Ukuleles in Country Music

Although the use of ukuleles was popularized by, and is best known in island music (Calypso, Soca, Reggae, etc.), the use of ukuleles in today’s music has far surpassed those genres. It’s hard to believe that most people believe the musical range of a ukulele is so limited! In the next few posts, I’d like to highlight a few examples where the ukuleles using a very nontraditional sense – either in a nontraditional style of music, an interesting recording technique, or something in between. In my experience and throughout my life, I’ve seen these instruments bring joy to so many people from so many different walks of life, that I’d like to help break the stereotypes and expand the range and popularity of this beautiful instrument. In the first installment of this series of blog posts, I’d like to address the polar opposite of island music: country!

Although I live in Hawaii, it often doesn’t feel like it’s a part of United States. Compare that in stark contrast with much of the popular country music today – imagery of dirt roads, big trucks, girls in jean shorts, and acoustic guitars. Come to think of it, the Island lifestyle doesn’t sound all that different from life in Texas! In both places, were easy-going, like to relax, drive trucks, and work outside… Maybe this’ll be easier than I thought.

First up: Wagon Wheel

The first example of ukuleles being used in a nontraditional way should be an easy transition – Wagon Wheel by Darius Rucker. What a beautiful song to start with. The mellow strumming lends itself well to being played on the ukulele, and the player looks like he’s totally at ease. He plays the song in the key of A, which makes it pretty easy to follow along. He gives an awesome breakdown of all the chords involved, making this a great video to start with, regardless of your skill level. Enjoy!

Country Road by Paula Fuga and Jack Johnson
Although this is more of a “contemporary island jam” than a strict country song, it still comes across as a good example of ukuleles in country music. The tabs on this site make it easy to learn & follow along.

Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver

I love this song! Obviously it’s a classic, but this YouTuber’s rendition came across as so genuine – it made me appreciate the song in a completely new way. Simply by playing this song on a different instrument, keeping almost everything else the same, the vibe and the meaning of the lyrics are completely changed. Rather than picturing yourself in West Virginia, I picture myself in Waikiki, drink in hand, breeze blowing off the surf.

Live country music jam with ukulele

Although this isn’t a mainstream country artist, it’s an incredible video that further shows the versatility of this beautiful instrument. It seems like this video was taken at a country bar, who knows where (let’s assume Tennessee, since that’s what I’m picturing 🙂 ), and the audience loves it! I would assume that the audience is expecting to hear strictly country music at a place like this, and this guy delivers! The use of the ukulele doesn’t change the genre of the music, rather, it simply adds to it.

 

Hawaiian Ukuleles

480_dsc01342

Paul F. Summers
From a 1930’s Paul F. Summers brochure, “six easy lessons…guaranteed to teach you how to play Ukulele for $10.00”. The Summers studios where located at both the Moana and Royal Hawaiian hotels. These Soprano’s have the brass plaque stamped with “Paul F. Summers, Famous Waikiki Ukulele, Honolulu” and the “Tabu” wood stamp on the back of the headstock. His upper end models had some of the most figured Koa available at the time. Trust me, as hard as I’ve tried to do it right, I’m still not happy with the photo. This Ukulele was the first instrument that many players picked up, and it’s significantly less expensive than some of the other categories, like Martin Ukuleles, for example.

 

480_dsc01466
Ernest K. Kaai Koa Soprano
Undoubtedly one of the most influencial and successfull musicians in early Hawaiian history. Jim Beloff’s “The Ukulele, A Visual History” says it all in the chapter “The Great Hawaiian Players”. This very plain Style O has wood tuning pegs, bar frets, “Tabu” stamp in the sound hole and a very ornate gold leafed Ernest K. Kaai, Ukulele, Honolulu, Hawaii decal on the headstock. Circa 1903-1917. Newer than the Taropatch models.

480_dsc01507
Kamuela K. Kamaka

This circa 1918 Koa Soprano has a two tone wood inlay on the binding, up the sides and middle of the fret board and through the headstock. A “cigar band” decal to the butt joint simply says K. Kamaka Honolulu, Hawaii. The Tabu stamp was placed at the back of the headstock. This is probably not going to earn me any points in some circles, but I never did get caught up in the Kamaka, Ka-Lai pineapple frenzy, so this is the only Kamaka in the collection. This one from “the Man” himself and one from the Nuuanu Ukulele Company of the early 1900’s are certainly two of my favorites.

