STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE WINTER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
The first time I met Tony Graziano was at a party in the mid-1990s, here in our shared hometown of Santa Cruz, California. A four-string-friendly pal of ours, Peter Thomas, had decided to host a music party on the Friday night before the weekend of the Northern California Ukulele Festival held in Hayward. Peter’s “Ukulele Extravaganza” parties featured some terrific out-of-town players who were coming to Hayward for the festival. Peter invited them to come a day early and perform at his party. We got to meet a lot of great uke players, including Jim and Liz Beloff, Janet Klein, King Kukulele, Dan “Cool Hand Uke” Scanlan, and Fred Fallin, and hear them play.
Although there were tons of uke players at these parties, Tony was the only ukulele maker in attendance. That’s when I first played one of the ukes he’d built. I was really impressed; I’d played mostly vintage ukuleles before; never a custom-crafted one. Being a woodworker myself, I could tell from the build quality of his instrument that Tony knew what he was doing. Soon thereafter, I visited him at his workshop in the Santa Cruz foothills. I knew I was in the right place when I walked in and smelled the sweet aroma of freshly-sawn walnut and cedar shavings. It was clear that Tony’s luthier ethic embraced both modern and old-school practices: There was a large machine room outfitted with a full complement of power equipment (table saw, planer, etc.), flanked by a smaller bench-room equipped with all manner of traditional hand tools (hand planes and chisels).
After chatting for hours and playing a couple more of Tony’s ukuleles, I knew I wanted one, so I proposed a trade deal: He’d build me a tenor uke (the koa beauty he’s holding in the photo above), and in return, I’d take studio photographs of Graziano ukuleles for his portfolio and website. Now, 20-some-odd-years later, Tony’s still building beautiful instruments in that same shop—and we still have the same deal going.
Born in Tucson, Arizona in the late-1940s, Tony is the son of a second-generation Italian-American father and a Polish mother. To pursue work in the aerospace industry, dad moved the family to San Diego when Tony was seven. Growing up in the late ’50s and ’60s, Tony tried his hand at various instruments, including the piano and the accordion, but received no formal musical education. He attended San Diego State University choosing to study art with a particular focus in sculpture and crafts. “I had no grand plan; I’d just see what comes next.”
What came next was a girl he knew in school who told him she wanted a dulcimer, so he decided to make her one. Fortunately, Tony knew a couple of guys, Sam and Gene Radding, who knew how to build dulcimers and were willing to teach him how to do it. Graziano didn’t know it at the time, but he was in good hands: The Radding brothers founded the famed American Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company, and had a woodshop which served as a training ground for several up-and-coming luthiers of note, including Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug (co-founders of Taylor Guitars), and Greg Deering (Deering Banjos). Using the basic lutherie skills he learned from the Raddings, Tony started building dulcimers in the early 1970s, producing a total of somewhere between 50 and 100 instruments.
How did you get your start building ukuleles?
I spent time in Hawaii around 1976 and got interested in Hawaiian music. Soon thereafter, my wife Sue and I moved to Santa Cruz, which was great because I was big into surfing. I thought it would be fun to start building guitars. But synth-based electronic music was so popular at the time that the acoustic guitar industry was flagging. I didn’t think the world needed another steel-string guitar maker, so I veered off and started building ukuleles. I borrowed a Martin soprano uke from a friend, copied it, sold it, and made another one. I was working as a carpenter at the time and building instruments on the side. By the early 1980s I got hooked on building ukes, as well as the occasional guitar, and decided to do that full-time.
Who bought your instruments in those early days?
At first, I made instruments for local folks. But at that point, not too many people were playing ukulele on the mainland. Until the “Third Wave” uke boom took off here, I sent most of my ukes to Hawaii. I sold them through a variety of shops, including Island Guitars in Honolulu as well as small shops on Kauai and the Big Island. There really weren’t many Mainland uke builders then; like three of us in the whole country. You either bought an old uke, a new Kamaka, or a uke from one of the few folks who were building them. By the mid-1990s, I started selling my ukes at the Northern California Ukulele Festival. As interest in the uke was building, I started to have more of a customer base here.
Do you have standard models that you build?
I’ve made all four sizes of uke—soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone, and all the variations of 4-, 6-, and 8-stringed models. Nowadays, I mostly make tenors, but some years it seems I make a lot of baritones. All my early tenors were based on a Martin tenor, partially because the only standard cases that were available then were designed to fit the Martin tenor shape. Over the years, I’ve developed other tenor body patterns, including one based on a Gibson jumbo guitar and one on the Selmer jazz guitars designed by Mario Maccaferri.
I’ve also built several pineapple-shaped ukes, some hand-painted by Peter Thomas’ wife, Donna.
What are your favorite woods to build with?
I build only with solid woods, no laminates. Some of my ukes have hardwood tops, mahogany, koa, mango, etc., that match the body wood. Curly koa is always nice. it sounds good and makes a pretty uke. I also build ukes with hardwood bodies and cedar, spruce, or redwood tops. Those softwoods tend to give the instrument more volume and sustain. I like to use European maple—basically violin wood—for the backs and sides, combined with a top made from spruce). The maple bends and finishes very well and produces a nice bright sound that lends itself to the ukulele. I also use maple for the neck so that it matches the body. It’s more work to carve, but it looks great.
What about so-called “substitute woods,” like using walnut instead of rosewood for fingerboards?
