Best Ukuleles According to Uke Hunt Readers

For a few years now I’ve been collecting people’s ratings of their ukuleles on the review section of Uke Hunt. It’s been interesting watching the list of the highest rated ukes take shape. Now that there are plenty of ratings I thought I’d take a look at those at the top.

The list is determined by a Bayesian average of ratings submitted to the site (that means the number of ratings as well as the average of the ratings is important). So if you think your uke deserves to be on the list you can help get it there by rating it. There are links to ukulele makers here and luthiers here.

There are two notable trends. The first is how many of the top five are very much family owned and run concerns. The other is that four of the top five all start with K. There must be something special about K.

1. Kamaka Ukuleles

Top of the list is the oldest surviving ukulele maker Kamaka. They were founded in Hawaii in 1916 by Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka. Kamaka’s most enduring innovation was the introduction of the pineapple ukulele. Kamaka realised that ukuleles have no need for the figure-8 shape (they’re just mimicking larger instruments that need to accommodate legs and arms) so you could significantly reduce the time and cost of ukuleles by making them oval shaped.

After Kamaka Sr’s death in 1953, Sam Kamaka Jr took over the company and introduced the iconic double-k logo and the Gold Label series of ukuleles. Followed by the White Label line in the 70s.

Sam Jr and his brother Fred continue to stick by Sam Sr’s warning: “If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.” Their ukuleles are the top of the field and clearly loved by their owners including their biggest endorser Jake Shimabukuro.

Quintessential ukulele: Kamaka pineapple ukulele.

2. Kanile’a Ukuleles

Currently only 0.01 of a star behind Kamaka comes another of the famous Hawaiian K Brands: Kanile’a. Kanile’a was set up by husband and wife team Joe and Kristen Souza in 1998. They make their ukes in Kane’ohe, Hawaii.

As well as their top end ukes, they have the more affordable Islander ukuleles made in Asia.

Kanile’a are also big supporters of young ukers (and Uke Hunt favourites) Honoka & Azita, Karlie G, UkuLise.

Quintessential ukulele: Kanile’a K1

3. Mya-Moe Ukuleles

The youngest company on the list and another husband and wife team: Gordon & Char Mayer. They exploded onto the ukulele scene in 2008 rapidly attracting high praise and a stellar list of players including Eddie Vedder, John Paul Jones, Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling and Jerry Douglas. Their process is slow and meticulous. Making each ukulele to order and checking for quality at every stage.

Gordon and Char were later joined by Aaron Keim luthier of Beansprout ukuleles and musician with The Quiet American and Boulder Acoustic Society.

If this has whetted your appetite and you’re hoping to buy one then tough titties. They’ve announced they’ll stop making ukes in June 2018 and are completely booked out until then.

Quintessential ukulele: The Classic

4. Kala Ukulele

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Kala who pump out ukuleles by the barrowload. They’ve ensured that there’s been a supply of cheap and reliable ukuleles all through the ukulele boom. As time has gone on they’ve moved up the price range and released higher and higher quality instruments.

As well as the standard ukulele, Kala have had huge success with their bass ukuleles. And have recently launched a line of high-end ukuleles made in their hometown of Pentaluma, CA.

Quintessential ukulele: Kala KA-S

5. KoAloha

The third for the big three Hawaiian K brands, KoAloha. KoAloha were established in 1995 by the Okami family and have been releasing, in my opinion, the most beautiful ukuleles around.

KoAloha’s chief designer is Alvin Okami. His innovative and sometimes outlandish ideas are showcased in KoAloha’s Signature Series ukes including the Pineapple,Juke-a-lele, sceptre“>Sceptre, and Gambalele.

Quintessential ukulele: KoAloha Sceptre whose unusual body shape apparently came to Alvin Okami in a dream.

Six to Ten

6. Cordoba: A bit of a surprise to see them on the list. You don’t hear much about Cordoba’s ukuleles. But their showing here has got me interested in giving them a go.

7. Gretsch: Best known for their guitars, Gretsch have also been putting out ukuleles since the 50s.

8. Pono: I’ve long been tempted to buy myself a Pono. Their ukuleles look and sound great.

9. Luna: Mostly known for their highly patterned guitars, Luna moved into the ukulele world a few years ago and have picked up plenty of fans.

10. Martin: A legendary name in ukuleles who have been in the game since 1917. Their vintage ukuleles are treated with something approaching reverence. But their more recent attempts have been more hit and miss.

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