Every great ukulele player can tell you the story of when they "caught the ukulele bug" - how they got started, when, where, and who they were inspired by. And like all great ukulele players, all great ukuleles can be traced back to their inspiration. Many times, the stories behind the ukuleles themselves can be as interesting as the players who make them sing.
This month on the Ukulele Underground Podcast while interviewing the legendary Jake Shimabukuro, where he shared with us the story of his very first custom Kamaka ukulele, we stumbled across an amazing bit of ukulele history in the process. This history was especially significant to Aldrine, as it spanned several generations of ukulele players in Hawaiian and ultimately led to the inspiration and construction of Aldrine's very first custom Kanile'a ukulele!
For Jake's side of the story, be sure to check out the Ukulele Underground Podcast Episode featuring Jake Shimabukuro (the story starts at around 17:48).
The story hinges on Jake's signature flat ukulele headstock, but for the full history, we need to start a little further back in time:
1. Vintage Ukuleles & Classic Headstock Shapes
Originally, the ukulele was developed in Hawaii in the 1880s, modeled after several small guitar-like instruments introduced from Portugal (braguinha, cavaquinho, timple, rajão). Typically, headstock shapes from this era through the early 1900s fell into two basic outlines - the "crown" shape and the "ipu" (gourd) shape. The photo here shows examples of the crown shape in the upper right and left hand corners, with examples of the ipu shape in the bottom lower corners. Variations on these themes were quite common, however flat-topped headstock designs were extremely rare. The headstock shown in the center was from an ukulele that was retailed, and possibly manufactured, in San Francisco around 1917.
2. Kamaka Headstock Designs
Kamaka Ukulele was founded in 1916 in the established tradition of the original ukulele makers in Hawaii, including Jonah Kumalae and Manuel Nunes. Not surprisingly, Kamaka adopted the traditional crown headstock shape for the majority of their instruments, a practice still prevalent today. Early on, Kamaka pioneered the "pineapple" ukulele body shape, where the crown headstock emphasized the fact. Over the years the company experimented with the "sail" shape for some of their concert ukuleles. Again, the flat headstock was extremely rare among Kamaka ukuleles, usually only reserved for custom builds with additional string combinations, such as the 6 string concert shown in the lower right hand corner.
3. Jake's First Custom Kamaka Ukulele
In 1994 Jake Shimabukuro ordered his first ever custom Kamaka ukulele: a concert Ohta San model, specifically with a flat headstock. Casey Kamaka personally built the model for Jake, which was delivered on October 27, 1995. Prior to this, no Kamaka Ohta San model had ever been built with a flat headstock. When Jake ordered it, Casey assumed that Jake wanted the flat headstock as a tribute to the flat top haircut that Jake sported at the time. The real reason that Jake specifically requested the flat headstock on his custom Ohta San model was because of a little known publication from 1965 ...
4. The Ohta San Method of Learning To Play The Ukulele
Growing up, one of Jake's biggest ukulele inspirations was Ohta San. He owned all of Ohta San's albums and even a few instruction booklets, including the one pictured here. On the first page of the booklet, Ohta San is pictured holding one of his signature Kamaka ukuleles, clearly with a flat headstock. When Jake showed Casey the photo, Casey explained that the reason the headstock was flat was because it was an unfinished ukulele. Ohta San used the ukulele for the photo shoot, but the crown outline had not yet been cut into the headstock. So Ohta San technically never owned a flat headstock Kamaka, and Jake's custom Ohta San was the very first in existence.
5. The Evolution of the Flat Headstock
As Jake continued to play music and gain popularity, eventually he created his own signature ukulele with Kamaka. He kept the flat headstock shape, adding a slotted classical guitar-style to it. He would go on to amaze listeners and inspire ukulele players all over the world, including our very own Aldrine Guerrero. In the podcast, Aldrine admits that his own Kanile'a signature ukulele was designed as a combination of Jake's flat headstock Kamaka (featured on the Crosscurrent album) and Troy Fernandes' signature Sonny D ukulele (featured on the On Fire album).
Prior to this, flat headstock ukuleles had been a rare occurrence in ukulele history. But the story that started with inspiration and misunderstanding has now influenced generations of flat headstock ukuleles and even more incredible ukulele players to come. Be sure to check out the full Podcast episode featuring Jake Shimabukuro for more great stories and ukulele history.