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Matte, Satin, & Gloss... Oh My!
Before we get started, can I just call out the huge elephant in the room? It’s FALL! Well, not technically since the official start of Fall is September 22. But we all the know the season truly changes when Starbucks brings the spice. No, not that spice! (Can't believe DUNE comes out next month!) Yeah, this one! I remember posting about this last year with gifs of leaves falling and pumpkin spice lattes, and here we’re at it again! Before you know it we’ll be hearing Christmas songs on the radio. Now that your back from Starbucks with a “venti” iced pumpkin spiced latte with cloud foam, lets get to the matter at hand. In my last post I wrote about ukulele finishes. I went over the different types of finish, how they are applied, and how they effect the instrument. To check out that post, check it out here. Now, we are gonna take a deep dive on how these finishes are applied and ‘finished’. You’ve seen and heard these buzzwords before; ”Matte, Satin, semi-gloss, full gloss, tuxedo, and ‘supah dupah’ shiny.” But what do these words actually mean? Let's talk about it! Matte, Satin, & Semigloss So let‘s get something big out of the way. All of these words are synonymous! So if your shopping for a new ukulele and see any of these words, they mean that the finish is very thin, rough to the touch, and doesn’t reflect light. Matte finishes are created using the same finish materials as gloss finishes, but are left un-buffed or not rubbed out at the factory. And in most cases they need less coats of nitrocellulose or polyurethane. This makes finishing a ukulele in matte quicker and easier than gloss. A huge benefit to matte finishing is the tonal supremacy achieved over those that are glossy. Using less coats of finish means less material on the body of the ukulele. Less material buildup means less vibrational obstruction. The body of the ukulele is an “air pump”. The more the body vibrates, and the more intense those vibrations, means more air is pumped out of the body. When this happens, you got an amazing instrument! So typically people wanting a great sounding ukulele go for matte versions. There are a few downsides. With less finish, you have less protection covering the wood. Typically matte ukulele scratch and ding a lot easier. Another downside is that matte ukulele eventually gloss up with use since you are ‘rubbing’ out the finish with your arms and oily hands. Gloss As we learned above there are really only two types of finish, matte and gloss. Now gloss proponents love that mirror shine look. So if looks matter most to you, than gloss is your pick! Gloss finishes are achieved by buffing out the layers of finish. The finish on gloss ukulele tend to be thicker due to the fact that there is more work involved to achieve that ‘glossy’ appearance. No one wants to sand and buff through the finish and into the wood. Some advantages of gloss finishes are they offer more protection, are easier to clean, and give the grain and color of the tone wood a pop! Ukulele finished in gloss are more ”sexy” than their counterparts since it reveals more of the wood! A perceived downside to gloss ukulele is a dampening of tone, sustain, and projection due to the added weight of the finish. Though this is debatable with modern applications and techniques. So has been the mantra for decades; ”If you desire looks, go with gloss. If you desire sound, go with matte.” But what if you desire both? Like choosing a partner. Wouldn't you want someone who is both gold on the inside as well as the outside? Now this brings us to… The Tuxedo Finish Tuxedo is a finish that we use here at Leolani. We decided to take the middle road and achieved a finish that is both thin and glossy! Our goal was to have our tuxedo finish look as if the ukulele had just come out of the spray booth… sleek and wet! This is where we got the name Tuxedo. We thought everyone looks good in a tailored 3 piece suite. We achieve this finish by meticulously buffing out thin layers of finish. Seriously check this out… In the end, all that matters is what you want. Most players want the shine and added protection. If this is you, I recommend going full gloss. If looks don't matter too much, and what you want is a ukulele that has more resonance, and patinas over time, go with matte. Some builders use both finishes on their ukulele. They gloss up the body and leave the neck wood matte so its easier to slide up and down the fingerboard. There are options. There you have it! I hope I cleared some things up over the last few posts about ukulele finishes. Now that your informed, maybe it’s time to choose your next ukulele? I mean, come on! Christmas is just around the corner...🎄😁 Keep jamming and aloha!
Ukulele finishes? Lets talk about it!
And like that… summer is coming to a close. Wow, that was fast! Schools here in Hawaii are starting back up, and so I felt it was apropos to post something that will hopefully educate us ukulele lovers (I had to look up how to spell apropos, haha!) As ukulele players, we're seemingly pre-wired to sweat the smallest details. Often details that seem absolutely trivial to everyone else are the subject of much debate for us, but hey, that's part of the fun. From our side of the equation as a local ukulele brand we find ourselves in almost constant conversation about a great number of ukulele related topics. Sound awesome? It absolutely is! No matter the specific topic, we learn a lot about what’s going on in the community and what’s trending. But more importantly, we learn about what matters most to players. Honestly in many cases there's not a definitive right or wrong answer, as each player is so different. “Different strokes for different folks!” As the old saying goes Over the years what I’ve found works best is to present as much information as possible on the subject and leave it up to the individual player to decide. Which I know can be daunting since their are already many voices filling up the space… including mine (haha!). I find more times than not that players already know what they want, and are just double checking. We’ve all been there before, impulsed buy an item only to realize later that there was a better option! So this brings us to our topic on ukulele finishes. Yeah, what’s the deal with finishes anyway? Well as your about the find out… a lot! For starters this is a great example of a "no right/wrong" situation. There are quite a few different options for finishes and each type of finish is going to offer advantages as well as shortcomings. In this post, I thought it would be useful to look at a few of the popular options for ukulele finishes and examine the strengths and weaknesses of each. But before we go there I need to cover the purpose why ukulele need to finished in the first place. What really is the purpose of a finish? When you look at the vast array of finishes found on ukulele it is hard not to think that the sole purpose of the finish is to make the instrument beautiful. No matter what some of the more elitist players may say, the aesthetics of an instrument are important to most players. I mean, just look at the bombshell ukulele they are playing. It's impossible to deny that the finish does add to the visual appeal of a ukulele, however its primary purpose is to protect the material underneath. Wood, which still is at the heart of every great instrument, is a great building material. BUT wood has one major downfall. Moisture, or lack thereof, is wood's "Achilles's heel”. If you want to take a deep dive into humidity and it’s effect on ukulele check out my post about it here. Too much moisture will cause wood to swell and often distort from it's shape. This can absolutely reek havoc on a ukulele where many parts are assembled with exact tolerances. On the other hand, a climate that's too dry can cause wood to become brittle and ultimately crack. Either way, your screwed! If you want to know how to protect your ukulele from “death by humidity” just out my post about it here! (Haha, last shameless plug.) The age-old way that craftsmen have been addressing this problem is by stabilizing the level of humidity. The best way to do this is to seal the wood under a finish in order to control the amount of moisture that can enter or leave the wood. Finishing “paint” is actually a very clever invention when you think about it. Finishes can be engineered to optimize a number of performance attributes for their given applications. These newer finishes are not only easier and cheaper to apply, but are also considerably more durable than some of the older ones. With this in mind it is not surprising that a lot of ukulele builder's have ditched the lacquer finishes of yesteryear in favor of some of the newer finishes. Though as we see with most fandoms, there are gatekeepers. And in the ukulele world those gatekeepers are well battle worn warriors of a bygone era. Whether its of historical significance or unique characteristics, many players still want the finishes that are traditional, aka “Old School”. This has spawned quite a debate over time and honestly each side has some pretty solid points. Lacquer Finishes (Nitro) Lacquer is a pretty general term that actually describes a few