Kamaka Ukuleles: History You Can Play
Kamaka ukuleles are not only beautifully crafted, great sounding musical instruments, they are an integral part of the ukulele’s history. Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka, the company’s founder, wasn’t present for the birth of the ukulele, but he was around while it was still in diapers. In 1910 Sam Kamaka apprenticed with Manuel Nunes, one of the three Portuguese luthiers who brought the the ukulele’s ancestors, the braguinha and machete, to Hawaii in 1879. Kamaka proved to be a quick study and in 1916 he left Nunes and started the company that bears his name.
“If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.” – Samuel K. Kamaka
From the beginning, Sam Kamaka’s instruments earned a reputation for high quality construction and exceptional tone, a tradition that has carried through to today. These days, Kamaka offers a full line of ukuleles, including soprano, concert, tenor and baritone sizes. Sam Kamaka retired in 1952 but his son Sam Jr. took over the business and his sons took over from him in turn. To this day, Kamaka is still a family owned company and we still get a small thrill when we call and get to speak to one of Sam Sr.’s relatives on the phone. In 2016, Kamaka celebrated its 100th anniversary of building ukuleles in Hawaii, a remarkable achievement for any company. We only have one complaint with Kamaka. They won’t compromise the quality of their ukuleles by rushing production or mass producing them so we can never get as many as we would like. But if it means that their ukes continue to sound as good as they do, we can live with that problem.
The classic ukulele. The soprano may be small but Kamaka’s version is loud with lots of projection. For a warmer tone, you might consider the Pineapple. Kamaka has been building soprano ukes for over a century so they really know how to get maximum tone from such a small package.
Kamaka’s concert ukes are more popular than soprano, because the longer scale means the frets are a little further apart so chord positions are easier to finger thanks to the extra room on the fretboard. Concert ukes still have the sparkling tone of the soprano but have more volume and presence.
The Kamaka tenor is very popular these days. We think this model’s versatility is part of the reason, as some players use the traditional “my dog has fleas” tuning while others tune their tenors “low to high,” meaning they use a heavier 4th string that’s tuned an octave below the traditional “high” 4th string (tell us which you want and we’ll string it to your choosing before we ship it).
The Baritone is the largest ukulele. The baritone use was introduced in the late 1940s and it’s tuned to DGBE, the same pitches as the top four strings of the guitar. Baritone ukes were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but players don’t seek them out the way they used to. Still, the big uke does have a small but devoted fan base and Kamaka make just about the best sounding version out there.