Ukulele Review: Chicago’s Makaio Strikes Right Balance of Performance and Playability with MKT-10 and MSMT-20 Tenors


Matt Cantlon trained at culinary art school in Hawaii before moving from the kitchen to the ukulele business. In 2019 he opened Aloha City Ukuleles, Chicago’s only dedicated ukulele store, to provide quality ukuleles from major Hawaiian and mainland builders. And with his background working for major instrument brands and also as a musician, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to also launch his own brand of ukuleles: Makaio (pronounced mah-kah-yoh; it’s the Hawaiian word for Matthew).

After Honolulu (where the uke was created and perfected), the city with the strongest claim to the crown for ukulele’s second hometown is not San Francisco (where it was introduced to the rest of the world at the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1918), Los Angeles (where Hawaiian-builders often set up shop), or Nazareth (Martin’s hometown), but may be Chicago. Thousands and thousands of quality, affordable instruments—many, if not most of the ukuleles that served the massive mainland ukulele market from the 1910s–1950s—were built in Chicago. 

Makaio is firmly in the mold of those Chicago ukulele builders, providing instruments that strike the right balance between quality and affordability, putting a highly playable, great-sounding ukulele in the hands of any player without breaking the bank. For this review I received two Makaio tenor ukes: a 10 Series laminate and a 20 Series solid-wood model. 

Makaio MTK-10 tenor ukulele

The MKT-10 koa uke is one of six laminated options in the 10 Series, available in concert or tenor, koa or spalted mango, with or without a pickup. This is a simply appointed uke featuring an abalone rosette, glossy finish, ebony bridge, and an 18-fret fingerboard that ends in an elegant curve just shy of the soundhole. The most visually remarkable feature is the headstock, with its organic, symmetrical shape. Though there is no binding on the body or headstock, the dark fingerboard is bound in strips of lighter wood. It’s a subtle and very nice touch. The ukulele also features a string-through bridge, which requires some dexterity when restringing, but adds to its clean lines. 

Makaio ukes ship with a wound low-G string, which always takes me a little getting used to, but from the first strum this ukulele delivered the “amazing playability” promised by its creators. The neck is a very comfortable C shape, with the right amount of chunk. String height, spacing, and setup are spot-on, and notes played anywhere on the fretboard produce a clear, warm tone. This is not a loud ukulele, although all new instruments take time to open up, but from day one the MKT-10 delivered the bright, responsive sound I associate with koa instruments. 

The beautiful, all-solid-wood spalted mango MSMT-20 is quite a different animal from the laminated 10 Series uke. To begin with, it costs about twice as much. So why pay more for solid wood versus laminate? The first reason is that the 20 Series ukulele is noticeably lighter-weight and louder than the laminated uke, with a brighter, more complex sound full of rich overtones. And while the MKT-10 has a very respectable tone (especially for the price), the sonics of the solid-wood version distinguish it as, simply, a better instrument. 

Solid woods give the MSMT-20 a significant improvement in dynamics: You really hear the difference between a gentle and a fierce strum, soft fleshy-fingertip and sharp, snappy fingernail picking. A challenge with ukuleles and other stringed instruments, versus wind instruments for example, is that the dynamic range is usually much more limited. Ask a horn player to play their quietest note and their loudest note. When your ears stop ringing, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. No ukulele is going to match that range, but on the MSMT-20, the dynamic response in terms of tone and volume creates an entirely different palette of sound to play with beyond notes and chords. That’s a difference worth paying for.


Makaio MSMT-20 tenor ukulele

The MSMT-20 is also very different-looking with maple and abalone binding around the body, an abalone rosette, and a rosewood contour armrest on the lower bout. I wouldn’t call it essential, but it’s a nice feature that distinguishes the higher-priced 20 Series ukuleles. 

The bridge, neck, headstock, and geared chrome tuners are the same as the 10 Series, a great choice because these are features that really work well. The only difference on the fingerboards is the colorful abalone dots in the neck of the 20 Series. There are currently four 20 Series ukuleles available, as concert or tenor in either solid mango or koa. Makaio has also let us know that both Series 10 and 20 ukuleles will be available as baritones around the time this review is published.

A century-old koa ukulele that I recently bought, and will keep, has a sticker from Bergstrom Music, the leading music store in Honolulu that sold ukuleles to both professionals and tourists for decades beginning in the 1910s: “Home of Hawaiian Music.” For me, there’s something classy about a store owner, like Matt Cantlon at Aloha City Ukuleles, learning from his interactions with customers and working with builders to supply instruments that meet the needs of players at all levels. Makaio Ukulele has accomplished this while following in a rich, long tradition that’s brought ukulele from Hawaii and Chicago to the world.

MKT-10 Koa 

BODY: Hawaiian koa laminate top, back, and sides; scalloped bracing; string-through bridge; bone nut and saddle; abalone rosette; ultra-thin gloss finish
NECK: 17″ mahogany neck with 18 frets; ebony bridge and fingerboard; dot fretboard inlays and side position markers; chrome geared tuners with butterbean-style buttons; ultra-thin gloss finish
OTHER: Fluorocarbon low-G string; padded case; available with under-saddle pickup; also available in spalted mango laminate
PRICE: $279 street
MADE IN: China

MSMT-20 Spalted Mango 

BODY: Solid spalted mango top, back, and sides; maple binding; rosewood contoured armrest; scalloped bracing; string-through bridge; bone nut and bone compensated saddle, abalone rosette; ultra-thin gloss finish
NECK: 17″ mahogany neck with 18 frets; ebony bridge and fingerboard; abalone micro dot fretboard inlays
and side position markers; chrome geared tuners with butterbean-style buttons; ultra-thin gloss finish
OTHER: Fluorocarbon low-G string; padded case; available with under-saddle pickup; also available in koa
PRICE: $599 street
MADE IN: China


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