By Adam Perlmutter
Many years ago, the multi-instrumentalist Marcy Marxer found herself dismayed by the predominance of sub-par ukuleles on the market. She decided to take matters into her own hands. Throughout the next decade, she appealed vigorously to instrument companies to step things up.
“The ukuleles my students were playing in the late ’70s and ’80s were more like toys than instruments,” Marxer says. “It took until about 1987 for the companies to listen to me and finally put the frets in the right place!”
Three decades later, the world of ukulele making is a different place. It would be an anomaly to find misplaced frets on even the least expensive new instrument, and a wealth of superbly built factory-made ukuleles can be had at every price point. At the same time, there have never been so many options for custom instruments. In fact, it just might be a golden era for ukulele making.
“So many small custom shops and individual luthiers, even those working in their spare time in basements and garages, are building instruments that are nothing short of amazing,” Marxer says.
What Does Custom Mean?
It doesn’t occur to many players to seek out a custom-made ukulele, as it might seem prohibitively expensive—like a bespoke suit, perhaps, or some other luxury good. “I think sometimes people settle for instruments right off the rack,” Marxer says, “without even realizing that the unique instrument of their dreams might fall within a similar price range.”
An informal survey of custom builders confirms Marxer’s assessment. Mya-Moe—the husband-and-wife luthiers Gordon and Char Mayer, who work with craftsman Aaron Keim—offers basic sopranos for as little as $950. “It seemed that nobody was making a high-quality, hand-built ukulele for around a thousand dollars when we started in 2008,” says Gordon Mayer, who makes 300 ukuleles per year with his small team in Washington state. “That’s why people were so open to us from the start.”
The Michigan-based luthier Gary Zimnicki builds only around six ukuleles per year; his bread and butter is high-end archtop and flattop guitars, so he’s able to produce relatively inexpensive ukes, from $1,250 to $2,500. Of his more modest offerings, Zimnicki says, “I’ve been building guitars for over 30 years, but only recently got interested in ukuleles after hearing several good players and realizing that ukuleles weren’t the toys I always mistook them to be.”
For those flush with cash, a company like Ko`olau, run by John Kitakis with his son, Noa Kitakis, as head luthier, can make a hand-carved tenor archtop with fancy inlays for $13,000. However, musicians with lesser means will be relieved to know that the majority of the 300 to 400 instruments that Ko`olau builds per year are far less expensive—the most popular models range from $1,600 to $4,500.
There’s a spectrum of just how customizable luthiers make their instruments. Mya-Moe, for instance, has a modular approach, limiting choices between five different body sizes, six different models, and 20 different tonewoods, and they don’t fulfill requests for any deviations from these specifications.
“We’re sticklers about the acoustics and the high quality of our instruments,” says Mayer, “which in my opinion comes from having developed correct body shapes, with the right volumes in cubic inches, for the sounds that we want: distinctive, full of sustain, and very rounded. We wouldn’t be able to maintain that standard with, say, a one-off request for a larger body.”
Other makers are more open to fulfilling special requests, both in terms of wood and construction. Zimnicki, who is known for using repurposed timber, says, “I am just getting started on what will be the most unusual request I have had for any instrument. It will be a tenor ukulele using reclaimed maple and fir from a 100-year-old Detroit house that was deconstructed. The instrument will have a bridge, sharp cutaway, and oval soundhole like a Selmer [the guitar made famous by Django Reinhardt].”
And then there’s the rare luthier unafraid to take on even more-atypical projects. North Carolina’s Ken Miller built Marxer a soprano harp ukulele inspired by those originally built in the mid-to-late 1800s. Half of the instrument is a standard four-string ukulele, while the other side is an elongated arm accommodating three harp strings.
“Ken is absolutely brilliant,” says Marxer. “He’s quite the inventor; you present him with a problem, and he wants to solve it, to come up with new and better ways of doing things. I don’t know how he did it with the harp ukulele.”
Many ukulele builders do offer the sort of inlay work that allows clients to receive highly personalized instruments. When the jazz-oriented player Sarah Maisel commissioned her main ukulele from Berkeley, California luthier Michael DaSilva, for example, she asked for a small inlay of a guinea pig on the back of the instrument—a tribute to the animals she fosters in her work with a rescue shelter in San Diego. Maisel says, “Mike had gotten very inspired by the guinea pig pictures I had sent for reference and decided to make the animal a feature of the headstock. Though that was not what I originally wanted, I ended up loving his design and approach.”
Of course, the process of commissioning a ukulele starts with selecting a luthier. That means researching different builders, their aesthetics and philosophies—and their price lists, too—and maybe even meeting the instrument makers and their products at an annual event like the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii exhibition. The conversation between player and luthier then begins, and the builder will gather as much information as possible to guide the uke’s design.
From an instrument maker’s perspective, this dialogue is essential to the art of lutherie, and it might receive as much care and attention as the build process itself. “We want clear communication,” Ko`olau’s John Kitakis explains, “and, in the end, complete understanding and satisfaction. For many days, and sometimes weeks, we discuss options, beginning with sizes, models, woods, binding, headstocks, inlay, and finishing. We encourage our customers to request clarification of any details, rather than be disappointed in the end.
“In any manufacturing business,” he continues, “what is made and how it’s made is important, but as important—though sometimes neglected—is the relationship between the maker and the customer.”