different finishes. Typically, when it comes to ukulele, the type of lacquer used is either nitrocellulose or acrylic. Nitro lacquer is made from mostly plant-based substances. Most luthiers will attest that the thinner layer created by a nitro finish will allow the wood to breathe better, giving the ukulele increased projection and greater sustain. This is a huge benefit to having a nitro finish. Also, a nitro finish is done over a period of a few days which each layer essentially melting into the previous one, creating a nice gloss layer over the wood. This gives the ukulele a beautiful “wet” look. Now there are a several issues when owning a ukulele with a lacquer finish. Having a thin finish means that the ukulele is more susceptible to cosmetic damage. So if you are a klutz, your ukulele will show it’s injuries. Another issue is that nitro finishes degrade over time. This means it will need to be coated again eventually if you want to keep the glossy, protective layer. Many though like this degradation as it gives the ukulele a vintage patina. Call it superstition, but some vintage models just have a glow to them that you just don't get with modern finishes. Another problem is Nitro doesn’t cope well with regular temperature changes. It tends to crack over time, especially if the ukulele travels between areas of different humidity. If you want to dive deeper into humidity and its… nah, just kidding! Polyurethane and Polyester Finishes For modern ukulele, polyurethane and polyester ukulele are considered the standard. After the ’90s, poly ukulele finishes began to replace nitro ones, and things have basically stayed that way since then. The decision to switch came from Nitrocellulose’s effect on the environment. In the 1960’s Nitrocellulose became a strictly regulated substance, forcing wood workers to look for an alternative. Hence the use of “Poly” finishes. No...not that “poly”! 😆 Polyurethane and polyester finishes are safer and better for the environment than nitro. They also do not require the time-consuming process of applying multiple layers. Instead, a single layer is more than enough to get a thick coat on the ukulele. This means that polyester and polyurethane finishes are much stronger than nitro finishes. Not only do they do a better job of protecting the wood underneath but they are safer and easier to apply, not to mention cheaper. Unlike Nitro finishes they won’t crack easily over time and can take a few bumps without damaging the ukulele. So if you are clumsy, this may be the finish for you! A drawback to poly finishes is that sometimes they are sprayed on the ukulele too thick. This will dampen the acoustics of the ukulele. Factories that have a ‘quantity over quality’ approach experience this issue since they aren’t as careful to limit the amount of finish used. Also, if polyurethane isn‘t allowed to dry properly, white and cloudy blemishes will appear in the finish. UV Finishes A UV finish, mostly found on modern wood floors, is now also used on some ukulele. A UV cured coating is created by using an ultra-violet light that dries the coating. The coating is pre-applied before being placed in the oven, where it dries immediately. This process is similar to what you’d find in the dental offices, when they use UV light to harden fillings. It’s quick! This finish looks similar to a nitro finish but is more durable and faster to manufacture. It is also VOC free, unlike nitrocellulose. This may be the finish of the future since it offers the best of both worlds, looks and protection! Well there you have it! If you are purchasing a new ukulele, it will most likely have some form of poly coating on it. However, if you are shopping secondhand, you might be able to find a vintage ukulele that still has it’s original nitro finish on it (like every Kamaka ukulele locked away in our grandparents closets). But those won’t come cheap! In my next post I’m gonna go over the differences between matte, satin, and gloss finishes. Even the mysterious Tuxedo finish! Please stay tuned! Keep jamming and aloha!
How To Take Your Strumming To The Next Level
Time flies! We are splitting the year next week in case you didn’t already know. I‘ve often used this analogy to explain this. The clock strikes midnight on January 1st and it’s the dawn of a new year. Imagine we are at the bottom of huge mountain… think Everest. We then start trekking to the top. Since recovering from the holidays we start thinking of new goals and things we want to accomplish in the new year. After short time we hike up to Valentine’s Day and climb into Spring. Spring cleaning anyone? Then in a blink we are through Easter pass and heading towards Mother’s and Father’s Day summits. Then it’s in sight, the peak! In my metaphor it’s better known as the 4th of July (at least in the US). We made it to top! We smile and celebrate, look over the horizon and enjoy the epic scenery. Then we start making our way back down the other side of the mountain. It’s a pivot point where we start reflecting and preparing for the end of the year. There’s the beginning of a new school year, football, and then the Fall. The Fall ushers in the the holiday season of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Then on the eve of the new year we are ready to make the hike all over again! Today being July 6 officially means we are hiking back down the mountain. Wow! Isn’t this year flying by? With all that said I wanna ask you about your ukulele goals. I wrote a resolution post at the bottom of the mountain… I mean at the beginning of the year. Have you been sticking with it? If not, no worries. We still have some time to whip it into gear! So in this post I will go over some sumptuous strumming techniques. These will make you sound like pro and make playing a ton more fun! Here are five to master as you hike down to the end of the year. Chuck/Damping This one is a little controversial. Often confused with 'muting', string damping happens when you stop the strings from vibrating with its usual freedom, therefore "dampening" the sound so that a muffled type of tone is produced. Muting the strings is simple not playing the note at all. We can mute the strings by missing it when we strum, or lightly pressing on it with our chord hand so that it doesn't vibrate. When we damp, the actual pitch of the note is still evident. This technique also has a percussion aspect to it that adds flavor to uptempo songs. You can chuck/damp with either hand. Check out the video below to learn this amazing technique. Fan Strum First off, some house keeping! The video bellow is 9 years old. Older than most of these ukulele YouTubers today. And in case you haven't already guessed it.... yes, that's me! So if the image and sound quality are sub parr, it is because I shot it on a camcorder! Remember those? I thought I throw one my OG videos into the mix. Here I am teaching the Fan strum. A technique that all flamenco players know. This technique requires you to be able to strum with 3-5 fingers independently. With a flick of the wrist! This video is teaching the basic fan strum. If you want to take it to the next level check out the many flamenco videos out there. (Oh, and I released this video in October 2012 around Halloween... just a heads up for a little funny scare at the end!) Triple/Triplet Strum Another rip from our flamenco cousins. This strum is a need to know strum. It is a fun strum to add to your ukulele repertoire. Be careful as it can be a bit addictive to learn and play. Thank Jake Shimabukuro for this one since he was the first to bring this strum to the ukulele mainstream back in the 90's! This one is hard to explain so just check out the video below. Just remember, not every song needs this! Haha! Beatboxing Beatboxing? Well, beatboxing with the ukulele! James Hill brought this style of playing too the forefront with his take on Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'. Beatboxing is when the player taps a beat on the ukulele body giving the impression of a drum beat... as they strum the ukulele. The different sounds they are able to replicate is astounding. Feng E's take on 'Billie Jean' is the evolution of James Hill's iconic version. This is next level so don't be discouraged if it takes you a while to learn. Boots and cats! Hawaiian Style This is the mother of all ukulele strum patterns and techniques. Ironically everyone growing up in old Hawaii naturally played the ukulele like this. And if you were born after 1970 you had to relearn it (thanks Rock 'n' Roll)! The Hawaiian Style strum is tricky to figure out. When you hear it you are magically brought the shores of Waikiki! Nothing sounds quite like it. And when you watch someone strumming, it's almost an illusion. Seriously YouTube Hawaiian music (not Jahwaiian... haha!) and get mesmerized by the wrist action. And as a Native Hawaiian, I had to learn this strum. And in all honesty it was the hardest to master. Check out local boy Aaron as he teaches you the Hawaiian Strum. Did you get your bearings? I hope you don't get lost along the way. As we head down the mountain to the end of the 2021, it's my desire that you learn at least one of these amazing strum techniques. And if you get lost... trace your steps back to this post. Keep jamming and aloha!
