Lanikai or Kala?

What’s the difference between a Lanikai and a Kala ukulele? Well, the short answer is…not much, but there are  differences that I will fill you in on.  Let’s first go back in time to the year 2003 and see how this story starts. Mike Upton worked for the Hohner company and was heading the design and production of a new line of ukulele’- Lanikai. At that time I still worked for my dad at Ko’olau doing finish and final assembly for some amazing instruments my brother, Noa, was making. We also had started to warehouse Lanikai ukes in the upstairs of our shop in Kaneohe and the stores would come pick up from us. My dad helped Mike tweak the construction a bit giving him pointers and the Lanikai’s started sounding better and better. At some point along the way, around 2005 Hohner made some changes that left Mike “out in the cold”. … since Mike was the one with the business relationships, in China and the USA, he set out to do his own line, Kala, with the same factory. At that same time, my wife and I started Hawaii Music Supply. That is my condensed recollection of that period. I was fairly close to the situation, but not in a position to really know exact details. What I do know is that all of us dealers liked Mike. So now we had a chance to support his new endeavor. Mike has what all successful people have, – a drive to do cool things. What makes Kala different than Lanikai is the models they have developed. Their Acacia series, U-Bass, the Archtop’s, and Travel thin bodies are some of the original creations that put Kala at the top of the uke game. And they keep going with the solid U-Bass, Ukedelic, the Cedar/Koa series…..
With that said, last year was the first year in history that the Hohner company sold more in ukulele’s than in harmonica’s. And Hohner completely dominates the entire Harmonica market. So they are selling more ukes than ever, and also have their own models that differ from Kala. Mostly the same stuff though. I do not dislike Lanikai or Hohner. Gary Porter, the Hohner rep is the coolest. In fact, he gave me a PSD Lanikai had of the simple and most common ukulele chords. I thought I would share it. If this helps you say thanks to the guys at Lanikai, Germany via China, California. Where they made the computer I’m typing on. The truth is a lot of these companies share factories. They have different specs and often different crews, but it is all in the same building,  Luna’s, Ibanez, etc….  Makai’s and Ohana often come from the same factory as do Fender and Oscar Schmidt.  Pono and Leolani are the only ones I know of that are small dedicated shops not building for others. In deciding which to buy though, I would care more about the quality control and set up that the store you buy from does for you. We are stepping it up in this realm,  because in this price range, stores are just “moving boxes”, and a lot of ukes out there are nowhere near their potential in feel and sound. And that’s not good. Please comment if you have an opinion or insight. Aloha~

Comments 21

  1. Thanks for the history lesson. I own 5 ‘ukulele – Kanile’a koa tenor, Pono mahog/cedar tenor, Pono 8 string mango tenor, Kamaka koa soprano and a recently acquired Kala maple laminate/spruce baritone. The Kala replaces a solid koa Honu baritone that shrunk and became unplayable. I spent $500+ on the Honu and wanted a relatively inexpensive replacement for it. The construction of the Kala is far superior to the Honu and is comparable to the Ponos, but I can still tell the Kala is a laminate. Not that it sounds bad, just that it doesn’t have the fullness of sound that my solid wood ukes have. Some have said the older Ponos like mine (’07 and ’09 vintage) didn’t have much brightness in sound or loudness, but I’m finding that the older mine get and the wood opens up, the better they sound. Another advantage of solid wood, I guess. That being said, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Kala regardless of the level of uke player you are. I’m learning slack key uke on the bari and the Kala is working out really well.

    Do you mind if I copy the basic chord chart you provided in this posting? I’m teaching beginning ‘ukulele at the Phoenix Aloha Festival next month and this would be a great handout and take-home for those who want to learn to play.

    1. Thanks for the comment Paul. Ya copy the chord charts away, give the people something for free. You’ve got quite a little collection going. Kudos brother! Keep havin’ fun~

  2. Unfair…so Kala has Acacia…Lanikai has a real nice uke made out of solid Monkey Pod…beautiful looking, with high quality Grover tuners, mahogany neck, slotted headstock…a Fishman pickup…all for a very reasonable price…

    Oh…I almost forgot…I sounds awesome!!!!

    1. Hey Thanks Bruce, I just checked out that uke, looks really cool! I like Lanikai, they were the first instruments I started my business with. The two companies are not exactly apples and oranges though.

      1. Andrew: It’s my son who plays, not me. He’s a guitarist, who 6 years ago saw Jake perform in Hollywood, and proceeded to drop his guitar pick up the uke. He says the SMP Lanikai is the best uke he has ever played.