Sometimes, the relationship develops in person, as it did for Craig Brandau, a Los Angeles-based musician and the author of Jazz Chord Solos for Tenor Ukulele (Hal Leonard). When Brandau bought his first ukulele, in the summer of 2005, he was primarily a nylon-string guitarist. On a visit to the island of Oahu, Hawaii, he wandered into Ko`olau’s workshop and started chatting with Noa Kitakis. The ideal instrument, he told the luthier, would have a sound more like a fine concert classical guitar than a typical ukulele. Kitakis disappeared into a storage room and returned with a stash of prized Brazilian rosewood, a wood more likely to be found on costly nylon-string guitars than on ukuleles.
“Noa showed me four sets of the rosewood, moistening each piece so that I could see how it would look when finished,” Brandau recalls. “I just fell in love with the wood, picked out a set, and ordered one of the ukes on a whim. I had no idea that the finished product, which also has a spruce top and a slotted headstock, would become my main instrument that I’ll never stop playing.” Brandau later commissioned a pineapple Ko`olau with Brazilian rosewood back and sides.
Brandau’s wife, Cali Rose, also a musician, was with him on the visit and wasn’t quite as taken with the rosewood.
“I remember thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ I had learned to make a living as a musician playing sticky pianos, squirrely guitars, low-end banjos, and off-the-rack ukuleles. But soon I understood that it’s a deeply symbiotic thing. A beautiful custom instrument inspires the musician, and the musician brings life to the instrument.” Rose now plays two custom Ko`olau tenors.
Another benefit of face-to-face communication is that the builder can carefully study a client’s playing style and offer suggestions to best suit their collaboration. On her DaSilva, with its rodent motif, Maisel asked the luthier to do away with a conventional soundhole in favor of a side soundport—a design, not widely available on stock instruments, that gives the soundboard a maximum amount of vibrating space while directing the sound at the player’s ear.
Having a tendency to spend time on the fretboard’s upper regions, Maisel also wanted a cutaway design, but an alternative construction occurred to DaSilva, who’d seen her play. “Mike talked me into doing the ‘James Hill bevel’ [a modified partial-cutaway design that doesn’t sacrifice tone and volume], which has worked out very well for those higher chords around the 12th fret,” says Maisel. She entrusted DaSilva to select the woods—an Adirondack spruce soundboard and ziricote back and sides, giving the instrument the warm, round tone she was seeking.
Those unable to visit a luthier’s workshop can still communicate via phone, email, or Skype to create the instrument of their dreams. Jazz phenom Abe Lagrimas Jr. plays three custom Ko`olau ukuleles, each of which he commissioned through extensive email correspondence. Lagrimas asked for a number of custom specs on his first Ko`olau: Brazilian rosewood back and sides, mother-of-pearl inlays emblazoning his name across the fretboard. But for a second uke, John Kitakis, already having a good sense of Lagrimas’ musical needs, suggested a wood that wouldn’t have occurred to the ukulele master.
“Myrtlewood was actually John’s idea,” notes Lagrimas. “When I first received it, I fell in love with it. There was something about it that just felt so good. In the tone and frequency department, I’d say it’s a perfect ukulele for general use. It has an equal amount of lows, mids, and highs, all while maintaining a warm and pleasant tone. And myrtle has the most beautiful grain, with a light complexion.” Lagrimas’ third Ko`olau, a semi-hollow mahogany model, has served him well when traveling between extreme climates.
In some cases, a lengthy dialogue doesn’t need to be part of the process. Mayer says, “Early on, we spent a lot of time talking to players about describing their styles and what they wanted to hear in a ukulele, things like that. But now, with hundreds of videos and sound clips of instruments we’ve built on the [Mya-Moe] website, along with detailed descriptions of the woods and other components, most people tend to really know what they want by the time they’re ready to order an instrument.”
The Waiting Is the Hardest Part
The wait to receive a custom ukulele, which can take anywhere from several months to several years, can feel interminable. However, the wait may be easier to bear when luthiers send progress reports (especially with photos), a practice becoming more and more common. This can start with the preliminary stages of a build. (It’s typical, in fact, for a luthier to post photographs of the actual sets of tonewood that a musician can select.)
Lagrimas relished the pictures of his rosewood Ko`olau taking shape. “Living so far away at the time, around 2005, in Boston, it was nice to see the progress of my instrument, to see the different parts of the instrument unassembled and then gradually coming together. It was hard to imagine that these pieces would become such an essential part of the ukulele career that I was about to have.”
To keep its customers in the loop during a build, Mya-Moe has a unique Uke Tracker system in place on its website. Once a customer has placed an order and paid a deposit, the instrument’s serial number can be used to follow the progress of the ukulele. For each step of the building process, the instrument receives a new photograph that is automatically uploaded for the customer to see. “Our build schedule is pretty long,” says Mayer, “and we developed the Uke Tracker so that customers can connect with their instruments while they’re being built, and feel like they know them once they arrive.”
On the other hand, some customers might not prefer having so much revealed during the building process; they want their first glimpse of the new instrument to be more dramatic. Maisel says, “I enjoyed not being super involved—it makes the instrument more of a surprise. When I received my DaSilva, I was over the moon. I couldn’t put it down and practiced all through the night. And I actually had to change my playing. It was built so well that every note shined through, even the bad ones. I became a better player and performer because of the quality of the instrument.”
Cali Rose had a similar experience when she received her first koa Ko`olau, a surprise from her husband. “I melted into a puddle of tears,” she says. “In all my years as a professional musician, I’d never had an instrument of this quality. Something shifted in me that day, a new kind of intention. This instrument inspires me to be a better musician. Woodshedding is a joy, and I’m constantly doing stuff I never imagined I could play.”