The Lefty Dilemma!
When I was growing up in the 90’s (yeah, the greatest decade ever), I remember in elementary school the teachers asking us if we were left or right handed. The class poll would take place in two waves. First the ‘righties’ would raise their hands followed by the ’lefties’. I remember as clear as day that the wave from the righties was a tsunami while the lefties were but a ripple. Like 90% in my class were right handed! Who knows, maybe a few lefties were peer pressured into years of pretending to write right handed (no wonder some of my friends had horrible penmanship… haha). But still, the ratio was dramatic. As a righty, my sympathy goes out to all you lefties living in a righty world. Remember these chairs in school? Or scissors, cameras, and getting ink on your hands when you write? Oh man, lefty struggles are real! And this same bias has found its way into the music world. Go into any music store and ask for any instrument… in a lefty design. Most likely they‘ll say “shucks”, and tell you they don’t carry any. And this extends to our precious ukulele. I can’t remember how many times someone’s asked me if we carry left handed models. Like that old saying goes, if I got a dollar every time someone asked me that question I’d have a ‘lambo’………. on the moon (🦍💎🙌🏼). Sheesh, they don’t even have a left handed emoji, just a palm up right hand! And to make things personal, two of my sons are left handed! So when teaching my son Ben the ukulele, I had to figure how to teach him. This post is dedicated to all you lefties out there. The forgotten 10% in society. And my son’s Victor and Ben. Dad’s got you! So for you righties reading this, here are some struggles lefty ukulele players know all too well... -You can’t just grab any ukulele and jam it. -Lefty models, if you find one, are always more expensive. -Tablature is always right hand oriented. Good luck finding learning materials. -Being challenged by righties to learn the ukulele the ”right” way. -Learning how to do you own ukulele set ups. So if you‘re a righty out there count your blessing! There are many. And for all you lefties wanting to learn the ukulele, here are some things you can do to make your journey a lot easier. Buy A Right Handed Model I know this sounds counterintuitive but hear me out. Like I mentioned above, finding a left handed ukulele is like finding a needle in a haystack. And what are the odds of it being one you’ll love? Probably nil. And add in the fact that left handed models are more expensive and you can see why its a hard pass. But if you absolutely need a cutaway, or arm bevel, get a left handed model. But if those things are trivial to your playing, I recommend getting a right handed ukulele. This will ensure you’ll find the ”right“ ukulele since there will be a plethora to choose from (I just love that word). Upside Down In order for a lefty to play a right handed ukulele they can just learn to play right handed. Yikes! I bet that wasn’t the answer you were looking for, but some lefties choose to do this. They force themselves to play this way. To go against their natural tendencies. Like a student being forced to write with their non dominant hand because the other is in a cast. It can be done, but it‘s a rough road. An easier way is to learn the ukulele upside down. Since the ukulele is a right handed, the nut is already slotted for the strings to be tuned and played with a right hand orientation. This means you can’t just reverse the string order and play. Doing this may cause buzzing issues with strings not fitting correctly in the slots. So you will still tune them normally. This is why you would have to learn the ukulele upside down. More specifically hold the chords upside down. This will allow you to play a right handed ukulele in a left handed position. You’d be able to strum and pick notes with your dominant hand. So instead of playing the C chord, on the 3rd fret, 1st string. You’d hold the chord with your right hand, 3 fret, 4th string! And then proceed to learn all your chords like this. Now another thing to consider is that your strum patterns would need to be reversed as well since the chords would sound different being played in reverse. Instead of strumming DD-U-U-DU, you‘d strum UU-D-D-UD to achieve the the same sound. Remember you are playing the ukulele literally upside down when playing it left handed. So everything, even the strumming pattern, will need augmenting. Now the greatest benefit to learning this method is that you can pick up any right handed ukulele and play it. Plus right handed players will be astounded at you ability to do things upside down! Change The Nut Now the most complex fix if your a left handed learner is to change out the nut. Most repair shops and music stores can do this for you. They can pop out the original right handed nut, and install and slot one for left handed orientation. This way you can play a right handed ukulele in the left handed position while holding the chords in the proper configurations. Plus you wouldn’t have to learn strumming patterns in reverse. You would be a mirrored doppelgänger if you were playing next to a right handed player. No you may have an issue if your ukulele has a compensated saddle to help with intonation, so if yours does, you may have to flip it around as well. For my sons this is what I did for them. This way when they‘re grown, they won’t be able to “borrow” my precious right handed ukuleles…. Haha! So there you have it! A post for all the left handed players in the world. Don’t think I forgot about you and this very important issue. I hope it helps you on your journey. And if you‘re a parent with a left handed child, I hope this encourages you to get them started on their ukulele journey. Keep jamming and aloha! Ladies and gentlemen.... that's Kurt Colbain!
