story by Marie Carvalho
photo by Dana Edmunds
Fred Kamaka Sr. runs a finger along the koa spine of an ‘ukulele and chuckles.
“You know, my father would smash an instrument if it wasn’t straight.”
It’s true that making an ‘ukulele demands precise craftsmanship. An intricate equation of variables—wood type and thickness, sound box size, bracing—determines each instrument’s vibration and sound. To the uninitiated, this physics of music seems more alchemy than science. To the Kamakas, it’s a way of life: Their innovations have forever altered the sound that we expect to hear from the ‘ukulele, and their cozy, four-generation shop—established in 1916, originally out of Sam Kamaka Sr.’s Kaimuki home—is a perfect place to learn the science behind the strings.
While standard, hourglass-shaped ‘ukuleles used to produce a light, feathery tone, in 1926 Sam Sr. redesigned the instrument into a solid, pineapple-shaped oval. This larger sound box created a bigger, mellower sound that musicians preferred—a principle that’s since been applied to the hourglass ‘ukes as well.
Following their father’s death in 1953, sons Sam Jr. and Fred Sr. struggled to keep the business afloat. Sam Jr.’s young wife, a physical therapist, suggested that they train her clients to help; their first trainee, ironically, was deaf.
Soon, the South Street factory hired more deaf workers, who proved superior at making sonic instruments. Undistracted by shop noise and gifted with an acute sense of touch, they could feel the soundboard’s vibrational frequency, determining which shape and thickness of wood would produce the ideal tone.
Though most have retired, one deaf employee remains with the company … as do the Kamakas, who this year are celebrating their ninetieth anniversary. Five years ago, a new generation took the reins: Fred Jr., Christopher, Casey and Kelly. Like their fathers before them, the boys have a taste for enhancing sound.
Sam Jr. laughs, “They’re working to improve the ‘ukuleles we made. I always say, when a new broom comes in, it likes to sweep clean.”