It was deep in the months of winter that I got a call at midnight. Roused from my sleep, I picked up the phone, expecting a terrible disaster. “Ever been to Hawaii?” a gruff voice asked. It was The Chief.
Surprised, I responded, “No, I haven’t. Why?”
“I need you to go find out about ukuleles,” The Chief snapped. “Now!”
With that, he hung up.
I sat upright in my bed, baffled by the call. Hawaii? Was The Chief serious? He had to be, right? I mean, he’s always serious. Still, though…Hawaii had never been an MI Spy destination before; ukuleles have rarely been on the mission agenda. I momentarily entertained the slim possibility that this was The Chief’s way of giving me a much-needed break. Then, however, I told myself that was ridiculous. And who cared, anyway? I was going to go no matter what the motivation was! I booked my tickets to paradise—Oahu HI, to be specific—where Honolulu sits on the south end of a pretty large island, surrounded by blue waves and white sand.
I booked a room at Vive Hotel Waikiki, a boutique hotel with no amenities aside from its close proximity to downtown and the Waikiki beach line. I scheduled a rental car and got in on a Saturday. When we landed, the weather was stormy, but tropical and warm nonetheless. I soon discovered that I’d packed too much, given that it never really gets cold in Oahu, even during the rainy season.
My first stop on the list was over in Kailua HI, over the mountains above Honolulu, past the Pali Lookout. It’s a town where roosters and chickens run free in the parking lot of the Whole Foods grocery store. Bumper stickers boasted the statement, “I liked Kailua before you were here,” bespeaking a strong native pride. Not surprising, I thought, because many tourists don’t rent a car and take the journey over the Pali Highway into that beach town.
Coconut Grove Music
167 Hamakua Dr. #200
Kailua HI 96734
I found the first store in a suburban mall, near a CrossFit studio and what looked like a small swamp. Although parking was easy and plentiful, the entrance itself was confusing. A sign outside showed the store as open, but then there was a closed door, which turned out to be a stairwell. So, up I went.
When I emerged onto the showroom floor, I saw ukuleles directly in front of me; to my right were basses, amps and guitars. Van Halen was playing on the radio. A gentleman behind the counter started to speak to me as I walked over to the ukes, taking in the bright orange and blue lacquered bodies. What I would soon learn about ukes in Hawaii is that the most expensive—or “top shelf”—ukes are toward the top of the wall, and usually behind the counter. The more entry-level ukes tend to be near the bottom, whereas the mid-range ukes are in the middle.
When I turned around, the clerk started to explain to me that the most expensive ukes were to my right, behind a second counter adjacent to where he stood. The brand was Kamaka, he said, and they were made right down the street, crafted from the prized koa wood that the original Hawaiian ukes of the past were made from. We got into a long conversation about the protection of koa, harvesting limits and how some ukuleles are lacquered for a more affordable price. Then, he pointed out a Koaloha for $799. By that point, the sheer number of variations among the ukuleles was keeping me on my toes: different woods, embellishments, sizes, etc…. Anyone who knows ukes will know what I’m talking about.
“Every year, some schools go and take a trip to the Acacia koa plant,” the clerk said. “It takes 30 years to grow. Most koa is harvested from private lands…from rainforest on the Big Island.” I pointed at one pretty koa ukulele, but he said it doesn’t sound that great, explaining the wood has to break in. Out on the floor, an entire display was dedicated to the entry-level Makala Waterman ($53) from Kala Brand.
As I poked around, the clerk continued, “Everything makes a difference, even the wood. Mahogany is warmer sounding.” He added, “The guy who owns Kala was from here originally. He wanted to expand to more woods and different sizes.” Among the models that I noticed were a Gretsch ($109.89), a Kala Brand mahogany baritone ($219.99) and a LAG Tiki Uku ($114). I noticed a spalted maple from Kala Brand ($199), a Makai ($249.99) and a Kala Brand mahogany travel tenor ($249.99), about which the clerk was particularly excited. “It comes with a padded gig bag,” he noted. “Some people don’t want to like it, but they end up leaving with it. It’s great for travel.”
My time at Coconut Grove Music was running out. The next stop was back near Honolulu, but, first, I hit the windy, idyllic beach in Kailua.
GoodGuy’s Music & Sound
619 Kapahulu Ave.
Honolulu HI 96816
The next shop was located on the outskirts of Honolulu. After a breakfast of loco moco near the hotel, I headed over to a strip mall near Papa Murphy’s pizza. For such a small space, the store was packed, with guitars and basses hanging overhead toward the front and back, as well as behind the long counter to the right upon entering the building. The Owner was busy helping someone, so I eyed a tiny end cap display of expensive koa ukuleles. A clerk, who noticed me staring, explained the various ukulele sizes. He elucidated the difference between a tenor neck or body, a soprano neck or body, and a concert body, adding that the local Hawaiian ukuleles were higher in price ($800 to $1,200).
He pointed out a confusing price sheet to the right of the handful of ukuleles. To my left, on the wall, was a range of entry-level to mid-range ukuleles. On the wall, behind the counter, I spied the more expensive ukuleles.
The mysterious thing about GoodGuy’s was that there were absolutely no prices on anything. I had to ask the clerk or the Owner to check the prices; even then, he gave me a range, pointing out the instruments on the far back wall one by one. I noted an entry-level piece from the Waikiki ukulele company. “That’s $50…nice sound,” he told me. Other brands included Makai, Lanikai, Ali’i, all in various shapes and sizes.