5 Summer Jams & Uke-torials
With Memorial Day 2021 in the books its safe to say that we are definitely in SUMMER (well technically its June 20th but it's hot already)! In Hawaii the temperature has risen to the 80's this past week and its been 'beachtacular'! Remember that's in Fahrenheit for you non Americans. In fact there's sand on my ankles as I just came in from the beach. Well.... after enjoying some refreshing raspberry and lychee shaved ice! So as we kickoff the summer I thought it would be fitting to share some songs off my summer playlist. And of course tutorials on how to play them so you can spread warm vibes wherever you go! Butter-BTS Who hasn't heard of BTS? Arguably the biggest boyband in history. With their slick dance moves and catchy melodies these guys are unstoppable. Chairia Tandias is an amazing teacher. Her simplistic teaching style combined with her amazing voice make this tutorial smooth like 'butter'! Save Your Tears-The Weeknd & Ariana Grand Okay, we all know The Weeknd is an amazing artist. Has he ever written a bad song? And adding Aria Grande to an already hot track sends this song through the stratosphere! Jam this smooth song on your ukulele and you'll have people crying while dancing to the rhythm. What can I say about Matt from U CAN UKE teaching this tutorial? He was in my top ten ukulele influencers from last year and you will see why when you watch this tutorial. If only we could sing with his conviction. Good 4 U-Olivia Rodrigo This is beginning to look like the year of Olivia Rodrigo. And 'Good 4 U' is just one her hits to come out this year. The bass line thumps and sucks you into it's pop rock chorus. The perfect top down, stop at the red light banger. Ricky Somborn knocks it out the park with his play along for 'Good 4 U'. He's on another level with the amount of amazing content he's putting out on the inter-webs. 'Good 4 U' Ricky Somborn! Build A B*tch-Bella Poarch From Tik Tok to the rookie of the year! Can you believe this is her first official venture into music. This song is a ton of fun and will be a summer anthem for girls everywhere! Ricky Somborn encore? His play along of 'Build A B*tch' is fun to watch as he really gets into it. You can see him find his inner Bella Poarch... haha! Leave The Door Open-Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak Okay I had to do it, this song is too damn smooth. And this is just the beginning! I've heard it through the grapevine that they've collaborated on a whole album under the name Silk Sonic. I'm already hyped! Now for a deep cut. I went to elementary school (Koko Head) with Bruno Mars. We were best friends for four years. I'm being completely serious. He came over my house after school to play everyday. And to be honest, he is the same now as he was back then. Back then he was always dancing and singing on the playground. I'm so proud of him and I love his music... always have. So I may be a little bias but seriously this song is sick! Now this play along and cover is hilarious. A bunch of local guys crooning with their ukulele with all the swagger! Mahalo Aldrine for this awesome video! __________________ So there you have it! 5 summer bangers for summer 2021! I know there are a ton more so leave your favorites in the comments. Keep jamming and aloha!
To Capo, or not to Capo?
I was born on the island of Oahu, in the beautiful state of Hawaii in the year 19-eighty something! My name is Keli’i. In English it means “The Small”. Its funny since the name Keali’i means “The Chief”. Just add a letter and the meaning is completely different. And for my middle and high school education I attended Kamehameha, a school for native Hawaiians. Only people of Hawaiian decent can attend this prestigious school. At Kamehameha, the curriculum incorporates and instills the Hawaiian culture in it's students. And by the way, the pronunciation of Kamehameha is the same as in the anime Dragon Ball. Hearing the character's scream it out still cracks me up! So you might be wondering… ”Why are you telling me about your Hawaiian ancestry and how you are so lucky to have been raised in Hawaii? What does this have to do with ukulele?” Well, here’s where things take an unsuspecting turn in my past. It might sound crazy but after being pretty much destined to play the ukulele by heritage and culture, my first stringed instrument was actually a guitar! “Huh, Keli’i? You are a Native Hawaiian and steeped in the culture! And you chose the guitar over the majestic four stringed ukulele.....really? What's up with that!” I must confess, I pushed the ukulele aside and grabbed the guitar! I know, blasphemous right? I took guitar classes at Kamehameha instead of ukulele. Maybe it was the rebel in me... haha! So this brings us to the topic in the title, the capo! As an avid guitar player of over 20 years I was already familiar with using a capo since we use it all the time in the guitar world. Every guitar player has one in their case. It is as essential as having a tuner! So it was to my surprise when I started seeing this little wonder from the guitar world make its way to the ukulele. We are seeing now the rise of the ukulele capo! You gotta understand that for almost a century locals never used any kind of capo on the ukulele. So with over 20 years of capo experience as a guitar player, here is a breakdown of what a capo is, what it’s used for, and if you should add one to your ukulele arsenal. Capo Taking its name from the Italian word for "head," a capo is a small device that clamps onto the neck of a ukulele and shortens the length of the strings, raising their pitch. A capo is usually fastened across all the strings of a ukulele, or other fretted stringed instrument. One of the main advantages of using a capo is that it lets a ukulele player play a song in different keys while still using first-position open-string chord forms. No barre chords! What a great hack for beginners and for singers with range! Now to understand what a capo does you must be know the purpose of the ‘nut’. On the headstock end of a ukulele, the termination point of a string’s vibration is a thin strip of bone or other hard resonant material called the nut. The nut straddles the joint where the fretboard meets the headstock, and the strings pass over it as they leave the fretboard and find their anchoring points on the headstock. The nut has grooves that, along with the bridge at the body end of the scale length, ensure the correct lateral placement of the strings along the length of the fretboard. A capo functions as a moveable nut since it can be affixed to any fret below the headstock (up to the heel) and provides the same termination effect on the string’s vibratrion. Unlike the nut, however, capos don’t have string grooves, as their only purpose is to change pitch rather than maintain lateral string placement (a function thankfully ensured by the nut and bridge even when a capo is in use). So are you convinced that this little wonder is amazing tool that everyone needs in their ukulele toolbox? Not only does a capo help with key changes, and barre chords (or lack there of), but capo’s also have a secret hidden benefit. And this feature may fully convince you so here it is: Using a capo will allow you play more songs with fewer chords! If you can learn the chords G, D, C, Em, and Am, and play them interchangeably. Then you're already capable of playing 1000’s of songs…… if you use a capo. Mind blown? Sure! That’s what you gain from using a capo. What an awesome benefit! Knowing the simple chords of G, D, C, Em, Am will open up new avenues to your ukulele playing when employing a capo. And if you're a visual learner check out the video below for more capo clarity. Now I know some old timers and traditionalists reading this are shaking their heads and getting their Twitter fingers ready! I get it, you still don’t believe in capos for the ukulele. You believe in hard work and learning to play barre chords. I hear you…. capos are not for you. But remember, I’m a guitar player…. hehe! So there you have it! I hope you learned the answer to the age old question, “To capo, or not to capo?” And my answer to that question is it's totally up to you! If you choose yes and want to add a ukulele capo to your 'ukebox', get one here! This one is pricey but its well made and will not obstruct playing with its minimalistic design. Keep jamming and aloha!
