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3 Great Japanese Custom Ukulele Builders

Of course there’s plenty more than three, but this is three top quality custom tenors that just landed in my office and they are worthy of some words.

First off I have to rave about TODA. We practically never get one but when we do it’s on point and then some. This one might be the best I’ve tried. Starting with the sound because as perfect as Kalei’s dynamics were in the sound sample, he said he held them back a bit so as not to distort the mics. This uke has volume, but not just that. It has a crystal clear note definition with ringing overtones especially in the higher frequencies. It can be soft and sweet or cut through like a gyuto knife. For some reason I haven’t put a low G on a TODA yet. They just sound so good I don’t even mess with it. It would sound great I’m sure, but his ukes just seem perfect with a high G.

Toda’s sound comes from an immense understanding of lutherie. Under the radius top is a beautiful petite x bracing. It’s a design built to last and the sound is impressive. But it goes beyond that in my admiration of this instrument. There’s many subtle but outstanding design aspects I love. The flowing lines in the rosette and mini arm rest. The asymmetrical body cutaway giving a clean look and easy access to the higher frets. Tasteful accents like shell dots at the arm bevel and side port, unique fret markers, up to the twist at the top of the slotted headstock. Subtle, elegant design executed with precision craftsmanship.

Only thing I think someone could complain about is that he doesn’t pore fill the Brazilian rosewood sides and back so you see pores of the wood. It’s very clean though, smooth, extremely comfortable, shows off the wood and protects well. I still think lit looks good on this uke. I don’t like the open pore on gloss finishes but it works on this one. I would love to keep it but I’ve been treating myself to goodies a bit much, at least for this year. But I really think this one is special and I view Toda as a true artist of lutherie. A very private builder, maybe partially why he’s so good. And very unique in many ways to the ukulele world. I’ve seen makers in China try to copy some of his designs. But his instruments are on another level and this one is my favorite so far.

This next uke is made by Satoshi Oihata, one of Japan’s most respected and famous ukulele luthiers. This is his “Desire” model tenor and it’s pretty hot. The Hawaiian Cuban Mahogany wood with super tight figure is extremely rare. It’s nearly impossible to find this grade Hawaiian grown Cuban mahogany any more. It’s framed off with ebony binding, abalone purfling and a professional gloss lacquer finish to protect and show off this stunning wood.

You’ll notice there’s no sound hole on the top but it has an oversized side sound port to compensate. This wood with this design gives a really nice warm acoustic tone and allows for more headroom before feedback when plugged into the Misi pickup. A great instrument for live, recording, or acoustic play. The feel is comfy with a radius fretboard and nice low action.

While this instrument doesn’t have as much projection as the Toda, it has a really sweet warm voice that I love. The Oihata “Desire” is a fantastic, attractive tenor like no other I’ve tried.

The last ukulele from this group is made by another Japanese master luthier, Takahiro Shimo. Takahiro went to Roberto-Vann School of Luthiery in 1980 and opened Shimo guitars in 1982. Since then he’s made guitars for many great Japanese musicians and American ones too including Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton! Since 1992 Mr. Shimo has been making ukuleles and he’s become among the most highly respected custom builders in the uke world. Even being fairly expensive he still stays backordered over 2 years.

This slightly larger bodied tenor has a German spruce and exotic figured ecchona ebony sides and back. It has a really warm tone that would be brighter with fluorocarbon strings, but it has a very sweet, open tone. I think these are Hilo nylon strings. If a uke sounds great with Hilo strings then it’s a great uke. Hopefully not the last Shimo Ukulele we see!

These ukes will soon be listed for sale at our web store- The Ukulele Site.

Mahalo for tuning in to the review. Leave your thoughts or questions in the comments below. Aloha!

Comments 4

  1. I really love the TODA. As you noted, it’s crystal clear yet still have warmth and presence in the lower registers.

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  3. The ukuleles are lovely, the playing artful and mesmerizing. They who offer the tablature for the beautiful finger style music played here will surely become wealthy.

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