 

480_dsc01509
Paradise
This rare Koa Soprano was built by the Paradise Ukulele and Guitar Works, Ltd. a company listed in The Honolulu City Directory of 1918. Their address was 946 Punahou St. and was owned by A.W. Mather, H.A. Bishaw and A.A. Feiereisel. It was formed “to take over and conduct the business… heretofore carried on by Ernest K. Kaai” A diamond shaped paper label reading “F and B, Paradise Ukulele and Guitar Works, Honolulu, Hawaii” is in the sound hole. The letters AR made of Pearl are inset on the unusual headstock along with bar type frets, wood friction pegs and alternating light and dark wood binding on the top and rosette.

Taropatch and Tenor

480_dsc01249

Echo Guitar
This all Koa, 12 fret “Echo” guitar was made by the Hawaiian Mahogany Co., circa 1930. The Hawaiian Mahogany Co. was better known for their Echo ‘ukes. A soprano model with the name “Pele” on the headstock can be viewed on the Hawaiian page. I am unaware of any other historical information about the Echo guitar and would certainly appreciate any shared knowledge.

 

480_dsc01332
C.F. Martin 2K Taropatch
Catalogued by Martin in 1923 and last priced in 1931. The white celluloid binding is the norm of all Martin Style 2 and 2K appointments and is generally considered a standard bearer for the style reference of other manufacturers.

 

480_dsc01339
Sam F. Chang Tenor
I had the pleasure of meeting Sam Chang’s daughter, just after acquiring this Style 2 type Tenor. One of the many interesting stories told to me about her father, was the tale of Sam having no drivers licsense, riding his bicycle from their #27 Kauila St. home in Nuuanu to Waikiki to deliver his Ukes to the Summers shops. Circa 1930, quite possibly from 1925 – 1926 when listed in the Honolulu City Directory as residing at the Kauila St address. Reminds me of the Martin Models.

480_dsc01379
Harold Summers Tenor
Harold Summers like his brother Paul was a Ukulele and Guitar instructor on O’ahu during the “Golden Era” of Hawai’i. This tenor sized all Koa Ukulele is beautifully trimmed in Ivoroid with the Harold Summers Waikiki decal on the back of the headstock. This Tenor has all the makings of a Sam Chang instrument. Chang built Ukes for both Summers Brothers out of his home in Nuuanu on the outskirts of downtown Honolulu.

480_dsc01407
Leonardo Nunes Taropatch

I’d been tempted to list this Uke on the “Haole Koa” page considering Leonardo Nunes was living in Los Angeles, Ca. after 1913 when this Taropatch was built. John King’s exceptional publication “Hawaiian Ukulele & Guitar Makers 1884 to 1930″ dated Leonardo as 5 years old when he arrived in Hawaii with father, Manuel and mother, Izabella in 1879.

The first of the Koa Taropatches to the collection and there’s an interesting story that needs to be shared. This Taro originally belonged to a minister in Texas, who according to his son from whom I acquired her ,”…was a cracker jack player”.

 

493_dsc01645
Manini
Manini, local slang for small, ie. childrens size. Center Style 3 ‘uke is from an unknown luthier, bearing only a Tabu stamp and the Hawaiian coat of arms. Manini’s on left and right of center are from Akai, maker of ‘ukuleles with Aloha Ukulele Manufacturing., Co., Ltd. A professionally engraved inscription on the neck of each ‘uke bears the words “Daddy to Theresa Ann Nov. 18, 1940” and “Daddy to Marie Claire, Nov. 18, 1940”. Dimensions are approximently 16 3/4″ from top of headstock to base, 4 3/4″ width at lower bout and a maximum 2″ thickness.

