The ukulele is a small instrument with a long history. You might not know it, but the Hawaiian word “ukulele” translates to “jumping flea.”
If you’ve played or heard the instrument, you probably understand how it got this name. Your fingers move quickly over the strings, jumping around to play a song. The four strings create a bright, happy sound when you pluck them.
If the idea of a flea puts you off, there’s another theory about this instrument’s name. In Hawaiian, “uku” translates to “gift,” and “lele” means “to come.” Put together, the word means “the gift that came here.”
Regardless of which translation you prefer, both have strong Hawaiian roots. Therefore, it only makes sense that you want to choose a Hawaiian brand when buying a ukulele.
Though it’s a popular instrument in the state, not all ukulele manufacturers are in Hawaii. So many people are learning to play the ukulele that manufacturers worldwide are starting to produce this instrument.
While purchasing a cheap ukulele is fine for beginners, each instrument will sound different when you play it. It’s better to buy a quality ukulele from a Hawaiian manufacturer who has built the instrument true to its origin.
Five Best Hawaiian Ukulele Makers
Hawaiian ukulele makers take great pride in their work. When you buy from one of these ukulele brands, you’re getting a high-quality instrument crafted by professionals.
Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka started this company in 1916, making ukuleles in his basement. He passed this skill on through his family, who still run the business. The most experienced craftsman employed by Kamaka has been there for 50 years!
The body of Kamaka’s ukuleles was initially shaped like a figure eight. As he made his instruments, Kamaka experimented with an oval. Ukuleles made in this shape have a mellow sound compared to the traditional models.
He connected the oval body and long neck to the shape of a pineapple and soon patented the Pineapple Ukulele design. The tone is so popular that the Pineapple Ukulele is Kamaka’s signature, and most popular, ukulele.
Kamaka makes nine basic ukulele models, besides the Pineapple. They include:
- Standard Soprano
- Standard Deluxe
- Concert 4-String
- Tenor 4-String
- Tenor 6-String
- Tenor 8-String
- Baritone Deluxe
- Concert Bell Shape Deluxe
The ukuleles, made from Hawaiian koa wood, have a beautiful grain. Some instruments, like the Standard Deluxe, Concert 4-String Deluxe, and Tenor 4-String Deluxe, are also available in cedar. Professional ukulele players prefer cedar because it has a fuller sound.
There’s a Kamaka store in Hawaii, where late Beatle George Harrison would often buy out the whole inventory.
You can order ukuleles online, purchase through an authorized retailer, or even work with the manufacturer for a custom order. You get a case with every instrument, so you can protect it when you’re not making music.
You can care for your Kamaka ukulele by buffing it with a damp cloth. For more extensive repairs, you can send it to the factory or contact the retailer from which you bought it.
All levels of players can benefit from using Kamaka ukuleles. Even if you’re a beginner, you’ll appreciate the fine craftsmanship and beautiful sound of a handcrafted Kamaka instrument.
Like Kamaka, Kanile’a is a family-run business that crafts ukuleles out of koa wood. They fell the trees themselves, then let them dry in the forest before even bringing them to the workshop.
Because they use wood from Hawaii’s trees, the company plants trees to replace what they use and sustain the forests.
In keeping with their goal of sustainability, Kanile’a uses local resources whenever possible. They create custom inlays using Kailua Beach white sand and Hawaiian mother-of-pearl and abalone shells.
Any wood that isn’t available on the island is ethically sourced from other countries.
Joe Souza, the founder of Kanile’a, learned how to craft ukuleles from the master luthier Peter Bermudez. He learned traditional techniques to make instruments for beginners all the way to professionals. Still, he has modernized his building style enough to ensure his instruments stand out compared to other ukuleles on the market.
Using wood from nearby forests gives the company the chance to make instruments with unique sounds.
The craftsmen have a particular way to create a trademark sound from Kanile’a ukuleles. The width of the body shape increases its natural volume, and the notes last longer after you strum or pick them.
Since the company builds every instrument by hand, there aren’t two ukuleles that sound or look exactly the same. However, with over 20 years of experience in the field, you know you’re going to get a high-quality instrument from Kanile’a.
Whether you’re buying from Kanile’a in person at their store or online through their shop or other retailers, you can choose from available ukuleles, custom orders, and assorted accessories.
