BY HOLLY RUDIN-BRASCHI | FROM THE SUMMER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
“Where is that great music coming from?” I asked my husband John. It was fall 2017, a postcard-perfect Sunday afternoon in downtown Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, where we kama’aina (locals) from Honolulu were enjoying a neighboring island staycation. We were at a standstill in the middle of Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona’s main drag, just listening. Around us swirled a dense throng of street-fair enthusiasts all taking advantage of the Drive’s closure to visit booths manned by over a hundred local vendors. Threading our way through the crowd, we followed our ears until we found the musician.
Sitting on a tall stool under a white canopy, a gray-bearded, ponytailed man was singing his heart out in a captivating baritone. He accompanied himself on the ukulele with a skillful, fingerstyle cover of Iz’s “Over the Rainbow.” “Aloha!” he said with a wide, engaging smile after the applause died down. “I’m Robert Yates, but everyone calls me ‘Uncle Uke.’” In Hawaii, being called “Uncle,” or “Aunty” for that matter, is a big deal. Kupuna (elders) are held in high regard and treated with great respect in this culture where traditions are collectively maintained. And if that “Uncle” is as accomplished as Yates, there is added reverence attached to the title.
Yates was at the event to sell the excellent ukuleles he creates and to promote his album, Uncle Uke, Under the Banyan Tree, which was nominated that year for Na Hoku Hanohano awards in five separate categories. Like the Grammys, nomination for a prestigious Na Hoku award is the highest tribute paid to musicians in Hawaii. Yates is an unusual combination of highly trained professional musician, music educator, skilled luthier, ukulele manufacturer, and owner of Hawaiian Ukulele & Guitar (aka HUG), a two-store business on the Big Island. So it’s no surprise that he’s one of the most respected locals when it comes to everything ukulele.
Growing up on Oahu, Yates’ musical journey started in 1963, at age eight, when his parents enrolled him in ukulele lessons at the community center in downtown Honolulu. “I really don’t remember much about my first teacher except he taught me to play by ear,” he says, “But, to this day, I remember the music I learned. It was strictly Hawaiian and mostly hapa haole: ‘Pearly Shells,’ ‘Aloha ‘Oe,’ and one of my all-time favorites, ‘The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai.’” When he was nine, Yates switched to guitar. “My older brother wanted to play ukulele and I wanted something that was uniquely my own,” he says. In retrospect, this was a life-changing musical decision. The only guitar teacher available at the community center studied classical guitar under the great Andrés Segovia. “He taught me music theory, sight-reading, and classical guitar technique.”
In 1976, as an undergrad at Columbus University in Columbus, Georgia (4,500 miles from Honolulu), Yates originally chose to major in psychology, “However, it very quickly became obvious that I would never be happy without music, so I changed my major,” he says. Yates also began studying lutherie as an undergrad. “Poor college students don’t usually have a lot of extra cash for new instruments, major repairs, or customization of an instrument to fit their ability. Several of us learned about stringed instrument-building and repair from each other, from the few books on the subject that existed at the time, and from basic instrument repair instruction offered at our school.” This working knowledge of lutherie helped pay his college expenses. During his senior year, he married his wife, Patricia, and they went on to have five children. To support his new family, Yates pushed his musical aspirations aside and learned business operations and marketing as owner/operator of a successful restaurant on the Outer Banks of North Carolina called Surf Dog Grill.
Fast forward to 2010: Yates moved to the Big Island because it offered the slow lifestyle he knew growing up on Oahu. “That’s when I seriously began building ukuleles,” he explains. “My wife and I were making and selling chainmaille jewelry in a little 10′ x 10′ shack at Ali’i Gardens Marketplace in Kailua-Kona.” When the couple discovered that Yates’ ukuleles were outselling their jewelry, they transformed their business to Hawaiian Ukulele & Guitar, an instrument company that also sells jewelry.
Word of Yates’ quality instruments got around. In their second year of business, they were invited to open a store at the exclusive Kings’ Shops in Waikoloa on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast. After outgrowing that space, they moved across the road to their present location in the Queens’ Marketplace. Their second HUG store, launched four years ago in Hilo, on the opposite side of the island, is also the location of Yates’ instrument repair and workshop.
Yates’ approach to building and selling ukuleles can be summed up in his simple assertion that “quality does not have to be expensive.” As a trained music educator, Yates believes that students can achieve faster musical success learning on a quality, affordable instrument. “Unfortunately, many beginning players’ first instrument is little more than a toy that has poor tone quality and can’t be played with proper technique,” he says. “As a luthier, I’m also aware that it takes no more time to build an instrument using quality parts than it does to build an instrument from substandard materials. When it comes to mass-produced instruments, cost savings too often mean using inferior-quality wood or hardware, like cheap tuners, plastic nuts, and saddles. For a manufacturer that produces hundreds of thousands of instruments a year, saving a couple of dollars quickly adds up for the corporate bottom-line. But for smaller companies like HUG, cheapening quality with inferior components offers us no advantage at all.
“The greatest strength and advantage that HUG has over our competitors is our working relationships with top luthiers around the world,” he adds. The cooperative that Yates has built includes seven workshops in North America and Asia, including his in Hilo, Vancouver, and California, and partner workshops in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. “Everyone does what they do best while building to my personally approved specifications,” he says. “This approach has allowed us to create an entire line of high-quality instruments while keeping the cost down. And these are not just business relationships; they are personal relationships. We not only collaborate on projects together, we also know and care about each other’s lives and families.”
Yates says that when creating his designs, he always starts by asking, “What sound am I after? That sound is determined from woods used in the smallest unseen interior parts of the instrument to the flashiest soundboard. That’s why so many acoustic guitars and ukuleles have a spruce top for brighter sound, or a mahogany top for warmer, mellow sound,” he says. Yates builds with wood from highly reputable vendors that is “papered” for source-tracing. “Our Big Island supplier is recognized by both the state and federal government and licensed for salvage and recovery. If a tree falls in a storm and ends up in one of our instruments, we know the exact storm and where it fell.”
HUG offers several different lines of ukes, including the Solid Spruce Top Collection; the Mahogany Collection (solid mahogany with spruce bracing); the Solid Mango Collection; the Hawaiian Amakua Collection (solid mahogany with etchings of “guardian spirit” animals—turtle, gecko, or shark); the Solid Acacia Collection; and the annual Limited Series, which has included ukes ranging from elaborately carved pineapples to special harp ukuleles modeled after early-20th-century instruments. Most lines are available in different sizes and shapes (pineapple, standard, cutaway). Among the features Yates likes to promote are a wider neck (1.5 inches at the nut, compared to the more common 1.25), longer necks (to increase the tonality of the instrument, and more notes), and HUG’s proprietary U1 pickup, which is both highly sensitive and unobtrusive.
A dedicated instructor, Yates still considers teaching one of the most rewarding things he does. “The look of sheer joy that fills a student’s face the moment they understand or master a concept is truly gratifying for me,” he says. “Few feelings in life can compare with the knowledge that I helped someone achieve a lifetime of happiness and enjoyment through ukulele.”
Whether you shop at Yates’ Waikoloa store managed by sons Charles and Dominic, or his store in Hilo, which he runs with his wife Pat, the enthusiasm for ukulele is infectious. “From design and construction to instruction, the ukulele is not just something we sell, it’s who we are,” he says. “This journey, started many years ago, has come full circle for me like a dream come true.”
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