Gods of Uke: Classical Master and Historian John King Treated the Ukulele With the Dignity it Deserves

By Tom Walsh | From the Summer 2015 issue of Ukulele

John King was a true pioneer in the ukulele universe. What made him a pioneer? He took the ukulele seriously. In fact, John King took the ukulele more seriously than anyone who had come before.

I first met John when he came to New Jersey for the 2001 Ukulele Expo, and played in the Saturday evening concert. He was virtually unknown at that time, even among ukulele fans, but those who saw him play that night will never forget it. He completely wowed the concert audience of more than 300 people, garnering two standing ovations.

Best known for his incredible playing technique, he was also the world’s foremost expert on the history of the instrument.

Only eight short years passed between the release of King’s first ukulele CD and his sudden untimely death, but he created an amazing collection of ukulele resources during that short time. The resources will live on, giving those who may never have known him a chance to be awed by his playing, to learn from his arrangements, and to develop a love for the history of this all-too-often marginalized instrument.

No Mere Novelty

The son of a naval officer, King inevitably spent a couple of years in Hawaii when he was a boy. He plucked a bit on a Kamaka pineapple ukulele that his mother had purchased, but his interest led him to study classical guitar, eventually taking lessons from the renowned classical guitarist Pepe Romero and his father, Celedonio. After years of classical guitar training, he once again picked up his mother’s Kamaka. Applying his classical technique to the tiny four-string instrument, he began to venture where no ukulele player had gone before.

King played the ukulele using the Campanella technique that was popular during the Baroque period, in which successive individual notes are played on different strings, allowing every note to resonate and ring like a “little bell” (the literal translation of Campanella in Italian).

As King put it, “ease of execution is all but sacrificed” in order to produce the unique sound. He was the first person to ever apply the technique to the ukulele, and no one has come close to his mastery of the style.

John was the first person to approach the ukulele with the kind of rigor that defines ‘classical’ music.

James Hill

Byron Yasui, retired chairman of the music department at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and a renowned ukulele player in his own right, said: “Because of John’s efforts, especially in his Bach transcriptions, listeners of serious music will now regard the ukulele as an instrument on a par with those normally associated with classical music. Thanks to John, the ukulele is no longer a mere novelty instrument or an instrument to simply accompany singing.”

James Hill, regarded as one of the best ukulele players alive today, added: “John was the first person to approach the ukulele with the kind of rigor that defines ‘classical’ music. Sure, there are plenty of people (myself included) who have played arrangements and approximations of classical repertoire, but John was on another level. He was the real thing.”


Lasting Legacy

In 2001, King released his first CD, a collection of solo Bach pieces arranged for the ukulele, on his own music label, Nalu Music. That same year, he self-published the first scholarly work on ukulele history, The Hawaiian Ukulele and Guitar Makers 1884 to 1930, an incredibly well researched and referenced guide to the early luthiers who developed the ukulele from the Portuguese machete and rajão.

As ukulele festivals grew in number and spread across the country, King was in demand as both a performer and a teacher.

In 2003, he published another important historic work, Selected U.S. Trademarks and Patents for Ukuleles, Banjo Ukuleles, and Accessories.

In 2004, Hal Leonard published John King, The Classical Ukulele as part of Jim Beloff’s Ukulele Masters series, and in that same year, Mel Bay released Famous Solos and Duets for the Ukulele, featuring King’s arrangements.

In just a few short years, King had gone from an unknown in the ukulele community to one of its most respected and prolific writers and performers.

In 2003, King joined forces with Jim Tranquada and published an article for the Hawaiian Journal of History titled “A new history of the origins and development of the ‘ukulele 1838–1915,” which was the deepest look yet at the beginnings of ukulele history, but it was just the start for this collaboration.

The two worked for years researching and writing their book, The ‘Ukulele, a History, which is the definitive history of the instrument. In 2007, King and I began work on the book The Martin Ukulele: The Little Instrument That Helped Create a Guitar Giant.


Sadly, John died of a heart attack in April of 2009, before either work was published, yet his work on each of the books made them better than they ever could have been without his input. His death sent a shockwave around the ukulele world, followed by an outpouring of appreciation from ukulele fans everywhere. Many talked about having met him and how open and approachable he was. Those who had not met him offered thanks for all he had created over the years. Personally, I miss John’s camaraderie, his wonderful sense of humor, and remarkable knowledge.

Though his involvement with the ukulele was too brief, King accomplished so much in that short time. Jim Beloff, the founder of Flea Market Music, called him “the foremost historian of the ukulele and world’s finest interpreter of classical music on the uke.”

His legacy will live on.