The shop felt very old school…very native Hawaii. Locals were casually chatting; there was a generally laid-back vibe; and no one was in a rush to sell me anything. Some of the more expensive models were $649 and up, the clerk informed me. There were all-koa ukuleles up behind the counter, and I spotted a Martin in mahogany ($500 used) with a warped back.
After some discussion, I gathered that the ukes low on the wall were $50 to $79, whereas the middle of wall was populated with the $249 range and up. Having already been in the shop for a while, I didn’t want to ask the price on each uke individually. So, I decided to head out to Easy Music Center.
Easy Music Center
1314 S. King St., Ste. G1
Honolulu HI 96814
Driving through the streets of Honolulu, I couldn’t help but notice all the giant square skyscrapers full of hotels, some in very strange Japanese fashion that evoked the movie “Blade Runner.” I wondered about the architecture while I drove, then I parked near the warehouse building where Easy Music Center is located. I passed pho and ramen places, local hole-in-the-wall restaurants and fitness studios.
As I walked in, my ears pricked up when I heard Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” playing loudly. One clerk didn’t see me when I walked in, but a second and third one said, “Hello.” The first clerk eventually approached to ask if I needed anything. I walked directly toward the back, where one of the salespeople had pointed to a wall, stocked high up to the ceiling, covered in more shapes, sizes and styles of ukuleles than I had ever seen.
I stared at various models and wondered how they were organized, assuming it was the standard I’d seen so far: the highest-priced, locally made, koa wood models on the top and the entry-level ukes near the floor. That arrangement was confirmed when a clerk with dyed hair saw me struggling and came to help out.
There had to be hundreds of ukuleles at the store. I saw a $99 guitalele, an Acacia tenor from Kala Brand ($379), a Makala soprano in blue ($46.99), an Islander mahogany tenor ($399.99) and an Islander Asian Acacia tenor ($156). The clerk explained to me that the concert ukuleles were on the wall in front of me, opposing the side wall to my left, where all the others hung.
He continued, “The top two rows are koa. They are locally made Kamaka and Koaloha brands,” he said. “They also have a deluxe tenor with a different decorative trim and slightly different sound. There’s one with a mahogany soundboard and one with spruce.” The clerk added, “Elvis played the soprano. When you see people playing ukes on TV, they are usually playing soprano. There are some larger guitar ukuleles, but soprano is the standard.”
The koa models on the top were diverse. Some were pure koa wood, and they ranged in price up to $2,500. “All the ones on top are made on the island,” I was told. That confirmed the koa mystique I’d been picking up from the mission’s beginning. There were koa and koa laminate ukes near the top, and I spied a range of soprano, tenor and concert sizes. The highly knowledgeable clerk continued to give me lots of information. It was all very helpful, of course, but it left my head spinning with uke options. Granted…not a bad problem to have.
After staring at the different colors and grains of native wood, I was starting to (for real) pine for a uke. It didn’t help that, ever since I had gotten to the island, even though I hadn’t actually seen a single rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s famous song, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” what with its earnest ukulele strumming, would not leave my head.
The clerk snapped me back to reality, saying the ukes on the top row were all $900 and up. I spotted a Martin uke superficially similar to the one I had seen at GoodGuy’s; it was going for $1,499. My eyes drifted toward the bottom rows, where entry-level soprano models from Kala Brand, Lanikai and Makala, just to name a few, were found. Those ranged from $50 to $239.
As I left the store, the radio was cranking Rasta electronic music.
WestSide Music Hawaii
94-239 Waipahu Depot St.
Waipahu HI 96797
I had planned to head to the lesser-known beaches on the west side of Oahu, which coincided with the last store on my list. WestSide Music Hawaii was on the way to Makaha Beach, an unspoiled beauty on the poorer side of the island, near the also-stellar Yokohama Beach. The store is located in a tiny strip mall. It was perhaps the tiniest space I had visited yet.
When I arrived, the clerk was busy talking with a few locals about different ukes. I noticed a back room, which was very small and filled with consignment gear. There was one used baritone uke (made in Germany) on the wall in the consignment room; it was going for $69. I asked the clerk, once he was available, to give me the lowdown. “The expensive ukes are the four on the far left on the back wall behind me,” he said, pointing to the top-shelf row of koa models I had grown accustomed to seeing as the standard method of display in Hawaii.
I took in two spruce Makai ukuleles: a tenor ($134.99) and concert ($109). The store had a slim selection, which also included a Makala concert ($109), an under-$100 Lanikai Sailor Jerry, two Kala Brand models ($169.99 and $115.99, respectively), another Makai ($149.99), and a number of embellished cheapie Makala models in lime green, blue and pink ($69 apiece).
The more expensive offerings were a concert in koa ($499.99), a concert rosetti ($699) and two additional ukes ($600 and $760, respectively), all of them from Kalihi. The clerk was helpful in answering my questions and attentive to my needs, even while chatting with locals. I waved goodbye before leaving the store, bidding the mission a fond farewell.
In the end, Easy Music Center wins for the sheer volume of ukuleles from which to choose, along with the informed clerks who were willing to help and give a breakdown. Coconut Grove Music would be the second choice, due to the easy parking and the friendliness of the clerk. Third on the list would be WestSide Music. Fourth would be GoodGuy’s Music & Sound, but only because pricing wasn’t clear upon walking in. That, of course, meant having to talk in depth to the clerk about each ukulele.
All in all, each store had that calm “aloha” spirit. There was no hard selling; the clerks were willing to answer questions; and they let me hang around as long as I wanted to.