Solid Koa

Highest Quality Ukulele: Ohana, Kamaka, Martin...?

Hey! I am an avid ukulele player and I have been playing a soprano lanakai for a while now but I'm thinking of getting a higher quality (and, yes, more expensive ukulele.) The highest quality ohana, all the kamakas, and some of the martins are all around the same price (Martins, however, get the most expensive overall). IZ played a martin and they're by far the most expensive (up to $3000), but I played the highest quality ohana and it was beautiful. Kamakas have a really good reputation. If there's another brand that's better let me know. Basically, what is the best soprano (concert or tenor is also okay) ukulele on the market?

It depends on what you are really looking for. Something expensive? Or something that sounds better to you (and others hearing you play)?

Older martin ukuleles (solid mahogany) will fetch a premium because they were made in Nazareth, PA and the mahogany sweetens over time. I know several Hawaiian afficionados that swear by them -- but they bought them new many years ago, or they found a bargain at a swap meet (no more bargains on eBay). Most would not pay the "collectors premium" on them today. Most new Martins are made in Mexico. The exceptions are the VERY expensive ones with tons of paua (or abalone) inlay work -- a visual collector's item. If you can finad a Tenor or Soprano Martin (over 20 years old) for under $500, in good shape, ask to play it and buy if you like the sound.

That said, the other alternative is a solid Koa ukulele made in Hawai'i. The top ones (IMHO) are KoAloha, Kamaka, and Kanile'a. Koa only grows above 5000 feet in Hawai'i and cannot be harvested unless the tree is felled by natural means (lightning, wind, volcano, etc.). That makes the wood rare and expensive. On top of that, US labor costs make these ukulele more expensive.

Kamaka ukulele have been the favorite among islanders for so long, they are an institution. Many people go for a Kamaka because of reputation. The factory has limited output and they are very hard to find -- further driving the cost up. But they are sweet instruments in the right hands. It is the instrument that Jake Shimabukuro plays -- you should listen to his "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".

My money goes to Kanile'a and KoAloha. Which are a little easier to find and don't have as much of an add-on premium as Martin and Kamaka.

Kanile'a has the nicest finish of the two -- using a technique learned from Taylor Guitars to use UV light to cure micro-thin layers of finish. These instruments have a very high gloss without the thickness that might restrict the resonance of the koa wood. Their "Super Tenor" is the best of the bunch.

My personal favorite based on price and tone, though, is KoAloha. I have two KoAloha tenors. One a standard four-string low G and the other strung like a small guitar with six strings (a custom order). I play the tenor four string every week in kanikapila and I am constantly asked what make I am playing and receive many comments on the sweet tone. Then they ask if they can play it and are reluctant to give it back to me because of the feel and touch to play. Danial Ho, Herb Ohta Jr., David Kamakahi, Riatea Helm, Brittni Paiva, and George Kahumoku all play KoAloha Tenors.

Many of the other ukuleles are made overseas to keep the labor costs down -- making them affordable for most people. Lanaka'i is one of these. they are sweet sounding, the quality has vastly improved over time and they are the best value but not what the "professionals" play.

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