I think substitute woods are great, if something else works, why not use it? Maple, walnut, spruce, cedar, etc., are all plentiful domestic woods good for uke building. Instrument-making woods that come from Europe have been systemically harvested for hundreds of years. Even rosewood from plantations in India is sustainable and nice to use for ukes. Ultimately, you have to use woods that the buying public will go for. Players have been getting schooled over the past 15 or 20 years to accept alternative woods. These other woods work; they’re pretty and they sound good. You just keep trying and offering these things.
Are there certain things you can do to ensure that a uke will sound good?
I try to use fairly thin tops on my ukuleles. If the top is too thick, it’s just not going to vibrate well. And I keep the bracing light, as there’s not a lot of string tension on a uke. I make all the top braces as light as possible; a couple braces under the top is enough. I lay out braces without a whole lot of measuring, as I just know where they go. I flex the top and see if I can shave the braces a bit thinner here and there. I got my uke-building chops down several hundred ukes ago and it all becomes a bit intuitive after a while. [At the time of this interview, Tony had built 690 ukuleles.] That’s what you get after years of practice. The skill goes into your hands.
What are some of the most interesting or challenging ukuleles you’ve built?
Maybe one of the first double-neck ukes I made. A friend of mine at the Hayward Uke Fest suggested that I build one. I asked him, “If I make one, will you take it on stage and play it?” and he said sure. So, I built a double-neck tenor with 8-string and 4-string necks on a body with two sound holes. The next year, I brought it to Hayward and my friend took it up on stage and performed with it. Somebody ended up buying it and I started getting occasional orders for them. They’ve become a sort of staple in my building career and one of my specialties. I typically build two of these a year. Most are 8-string/4-string tenors, but I’ve also built doubles that combine a baritone and a tenor. The craziest one was probably a solid-body uke that combined a bass uke with a baritone. It’s styled after a Gretsch double-neck electric guitar, complete with an orange painted finish and lots of electronics. Every time I build a double-neck on custom order, somewhere along the line when the build gets tough, I think. “Maybe I can send their deposit back?” Something always happens. But ultimately, they’re kinda fun to build.
As a custom builder, what are some of the challenges of making one-of-a-kind instruments?
Depending on what a customer wants, I often find myself pushing the envelope of what’s possible. There’s often a lot of planning and head-scratching when you’re creating something you’ve never built before. Each project has its own special challenges, whether you’re making a custom double-neck, an archtop, or an acoustic version of a solid-bodied instrument, like the 8-string tenor I built that was based on a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. When you pull it off, it’s really great to have created a special thing that’s made the customer happy. That’s main thing, when the customer’s happy, they’re playing music on a uke I built. That’s the ultimate joy.
Who are some of the well-known players you’ve built ukuleles for?
Back in the late ’90s, I built a couple of custom ukes for Ledward Kaapana—a fancy koa tenor with a spruce top with abalone purfling, and an electric Telecaster-shaped solid-bodied koa uke. [He also built one for the author, who dubbed it a “Hula Caster.”] I built a beautiful tenor uke for Kimo Hussey that had curly walnut sides and back and a nice sinker redwood top. Herb Ohta Senior [aka Ohta-San] also has one of my ukes. A dealer of mine in Hawaii once called to tell me that Irish-American actor Pierce Brosnan had purchased one my ukuleles, so I guess 007 plays a Graziano.
How has what customers want changed over the years?
Customers are definitely savvier nowadays. A lot of people I get are like, “I’ve been playing for a long time and have a bunch of ukes and I’ve always wanted one of yours.” They usually want something very specific, like, “can you make me a 5-string tenor with a cutaway and a pickup and this style of headstock, and can I have this design inlayed in it?” Inlay became a big selling point, so makers like me had to either learn how to do inlays or job it out. I used to do my own inlay work and I was OK at it, but at some point, the bar got raised by experts like Larry Robinson, Harvey Leech, and Dave Sigman [who currently does Tony’s inlay work]. They’re so good at it, there’s no way I can compete. People see pictures of their stuff and say that’s the quality they want, so you have to hire them to do the work. Sometimes, personalization of the instrument is what folks want, like having a unique inlay in the headstock. Other times, they want no ornamentation; just a plain player made out of nice wood that sounds good, and they’re happy with that. They don’t even want my name on the headstock.
What are some of the new innovations in materials or construction that have changed the way you build ukes?
A soundport located on the upper side bout has become really popular. It acts like a monitor for the player which allows them to hear the uke better while they’re playing it. I do them sometimes, when customers ask for them. Cutaways are also popular and look cool. But on a uke with 14 frets clear of the body—which is what everyone wants these days—I don’t think you really need them.
Tuning machines have improved significantly: Early on, friction pegs were about the only choice. If you put guitar-style machine tuners on a uke, all the old Hawaiian Aunties would give you stinkeye, saying “no you can’t do that on a uke, it doesn’t look right!” The friction tuners available at the time were pretty crummy and a hassle to use. Somewhere along the way, it became OK to use guitar-style tuners. But now, things are even better as you have a choice of lightweight machine tuners, like Gotoh Stealth, or compact planetary tuners like those made by Peghead and Graph Tech. I like to use modern geared mandolin tuners on my 8-strings, as they help keep the ukes lightweight and better balanced.
Similarly, pickups for ukes have come a long way. We had very few choices in the early days compared to now. There are all sorts of undersaddle strips and dots, and combos along with more sophisticated electronics. Most of these sound pretty good.
Overall, do you think ukes are growing or declining in popularity?
I think the current uke craze is still ascending. You hear TV and radio commercials with uke music all the time. You see lots of people with ukes playing out in public. There are more and more new uke models on the market as well as more uke classes, festivals; even uke cruises. The ukulele is truly the peoples’ instrument—it’s small and convenient to carry around and easy to learn to play. I’m a terrible musician and even I can play one.