Martin Vintage Ukuleles

handmade ukulele

C.F. Martin Style 2 Taropatch and Soprano
“What’s up with the Mahogany on an all Koa website?” I just couldn’t resist posting these two very early Martin ‘ukes. On the left is a Style 2 Taropatch and on the right a Style 2 Soprano. Both with one piece wood bridge and saddle, super dark stain, small position markers, wood pegs, all the signs of the pre 1920 construction. Beautiful piece, not made in the Haole Koa style.

vintage ukulele with beautiful construction
C.F. Martin 5K Soprano
There’s nothing more to say about this ‘uke that hasn’t been said a bajillion times. Truly one of the “holiest of grails”. So how the hell does a “working class collector” end up with a near mint 5K? A totally unexpected windfall from a deceased relative. Mahalo nui loa Aunt Nancy.

beautiful vintage instrument

C.F. Martin 2K Soprano
A visually more appealing grade of Koa was often used in construction of the 2K then the 1K. Ivoroid binding accented the beauty of this pre 1933 Martin Ukulele.

pure tone from this ukulele

Early 3K Soprano
Circa 1920, the Style 3K as its Style 3 sister is sometimes refered to as a “Bowtie”, because of the hour glass or bowtie Pearl inlay on the 7th fret. It was not documented when the “”Bowtie” was dropped from the line, but a pre 1933 3K from the collection does not include this ornamentation. A Celluloid kite shaped inlay adorns the front of the headstock with the stamp “Southern California Music Company, Los Angeles” on the back. A black and white sandwiched nut adds to the trimmings.

twin ukuleles from hawaii

C.F. Martin 1K Soprano

The “K” specifications matched those of the Mahogany models, except of course for the use of Hawaiian Koa. The Style 1K on the left has no binding on the bottom panel and with the differences of the bottoms of the two fret boards and bridge shapes lend to the possibility that this 1K may be a very early model . Mahalo Nui Loa to Andy Roth for the construction insight.

 

custom made ukulele
Pre 1933 3K Soprano
With production ending in 1938, when Hawaiian Koa to the U.S. continent could no longer be obtained due to WWII. This 3K Soprano was made prior to 1933, when the Martin Company still stamped their logo on the back of the headstock. The post 1933 Styles have the more familiar decal placed on the front. Notice the missing Celluloid ornament at the headstock and “bowtie” at the fretboard like that of the earlier 1920’s Style 3 and 3K models.

Haole Koa – Vintage Ukuleles

Haole Koa; as in reference to Koa Ukulele made by ” haole – White person, American, Englishman, Caucasian; formerly, any foreigner; foreign, introduced, of foreign origin”. Hawaiian- English, English -Hawaiian Dictionary, Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert, University Press of Hawaii 1957

See below for a collection of vintage ukuleles

colombia-ukulele  Columbia
Distributed by the Sherman Clay Co., this Soprano features an unusual three piece neck running the length of the fret board from the heel through the headstock. The side panel which normally joins at the butt is not the case of this Uke, suggesting the joint is hidden where the neck is attached to the body. Alternating light and dark wood binding with patent tuners. Somewhat of a debate exists as to the quality of craftmanship, choice of materials and sound. Sound wise, let’s just say a Style 1 Martin it’s not. I’ll let the picture do the talking in respect to the quality of materials. Circa 1914. One of my favorite vintage ukuleles on the site.

leonardo-nunes

Leonardo Nunes
From the Kohler and Chase, San Francisco edition. Apparently after arriving in Los Angeles sometime after 1913, Leonardo went on a tear and built Ukes for not only Kohler and Chase, but Lyon and Healy, The Southern California Music Co and others.

herman-weissenborn

Herman Weissenborn
Soprano size, circa 1920’s. Branding in sound hole reads, “H. Weissenborn, Los Angeles, Cal.”.  A true “Haole Koa”. This Concert size Tenor was built by the Harmony Company of Chicago. One of three models in a signature series built for 20’s recording artist Johnny Marvin. A version of this Koa beauty with the “Airplane” shaped bridge and gold plated tuners was presented to the Prince of Wales by Marvin with Sophie Tucker in attendance, during a tour of England in 1928. Thus the term “Prince of Wales”. Mahalo Nui Loa to Chuck Fayne and robert wheeler, founder for the historical information.