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 1897. 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. One of the most interesting models is the Pineapple, a body shape Sam Kamaka developed in 1928. It’s not just a whimsical design, though. The rounded shape gives the Pineapple a larger resonating chamber than a standard hourglass-shaped soprano, which in turn produces a richer, fuller tone.
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 I still get a small thrill when I 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).
But wait….there’s more! Players who use the “low to high” tuning are often playing these tenor ukes like little tenor guitars, while others use a mandola tuning. Thanks to the longer scale, the frets on a tenor uke are a little further apart, so complex chords are easier to finger as there’s more room, making tenor uke the most popular switch for guitar players. It’s simple, if you play any fretted instrument, or if you’re just starting to, you’ll find a use for a fine-sounding tenor like this one. The Kamaka tenor is the does-anything-and-does-it-well ukulele.
The Baritone was the last uke size to be developed. It was introduced in the late 1940s and it is tuned to the same pitches as the top four strings of the guitar. Although the baritone uke was popular in the 1950s and 1960s it has slipped a bit since then. Consequently, not many companies build baritones these days. Happily, not only does Kamaka make baritones, they make some of the finest baritone ukes ever built.