In this interview, vintage ukulele collector Andy Roth explains the different styles of the instrument produced by the C.F. Martin Company, Gibson, and early Hawaiian makers. Roth also gives an overview of the instrument’s history and music, and provides a detailed look at koa wood and other ukulele manufacturing materials.
When I was living in Hawaii in the late ’80s, I’d get together with friends and have music jams. One night I was playing the piano, and I looked over my shoulder and noticed that everybody else was sitting around in a circle on the floor. I wanted to be more a part of the social aspect of the jams, but it seemed like there were enough guitar players down there already. It struck me, though, that no one was playing ukulele. That sort of sparked my interest.
However, the only ukuleles I could find in Hawaii were touristy souvenirs. There was one good music store in Hawaii at the time, and its yearly quota of good ukuleles was probably 13 Kamaka ukuleles made on Oahu. And most of those sold out before you could get one.
When my summer vacation was over in Hawaii, I went back to L.A., where we also lived part of the year. I started looking for and researching ukuleles and learned that the C.F. Martin Company, the Gibson Company, and a couple others made fine ukuleles. Those ukuleles came in five sizes, two woods, and four styles.
I got bit by the collector’s bug and wanted to have one of every kind. I also had a deep interest in the early Hawaiian-made ukuleles. I started scouring old music stores, pawnshops, flea markets, and garage sales. I even ran a classified ad in the “Los Angeles Times” looking for old ukuleles.
That was well before the days of eBay. There were a dozen or more vintage instrument dealers across the U.S., and they’d mail out inventory lists. I started subscribing to all of them, and I’d buy if they had something that interested me.
“If I spent as much time practicing the ukulele as I did looking for them, I’d be really good.”
I don’t buy much these days. My collection may not have a great deal of breadth, but it has a lot of depth. My focus is on collecting finely manufactured, finely crafted musical instruments made in the continental U.S., and the early historically important instruments made in Hawaii.
In the 1920s and ’30s, numerous companies made cheap ukuleles in large quantities. They were sold by large retailers like Sears. They made a lot of novelty instruments with decals of hula dancers and people rowing canoes and riding surfboards on them. There was a whole cheerleader series. There are hundreds of those sorts of instruments. So I just focused on the really good makers and the early Hawaiian ones.
There aren’t too many holes in my collection. Every once in a while something piques my interest, and I end up acquiring it. There are enough instrument vendors or other collectors around the U.S. who’ll call me if something comes up that they know I might like.
Collectors Weekly: How big is your collection?
Roth: I have 110 instruments or so. The first one I acquired was a Moana ukulele. I lived in Tarzana, California, at the time, and I found it within blocks of my house at Norman’s Rare Guitars. He specialized in vintage guitars in particular, but stringed instruments in general. I developed a relationship with him and ended up buying a lot of instruments from him over the years.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite ukuleles?
Roth: One that stands out is a Martin 2M Concert. M means it was made of mahogany. Concert means it was of the concert size, which was one step up from the common soprano size. Style 2 indicates what the trimmings would be.
For example, Style 0 would have no particular binding on it, while Style 1 would either have rosewood or faux tortoise shell binding around the sides and possibly on the back. Style 2 had white ivoroid binding. I have the only known one of those ukuleles made in that size and that style. We haven’t found any other examples of it. It’s also a great-sounding instrument.
I’m also very fond of the Hawaiian-made ukuleles from the late 1800s. I have several of those. They’re very important in the history of ukuleles. In 1879, when the second boatload of Portuguese immigrants ever to come to Hawaii arrived, three guys on that boat knew how to make and play the machete, a four-stringed instrument from which the ukulele was derived. They started playing their instruments, and the Hawaiian people fell in love with the sound.
Those guys started making instruments out of the local woods, and one of them, Manuel Nunes, was rather prolific. I also have a couple of instruments made by a guy named Jose do Espirito Santo. Another important guy historically was Augusto Dias. I don’t own any of his instruments, so they’re on my want list. The early Hawaiian ones are unique because as the size and shape of the ukulele evolved, they remained closer to the machete.
