BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Every year, Kanile’a releases a new Platinum series ukulele with a unique set of features, then retires the specs, making each year’s limited production model a one-year-only affair. In 2020, the popular maker from the windward side of Oahu debuted a Platinum model with a D-shaped soundhole and a side soundport. Realizing it was onto something, Kanile’a decided to offer this feature as part of its extensive lineup in 2021, launching the D line, which adds the D-hole/side soundport feature to the tenor and super tenor body styles. For this review, I received a koa-bodied DK-T Premium tenor, with a low-G setup. I found that it blends a host of desirable high-end features in an exquisitely crafted instrument.
It’s easy to see why also shooting sound up to the player is appealing: What you hear is more like what your audience hears. It makes for a pleasing playing experience. But what about the offset D-shaped soundhole? It’s based on the idea of enhancing tone and projection by moving the soundhole to a less acoustically active part of the uke’s top.
Moving the soundhole to the area between the center bout and upper bass bout gives the top a larger vibrating area where it most needs it, while also allowing the maker to use different bracing, with the end-goal being a louder, fuller-sounding uke. The idea has been used in the acoustic guitar community for a few decades, most notably by high-end builders like McPherson, and the offset soundhole concept has been explored by several ukulele makers. Of course, projection and tone quality are difficult to quantify objectively, so I won’t, but I can say subjectively that this uke sounds as refined, full, and professional as you would expect from an instrument costing more than $3,000.
Indeed, when a ukulele reaches this price range, expectations soar, and the DK-T Premium does not disappoint in materials, features, or setup. The body is made from premium grade koa, which means it shows a high level of curly figuring. A finger’s width of light-colored sapwood runs down the center seam of the two-piece top and back, giving this ukulele a look like no other, while the gloss finish highlights the wood grain, showing the wonderful 3-D effect that curly koa displays as it’s moved under a light.
The body’s exterior is completed with a layer of black binding around the top, and an integrated ebony arm bevel to soften the lower bass bout’s edge for picking-hand playing comfort. The large soundhole and sideport offer a great view of the exacting interior construction. We don’t usually go in-depth discussing bracing in reviews, but this uke employs Kanile’a founder Joe Souza’s TRU-R V2 bracing, which uses a pair of truss-style braces on the DK-T’s top. These spruce strips are laser-cut to create a brace with a series of small equilateral triangles, a step that makes it lighter than a typical solid wood brace.
The DK-T’s mahogany neck has a satin finish that feels slick and soft, and its slender C shape neck is very comfortable. The neck joins the body at the 14th fret, which made high-range chording and single-note parts easy to play. The ebony fingerboard is flat and has mother-of-pearl dot inlays and immaculate, buzz-free fretwork. The wide, 1-1/2-inch string-spacing at the nut allows ample room for fingerstyle playing, though I found it a little wide for barring chords comfortably.
Sometimes a slotted headstock can make a uke feel a little headstock-heavy, but Kanile’a’s Traditional Thin design is an elegant, lightweight take on the classy look of a slotted headstock. Full-sized when viewed from the front, the headstock is considerably narrower front to back, which helps shave ounces where it matters. My fretting hand welcomed the lighter weight, which made it easier to hold the DK-T in a comfortable playing position, and my tester’s low-profile Gotoh Stealth tuners not only helped keep the weight down, but they also looked like tiny versions of regular-size tuners crafted by a watchmaker. The Stealth tuners worked well, but like a few other encounters I’ve had with these tuners, my test uke’s tuners sometimes required more turning to get the string to move than what I’m used to from a geared tuner.
A lot of an acoustic instrument’s voice comes from its bracing, and with its unique bracing and offset soundhole, the DK-T sounded both familiar and distinctive. Playing through a few of my favorite chord progressions, I found that with its low-G setup, the DK-T had a sound all of its own. The low end of each chord was big and bulbous, with a clear and singing high end. Strummed chords and fingerpicked notes could both sustain for a long time, which gave me plenty of chance to play with my vibrato technique and how long I let notes ring out.
It’s a very expressive instrument, though the wound low-G string sounded louder and somewhat twangier to my ears than the other strings. It stood out a bit and probably helped to give this instrument its low, deep voice. Players and makers often describe koa as a midrange-intensive wood with lots of sustain and a quick attack. Sometimes koa can get a little bright and snappy sounding, but while this uke had a pretty quick attack and sustain to spare, the DK-T felt almost like it had the opposite of the thick midrange often associated with koa. When I played staccato chord chops or fingerstyle, the sound had a quick attack, but lacked some of the snappiness that can sometimes sound a little harsh on all-koa ukes, giving me instead a sound that was a soft and pillowy.
The Kanile’a DK-T Premium is a non-traditional ukulele that may suit players who want something that sounds like nothing else and looks the part, too. It is an exceptionally well-crafted instrument with strikingly beautiful woods, a unique look, and tone with a plump low-end and clear highs. I’d also recommend it for people who may like the look of koa, but never clicked with the bright midrange sound. (It happens!) The Kanile’a DK-T Premium is a sumptuous and deluxe instrument with a price to match and several features that make it a truly special member of Kanile’a’s lineup.
Kanile’a DK-T Premium Specs
BODY Curly koa top, back, and sides with integrated ebony armrest and rounded back; D-shaped soundhole and oval soundport; TRU-R V2 bracing; black front binding; UV-cured high-gloss finish
NECK South American mahogany neck (14 frets to the body), 17″ tenor scale, 19-fret ebony fingerboard with flat radius and mother-of-pearl position markers; 1-1/2″ white Tusq nut; ebony headplate with abalone inlay; Gotoh Stealth tuners; UV-cured silk finish
OTHER Ebony bridge with compensated white Tusq saddle, ebony pins, and 2-1/4″ string spacing; phosphor bronze low-G string; deluxe hardshell case; onboard pickup systems available;
limited lifetime warranty
PRICE $3,085 street
MADE IN USA
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.