The majority of the ukulele remains the same, though. And, while I understand some people would think there would be more special changes made for this fantastic achievement for any company (let alone an instrument company), I would politely counter that Kamaka did exactly what SHOULD have been done: They released the standard models with a few special amendments.
Because why should they change anything drastically? The company has lasted one hundred years, have been through two World Wars (well, all but the first two years of WWI), survived multiple generations of different people with different tastes following different fads and trends going along with the rise and fall of not only instruments in general, but ukulele specifically. A great deal of people look at the ukulele today as a bit of a novelty based on the seemingly-overnight appearance of it on stages across the world. The faithful know the uke has always been around forever, but to many, many people, it’s fairly new.
So the idea that over one hundred years – a CENTURY – this Waikiki company has continued to churn out instruments and survive is well worth admiration.
But, even more importantly, Kamaka hasn’t JUST churned out ukes. They’ve churned out QUALITY ukes. Ukes that people seek. Their headstock logo is not only famous for its history, but also its prevalence with amazing players all around this crazy world. The Ukulele Site describes it as being similar to the Martin Dreadnaught, the Gibson F-style mandolin, and the Fender Stratocaster. They are the standard against which all other ukuleles are measured.
Since starting my trek into the ukulele world, Kamaka has been an inescapable name. Everyone compared their ukuleles to Kamakas, sought ukuleles based on their proximity in style/tone/wood/vibe to Kamakas, or asked questions before taking the plunge and getting their own. To the lucky few who live near ukulele dealers, you can try a Kamaka yourself, but to everyone else, you need to stock up on faith and then dive in and order online. You will almost certainly be pleased, but research is (appropriately) done, and the question, be it posted blatantly or in a more subtle code is “Are they worth it?”
Well… Yeah. They are.
You have to understand that while there are many ukulele companies that make many different styles of ukuleles, Kamaka is the oldest surviving ukulele maker out there and that isn’t just from luck. They came up with the pineapple ukulele shape and still operate in Waikiki today.
But I, like so many others, was hesitant to buy in and get my own.
Until this year.
I’ve been collecting guitars for years, so it was natural that I start collecting ukuleles as well, and I couldn’t resist the coolness that comes with this one year’s variations, but also the fact that it’s a standard. My ultimate goal is to get an ukulele from all of the Four K’s here on the island before I have to leave, not only because I collect and am nothing if not a completionist, but because these companies mean a lot to me personally. They’re run by families. They aren’t major corporations – these are the folks who live down the street from you. Their doors are open to guests, and you can see how happy they are when you’re happy with your instruments and I want to support that so much because that’s the vibe every company should be after.
And I couldn’t even get close to saying I was complete without a Kamaka. It would be the first one anyone asked about because they’re so famous and, like I said, they’re famous for a reason.
So I decided to jump in and bought an HF-3 tenor model for myself. It’s my first K, which is appropriate since it’s THE first K as well. So let’s get into what makes these ukes the standard!
I placed my order with the Ukulele Site and waited patiently. Ish. It’s tough to remain patient when you know your ukulele is being made right down the road, but you have no idea how it’s going to look. But I waited anyway! The guys there are quick to notify you when your ukulele arrives and no notification simply means it hasn’t arrived. There was no point in me harassing them for guesses as to when it would arrive.
Months went by and I finally got the email. A group of four Kamaka HF-3s had arrived and mine was in the bunch. They set it up for me and I had them install strap buttons since I play a lot of the time while walking around and (even more important) let children play it. Believe me: a strap is peace of mind when it comes to kids playing your ukulele.
Once I got it home, though, it was all mine to inspect. The top and back are a lovely shade of brown, somewhere between light and dark, with subtle stripes running horizontal to the neck while some less subtle flame runs perpendicular to the stripes. At a quick glance, the ukulele is pretty, but when you really look at it and move it around in the light, it has a deep look that is just gorgeous. The body doesn’t feature any binding, purfling, or rosette. It’s not really into ornamentation or overdoing anything aesthetic-wise. The fretboard dots are there, but there’s only one side dot (7th fret xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx), which helped me figure out which set of dots I look at the most (and sort of scare me off ukuleles with no fretboard markers).