Collectors Weekly: Do you play any of the ukuleles in your collection?
Roth: I do. But I always tell people that if I spent as much time practicing the ukulele as I did looking for them, I’d be really good. As it is, I’m just an average ukulele player. The ukulele has gotten very popular. There are many great players. I think of the ukulele not only as a musical instrument, but a three-dimensional American art form. So I’ve been sort of an art collector as well as an instrument collector.
If I’m going to play music, I’ll just as often reach for a guitar or sit at the piano, but I do have a wonderful display case where I keep about 110 of these instruments. I also have a half-dozen ukuleles around the house that me and my wife or one of my girls will play. All of the other instruments are rare and unusual.
Collectors Weekly: What is the oldest ukulele you have?
Roth: Well, they’re not dated at all, but we could probably date a couple of my instruments to the 1880s. There was a terrific historian named John King who did research in Honolulu and helped a lot of people pinpoint dates. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago.
Collectors Weekly: When the Portuguese came to Hawaii, did the ukulele immediately become a part of the culture?
Roth: It became part of the culture fairly quickly because the Hawaiian people were really into music. They had some of their own musical instruments, mostly rhythm instruments, which they used for their songs and dances. The ukulele opened a whole new vista for them to explore in their love of music. They also liked the small size of the instrument.
The ukulele is known as the jumping flea, “uku” being the flea and “lele” being jumping. It was a little instrument that was very sprightly and easy to play. It just happened to fit into the culture.
Collectors Weekly: Who are some of the other well-known or highly regarded ukulele makers in Hawaii?
Roth: Samuel Kamaka established a shop around 1913. That company became a very important ukulele maker because it had a factory. It’s the longest-running manufacturer of ukuleles in Hawaii. They still have a rather substantial factory, the Kamaka Ukulele Manufacturing Company of Hawaii.
The other important manufacturer of ukuleles is the C.F. Martin Company, which is on the mainland. They primarily made guitars, but they also made mandolins. I think they started manufacturing ukuleles in 1916.
The Gibson Guitar Company also hopped on the ukulele bandwagon. Washburn, Lyon & Healy, and a few others also made ukuleles.
Collectors Weekly: When did the ukulele come to the continental U.S.?
Roth: In celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the Panama Pacific Exposition, or Pan-Pacific Expo, was held in San Francisco in 1915. It wasn’t that long after the 1906 earthquake there, so not only did the people of San Francisco rebuild their city, they also built this exposition, which was like a World’s Fair. They had pavilions from all over the world, including a Hawaiian pavilion. Hawaii sent not only some of their wares, but also some of their performers.
Thousands upon thousands came to the pavilion and fell in love with the sound of ukuleles and Hawaiian music in general. They also had hula dancing, of course. After that, musicians in the continental U.S. took up Hawaiian music. Recordings were made, and a lot of instrument manufacturers got in on Hawaiian music, too.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the songs that are associated with the ukulele?
Roth: One of the most famous was “My Little Grass Shack” from the ’30s. It just swept across America. One of the men who helped me begin my collection told me that in the ’20s and ’30s, no self-respecting teenage boy would be without a ukulele in the rumble seat or backseat of his car.
Historically speaking, “Aloha ’Oe,” written by Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii, is one of the most famous songs associated with Hawaiian music.
Collectors Weekly: What were the early Hawaiian ukuleles made out of?
Roth: Koa wood. It’s native to Hawaii and grows only in Hawaii. That’s the wood they made most of their instruments from. Other local hardwoods were used, but koa is a gorgeous wood with a beautiful three-dimensional quality when it’s sanded and polished. It has gorgeous grain, and the early Hawaiians prized it as a canoe wood. Then it was prized for furniture, and then for the making of musical instruments.
