BY GREG OLWELL
Short movies filled with dazzling musical pyrotechnics were popular long before YouTube. Short “talky” films, called Vitaphones and featuring some of the popular musical stars of the day, were often shown before the marquee movie, and one of the era’s most popular subjects was Roy Smeck, “The Wizard of the Strings.”
Though I’ve heard Smeck described as someone who was “sometimes playing as if his sense of taste has been surgically removed,” his recordings and short films show that he was a virtuoso and a showman without equal. He could also play nearly anything with strings, so it’s no surprise he landed an early endorsement deal that created one of the most distinctive—and some say best-sounding—ukuleles ever made, the Vita Uke.
Though based on the Harmony Roy Smeck Vita Uke, which was made between the late ’20s and the outbreak of the Second World War, the Ohana CKP-70’s pear-shape design updates the classic Vita shape with a slightly more modern flair. Most visibly, the Ohana’s seal-shape soundholes are less defined than the Vita’s were, making them more suggestive of the original than an exact copy. Less immediate, but ultimately more important for the uke’s overall sound, is the solid spruce top Ohana uses to cap the mahogany body, compared to the all-mahogany bodies used by Harmony.
The body’s front and back are bound, and the Grover tuners will keep you in tune better than vintage uke tuners ever could. The bone nut and saddle are nice touches that stand above the plastic frequently seen on instruments in this price range.
The Ohana’s pear-shape body earns it a place of honor among the fruit bowl– inspired ukuleles, like the pineapple. The nearly nonexistent upper bouts make up-the-neck chord melodies and fingerboard shenanigans effortless, while the lower bout spreads wider than most concert-size ukuleles, giving the CKP-70’s body plenty of air volume.
Full & Bright Sound
Though the CKP-70 has a more soprano-like scale, its large lower bouts are the likely explanation for why the Ohana had a much fuller sound than you might expect from an instrument with only half of a body. Its bright sound had more sparkle than I’ve heard from the vintage Vita Ukes (and several modern reproductions) I’ve played that use mahogany tops. When strummed hard, the Ohana has tons of volume and a snappy bite, but where it excels is its ability to respond to picking or strumming dynamics. Play softly and the CKP-70 produces a delicate, yet full sound. Hit it harder and the Ohana barks like a seal. Go figure.
Part of the fuel for the ukulele craze is an appreciation of the past. By tweaking the formula of a classic ukulele, the folks at Ohana are showing the world that nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be. I have to hand it to Ohana for taking inspiration for the CKP from the classic uke but not copying it. What they made is their own ukulele that sounds great, with lots of punch, and has more character than $170 should be able to buy.
AT A GLANCE
Specs: 12-fret pear-shape ukulele. Solid spruce top. Laminated mahogany back and sides. Rosewood fingerboard and bridge. Bone nut and saddle. 13 3/4-inch scale. 1 1/4-inch wide nut. Satin finish. Grover Sta-Tite ukulele tuners. Aquila Nylgut strings. Made in China.
Price: $269 list/$169 street (hard-shell case $89 extra)