STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE FALL 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
Renowned modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said that “God is in the details.” Best known for the stark yet sleek metal-and-glass skyscrapers he designed in the 1950s and ’60s, one can only imagine what he would have thought had his phrase been applied to ukuleles. But, like all other things made by man and nature, details are a critical part of the overall effect that an object—animal, mineral, or made of mahogany—has upon those who behold it (or in this case, strum it).
This article is an exploration of all the little things that make vintage ukes both attractive and functional: oddly shaped bridges, inlaid headstocks, beautiful fingerboards, unusual tuners, complex bindings, and decorative soundholes. In addition to intimate photos showcasing these details, I’ll present some history and bits of trivia about the ukuleles they enhance.
Whether they were originally inexpensive or pricey, around 98 percent of all vintage ukes have basic bridges that are typically a short rectangular strip of wood with a small raised saddle and slots at the strip’s rear edge used to secure the knotted ends of the strings.
But Lyon & Healy had a more aesthetic goal in mind when they created the shapely and unique bridges for their entire line of ukes. The photo here shows Lyon & Healy’s Bell (top left) and Shrine (top right) ukes. The strings on both of these soprano-sized ukes are secured via small ivoroid bridge pins, a unique approach not typically employed on soprano- and concert-sized ukes.
An entirely different kind of bridge design found its inspiration from a surprising source: Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. His unprecedented accomplishment was so significant that merchandisers seeking to capitalize on its popularity created all manner of products featuring Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis airplane: commemorative coins, buttons, picture puzzles, souvenir beanies, and the concert-sized “Aero Uke,” made by the Stromberg-Voisinet Company of Chicago, Illinois (lower left). The Aero’s wing-like bridge has a unique screwed-on metal bar that serves to hold the strings in place. The sizeable maple bridge on Harmony’s Johnny Marvin signature model ukulele (lower right) is shaped to resemble a top view of Lindbergh’s plane.
I’ve seen plenty of vintage guitars and banjos with fancy headstocks inlaid with intricate designs rendered in pearl or abalone. While such headstocks are relatively rare in the ukulele world, there are some examples worthy of mention. The three shown in the photo above are all high-end models made by (left to right) Gretsch, Martin and Gibson.
Over its long history, New York musical manufacturer Gretsch produced a wide range of instruments, including drums, guitars, basses, banjos, and ukuleles. Their line of ukes produced in the 1920s and ’30s ranged from the very plain Style 1, to the exceedingly rare koa-bodied Style 3, modeled after Martin’s Style 5K. Their model shown here featured a pair of diamond-shape pearl inlays flanking a double ended floral decoration. The top of this model’s mahogany head is covered in rosewood veneer that matches its rosewood fretboard.
Introduced late in 1921, Martin’s top-of-the-line Style 5K featured a headstock topped with figured koa
veneer inlaid with an attractive pearl “torch” inlay. This curly-koa-bodied, pearl-encrusted model retailed for the princely sum of $50, equivalent to about $860 today. Martin dropped the 5K in 1940, evidently due to a shortage of koa during WWII. They made a mahogany version of the Style 5 in 1941, but it was only in production for two years.
Although Gibson’s Uke-3 was the company’s fanciest stock model produced in the late 1920s (Gibson did occasionally build custom ukes on special order), its appointments—bindings, inlays, etc.—didn’t measure up to top-shelf ukes made by Martin, Lyon & Healy, and others. The Uke-3, which sold originally for $20, featured a headstock with “The Gibson” script logo in silver paint above a pair of pearl diamonds with a pearl square in the middle.
The headstock shape of the great majority of ukuleles is generally known as the three-peaked “crown.” However, early Hawaiian luthiers often created their own unique shapes. Take, for example, the four ukuleles shown below. The two ukes on the left are both Malolo models; the headstock of the one at far left is “ipu” or gourd-shaped, while the one next to it has a more elaborate form with scalloped edges. Although you can’t tell from the photo, the two ukes at right are both “cocoleles” with bodies made of coconuts. The uke on the right with the swallow-tail headstock is a Niu Kani, while the one with the pointy head next to it is a Cox Cocolele, made in Honolulu by inventor and part-time auto mechanic Anthony G. Cox.
Most uke players have heard the tongue-in-cheek axiom “You should tune your ukulele once a year, whether it needs it or not.” But back in the early 1960s, toy and instrument maker Emenee Industries came up with a clever way of making it easier to keep their ukes in tune: Emenee’s Flamingo model plastic ukes often came equipped with a set of pitch pipes attached directly to the top of their headstocks. The four pipes are pitched G–C–E–A, which was—and still is—the standard tuning for soprano ukes.
Fancier ukuleles not only have fancy headstocks, but often more elaborate fingerboard inlays as well. The best examples, such as found on the Hollywood #10 uke (above), feature arabesque pearl inlays similar to those found on the most ornate banjos of the ’20s and ’30s. Other high-end models of early Hawaiian ukuleles often featured a multi-wood rope or herringbone center stripe and bindings on the edges of their fingerboards, as seen below.
The extended fingerboards of the three soprano ukes in the photo below showcase more common styles of decorative inlay patterns. The ebony fingerboard, at left, belongs to the celebrated Martin 5K, which sports a pearl snowflake at the 3rd fret and various combinations of pearl diamonds, squares, and eyelid-shape inlays at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, and 15th frets. The rosewood fingerboard of the Gibson Uke-3 (center) features four groups of shiny pearl diamond-shape inlays at the 5th, 7th, 10th, and 12th frets. At right, Martin’s style 3K uke has a simpler pattern of squares and diamonds at the 5th, 7th, and 10thfrets. The ebony fingerboards of 3K ukes produced before 1950 also feature a center stripe that matches the instrument’s black and white binding and soundhole ring.
To bring a bit of bling to less expensive models, many ukulele manufacturers produced instruments with fingerboards entirely covered in pearloid. Also known to luthiers as “mother of toilet seat,” pearloid is the generic name for celluloid plastic laminates that give the overall look of real mother-of-pearl or abalone. To make pearloid, celluloid plastic chunks are swirled together in a solvent, then cured, sliced into sheets, and bonded to backing laminates. Dyes may be added to create different colors (see photo below) or to achieve an aged look.
Decades before ukulele makers dared to fit their instruments with geared tuning machines, ukuleles came with one of two types of tuners: Early Hawaiian instruments typically had wooden tuning pegs similar to those used for violins, while mainland ukes employed metal friction tuners with
Bakelite knobs usually shaped like chess pieces. As you might guess, pricier models featured better, sometimes fancier tuners. Of the ukuleles shown in the photo above, the Martin Style 2M and the Lyon & Healy Style 703 (bottom and center right) both have better quality Grover brand friction tuners fitted with stylish knobs: ivoroid on the Martin and tan Bakelite on the 703. The Finder plastic uke at bottom left is distinguished by its unique multi-colored plastic tuning knobs. These are sometimes called “Chicklet” tuners, as their puffy shape is reminiscent of that once-popular brand of chewing gum. The Kluson brand tuners on the Gretsch WWII era “Army Uke” (top right) are noteworthy for their quality and vivid red color. The Cliff Edwards signature model uke (top left) has tuners with internal springs to keep them from slipping but allow easy tuning. Finally, the Rexcraft all-metal ukulele at center left features tuners that are crude in appearance, yet unique and effective in their function. Each string wraps around the end of a standard thumb screw, which facilitates tuning. Once set, a wing nut threaded onto the thumb screw locks its position in place.
Better-quality ukes have always featured binding around the top of the body, and sometimes around the back as well. While its functional purpose is to protect the edges of the wood body from impact and possible moisture damage, it also lends an instrument more visual impact—the more elaborate the binding, the greater the effect. Early Hawaiian ukuleles typically featured so-called “rope” binding made up of alternating pieces of light and dark woods (the top left uke in the photo. Herringbone-style binding graces the edge of the S.S. Stewart uke (center left). These are made up of alternating pieces of wood dyed in four different colors with a single black binding strip surrounding the pattern. The Tru-Fret ukulele (bottom left) has an even more elaborate parquetry binding done in a neoclassical style. It’s protected by a white celluloid binding that encircles the top of the uke. (Also check out the cool checkerboard binding on the Pep Leader uke in my Great Ukes column.)
One of the most distinctive edge bindings is found on Martin’s Style 3 uke (top right). Seven layers of alternating ivory and black strips form the wide binding and also surround the soundhole. Both the koa Style 3K and mahogany Style 3M models feature a distinctive ivory-color celluloid inlay on the top edge below the bridge, known as a “parend” or “shield.” Both the top and back of Martin’s style 5K uke (bottom right) are rimmed with a band of abalone bordered by white and black celluloid bindings. When the light catches it just right, a 5K simply sparkles.
If there’s one thing that nearly every single uke has, it’s a soundhole. The vast majority of holes are round and either totally plain or rimmed with a single ring of paint or celluloid. There are, of course, exceptions: Harmony’s Roy Smeck signature uke (below) showcases a pair of holes shaped like circus seals, while the Regal uke to its left sports the kind of f-holes you’d find on a jazz guitar or violin. There’s no better example of this than J. R. Stewart’s charming Le Domino uke above. In addition to the gold ring covered with domino tiles around the soundhole, individual dominos act as fret position markers, each with a value equaling the fret number—how’s that for attention to detail!
Beyond mere paint and decals, some of the coolest-looking ukes feature other forms of soundhole decoration. Take, for instance, the uke at far left in the photo below. This plastic Mastro Islander De Luxe soprano boasts a toothed ring of dark brown plastic, as well as a really cool bridge and extended fingerboard. The Lyon & Healy soprano uke at the center of the photo is part of a line that featured raised celluloid rings around their soundholes. The one shown here is ivoroid, colored and grained to imitate real ivory. Other models sported raised rings of black celluloid to match their black saddles and nuts. At right in the photo, the S.S. Stewart’s herringbone soundhole rosette matches its binding and fingerboard center stripe. I also love the uniqueness of its shapely fingerboard extension.
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.