        What do you mean by your comment about the companies not being exactly apples and oranges…?

  3. Well, I just meant a lot of the different companies are being made in the same factory. As long as you buy from a good store that quality controls the imports coming in, then you’re good : )

  4. Purchased a Kala tenor acacia with slotted headstock on line and was very disappointed with the fit and finish, brand new out of the box with lots of sloppy workmanship including a “buldge” up the bass side of the neck and IMO poor workmanship…I should have returned it but got lazy and now regret the purchase, will buy another uke but not a Kala

    1. Ya, we reject quite a few for those reasons. But not all have those issues. You just need to have a store that quality controls and does a legit final setup. Not many do, even the ones that say they do.

  5. I’m back after a year (see first comment above) and my collection has grown to include a Kala U-Tar that I found on eBay, a Kala Acacia tenor travel uke I got from HMS and as of last week, a new solid Acacia U-Bass that I won from Kala! I was one of 20 winners of their facebook giveaway. My first thought was to sell the U-Bass and use the money for something else but after looking at and handling the U-Bass, I guess bass lessons are in my future. I am so impressed with the quality of the bass, and the beauty of the solid wood construction, that I’d be crazy to give it up. My experience with Kala instruments has been nothing but positive.

  6. Since being introduced to the ukulele, about six months ago, I have purchased eight instruments (all on line since there are no music stores with a fair selection of ukuleles) and I don’t think it’s due to UAS. All, with the exception of a KPK tenor, required action work. I can understand why actions are often deliberately set high (I requested an action height on my KPK) due to individual differences.

    The one thing that I will not tolerate in any string instrument are ‘wolf notes., and only my KPK and Luna tenors sing on every note at every fret on every string. I know the solution is to buy only from reputable dealers who perform a thorough set-up, but I think it would be a sufficiently important issue for forum discussion.

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  7. Andrew,
    New to the uke world & loving it. Bought a Córdoba Prestige for my daughter for $49.00 & it’s a great start. Shopping for an acoustic/electric as we want to play open mikes & believe plugging in & singing on a mike would work well. So far my #1 choice is the Lanakai with Fishman & built in tuner. Goes for about $289.00. Don’t want to spend more than that & feel this would work well & last long for our needs. Any thoughts?

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      That could be right for you. We stopped carrying Lanikai because we had too many returns for structural issues or construction errors. There was also quite a few of the solid wood ones that had cracking from woods not properly dried before they were used. So you may have a great experience with them, many thousands have, but from my experience it’s a gamble. If you do make sure you buy somewhere that allows returns and hopefully quality controls with a knowledgable staff.

  8. Hey Andrew! Just happened upon this site while reading up on the Kala brand. I just received the Kala-FMTG I purchased through your online store. A month ago I purchased a Pono ATD which I am delighted with. The fit and finish are superb, the tonal quality is beautiful. Needless to say, I am very pleased with my Pono! Now on to the Kala. Just receiving it only two days ago, it is the new baby in the nest, but I must say, when I opened the box and unwrapped the flame maple/spruce top tenor Kala, I was extremely surprised at the fit and finish of this uke. It is beautifully designed and put together. The wood is gorgeous! Fit and finish are superb! I guess the reason for my surprise was the difference in cost of the two ukes. Though my Kala cost nearly 200.00 less, I find it exceptional! My Pono is strung low-g, where my Kala is high-g. It has extreme projection, and with the factory strings it is very bright. At some point I am going to experiment with various strings to hone in on the sound that pleases me most. Do you have any suggestions as to strings that would mellow her out a bit? The set-up on both ukulele is well done. The packing was satisfactory as well. I am satisfied with your service and will be back again. I have been bitten by the uke bug for sure!

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  9. I’ve long noticed the similarity of Kala and Lanikai. I’ve got three Lanakais I bought in 2006, I’d suppose made before the Hohner shakeup you mention. A koa CK-C and two nato LU-21Cs. In the time since, I’ve picked up on a lot of online posts about Lanikai issues. Mine are fine, so I guess I just had lucky timing. Fit and finish are excellent. None required any setup, and the two LUs are identical as to action and tone. I can’t tell one from the other. My lone CK has a tiny bit lower action and a crisper tone than the LUs, which it should at the higher price. At that time, Lanikais all came with GHS Hawaiian strings, and I still use them. All my Lanakais are like new, as I have two lesser ukes that get most of what little time I play. Life is too busy…..:(

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