How To Strum The Ukulele
I just started teaching my son Ben, who is five, to play the ukulele. He’s left handed so I first had to reverse the strings on my right handed soprano ukulele so he could play it. He was so excited that his ’daddy’ was finally gonna teach him to jam. As his father I was eager to see if he had raw musical talent since I had just binged clips of Billie Eilish and her just as phenomenal brother Finneas over the past two days. They honestly blew my mind! The musical talent between them could light up a city! So as I stared into Benny’s big brown eyes thoughts crossed my mind… “Is he the next Billie Eilish?” “Is he gonna buy daddy a big house on the ridge?” I wasn’t even three minutes into the lesson before I hit bumper to bumper traffic. A full stop! I was able to teach him where to place his fingers to play the C chord, but he literally could not “play” the C chord. Here I was excited to teach him simple chords when he hadn’t learned how to strum. The lesson quickly shifted from holding the C chord to learning how to strum the ukulele. This got me thinking about writing a post on strumming. I learned how to strum so long ago that I forgot to teach it to my son! So here we go… Strumming is among the most foundational abilities you will learn for your dominant hand on the ukulele. If you’re new to strumming, the concept might have you stumped. Have no fear! We will explore several techniques that you should be able to pick up. But right off the top, lets start with a pro tip….. RELAX! As a beginner, it's common for your body to be tensed up as you're learning to strum. The best way to relieve tension is to stop playing, relax your hands, and begin playing again. Over time and with a bit of self-awareness, you'll learn to play more relaxed. Trust me, strumming with “frigid fingers” can be frustrating. So much so that you may want to throw in the towel but I promise, like learning how to ride a bike, you will get it! But before you start strumming away, make sure that you : Learn how to hold the ukulele properly. Your right elbow should cradle the body of the ukulele, giving your arm complete range of motion over the strings. Don’t worry about playing chords while you practice basic strumming patterns. Just make sure that you hit all the strings. Learn to keep time. Download a digital metronome. This will come in handy when learning to strum in rhythm. Keep your wrist free and relaxed. The strumming motion depends on the flexibility of the wrist, especially for more advanced rhythms. Know that this is a skill, so it will take time to learn. Don’t put pressure on yourself! Remember to relax and have fun. Thumbs Up! The correct way to strum is to make a movement that originates from both the wrist and the elbow. This movement culminates with your hand, and if your a beginner, your thumb. I know you see people strumming with their index finger as if they were flicking off a piece of gum but that will come with practice. To make things simpler when starting out, strum with your thumb. Wow that rhymes! The thumb hits the strings at the right angle and is away from your other fingers. You could even rolled up the rest of your fingers into a fist as you strum with your thumb if that‘s more comfortable. Basic Strumming Techniques There are three basic strumming techniques including downstrokes, upstrokes, and a combination of both downstrokes and upstrokes. Downstrokes: To play using the downstroke technique, you'll simply strum each ukulele string in a downward motion. Just remember to hit the strings with the meat of your thumb (you might want to trim your nail), and relax your shoulders and use your wrist and elbow while strumming. It's okay if you don’t strum chords, just practice until it becomes second nature. Upstrokes: Using the upstroke technique is similar to downstrokes but in reverse. Instead of coming down with your thumb your going swing up, nail first, from the bottom. Keep everything the same with your posture and hand configuration. Practice the upstroke until it feels comfortable. Be sure to play through all four strings when practicing. You don’t want to develop bad habits. Downstrokes and Upstrokes Combination: Once you've got the hang of strumming using upstrokes and downstrokes on their own, you can try combining the two. This is accomplished by strumming downward and then upward and back down again so that you're alternating upstrokes and downstrokes. Do this slowly at first and gradually get faster. After you got this down, you’re ready for strumming patterns! You‘ll soon learn what DD-UU-D-U-DD-UU-D-U means. And it’s not Black Pink’s DDU-DU-DDU-DU (seriously that’s the name of their song)! What you can immediately try after practicing all these techniques is to search for your favorite song, and while muting the strings with your chord hand, strum the percussive beats with your strumming hand. You can try this with just downstrokes, upstrokes, or both if you're able. This will help build rhythm memory into your arm, wrist, and hand. And the more you practice, the more comfortable it will feel. Then when you ready you can try using your index finger. You can train your index finger by pinching it with you thumb. Since your thumb has been trained, it will guide the index along. Here’s a video lesson when your ready to go to the next level: Don’t worry if you don’t know the chords, just play along with the strings muted or open. The key here is learning the different strumming patterns. John is such an amazing teacher! This is just the tip of iceberg. As my son Ben advances in his ukulele playing, so will my posts on the matter. Hopefully it won‘t be too long…haha! Keep jamming and aloha!
I don’t read notes! Can I learn to play the ukulele?
I’ve been asked this question quite a few times. Truth is, it was a question I myself had as a youngster navigating my way along my musical journey. Though it didn’t start with learning the ukulele but the piano… my most dreadful enemy! Those black and white keys were like fangs coming out of a bloated round monster. If you’ve ever learned to play the piano you know what it means to read notes. That’s piano 101! Thumping on keys as you read the notes on the page. And from a young age you get it drilled in you the importance of reading notes. To even dare play a piece memorized would be a cardinal sin, a deed so dastardly no amount of begging could appease. Or was that just my teacher Ms. Tamura? Haha! Well let me take the sting out the question by reassuring you that you can learn the ukulele without reading notes. Whew! Can we all take a quick second to let that truth sink in. In fact, playing without sheet music is called ‘playing by ear’. And it’s completely normal! For millennia musicians played their ‘music by ear’ before a written system was ever created. In fact, the written music system was developed during the Middle Ages. And this may surprise you that there are many famous musicians who didn’t read music. Here are three: Paul McCartney of The Beatles, rock legend and guitar face melter Eddie Van Halen, and pop icon Taylor Swift! While these artists didn’t read notes, they were all successful in a variety of musical styles. So don’t worry, you’re in good company! So now you may be wondering why anyone would go trough all the trouble to learn to read music. Now let me play devils’ advocate here and tell you why learning to read music is useful. Being able to read music is as useful as reading words in your daily life. Forget about reading a best selling book or intriguing news article. Imagine not being able to read a simple to-do list or text message from a friend. That’s what its like to not be able to read music. Staring at sheet music would be like reading instructions in a foreign language. Things would get so frustrating! A huge plus to being able to read music is that you can learn a song without having heard it before. I’ve heard of symphonies playing complex pieces without any rehearsals. They get the sheet music a few hours before curtain, and they can play the piece perfectly! Another use would be the ability to jot down your musical ideas. Since they are written down, you can share them with others who can read notes. You can also save your composition. If you play by ear, you wouldn’t able to do these things. Your great idea would become a fleeting memory! ____________________________ So there you have it! Do you need to read music to learn the ukulele? NO!!! But will it help you? Yeah, it will! So here’s where to start if you want to learn to read music. Start by playing songs using chord stamps and lyrics. A chord stamp is an image that looks like lines with dots on it. They are always accompanied with a chord letter (ie G,C,E,A). Chord stamps are used as a diagram of how to play a specific chord. After learning the chords using chord stamps, the designated ‘chords’ will display over the lyrics. This will help you with chord changes as you play through the song. For some, this may be the end of learning to read notes. If you want to go to the next level, learn to play a song using Tabs/Tablature. This will introduce you to musical notation. You will often see notation over the tablature. If this is too confusing, no worries! I will go in-depth on these approaches in my next post! In the meantime, keep jamming and aloha!
