By Greg Olwell
At its heart, the ukulele is a humble and simple instrument. Its earnestness and lack of pretension not only makes it an appealing instrument to beginners and experienced musicians alike, it gives makers a great foundation for experimentation, masterful displays of artistry, and often whimsy.
If you’re lucky, sometimes you can find all three of those traits in one instrument. The Kanile`a KSTP is one such ukulele, and it’s the newest model from an established maker on the island of Oahu. Introduced in 2013, KSTP is code for “Slothead Tenor Premium,” and it includes some features that high-end acoustic guitar aficionados might recognize—like the slotted headstock and non-traditional bracing—and others that help ground this ukulele in the instrument’s homeland on the Hawaiian Islands.
With no rosette or binding to distract me, the basic unadorned look of the KSTP’s sumptuously figured koa body drew me in from the moment I first opened the case. The review model had a modern, high-gloss finish that helped illuminate the rich, three-dimensional depths of the koa’s ripples, making it nearly impossible to look away—I just wanted to get lost in the warm glow when I wasn’t playing.
The KSTP has another feature that helps makes it special—the inlays are made of sand from Kailua beach, a picture-postcard perfect beach close to the Kanile`a shop in Kaneohe.
It’s a whimsical, yet subtle touch to the headstock, fingerboard, and side position markers that gives the KSTP a little special something from Oahu’s windward side. I also really enjoyed a few nods to traditional guitar building, like the slotted headstock and the pin bridge.
Nevertheless, when a beautiful new Hawaiian uke is right in front of you, the right thing to do is play, so I obliged. With a few brushes of my fingertips across the Aquila strings, it was clear that a modern heart beats beneath the KSTP’s traditional-looking exterior. Each note had a clear and balanced voice throughout the ukulele’s range, no matter if I was playing chords or fingerpicking lines. There were no murky, vague notes or wolf tones anywhere along the 19-fret fingerboard.
To some, playing a ukulele with a pick makes me a heretic, but I loved the KSTP’s sound so much, I repeatedly grabbed a felt pick to play through some of my favorite Tin Pan Alley and jazz-standard melody lines to take advantage of the pillowy chime of the Kanile`a.
The mahogany neck’s C-shape felt comfortable, and the fretwork and intonation were spectacular, which you should expect on an instrument in this price range. Still, it’s always so welcome to be in tune, especially when the sounds are so sweet and transparently delicious.
Usually, I’m not one to visit the fingerboard’s upper region, but the combination of great intonation and tonal sweetness lead me up the 14-fret neck repeatedly. It was hard to get enough of this uke’s sound, which was unique, possibly due, in part, to some of what Joe Souza, Kanile`a’s luthier and founder, has done on the koa box’s interior. The inside of the uke is one of the places where Kanile`a moves away from traditional methods and uses some of Souza’s ideas (easily seen by peeking through the soundhole). Kanile`a uses reverse kerfing around the interior edges to connect the sides to the top and back.
Reversing this strip of wood is a non-traditional move that’s popular with some instrument builders who feel that it strengthens the sides and offers a cleaner look on the inside.
Like many other high-end luthiers, Souza developed his own special recipe for bracing the Kanile`a’s top. He calls it “total resonating ukulele” or TRU bracing, and it uses a series of trusses, which he feels helps the uke’s top resonate better without compromising its strength.
Unless you’re into building instruments, such refinements can all be obscure stuff, but the proof is in the playing. The Kanile`a KSTP is an heirloom uke. It’s the kind of instrument that you can reward yourself with and keep for a lifetime of fun and exploration.
It’s a great musical partner for anyone who can afford the entry price and appreciates the company’s balance between old-style craftsmanship and modern innovation.