KoAloha is another family-owned ukulele business in Hawaii, started by Alvin and Pat Okami. The Koa series of KoAloha ukuleles, built from koa wood, include instruments such as:
- Pineapple Soprano
- Soprano Long Next
- Soprano Tenor Neck
- Super Concert
- Slimline Tenor
The unique Mango series has a Soprano Long Next, Concert, and Tenor ukulele.
Because mango trees aren’t native to Hawaii, KoAloha only makes these instruments when it’s necessary that they cut a tree down. The wood is much paler than koa wood, and the instruments produce a bold sound.
The Opio series offers the same style of instruments as the Koa line but uses acacia wood native to Hawaii. This acacia wood is denser than koa, so these instruments have a deep sound.
KoAloha also offers very affordable Koalana ukuleles. The company designs these instruments, but they aren’t manufactured in Hawaii. They’re built in Indonesia using laminated trembesi, a durable hardwood native to that country.
Ko’olau is a company that makes both ukuleles and guitars. The Kitakis family started making stringed instruments over 40 years ago. Many famous musicians have played their instruments, such as Lyle Ritz, Benny Chong, and Roy Sakuma.
Each ukulele has a beautiful resonant sound, but the volume is louder as the body sizes up. The body of each ukulele is koa wood, and you can choose between gloss or satin finishes. The company makes the ukulele’s neck from mahogany, so it’s durable.
Depending on the type of koa wood used, Ko’olau ukuleles can appear blond, red, brown, or black. If you want a specific shade, you can custom order an instrument.
You can even specify a different type of native wood for a custom build. However, since they’re handcrafted, it takes anywhere from eight months to a year to complete a custom order.
The company also has a line of Pono ukuleles and guitars. As with the Ko’olau line, everything is solid wood with no plastic or synthetic materials. While this makes the instruments expensive, they’re high quality and sturdy.
Lanikai produces their ukuleles on the island of O’ahu, though the business itself is under the Hohner name. Founded in 1857, Hohner also produces harmonicas, accordions, and band instruments. When it comes to ukuleles, Lanikai offers models like:
Lanikai is the only company on this list to produce a bass ukulele. You might wonder what this instrument sounds like since the ukulele originally has such a high, playful sound. Bass ukuleles sound similar to a bass guitar, though the notes are one octave higher.
The company also makes a hybrid acoustic/electric ukulele that many famous musicians play. Because you can plug this instrument into an amp, you can increase the volume, so it’s heard over other instruments in a band. Otherwise, it has the same tone as a traditional ukulele.
Lanikai also makes a line of guitalele, which is half guitar and half ukulele. Like a guitar, it has six strings but tunes at a higher pitch, like a ukulele. With such a range of instruments, it’s easy to see why the company partners with so many diverse musicians.
Like KoAloha, Lanikai produces most of their ukuleles in Hawaii, but some come from Indonesia or China.
Things to Consider
The five best Hawaiian ukulele makers on this list produce quality instruments. Anything you buy from these ukulele brands will look and sound great. But if you’re wondering what to look for in any ukulele, this list of things to consider will give you fundamental knowledge.
Almost all the Hawaiian ukulele makers on this list are family-owned businesses. While it’s not a necessary quality to have, it’s definitely a vote of confidence in the instruments.
When a family puts their name on a product, you know they’re proud of it. And when the business gets passed down from generation to generation, you know that the manufacturers know the best practices.
If you’re looking for a cheap beginner ukulele, you can search online and find a variety of manufacturers. Not all take pride in their work, and not many offer warranties or repairs like those on this list.
Buying an instrument from a Hawaiian ukulele maker might seem like a hefty investment for a beginner, but it’s worth buying a high-quality instrument to get started. You’ll know you’re getting great sound from the ukulele, and most manufacturers offer warranties and repairs.
If you’re a beginner, choose a soprano or concert ukulele from any of the five manufacturers previously listed. You’ll get a fantastic instrument and have no trouble learning how to play it.
For more experienced players, you’ll want to check out each Hawaiian ukulele maker’s inventory. They have a variety of instruments with unique sounds, so you might want to try something new. You can also create a custom ukulele through many of these companies.