What’s That Sound? Fret Buzz and Intonation
You buy a new or used ukulele, your first one ever. Your excitement is through the roof as you can’t wait to begin your ukulele journey. You start perusing the inter-webs for ukulele tutorials and lessons and after watching an avalanche of videos you start hearing ‘buzz‘ words such as intonation and fret buzz. Its like hearing a sommelier wax poetic on the nuances in a glass of wine as they swirl it in the light… only to then rate it one grape out of five. You're frightened as a deep sense of dread envelops you. ”What the heck is fret buzz? Do I have it?” It’s like catching a life threatening disease the way these ’pro’ level players talk about it. And don’t get me started on the countless sour faces they make when they realize an ukulele has bad intonation. Its pretty much stage 4 and terminal. Lights out! The worse part is you don’t even know what they are talking about. You try to listen hard for the bad intonation in the video but can’t pick it out. Have no fear! As your resident ukulele doctor, I’m going to help you diagnose your ukulele! Fret Buzz Fret buzz is the annoying sound caused by a ukulele string rattling/buzzing against a fret wire when the ukulele is being plucked or strummed. To diagnose this problem you just have to play up the ukulele fingerboard note by note, string by string. As you do this, listen for any buzzing sounds. Its important to press firmly on the strings between the frets as doing this lightly can give you false buzzing. If your ukulele plays all the way up the fingerboard without a rattle, congratulations! Your ukulele is free of fret buzz. But if you hear buzzing anywhere on the fingerboard…. well, I’m sad to say you got a bad case of the buzz. There are three things that cause fret buzz. String Action is too low Frets are not level with each other (some are taller, some are shorter) Neck does not have enough "relief" (neck is too straight, or bowing backwards) String Action Let's start with string action. String action is the height of the ukulele string measured at a specific fret. It’s common to take string action measurements at the first fret, twelfth fret, and fifteenth fret. Different players will have different preferences for their string action. Some players prefer it being relatively high (people who strum extra hard), while others prefer very low action (those with a soft touch, you jazz players). There is a threshold to know how low the string action can be set before it starts to create problems. Using a String Action Gauge ruler you can figure this out. If the strings are set too low, the vibration alone will unintentionally rub on frets creating buzz. Unleveled Frets The frets on your ukulele are supposed to be level with each other. That means they should all be the same height down the fingerboard. When the frets are not level with each other this means some of the frets are shorter and some of the frets are taller. Though it’s only with the tall frets that we have a problem. When strings rub up against taller frets down the fingerboard it creates buzz. Thankfully though, strings won’t buzz against low frets (a point for us shorter guys, yay). To fix this type of buzz, you have to get the frets leveled. Short or tall, they have to all be the same height! Take it in to a music shop and they should be able to level and re-crown the frets in a couple days. Neck Relief A ukulele neck is supposed to be perfectly straight, and yet not quite. Assuming the ukulele is strung and tuned to pitch, it should have a slight dip in the middle (around the 8th fret). It’s called the "neck relief". If a neck has a dip in the middle, we can refer to that neck as having "forward bow". If a neck has no dip at all, but rather a hump, then we can refer to that neck as having "back bow". Back bow is always bad and a deal breaker. It means there is not enough relief in the neck which causes the open strings to buzz on the first fret. Avoid back bowed ukulele at all cost… no matter how beautiful it looks. If your ukulele has a bolt on neck, this can be fixed by changing out the neck. If not, it will make a beautiful and expensive wall decoration! Though I must confess! As the resident ukulele doctor in the ER, there are a few more reasons for buzzing. Though they are not caused by the frets. One is an easy fix while the other is a death sentence… haha! The buzzing can come from the tuners on the headstock. The washers may be loose, so they rattle when played. To check this, just tap on the tuners where the strings are wound. If you see the washers on one of more of them move, just use a wrench to gently tighten them up. This will stop the buzzing immediately. The other reason your ukulele may be buzzing is that it has an internal problem. These include loose braces and bad installations. Whether they are for pickups, side mounted EQ’s, or strap pins. Those can be fixed with proper reinstallation. But loose braces, there's nothing we can really do. RIP! Bad Intonation Intonation is the way that the instrument is in tune with itself, along the entire neck. Intonation is something that affects almost any fretted instrument that has a bridge and strings, and can make a massive difference in the way your ukulele sounds. Making or breaking whether you sound good while playing. If the intonation on your ukulele is out of whack, you’ll find that the ukulele sounds awful. Even if you tune it 1000 times! This is because fretted notes will sound sharp or flat as the strings aren’t compensating correctly for any tension. This will effect the pitch of the note. Thankfully with ukulele, you don’t find intonation issues until to move quite a way up the fingerboard… where most players dare to venture. So if you don’t plan on holding ‘phat’ chords or shredding up there, no worries. But if you are heading that way on your ukulele journey, good intonation is key. Checking Intonation You can test to check whether your intonation is good or bad easily. All you really have to do is play an open string, and then play that same string at the twelfth fret. This is because both of those notes should be the same, but an octave apart. For instance, an open G string rings out an G note, and fretting that same string at the twelfth fret will also play an G note. Just higher up. If you notice that these two notes sound out of tune or dissonant, you're ukulele has an intonation problem. If you have a digital tuner or tuning app on your phone, you can literally see the bad intonation if you have trouble with hearing it. Pros can hear while most of use mortals can’t. So having a tuner handy will help you discover this issue. If the intonation is truly a code blue, taking it to a professional luthier for surgery is needed. They can do some things to help with the string tension like changing the saddles and refilling the nut grooves. Its so nuanced that you need a pro to handle it as the process is finicky! But most times, and for most of us, it won’t be noticed. Also a word to the wise. If you're buying an affordable mass market ukulele, odds are your gonna have intonation issues. And if you drop big bucks on a custom high end ukulele you too will have intonation issues due to environmental changes on the ukulele such as humidity. Bad intonation truly is the silent killer! ________________________________ There you have it! You have the prognosis as well the diagnoses for those strange ukulele sounds. I hope your ukulele is in good health. But if not, a speedy recovery! Keep jamming and aloha!
