100th Birthday of Two Beloved Instruments

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Yep, it’s the 100th birthday of both Kamaka Ukuleles and the Dreadnought guitar.

When glancing at Martin’s iconic steel string next to any Kamaka uke model, it would seem their birthdays falling on the same year must be mere coincidence.  This is especially true when you consider the wide differences in the type of music now played on these instruments, as you never hear a ukulele in bluegrass, folk-rock, or country music, and you rarely see a big Dreadnought being played in any uke group.  But that’s what a century can do, as back in 1916 the big guitar and the little uke were close pals and you’d often see them on the same stage.  How did this happen?

Kamaka Headstock


Although interest in Hawaiian music had been simmering on the mainland for over a decade, the unique sounds of the acoustic Hawaiian slide guitar and the bubbling treble chords of the ukulele hit the big-time in 1915, and right here in San Francisco.  The Pan Pacific Exposition was an early world’s fair (of which the Palace of Fine Arts is about all that’s left) that had many exhibits but the Hawaiian Pavilion was one of the most popular because it featured live shows with Hawaiian bands and dancers.

The Exposition ran for almost a year, drawing about 18 million visitors, and soon Hawaiian music wasn’t just the talk of the town, it became the new musical fad that swept the country.  It would be hard to say which was biggest hit, the little easy-to-play uke or the steel guitar, but surprisingly the little Martin Guitar Company in rural Pennsylvania was the first to take this new musical craze seriously.


A c.1919 Ditson uke with a Dreadnought body next to a 1960s D-28

Martin was urged to makeboth ukes and Hawaiian guitars by two of its largest accounts on opposite coasts, the Ditson stores in Boston and New York, and Southern California Music in Los Angeles.  Ditson wanted their own line of guitars with a unique, wide-waisted shape, the largest of which was called the “Dreadnought” and was announced in mid-1916 in a music trade publication:

New Use for Steel Guitar                                              

A new steel guitar called the “Dreadnought,” and said to produce the biggest tone of any instrument of its kind, is now being used in the making of phonograph records.  It is also said to be an excellent instrument for use in auditoriums and large halls. Chas. H. Ditson & Co. will soon have the above instrument ready for delivery. (“steel guitar” was already shorthand for “Hawaiian guitar” because you used a steel bar to play that style with the guitar held flat in your lap.)

29ditsonAn original Diston Dreadnought

  IMG_6455A c.1919 Ditson uke

Martin only made the big dreadnought models for Ditson, and didn’t market any D models under their own brand until 1931 after Ditson went out of business. By that time, what Martin considered a “bass guitar” was played in the more conventional style, and the rest is music history as thanks to its powerful volume the unique outline later became the most widely copied acoustic guitar shape of the 20th century.

Back on the Hawaiian islands, where this new musical style popularized by the Pan Pacific Exposition had originated, in 1910 a young man named Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka apprenticed with Manuel Nunes, one of the original Portuguese immigrants who had introduced the ukulele to the islands. In 1916, Samuel Kamaka established a one-man shop in his basement, calling it the “Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works.”  His reputation spread rapidly and by 1921 he hired more workers and moved to a larger shop. A few years later Sam Kamaka introduced a simple, oval-shaped uke body.  Friends said it looked like a pineapple, so Sam had an artist friend paint a pineapple on the face and the Pineapple Ukulele became the rage both in Hawaii and on the mainland.  Sam’s sons Samuel Jr. and Frederick later joined their father, and the resulting Kamaka family dynasty is as well-known among ukulele enthusiasts as the Martin name is known to acoustic guitarists. We can’t find any period photos of a Kamaka pineapple uke in use with a Martin Dreadnought played as a steel guitar on the same stage, but both instruments were part of same Hawaiian fad that changed American music history.



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