thanks for sharing the whole story with us. It looks like a very special and unique ukulele, and will hopefully bring you great enjoyment.
 
Congrats on the new uke! I enjoyed the write up, giving us the feel and emotion of your experience. Makes me wanna get one! Would you be willing to share the sound samples they provided and how much it costed? (No pressure if you wanna keep it to yourself).

I wondered it if was sacrilege to put a low G on a soprano
Definitely not. I love my low G soprano!! Here's Ohta San playing a low G soprano Martin to give you some extra reassurance, in case Pops' and Ed's suggestion isn't enough...

 
Congrats on the new uke! I enjoyed the write up, giving us the feel and emotion of your experience. Makes me wanna get one! Would you be willing to share the sound samples they provided and how much it costed? (No pressure if you wanna keep it to yourself).


Definitely not. I love my low G soprano!! Here's Ohta San playing a low G soprano Martin to give you some extra reassurance, in case Pops' and Ed's suggestion isn't enough...


Thanks. The sound samples were videos of Pops playing the ukuleles as test runs. I will check with Ed and Pops to see if they are OK to share the videos. I paid $650 plus actual shipping to Los Angeles which was $40.
 
Mahalo for a very thorough NUD review Alan. Since I am on Oahu this month, I had a rare chance to play your uke before shipping it off. I can concur with everything you say and add that the moderate volume and mellow tones jump to loud and a jangly Hawaiian sound when you swap out the low-G for High-G. However, with the Wow line, there is always a warmth and roundness to the tone, even with the high-G. I will share your comments with Pops. I know that he will be thrilled. And yes, the attachment of the video sound samples that Pops made for you can certainly be shared here. Please feel free to upload them. Mahalo
 
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My newest ukulele arrive this morning a day earlier than expected. It is the culmination of a series of surprises that began on Chistmas morning, when my wife properly shocked me with a KoAlohe KTM-00 tenor. I've discussed that instrument at length elsewhere, but it sparked my interest in the history of the KoAloha company, and I learned about the company founder, Alivn 'Pops' Okami aka Pops KoAloha aka Pops. In that week before Christmas and New Year's Eve, I learned that Pops had more or less turned over KoAloha to his sons and now had his own company, UKESA that seemed to be a combination of custom ukulele shop and ukulele research and development laboratory. I liked the story of Pops' discovering how to build a non-koa (pine back and sides, spruce top) ukulele that sounded great. When he called it his Stradivarius I was hooked. After messaging with a few people here, I realized that Ed Fiscella, @efiscella, was a principal in UKESA and I started the process of ordering my ukulele. I wanted a quality soprano, and I also wanted something built by Pops personally. I really didn't know what I praticularly wanted customized, so I worked with Ed and Pops to get to what you see below. Ed warned me when we started that Pops modifies and experiments along the way, so it might come out slightly different from where we started. On the other hand, if I wasn't pleased with the changes that Pops made, they would be happy to buy it back a full price. From my point of view, anything that Pops want to do to make a better ukulele is more than OK with me. It is his creativity and craftsmanship that motivated me to get this ukulele anyway. Let me show you some pictures and I will return to the story.
View attachment 148233View attachment 148234View attachment 148235View attachment 148236View attachment 148237View attachment 148238
As I said it has pine sides and back, Engleman spruce top, sapele neck and headstock. The headstock is three layer sapele, ebony, maple laminate with Pops Aloha logo inlaid in abalone and Gotoh tuners. Fretboard and bridge are ebony and both are inlaid with abalone. It is 14" scale with 12 frets to the body and markers at 5, 7, 10, and 12. The front markers are full width double-depth abolone inlay. It also has fretboard side markers and a side sound port. The (laser etched?) label reads: CUSTOM MADE BY Pops KoAloha PAPALOHA HAWAII.

Considering that I ordered this January 1, I'm pleased it got here so quickly, yet Ed and Pops were apologetic about delays. Pops decided he wanted to add a mild curvature to the back and the existing jigs were not precise enough to do what he wanted to do, so there was a delay while Pops developed brand new templates and jigs. I notice a more bell shaped, Ohta-san style body compared to previous models. The curvature is very mild, almost unnoticable across the lower bout. Looking into the sound hole toward the end block, you cand see the curve on the bottom brace. Based on sound samples and Pops auditioning a similar model for me, I decided to have it initially strung with low G. I wondered it if was sacrilege to put a low G on a soprano, but I wanted the instrument to be consistent with what I am practicing on my tenor, and both Ed and Pops encouraged me to try low G. I also have a set of replacement strings in high G.

The best part of the process was the continual interaction with Ed and Pops during the build including .jpgs and now and then a .MOV as the build progressed. Not only did I feel involved, but I got to know Ed and Pops. Further, I was enjoying my ukulele before it even arrived. To give just one example, the curved back came about because of a custom ukulele that Pops was commssioned to build as a gift for Roy Sakuma (student of Ohta-san and teacher of Shimabukuro). He liked the tone with the curve, but doing it "free hand" was too much work, and this led to the newer high precision jigs. Just hearing that story and thinking about my ukulele being related to those folks, and I was floating on air.

