Ryan Condon and the 1st Koolau Archtop Ukulele

It has been a while since I just sat back and appreciated the sound of music. There’s always some sort of responsibilities or initiative keeping me from really experiencing the good in life, like the sound of an amazing instrument. Well, last night as Corey started playing this Koolau archtop ukulele I transcended all of that. It was about midnight at the Koolau warehouse in the country side of Oahu. The natural reverb and resonance created inside of this instrument…the clarity and bell like tones…what can I say, I fell in love with this ukulele!

I gotta admit, I wasn’t so sure when I heard Ko’olau was building an archtop. A nylon string archtop? I didn’t even really like the Collings Archtop Ukulele and I love their flat top ones. However, I did have a suspicion it would surprise me because of the quality of Ryan’s work. As Ryan Condon has been working with Koolau we have one by one seen his personally built instruments. They’re flawless! One day Aaron came back from Ko’olau cussing up a storm out of excitement. “That Les Paul style electric Ryan built is the best electric I’ve ever played!”. His classical and archtop guitar are also impressive, to say the least. So who is this guy and how did he get this level of skill?

Ryan (right) and John Jorgenson holding one of Ryan’s guitars-

Ryan Condon worked under Ron Pinkham at Woodsound Studio’s in Maine for the 10 years before landing in Hawaii a year ago. Ron has been a premier high end classical guitar maker for over 30 years.Throughout the 60’s he studied formally under Manuel Ramos in Mexico City and then under the Romero family in Southern California. By the time Ryan started with Ron he was a true master that received between 5 and 15k per guitar. For 10 years Ryan worked full time at Woodsound studios honing his skills in luthrie and woodworking. When Ryan’s wife wanted to go to college at the University of Hawaii Ryan sent Koolau a resume and, as Kilin Reece once told me, it was the answer to Noa’s prayers. Finally someone that wouldn’t blow Noa’s mind by not being perfect.

I got to ask Ryan a few questions regarding the Archtop ukulele and life so far at Koolau. Here’s a short interview with Ryan Condon-

me: what made you start making archtops even though Pinkham guitars were all flat tops?

Ryan: I just like the process of carving, taking a block of wood and removing everything except what is supposed to be there

me: With this archtop ukulele, how thick of a block did you start with and what does it end up at?

Ryan: I bookmatch the set at about 18mm and at finish it is between 2-3mm throughout the top.

me:Going into this, and being the first ukulele or even nylon stringed instrument you have built as an archtop, how did you think it would sound?

Ryan: I was confident that it would sound good. I am at the point that I know wood well enough to know that whatever I make will sound good.

me: How does working with Noa compare with working with Ron?

Ryan: Noa’s a lot more laid back, but they are both very anal, and they both make a great product.

me: So tell us how it’s been working at Ko’olau.

Ryan: It’s really nice to work on something I respect. As a luthier it can be depressing working on crappy instruments, which is why I like building more than repair. I like working at Ko’olau. This what I like to do ..and I like getting a regular paycheck.

Ryan is an excellent singer/guitarist, well grounded in art and reality, and as you can see, he is a sensational craftsman. Hopefully we will be seeing more of his archtops soon!

Corey Fujimoto is a guitarist/ uke player that will start work on his first album this year! Here he samples Koolau’s first Archtop Ukulele. Hand carved spruce top and hand carved koa sides and back.

Comments 9

  1. Like you Andrew, I too wasn’t impressed with the sound of the Collins archtop. It was muddy to my ears….but then again, this was at the NAMM Show where it’s really hard to hear anything. However, Ko’olau’s version sounds GREAT! Will you be offering this model? If so, will there be a passive pickup option?

    1. Hey Craig, We have one on order like this but with more curl with the koa. I have to see what they would suggest for pickups. I thought this was the opposite of muddy but still not thin. Can’t wait to get one in the store. They are over 6 grand so It may hang out for a bit. Totally reasonable for the amount of man hours. Ryan built it and strung it up unfinished to final tune the top. It is that level of expertise that is never cheap. Or in my case, affordable. That’s why I started a store 🙂

  2. Hey, Andrew…Another outstanding “Review” from you guys. Gorgeous instrument and – what the hey – Corey Fujimoto could play a $50 plastic ukulele and make it sound exceptional.

    1. Thanks Tony. It’s all about the technique and dynamics Corey naturally has. But I I don’t know about a $50 plastic uke. Maybe he could entertain, but I don’t think it could really take it as far, or be as moving. Music is sound and the quality of it makes a big difference. Of course I know you know that because you have bought some really nice ukes from us. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Andrew, your piece on the Condon Archtop has inspired me to investigate archtop design and construction (mostly I find info about guitars) and begin to discover what a remarkable instrument this one is that you showcase. Combined with the artistry of Corey, Abe Lagrimas, Jr. and others at HMS this takes the Ukulele far beyond what I thought possible. I got a long way to go…

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