Ukulele Archaeology

By Greg Olwell

One of the best things that happens with working on a magazine about ukuleles are the family stories that keep popping up.

Several times now, it’s happened that I’m visiting a friend and suddenly an old family ukulele is remembered. Sometimes the old ukulele is lost to the clutter in an attic and sometimes it’s hiding under a bed. As much as a vintage-loving ukulele nerd that I can be, when the old ukulele comes out for an appearance, it rarely matters if it’s something valuable to a collector. Regardless if the old uke is an unplayable toy bought on a family trip or something a little more special, it’s the family connection that makes the experience special, no matter what comes out to see the light of day. This weekend, however, I ran into one of those special instruments that occasionally turn up in these unexpected ukulele archaeology digs.

This past weekend, I was catching up with my friends Brynn and Fred. Naturally we started talking about work and when the conversation turned to life as an editor of a magazine about ukuleles, Fred remembered that Brynn’s grandfather’s ukulele was hiding somewhere. After a quick search, it turned out that it was at her mother’s home down the street, so she brought it over.


This is what came out when she loosened the drawstring on the velour bag and pulled it out. Roughly concert-scale, the body was pretty wide at the lower bout, large enough to be a tenor with a pineapple-ish shape.

The story goes that this ukulele was made for Brynn’s grandfather Wally, who served as president of the Lions Club chapter near his home on Oahu. The headstock has an inscription carved into it with his name and dates of his service. Peering into the soundhole, I found a stamp, presumably from the maker, on the interior’s neck block that read “Richard, 1994.” (If anyone recognizes any of this maker’s work, please leave a comment. I’d like to know more.)

It had some of the roughness that can characterize a handmade instrument and was most definitely not made in a factory. It was, however, built by someone who knew how to build things and was, at least skilled enough at making ukuleles to make one of the most character-filled and better-sounding ukuleles I’ve played. It had what appeared to be koa back and sides, with a koa neck and fingerboard. The neck had a hard U-shape that was splendidly comfortable and makes me wish for more ukuleles with U-shaped necks. It wasn’t obvious to me what the top was made of, but it’s possibly another local Hawaiian wood such as mango or eucalyptus.

There were many lovely handmade touches like these rope-pattern inlays on the fingerboard and the rosette.

Eventually, it was time to leave, so I passed it back to the family. It’s a special ukulele with a special story and it’s great that the family is keeping grandpa’s ukulele around.