Anyway back to NUD, my ukulele arrived. As I unboxed it, I wondered if they forgot the ukulele. It is light. I mean float away on a gentle breeze light. It weighs 354g. The Gotoh tuners are terrific. Presume the usual preamble and excuses: the strings have to settle, I have to get used to it, I don't normally play soprano, the solid wood has to open up, yada yada. I have not been able to put it down since it arrived. I keep picking it up to strum a few chords as I type this. First impression is that it doesn't feel like anything I've held beore. After a bit, I realize it has that amazing KoAloha action and it is very easy to play. That makes it feel like an extraordinarily petite version of my KoAloha tenor. But, in time I am back to the fact that it is unlike anything I have played before.

The sound is not what I expected. I expected it to be loud and I was concerned if it would be over trebley or harsh. The volume is good, the sustain is great, and the tone is mellow and gorgeous. With the smaller scale and smaller body it does bring out more of the treble, but the midrange is full bodied and the strings are well balanced, but the low G does sound thinner in tone than a low G on my concert or tenor ukuleles. Sound-wise it really is a petite version of my tenor--it has the signature KoAloha sound with a different equalizer setting. I don't have experience with spruce top ukuleles, but I am definitely a fan of this one. The articulation is very nice and I the supplied flourocarbon strings. I notice the lower string tension at this scale. It plays very in-tune up the fretboard and the notes ring out nicely all the way to the top. The harmonics ring out too, even the pesky 5th fret harmonics.

So first impression is Wow!. Now I need a little time to try it out and compare it more carefully with my other instruments.
Yes, definitely Wow!
 
Mahalo for a very thorough NUD review Alan. Since I am on Oahu this month, I had a rare chance to play your uke before shipping it off. I can concur with everything you say and add that the moderate volume and mellow tones jump to loud and a jangly Hawaiian sound when you swap out the low-G for High-G. However, with the Wow line, there is always a warmth and roundness to the tone, even with the high-G. I will share your comments with Pops. I know that he will be thrilled. And yes, the attachment of the video sound samples that Pops made for you can certainly be shared here. Please feel free to upload them. Mahalo
Thanks Ed. Is it my imagination or is the shape a little different than it was in earlier editions? The top bout seems narrower and the lower bout slightly more bell shaped. That's why I commented on the Ohta-san shape, but even if it is there it is pretty subtle.
 
Day two with my new soprano, and the love affair continues. I did put it down today long enough to practice with my tenor.

They are such different instruments, yet the KoAloha imprint is there in both instruments. Of course, the tenor is bigger and has more of everything: size, weight, volume, sustain. and fullness of tone. The neck, fretboard and action feel familiar to me on either instrument even with the difference in scale and string tension--it is the KoAloha playability. This is the only instrument I have ever played that may be easier to play than my KoAloha tenor. It is a hard call, because it is definitely easier to play up the fretboard on the tenor, but barres and closed chords up to the 7th fret or so are definitely easier on the soprano.

The tone of the tenor is deeper and richer bringing out the full sound spectrum of the C and low G. It has a different sound signature (koa vs. spruce?) that gives it a slightly more woody, and generally more complex sound. While the soprano isn't capable of as much volume as the tenor, there is a special purity and sweetness to its tone. This gives melody notes played on the E and A strings an articulate forwardness (spruce?). Those notes ring out and carry like a child's voice singing high above a choir. It seems like chords sort of hang in the air for a nice long time too.

Let me be clear. This is not a magic soprano strung in low G that has the volume and sustain of a good tenor. It is simply a wonderful soprano with a lovely voice that is a joy to play.
 
Beautiful! Ed was nice enough to talk to me on the phone for like a half hour once. And I wasn’t even buying anything from him. I had bought a Supa Wow off a member here, and I had a few questions about the process of the Supa Wow and the different prototype stages, and Ed was like yo just call me. Very kind! Very informative guy!
 
Thanks for sharing the videos! They're charming. I love how his wife just comes in and sits down nonchalantly, while he's doing his thing. Great sound on yours... It's a hammah! 😁

As far as the differences in sound, there's a lot of factors that influence the tones, including the tone woods that you mentioned, but also the size and build quality being a single luthier build vs a production build. That the beauty and danger for us collectors!!.. so many different sounds and we wanna play em all!!!
 
Man, this thing really is beautiful. The fret bands are awesome. The bridge is a stunner. The binding on the edges of the body is out of this world. WOW.
 
Thanks for sharing the videos! They're charming. I love how his wife just comes in and sits down nonchalantly, while he's doing his thing. Great sound on yours... It's a hammah! 😁

I made that recording of Pops singing and playing. What I edited out was after Moms came in and sat down, she nonchalantly said to him, “You were flat.” - LOL
 
Wow, that thing is beautiful!

I didn’t realize that Pops ukuleles were even a thing and now I want one! And that price seems more than fair for a custom built instrument by one of the greats!

I’m also fairly astounded by how quickly the turn around time was for the build.
 
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