Whether you’re new to the ukulele or a professional, all five Hawaiian ukulele makers offer instruments that will suit your style.
The key things to listen for in a quality ukulele are tone, intonation, and resonance. The tone is the general sound quality that you’re able to hear when plucking one string.
It varies from instrument to instrument, and many players have specific tones they look for in their instruments.
Intonation refers to the accuracy of the notes. When you play notes along the fretboard, they should match your tuner.
This is relatively easy to fix, but it’s best to choose an instrument that is as accurate as possible. That can make the difference between tuning every time you play versus the instrument holding the correct intonation across uses.
Resonance is how round the sound is. To determine the resonance, have someone play your ukulele while you stand across the room. The notes should sound full and deep. You should be able to hear them from a distance without noticing any diminishing sound quality.
If you’re ordering online, you can’t test an instrument before you buy it. That’s another reason buying a ukelele from a Hawaiian maker is a good idea. You know all of the instruments are high-quality, so you’re going to get great sound from the ukulele.
Hawaiian ukulele makers use native woods for their instruments. Most manufacturers harvest quality koa wood from Hawaii.
They let it age for four years before using it to craft ukuleles. Koa wood has a stellar reputation in Hawaii. Not only is the wood beautiful to look at, but it also has a rich sound.
Bamboo is an affordable, eco-friendly material that some manufacturers use for ukuleles. It has a straight grain that looks nice with any stain. Since it’s such a durable wood, you’ll get an excellent, bright sound from a bamboo ukulele.
While plastic ukuleles are very affordable and durable, the sound is entirely different than those made of any type of wood.
If you’re giving an instrument to a child or plan to travel with it, a cheap plastic ukulele is a good choice. Otherwise, it’s better to save your money and invest in a wood instrument.
Frequently Asked Questions
The ukulele brands on this list provide an array of instruments that will suit your needs. You also have an idea of what things to consider when you’re buying a ukulele. In case you still have any questions, check out these answers about learning to play the ukulele.
Which ukulele is best for beginners?
There are many ukuleles on the market, and beginners often look at cost before anything else.
After all, if you’re learning an instrument, it makes sense that you don’t want to spend too much on the front end. If you’re not sure you’ll be any good, you don’t want to invest in a high-quality instrument.
It’s important to realize how the type of instrument you get can affect your learning. If you buy a cheap, plastic ukulele, you might not like how it sounds or feels when you play it. Therefore, you won’t pick it up very often, and your talent will go to waste.
Investing in a top-notch ukulele can seem intimidating, but once you hear the resonant sound of a Hawaiian-made ukulele, you won’t want to play anything else.
You’ll love how each note sounds, and you’ll find that you’re always excited to pick up the instrument and learn more songs.
When looking at what these five Hawaiian ukulele makers have to offer, consider the appropriate size for beginners. Due to their smaller size, starting with a soprano or concert ukulele is the best first step.
These instruments also give an authentic ukulele sound, so they’re ideal.
Can you teach yourself the ukulele?
Yes! The ukulele is a fun instrument to learn, and there’s no reason you can’t teach yourself. There are plenty of online resources available for guidance. If you’re unsure about how to hold the instrument, you can find videos to mimic, but it comes naturally once you pick it up.
Learning downstrokes is the best way to start. As you become more familiar with the instrument, you can learn different ways to strum and pick notes. You’ll find yourself playing complete songs before you know it!
Sometimes teaching yourself can get lonely, so consider looking for ukulele clubs in your area.
Is the ukulele easier than the guitar?
The short answer is yes; it’s easier to learn and play the ukulele than the guitar.
The instrument is smaller and easier to hold for long periods. The strings are softer, so you don’t hurt your fingertips when you practice. You don’t have to press them down as hard to get a good sound, either.
Most ukuleles have four strings, so it’s easier to learn the tuning and notes. You’ll first learn the string order and names. Then you can progress to learning chords and playing songs.
Top Hawaiian Ukulele Makers, Final Thoughts
The ukulele is a fun instrument to play, so the most important thing is that you find one that’s comfortable for you. The easier you find it to hold and play, the more you’ll take it out to make music.
If you want to invest in a high-quality instrument, consider buying from the best Hawaiian ukulele makers on this list.