KUMU Buyers Guide
We are in the home stretch! The final five days of our Spring sale. Right now you can get a cool 25% off our entire KUMU collection. What incredible savings! That a $90 savings on our tenor KUMU with our TUX finish! At check out be sure to use the promo code Spring25 to lock in your savings. The Spring sale ends next week Wednesday, March 31 at midnight HST. So before you close this post and head over to our KUMU page, I thought I would spend a minute going over our KUMU ukulele. Like a KUMU buyers guide. This way you‘re better prepared when choosing your perfect ukulele. You know, like those doomsday preppers. So here are our current KUMU currently available for purchase as of this posting are: Soprano Longneck Hawaiian Koa with TUX Finish (SQ34A) Concert Hawaiian Koa with TUX Finish (CM54A) Concert Feather Hawaiian Koa with TUX Finish (CF52A) Tenor Feather Hawaiian Koa with TUX Finish (TF72A) Tenor Hawaiian Koa with TUX Finish (TM74A) Tenor Hawaiian Koa with Gloss Finish (TG75A) Wow where to begin! First off if you‘ve noticed, all of these ukulele are made using Hawaiian Koa wood. If you don’t know anything about this special wood, check out my post dedicated to the “Holy Grail”of ukulele tone woods. Our entire KUMU line is built using this gorgeous and rare wood. So if your looking for an ukulele that embodies Hawaii’s rich history and culture, look no further. Now on to size. Believe it or not size is a huge thing to consider when choosing a ukulele. Like buying shoes, finding the right fit it super important (unless you just want to flex and enjoy having blisters)! Soprano Longneck KUMU If your younger, or looking to purchase a ukulele for someone between the ages of 3-11, I recommend getting the soprano longneck (SQ34A). It will perfectly fit someone with a small stature. These being kids or someone with small hands. Typically the soprano ukulele is preferred for younger children. We knew we didn’t want to put those limitations on our soprano we added a twist. Our soprano ukulele is built using a concert size neck and fingerboard hence the name ‘longneck’. This allows players to grow with this model since the concert neck is longer, allowing for more room and versatility. The soprano size offers the brightest sound out of all our sizes. Concert KUMU If your just starting out, I would recommend either the concert or concert feather model. The concert size offers the best of both worlds. Just like the story of Goldilocks and the three bears they‘re not too small, and not too big, but just right! The concert size is easier to play since it offers a shorter scale length (the distance between the nut and and saddle) then it’s larger brother, the tenor size. This shorter scale makes the strings easier to press and hold when chording. This is due to the strings having less tension. So if your just starting out, or picking up the ukulele again, this is the ideal size for you. Another bonus with having less string tension is that the ukulele produces a warm and mellow tone. "Now should I get the feather concert model?" Great question! The ’Feather’ designation is for our thin bodied line. These ukulele models are the majestically thin and the perfect size for adventurers on the go. They not only sport a thinner profile, but are lighter in weight as well! This makes playing a feather model more comfortable as they conform closer to the body. We‘ve also designed the feather with a curved back to achieve maximum projection and tone. If price is the determining factor between our standard and feather version, no worries, they are the same price! Tenor KUMU Now if you’re confident in your playing ability and don’t mind a higher string tension, I recommend going for the tenor size! Its the most popular size amongst professional musicians and for good reason. The larger body produces a wide range of tonal voices. In laymen‘s terms, you can play more styles of music more effectively. The tenor body also allows for greater sustain as the soundboard has a greater surface area. Our KUMU tenor also comes in a feather size that is extremely popular. Currently we offer a gloss finish on only our tenor model as the gloss versions of the concert and soprano longneck are on back order. If you want more sound out of your tenor ukulele I would go with our TUX (satin) finish. If you’re more interested in a mirror finish and more protection I’d go with the gloss. So there you have it! I hope this KUMU buyers guide made finding your perfect ukulele easier. Remember to use the promo code Spring25 to receive 25% off our KUMU collection. Plus we are currently offering free domestic shipping, and only $35 for international. At a time like this with shipping costs through the roof, we find its now the best time to take advantage of all the savings! And if your reading this post after the KUMU spring sale has ended, here's a special promo code just for you. Use promo code KUMU38 to receive 15% off your KUMU purchases! Don't tell anyone else...hehe! This is just for you! Click here to head over to our KUMU page! Keep jamming and aloha!
Ukulele Hack! Transposing
Have you ever ridden in the car, music blaring, hands in the air, with friends and family singing your heart out? Maybe it was to Queens “Bohemian Rhapsody“, or Leonard Cohen’s immortal classic “Hallelujah”. Or how about some Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, or Post Malone? For me it was… get ready for it… “The Backstreet Boys”! Hey I was in high school at the turn of the millennium and they were the biggest thing in the world. Sorry *NSYNC fans. Next! So my friends and I honed our singing abilities listening to Backstreet Boys, Boyz 2 Men, and Brian McKnight. Remember this was 20 years ago. I'm getting old...haha! But we’ve all been there. ‘Bang Bang’ comes up next on the playlist. A hype song if I ever heard one with hot vocals from Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj (everyone fails her part, but you get props just for trying)! Everyone‘s dancing in the car to that catchy intro and then Jessie J. belts out… ”She’s got body like an hourglass but I can give it to you all the time!” And that’s all it takes. Everyone singing in the car goes flat or sharp. Either way… OFF! The key is so high she's cracking phone screens! These ladies have incredible pipes! But maybe yours are a little rusty…haha! So what do you do if you have a favorite song that you want to play and sing on your ukulele and the key is too high? Your struggling to hit the notes and feel defeated. Have no fear, there is a remedy for this. The remedy known as chord transposing! Chord transposing involves the moving of a musical pitch up or down, but remaining in the same interval. There are a few reasons as to why we would need to transpose notes or chords in our music, the main reason being to change the key of a song. For example, if you struggle singing a song in the key of Bb, you can transpose the song to the key of C. Doing this will making it easier to sing since you’ll be lowering the key. Another reason you may want to transpose music is to make it easier to play. Using the same example, playing the Bb is way harder than playing the open C. Chords associated with Bb are Eb, F, and Gm. On the other hand, the same chords transposed in the key of C are C, F, G, and Am. Chords everyone learns when starting out on the ukulele! So let’s learn how to transpose chords. Finding The Key Before you can start transposing you have to know what key you are in. Here's a hint, its usually the first chord of the song. But when its not, you’ll have to look at the other chords in the song to get an idea of the key. After you find the key, you have to figure out which key you want to transpose to. If you are only concerned with playing simpler chords, find a key that incorporates chords you already know. If you’re more concerned with singing in a comfortable key, then try moving up or down 2 keys. Some songs are actually too low for singers so in these cases they have to transpose to a higher key. Most of us mortals on the other hand need to lower the key. Thanks Celine! How To Change Key Maybe you find a song you want to play and it‘s in the key of Bb. So the chords of the first line of the song are Eb, Bb, F, and Gm. You try to play it and two things become evident. One, you can’t hold the chords right, and two, its pitched too high to sing. So you have to change the key to solve these issues. To bring down the key, you may want to try transposing to the key of C. This is where the above diagram becomes helpful. Above is layout of a piano. Believe it or not, there are only 12 keys. Counting from the first C (white key), then C# (black key), on to D (white key) and so on, there’s 12. If you already know this from taking piano lessons, then the rest will is easy! To transpose from Bb to C, you have to first find how many steps are between the two. Using the above diagram first find the Bb key. Then count each step until you get to C. In this case it will be two. Once you know this, you then apply this to the chords that need transposing. So moving up two keys from Eb brings us to F. And Bb to C, F to G, and Gm to Am (G to A). Try it out for yourself using the diagram and see if you get it. If you‘re successful, you‘ve transposed the song from the key of Bb to C! Congratulations! Now the song will be easier to play and sing. Key Wheel Cheat Sheet Above is a cheat sheet in figuring out key changes. The above diagram is highlighting the key of C (hey, that the same one we just went over). Notice anything interesting? The chords we transposed from Bb are all within the redlined part of the Key Wheel. Those being C, G, F, and Am. Now utilizing this wheel, you can figure out the chords in any key. If you want to find the different chords in the key of G for instance, just rotate the redlined section one letter to the right. All the chords within the new redlined area can be used in a song in the key of G. But if you don’t have this wheel handy, try to memorize the 12 black and white keys on the piano and its layout. This will help you transpose on the go. Maybe your playing in a band and they change the key on the fly, now you can follow in an instant! Whew! There you have it. Wasn’t that a lesson! Now let me let you in on a little secret. Living in the modern age, its awesome seeing technology change things up. Some song sites now offer a transposing feature. WOW!!! All you have to do click on the key of choice and it will change the chords that display over the lyrics. What a hack! Well at least you know how to do it if you don’t have your phone handy. Keep jamming and sing your heart out! Yeehaw!!!
