BY TOM WALSH | FROM THE SPRING 2015 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Martin’s full-scale ukulele production began in 1915, after New York City music dealer Chas. H. Ditson & Co. requested that Martin manufacture ukuleles for them. Martin was more than happy to oblige. It’s unknown exactly who decided on the model specifications, but by the end of the year, Martin was manufacturing three distinct ukulele models, Styles 1, 2, and 3. Many players soon regarded Martin’s ukuleles as the best available.
Introduced at a price of $25, the Style 3 was one of the most expensive ukuleles on the market, and it therefore became, in the minds of many musicians, the premier ukulele model in the world.
Between 1915 and 1920, Hawaiian music became popular across the US mainland as island musicians toured the country playing exotic new sounds on unusual new instruments. The steel guitar and ukulele quickly gained popularity, and musicians who had never been anywhere near the Hawaiian Islands began forming Hawaiian-style bands.
The Waikiki Trio of Lincoln, Nebraska, was one such group. It consisted of a steel guitarist, a standard “Spanish style” guitarist, and, of course, a ukulele player. They dressed, as did many of the Hawaiian musicians of the time, in suits of white, with colorful cummerbunds and leis.
When, around 1920, the trio’s ukulele player purchased this Martin Style 3 soprano ukulele, it was Martin’s top-of-the-line uke and was considered by many to be the finest ukulele made. This particular Style 3 was modified with a tortoise-shell celluloid pickguard to protect the upper bout and was purchased along with a beautiful tooled-leather case, which was a pricey addition to the already expensive ukulele.
While I don’t know how many hands this instrument has passed through before I bought it, remarkably, many associated items remained with it over the years, including a number of the band’s original publicity photos, the ukulele player’s cummerbund and crepe-paper lei, and even postcards and telegrams that were sent to WOAW, the Omaha radio station that regularly featured the trio in 1924.
Even after Martin introduced the fancier Style 5K in 1922, the Style 3 remained the choice for such professionals as Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, Roy Smeck, Eddie Kamae, and Herb “Ohta-San” Ohta.
All Martin ukuleles were made from mahogany when they were introduced, and the Style 3 featured distinctive black-and-white celluloid binding around the top and back of the body, around the soundhole, and down the center of the fretboard.
It was the first Martin ukulele with a fingerboard that extended over the body to the soundhole, giving players access to 17 frets. Martin later added other models, including a larger taro patch, a slack-key guitar (available with four or eight strings), a concert, and a tenor. By 1919, Martin was offering all the soprano models and taro patches in Hawaiian koa as well as mahogany.
The changes made to the Style 3 during its long run in Martin’s line were mostly cosmetic. Fingerboard markers were added by early 1918.
The celluloid kite on the headstock was dropped by 1922, and the fingerboard inlays changed a number of times over the years. Eventually, in the 1950s, the celluloid ornament on the bottom of the body was dropped.
When the 5K was discontinued during World War II, the Style 3 once again took its place atop the Martin ukulele lineup, and it remained there right through the 1990s, when ukulele production ceased at Martin’s factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
Fortunately, the discontinuation was only temporary; in 2008, Martin introduced its new line of Style 3 ukuleles. The new models are available in mahogany, flamed koa, and sustainably forested cherry.
Ukulele historian Tom Walsh is the co-author of The Martin Ukulele: The Little Instrument that Helped Create a Guitar Giant (Hal Leonard) and is a co-founder of the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum.