Great Ukes: This Rare David Mahelona Violin Uke Shows the Stellar Craftsmanship of Its Maker


I know in the past I’ve featured some ukuleles in this column that are interesting, but, let’s just say, less than stellar—Regal’s cool-looking, horrible-sounding Jungle Uke comes to mind—but the instrument here simply defines the term “great.” The violin ukes made by Hawaiian luthier David Mahelona sometime in the 1920s and/or ‘30s are simply magnificent, in terms of their appearance, collectability, and even tone. 

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To say that Mahelona’s violin ukes are rare is an understatement; only a handful are known to exist. Appropriately enough, one example is in the collection of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii’s premier natural and cultural history museum. Relatively little is known about the craftsman, whose signature instruments were violin-shaped soprano ukuleles. I’ve read (but not been able to confirm) that Mahelona was born in Hawaii in 1899, and that he worked as a manager for prolific ukulele maker Jonah Kumalae prior to setting up his own shop in the 1920s.

David Mahelona violin uke back
Like other early Hawaiian ukes, the back of this David Mahelona violin uke is slightly convex.

One thing we definitely know about Mahelona is that he was one heck of a good ukulele craftsman. The build quality of the violin uke seen here is stellar. Its body and neck are made entirely from Hawaiian koa. 


The wood is relatively plain, but still lends the uke a rich sound even 100 years after it was made. The body shape is a sort of hybrid of a soprano uke and a violin. Unlike a violin, the top is flat, but like other early Hawaiian ukes, the back is slightly convex. The top end of the back runs over the end of the neck’s heel, and the uke’s frets are set directly into the neck with no separate fingerboard—features commonly found on vintage Hawaiian ukuleles.

This is definitely one of the fanciest ukes I’ve ever seen in terms of decoration. The entire top, neck, and headstock are rimmed with an attractive rope-style binding and flashy mother-of-pearl purfling. Mother-of-pearl as also used for the uke’s soundhole rosette and position marker dots. The uke’s uniquely shaped headstock bears a decal showing the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Hawaii above the words “ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono,” which is most commonly translated as, “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” The chess piece–style Bakelite tuners on this violin uke are not original.

David Mahelona violin uke headstock

The other Mahelona violin ukes still in existence show some variations to the one seen here. The one in the Bishop Museum’s collection is very similar, but has a body made from fancier koa wood. The fanciest example I’ve seen, which is part of Shawn Yacavone’s museum collection on his Ukulele Friend website, is not only made from highly figured koa but features an extended fingerboard as well as a scalloped “moustache” pearl inlay at the base of the body.

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in which case Mahelona’s violin ukes received a significant compliment from another Hawaiian ukulele maker. Once based in Honolulu (but now out of business), Tangi Ukuleles produced its own version of a violin uke in the early 2000s. Made from plain koa, this instrument featured multi-color wood bindings and pearl purfling around the top of the body and around the sound hole.

David Mahelona violin uke from 1930s and Tangi Ukuleles copy from the early 2000s
Tangi Ukuleles produced its own version of a violin uke in the early 2000s.