There I was in Waikiki while my wife was running the Honolulu Marathon. I’m the one sipping coffee at the finish line, waiting for her. The whole day before she had to prepare. The day after she was recuperating. That left me with way too much time on my hands and way too many ukulele stores in one city. Waikiki is one big shopping mall anyway. It’s like the Mall of America on steroids, only with a beach and palm trees. I wasn’t interested in designer purses but show me a dreamy four string and I’m yours, baby.
I googled “ukuleles” and “Honolulu” and came up with an impressive list. Forget renting a car. You can walk almost everywhere in Waikiki, so I hoofed it to several stores over three days. I was especially interested in Hawaiian made ukes. I found plenty. The most common are Kamaka, Kanile`a, Ko`olau and KoAloha. Prices ranged from $100 – actually a decent uke for a beginner — to thousands of dollars. I already had an $89 soprano I bought at home and a decent tenor that I use for concerts. I wanted something a little nicer than the tenor, preferably with a pickup, at a price where I wouldn’t have to remortgage the house.
First, I mucked about in a couple of stores situated in big hotels. None had a great selection and clerks were either inattentive or had only a basic knowledge of the ukulele. Most of the ukuleles were maddeningly out of tune. At one little shop the young woman working there told me that tuners are only for pianos. Um … what?
Toward the end of one rainy afternoon the clouds parted, a sweet choir sang a heavenly hymn and a shaft of golden light showed the way to the Ukulele Store. They had a giant wall of nothing but Hawaiian made ukuleles.
The opposite wall held instruments from elsewhere but really, why? It’s like going to the best seafood place in town and ordering a burger. Best of all, there was Jeremy, who actually knew how to play and cheerfully showed me lots of ukuleles including an electric one made of mango wood. Damn, it was beautiful and it had a decent sound – not too thin and with good intonation. Every fiber of my being screamed “WANT” so I asked the price. $5000. Okay, I’ll play it in the store and gently kiss it goodbye. There’s a great ice cream store across the street, in case you need to drown your sorrows like I did.
Most of the ukuleles I tried did not have pickups. I love a rich acoustic sound as much as the next musician, however, I perform with my uke and using microphones is problematic. It’s easier to plug it in. Jake Shimabukuro uses a pickup, why shouldn’t I? And why can’t I play like him? But I digress.
I wasn’t content to try ukuleles, I wanted to hear one played live, too, and there I was in Honolulu, with more wonderful ukulele players per square mile than probably anywhere on the planet. I googled “live Hawaiian music” and found Ku`uipo Kumukahi, Jerry Santos and a bass player (whose name escapes me) at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Watertight harmonies, gorgeous slack key guitar and of course, great ukulele, played by Ku`uipo. I’d met her earlier in the day at the Hyatt where she’s the Manager of Hawaiian Culture. When I told her I was looking at ukuleles, she said I should go to the Kamaka factory where she had a friend. Ooh, a local connection!
The next morning my wife and I set out for the factory at 550 South St. They were open. No retail store, though, and Ku`uipo’s friend wasn’t there. They offer factory tours but only Tuesday through Friday. It was Monday and we were leaving the next day. The nice guy at the front counter gave me a list of Oahu music stores and said I should try Easy Music Center. (Below is some of that list. You’re welcome.) A general music store, it wasn’t in the tourist section which meant the prices were better. I fell in love with a gorgeous koa soprano. At $1000, it was a good deal and holy pineapple did it have a sweet sound. It kept calling my name as I wandered the store and played other ukuleles. In the end, I talked myself out of it. It was a chunk of change that could go toward my new album. I tried not to weep as we left.
We flew to Kauai next. I went to two stores there but neither flipped my switch. One was a general music store where everything sported a coat of dust and the lone clerk hardly looked up from his paperwork. The other store had only ukuleles, and I’m sure there were some fine ukuleles to be had in other stores on this island, however, I’d made up my mind. Tough love. No new ukulele for me on this trip.
We flew home and a couple of weeks later it was Christmas. Under the tree was an oddly shaped package. Santa, er, my awesome wife, gave me a sweet little banjo-ukulele. Hot damn is it fun, even if it’s not made of mango wood.
A few Oahu ukulele stores
Easy Music Center, 1314 S King St, 808-591-0999
Ukulele Store, 226 Lewers St, Ste L218, Waikiki Beach Walk, 808-888-5469
Aloha Ukulele, Hilton Hawaiian Village
Bob’s Ukulele, Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center
Ukulele Puapua, Sheraton Waikiki Hotel
There are more, some outside of Honolulu.
This beauty sits on my desk. She springs to life when I turn on the sun lamp. I watch her and dream of my next trip to those beautiful islands.
Want ukulele lessons? I teach via Skype and in my home studio in Ottawa, Canada. Contact me here.