Koa Wood, the Holy Grail
“You guys get koa?” That is probably the number one questioned I get asked when selling ukulele directly to customers. If I say no, they usually follow up with... “I get one Koa ukulele at home you know!” And with a smirk, and the crossing of the arms, they would continue on walking. I would politely smile, nod... and laugh in my head! It always cracks me up since they are flexing. In reality, Hawaiian Koa was pretty much the only option available to early local builders. Rosewood, ebony, and walnut were hard to get in those days with shipping taking months. The truth is tone-wood choice is subjective. It depends on the type of sound the player prefers. Let me tell you a little secret... koa is sonically not the best sounding tone-wood in the market for ukulele. Don’t get me wrong, koa is amazing! But it ain’t the best. So this is why I chuckle inside when locals flaunt koa all the time. But maybe there is more to the story. A deeper reason why koa is so prized and sought after. Why all the locals go crazy for it and swear that a true ukulele is one made of koa. Are you curious yet? Good! Now let’s dig in! Hawaiian Koa wood, or Acacia Koa, is the Holy Grail of ukulele wood. This endemic Hawaiian species of acacia is prized for it’s stunning beauty and it’s limited supply. Owning a koa ukulele is a badge of honor here in Hawaii. Locals have a hard time accepting that ukulele are now being made with many different species of wood such as mango, spruce, mahogany, and rosewood. Where did this pride over koa wood come from? To truly understand why this wood is special you have to go way back. Back before the ukulele came to our shores from Portugal. Back to ancient Hawaii. History Of Koa Wood In ancient times koa was highly revered and sacred. The wood could only be used by the ‘ali’i’ (kings), ruling chiefs, and for their purposes alone. It was considered ‘Kapu’, or forbidden to be used by normal people. The hawaiian people believed that the kings and chiefs were summoned by the gods and were given special powers to rule. The kings and chiefs created the Kapu system and forbade the use of koa. The divine punishment for breaking the Kapu was death! Now since the ruling class of Hawaii had full control of the koa supply, what were they using it for? When you see world leaders today they all have one thing in common. They need protection. And if you were a hawaiian monarch you needed warriors! So it may surprise you but the word koa means warrior. This is important because it was the primary material used in making weapons and canoes. These weapons were made with shark’s teeth, marlin bills, and even human teeth and hair! These sharp materials were embedded and tied onto koa spears and war clubs. This is why koa became synonymous with the warriors themselves, and that’s why the wood became known as koa. These warrior were conscripted to make these weapons by the kings and chiefs keeping them safe from breaking the Kapu. In the late 1700’s, King Kamehameha the Great used koa to aid him in conquering the Hawaiian islands. They were used in building his armada and for arming his warriors. It’s been said that if Kamehameha didn’t posses a large quantity of koa wood, he wouldn’t have been able to conquer and unite all the islands! After his passing, Queen Kaahumanu and son Liholiho abolished the Kapu system allowing all Hawaiians access to this prized wood. So all that to say... yeah, koa is valuable, and you can see why it’s the Holy Grail for ukulele. Koa+Ukulele=❤️ Today, koa continues to grow on all the Hawaiian islands. Though the bulk of the wood harvested comes from the Big Island. The rich volcanic soil of the Big Island yields koa that is dark and red. This color-way is the most prized among builders. Koa is strange in that it can be found in many colors. It can be brown, red, orange, white, green, and even purple! Though the most beautiful koa wood has a wavy, ripple-like grain pattern known as “curly”. In the mainland this type of grain pattern is better known as ‘fiddle back’. Only 10% of koa harvested is curly, making the stuff up to 1000% more expensive! Big Island landowners today can’t cut down living koa trees. They have to be dying or dead! These old growth trees are hard to find since many have already been harvested. Some are even half rotten! The yield of usable wood in these trees is only around 20-30%. This also adds value since a whole tree can yield so little usable wood. This is also why Agar wood is so expensive. In the case of Agar wood, only the diseased areas produce the intoxicating Oud oil. Like koa, it is in high demand! As a tone-wood, koa has a similar sound profile to mahogany. This is because they both share similar densities when dried, as well as board stiffness. This puts koa smack in the in middle on the sound spectrum of tone-woods. Heavy and dense woods such as rosewood and ebony don’t vibrate enough, making them better used for constructing the back and sides of the ukulele. At the other end we have softer woods such as spruce and cedar. These tone-woods are light and flexible, giving them a bright and responsive sound. But due to their fragility are used only as the soundboard of the ukulele. Koa’s density makes this tone-wood the best of both worlds. It is strong enough to be used as a sound board, but soft enough to vibrate and produce a rich, warm tone. Koa’s Availability With a wide color spectrum and kaleidoscopic grain patterns, koa is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a joy for luthiers to work with, and in the right hands, it’s pure tonal bliss (looking at you Eric Devine, Alvin Okami, and Chuck Moore)! So this begs the question: “Why aren’t there more ukulele made of koa on the market?” It all comes down to availability. Remember reading during the history lesson above. After the Kapu was dissolved, the people started building everything with koa. When the merchants arrived in the islands, they saw koa as a prized export to the world. Soon, everything from bowls to furniture were being constructed with koa. Unfortunately this quickly depleted the koa forests. For luthiers, they need specific sizes and cuts of wood to build ukulele. This makes usable quarter sawn pieces limited, forcing brands to hoard supplies. Due to this lack of resources, many luthiers aren’t able to build meaningful quantities. Hawaiian Koa vs Formosa Koa? Due to koa’s growing worldwide demand, many companies have resorted to shady sell’s tactics. They started calling their acacia ukulele, koa wood ukulele! Their reasoning was that since koa is a type of acacia, then acacia is koa. All acacia. So acacia farmed in Taiwan, aka Formosa, were being labeled as Formosa Koa. This name change would confuse customers since it carried the koa designation. You can find Indian Koa, Philippines Koa, and even African Koa. But they are not true koa. For koa to be koa it MUST be grown in Hawaii. When searching for a koa wood ukulele, be sure the manufacturer uses koa grown in Hawaii! Once again, koa can only be koa in it’s grown in Hawaii. Whew, congratulations! You made it through that long winded explanation of what makes koa wood the Holy Grail for ukulele. If you have a chance, and can afford it, get one for your collection. At Leolani, all of our KUMU ukulele are made with Hawaiian grown koa wood! Rest assure that we aren’t using Formosa Koa...haha! And yes Rock, we get koa ukulele! Keep jamming and aloha!