The Portuguese instruments usually had some kind of a hardwood for the back, sides, and neck. Koa was quickly found to be suitable for that. The Europeans would usually use spruce or cedar for their tops, but the Hawaiian makers found that they could use koa for their tops as well. A lot of their instruments were all koa. And, of course, cedar and spruce were not available in Hawaii. They’d have to import it if they wanted to use those woods.
Collectors Weekly: What types of wood did the makers in other parts of the U.S. use?
Roth: The C.F. Martin Company experimented with a number of woods, but they found that mahogany had a very bright sound. They also found that Hawaiian koa was a natural marketing tool—it was the ukulele, a Hawaiian instrument, made out of a local Hawaiian wood. So the good Martin instruments primarily were made out of mahogany or koa.
Collectors Weekly: When did they start making different sizes?
Roth: Martin started manufacturing soprano ukuleles around 1916. By 1918 they were already making concerts and then the next size up, tenors. Those three were the main sizes. They only varied by a few inches in length, but the bigger ones had a deeper sound. The baritone ukulele didn’t come around until 1961. That’s the newest size they’ve made. They’re still manufactured in those four sizes.
Collectors Weekly: How many different styles were there?
Roth: I’d say that styling is basically an expression of the ornamentation on an instrument. There was unlimited experimentation as far as that was concerned. As the biggest manufacturer of ukuleles, Martin really established the styles.
As I mentioned earlier, a Style O ukulele wouldn’t have any binding where the sides met the top. A piece of wood or other material helped hold the back and sides, or top and sides, together and provided a bit of ornamentation.
The binding begins with Style 1 and the plastic ivoroid material to contrast with the rosewood color, for example. Then they had a white stripe with alternating maple and hardwood, kind of like a pinstripe around the edges. That became known as Style 2.
Then they extended the fretboard, which would end about an inch below where the neck joined the body, all the way down to the sound hole and put more frets on it. They made more complex binding, alternating light and dark in a striped pattern for Style 3.
For reasons unknown to me, there was never a Style 4, but Style 5 was marked by the use of abalone shell inlay around the edges, around the sound hole, and in the headstock. It’s very decorative, beautiful, and highly sought after. I’m fortunate to have two Style 5 instruments.
Collectors Weekly: Was Gibson making ukuleles at the same time?
Roth: They were, but not as many. Stylistically, they were a little less conservative. There was a poinsettia ukulele, the Gibson Poinsettia, which had beautiful, hand-painted flowers on it. The Gibson Florentine had what looked like mother of pearl, but was really plastic. They used it on the fretboard. It had sparkles in it. Gibson would make just about anything you wanted.
Martin, on the other hand, had a catalog that described what they made, what it would look like, and they pretty much stuck to it. There were some custom-made orders, though. Those, of course, have become very rare and unusual instruments or collectibles because they were made by Martin but were one-offs. Gibson basically followed the size and wood standards set by Martin.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most sought-after Gibson ukuleles?
Roth: Gibson styles got progressively fancier as the numbers went up. The Gibson Style 3 is highly sought after because it was the most elaborate, and fewer were made. The Gibson Poinsettia is also very sought after. Gibson made all the different sizes.
Lyon & Healy made some ukuleles in unusual shapes. They made the big multi-stringed harps and pianos, but they also made guitars. They had what we call the bell-shaped ukulele. They also had the shrine ukulele, which was triangular. Lyon & Healy had a deluxe ukulele with highly figured koa wood and inlaid abalone. It was the top of the line and was made in a number of sizes.
There were some more obscure companies like the National Guitar Company, which made guitars out of what we call German silver, a combination of brass and nickel. There also were metal-bodied ukuleles. They have a resonator in them made out of spun aluminum that amplifies the sound of the vibration of the instrument. National should not be overlooked. Hollywood was another name. They made some very pretty instruments.
Martin also made the Taro Patch Fiddle, an eight-string ukulele. The strings were paired and tuned in unison. Basically it was a concert-size ukulele with a longer neck and a bigger headstock that would accommodate eight tuners instead of four. They made those in styles 1, 2, 3, and 5. It’s a great instrument.
