BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
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In the guitar world, Steve Grimes is a well-known builder of extraordinary archtop and flattop guitars. His clients include such musical luminaries as Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Steve Miller, Willie Nelson, Leo Kottke, George Benson, and Larry Coryell. But Grimes also builds some of the finest ukuleles on the planet. Just ask Kimo Hussey or Jake Shimabukuro, both of whom play tenor ukes custom-built for them by Grimes.

A talented luthier, songwriter, and performing musician, Grimes has been building instruments since 1972. His first workshop was in Seattle, where he started out by building and repairing mandolins. Being mostly a guitar player himself, he quickly switched to making archtop guitars, then expanded his repertoire to include both steel- and nylon-string flattops. Even though he actually made his first two ukuleles (a tenor and a baritone for a friend) some time before concentrating his efforts on guitar building, it wasn’t until Grimes moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui in 1982 that ukuleles became a regular part of his custom lutherie business.

Now, after completing more than a thousand instruments to date, ukuleles comprise about 50 percent of his overall business. Working in a small but comfortable workshop located at an elevation of 4,000 feet on the slopes of Maui’s Haleakala volcano, Grimes produces around 16 to 20 instruments a year, nearly all of them custom orders. Russell Halverson, his shop partner of 21 years, does a lot of the prep work in the shop, bending sides, assembling bodies, sanding, etc. Grimes then tackles the most critical parts of the build to assure that each instrument has the fullest tonality and vibrance the wood has to offer.

One of the things he enjoys the most is working with clients to give them exactly what they want in a custom instrument, both in terms of appearance and sound. This typically involves guiding them in the right direction when it comes to the choice of woods, design, and appointments for the instrument. As Grimes says, “We always try to please the customer, but we always give each instrument our own tonal signature.” Many of his clients are repeat customers: He built a total of 11 guitars for (the late) Walter Becker of Steely Dan. 

When Grimes first started building ukuleles, he examined and emulated Martin ukes, which he calls “the standard of the industry.” As a result, he’s stuck to building his tenors with a nine-inch-wide lower bout, which he says produces the best, sweetest sound. The way he builds his ukes diverges somewhat from the way Martin built them, as Grimes is a big fan of lightweight construction, believing that lighter instruments tend to be louder and have better attack. He says, “The notes seem to jump from the uke; it’s a livelier instrument.” To achieve this, Grimes carves the tops of his ukes thinner at the edges and carefully tunes each top for optimum resonance. 


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Kimo Hussey‘s tenor ukulele built by Steve Grimes
Kimo Hussey‘s tenor ukulele built by Steve Grimes

When it comes to his favorite wood choices for ukuleles, Grimes is of two minds. On one hand, he loves both the traditional look and sound of an all-koa uke—koa grown at high elevations on the Big Island of Hawaii is his favorite variety because it’s denser and, he believes, has a more colorful, louder sound than other koa species. But he also likes building ukes with softwood tops, with backs and sides made from dense tropical hardwoods such as rosewood, cocobolo, and ziricote. One wood he especially likes is Carpathian spruce, which he says is both light and stiff and sounds warmer than Western spruce varieties. The tenor ukes he’s built for Kimo Hussey and Jake Shimabukuro are both softwood top/hardwood back instruments: Kimo’s tenor has a sinker redwood top with ziricote back and sides. 

When Hussey received the uke, he called Grimes and said, “This is an excitable boy; you just touch it and it responds!” Grimes built Jake’s tenor with a Western cedar top and ziricote back and sides, as Shimabukuro wanted a softer-sounding uke to use for studio recording.

Over the years, Grimes has built his share of ukuleles and flattop guitars with traditional Spanish-style “figure of eight”-shaped bodies and single, centrally placed soundholes. But in 1989, a collaboration with Hawaiian master slack-key artist Keola Beamer led Grimes to design a flattop slack-key guitar with twin soundholes. The luthier says that “splitting a single, larger soundhole into two smaller holes and moving them to the instrument’s upper bout on
either side of the fingerboard allows a larger area of the top to vibrate, thus producing deeper bass, richer tone, and greater sustain.” An asymmetrical arrangement of the braces that support the top allows different areas of the top to vibrate differently, thus maintaining a tonal balance between treble and bass. After realizing that the twin soundhole and bracing arrangement could also work with ukuleles, Grimes designed a double-soundhole tenor, which is now one of his standard models.

Grimes isn’t afraid to experiment in order to develop new instruments that expand the boundaries of conventional lutherie. In 2012, to celebrate his 40th year as a luthier, he decided to build a new archtop guitar that featured an asymmetrical body. There is some science behind this: Evidently an asymmetrical body creates less cancellation of certain frequencies, resulting in a more even, pleasant tone. “I thought I would do something aesthetically different,” he notes. “I didn’t know that it would sound terrific!” 

A freehand asymmetrical tenor ukulele made by Steve Grimes
A freehand asymmetrical tenor ukulele made by Steve Grimes

Five years later, Grimes was able to apply some of those ideas about asymmetry to the ukulele. He got involved with a special project called Luthiers for a Cause, whose goal is to raise money for a charity promoting music therapy programs for hospitalized children around the world. Six distinguished instrument builders—Jay Lichty, Joji Yoshida, Beau Hannam, John Kinnard, Jake Maclay, and Grimes were given the task of building tenor ukes using exactly the same woods from the same trees: “Lucky Strike” redwood for the tops and curly mahogany (from “The Tree,” a legendary Honduran jungle tree, felled in 1965, that has produced magnificent tonewood for an untold number of guitars and other products) for the backs and sides. Besides supporting a worthy cause, the project explored the question of how much of an instrument’s tone is determined by the woods used, and how much is due to the way it’s built. Grimes chose to build his tenor with an asymmetrical body, akin to the anniversary archtop. The project (which raised more than $100,000 for the charity) garnered Grimes a good deal of publicity and sparked orders for a new pair of asymmetrical ukes he subsequently designed: the Freehand (available with either one or two soundholes) and the FreeRein, which sports a single soundhole on the bass side of the upper bout. 

Grimes says that about half of the ukuleles he’s building now are asymmetrical models. “People seem to like both the aesthetics and the sound,” he notes. That’s not surprising, considering that this master luthier simply knows how to make beautiful instruments that sing.