The only place where there’s really any ornamentation is the headstock. The usual pearl Kamaka logo has been replaced with an abalone one that displays different colors based on the light and angle you’re looking at it. In the pictures that Andrew sent me, it looked decidedly green, but in a lot of lights it alternates between blues and purples as well. Behind this abalone is a pearl script ribbon that says “1916” and “2016,” celebrating its centennial anniversary. Overall, the balance seems a bit off with a gorgeous, ornamented headstock and then a spartan remainder of the ukulele, but I don’t mind so much. It definitely keeps the eye on the logo which is something I’m sure just about every manufacturer wants. If you need that balance, though, there’s always the deluxe model which has rope binding and prettier woods.
The finish is a semi-gloss lacquer which feels great in your hands. While not full-blown gloss, what gloss it does have does wonders to show off the beauty of the wood without that gloss feeling when you play. You know the feeling – a kind of… protected feeling. I love the look of gloss finishes, but prefer the feel of natural wood since it feels faster and more… well, natural. Because of this, the semi-gloss really makes sense to me.
My only complaint about the finish is my only complaint about the ukulele in general and it is that my shirts often stick to the finish on the back of the ukulele. When I’m done playing there’s a dramatic pull as my shirt and uke have been becoming one and I separate them. And when they’re finally separated, there are little bits of the designs on my shirts on the ukulele. Not so much that my shirt is ruined or there’s now a backward design on my uke – honestly it’s basically invisible – but I can feel it on the back and it bums me out.
Edit: I’ve had this Kamaka HF-3 for months and it’s been my primary high-G ukulele. I was talking to Corey Fujimoto early into owning it about how it’s not all that glossy and he said to just wait a bit.
And he was right. Over some months, the areas of the ukulele that I touch the most have been shined to a high gloss. The usual suspects are there, of course – the area just under your strumming arm and where I always tap the uke, but I was surprised to see physical evidence of just how often I rest m thumb just on the ridge of the fretboard on the body.
Also, the way the uke would stick to my shirt did calm down after a while with the back of the uke settling into a more satin feel with some areas that you can feel minor remnants of my shirts, but it’s nothing you can see.
Moving on! The construction of the uke is surprisingly light. I haven’t played many Kamakas before getting this one, but I’ve watched a LOT of videos and they all have a very warm, kind of muted tone which made me expect heavier construction and thicker woods. Now that I have mine, I’m beginning to think it actually comes down to strings since most of the videos feature the stock black Kamaka strings. I will be experimenting in the future to see if I like the sound of brighter strings or prefer it this way. As of right now, I have no complaints about it – I’m just a tinkerer.
The bridge and saddle are beautiful in design with a traditional tie-end but still has a clean look. The bridge and nut are made from bone and the Schaller tuners have snakewood buttons which is another exclusive for this year. Everything works well, the tuners hold, and the uke sounds great.
The rosewood fingerboard is also beautiful and the frets are perfectly level. They’re of medium height and width, striking a balance between monster frets and frets so small they feel like a fretless instrument.
Because of the light weight, semi-gloss feel, and the Kamaka tone that made them famous for an entire century, the ukulele plays like a dream and sounds better. I suppose one could claim a bias because I own it, but I bought it because of all of these great things. I love the feel and tone of the instrument, but I adore their family vibe, and admire their history. Kamaka has grown over the last hundred years to be the standard that all ukuleles are measured against and that isn’t just luck. Reputations can easily fall apart over very little time so the fact that today they’re all sold out at the Ukulele Site is a telling thing.
In the end, Kamaka has the history, the company ethic, and the quality in their instruments to make their longevity deserved and their reputation as a premier ukulele maker warranted. If you’ve been thinking about getting your own Kamaka, I strongly recommend picking one up this year. It’s not that the little flourishes of this year put it above and beyond last year’s models, or that I have any particular fear that next year’s models won’t be worth it, but the facts are that the price has increased $100 from last year for these flourishes and next year when those flourishes go away, the price increase will stick around so why NOT buy now and get those extra fancy appointments?