They weren’t in fashion for very long because eight strings were far more difficult to keep in tune than four. But I’ve collected quite a few of those made by Martin and Hawaiian makers. There were even some six-string instruments made with the first and third strings doubled in octaves. Those were called Lili’u, after Queen Liliuokalani.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the musicians that helped spread the popularity of the instrument?
Roth: From the continental U.S., I’d say a TV personality named Arthur Godfrey, Cliff Edwards, and then Tiny Tim. Don Ho was the most famous musician from Hawaii, and he had a band. On Hawaii one very popular performer was Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who passed away a few years ago. He was a huge man, and he played the smallest of the four sizes of the instrument. It was rather remarkable that a man of his size could play as deftly and beautifully as he did. He also had a beautiful voice and was maybe most famous for his rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Collectors Weekly: When was the ukulele’s heyday?
Roth: I’d say the past 10 years. It’s more popular than ever. Before that, it was in the 1920s to the ’30s. There was also a resurgence of interest in the instrument in the 1950s, probably due to the influence of Arthur Godfrey.
The reason it has come back in the last 10 years is that people have discovered that you can actually make real music with it, and it’s not that difficult to play. Of course, to be a virtuoso is difficult. Jake Shimabukuro, a young Hawaiian man, plays with amazing speed and agility. He plays all kinds of music, from classical to jazz. Playing ukulele has become sort of a hip thing to do among young people in Hawaii.
Collectors Weekly: When did the ukulele become collectible?
Roth: When I started collecting in the late ’80s, there were only a half-dozen real ukulele nuts in America, but not long after that, more people got into it. In the ’90s, there was a tremendous interest in collecting things, and worldwide there was an interest in collecting Americana and Hawaiiana. So I think the ukulele was just a natural for collectors.
The hobby is still growing. There are probably more ukulele manufacturers than ever. The ukulele is actually being taught in schools now.
Collectors Weekly: Are there still a lot of rare ukuleles out there to be collected?
Roth: Well, I think it’s harder now, but there are still undiscovered treasures out there on a shelf, in a closet, or in somebody’s cedar chest. That’s why I still hold hope that the few holes I have in my collection will one day be filled.
Collectors Weekly: Do you ever come across ukuleles with no maker’s name?
Roth: Yes, I bought one last week. I got an email from a man who had two ukuleles that he’d been given by his mother. One of them was a Martin tenor, and the other had no name, but he said his mother had purchased it in 1912 when she was 17 years old. Of course, I’m interested in any instrument that’s that old. He sent pictures, and it was a little soprano size, made of beautiful wood. It also had something called rope binding.
Rope binding was a stylistic implementation first employed by the Hawaiians but never used by Martin or Gibson. This style of binding features little pieces of wood cut on the bias, alternating in light and dark woods. It looks like twisted rope, and it was used on some of the fancier ukuleles made by the Hawaiian makers. Sometimes it just went around the edge, but other times also around the fretboard. It was used in all kinds of marquetry in the décor and ornamentation of the instrument.
The picture I got from this man showed rope binding going all around the edge of it, around the sound hole, up the sides of the neck, and around the top of the headstock. The light-colored portion of the rope binding, the alternating colors, appeared to be made of abalone.
To have all of these tiny abalone pieces inlaid was extraordinary. It was very beautiful with amazing craftsmanship, but I couldn’t identify it. It couldn’t be associated with any maker.
I sent pictures out to a number of my colleagues, and although they agreed that it was extremely unusual and beautiful, they were also stumped. But, as I said, I bought it. A couple of days ago, I sent a picture of it to another friend who also collects Hawaiian-made ukuleles, and he sent me back pictures of another instrument in his collection that looked strikingly similar.
The headstock of my friend’s instrument was marked with the name DeWayne, which is not a maker that any of us know. So despite all of our research, we still don’t know who made my instrument. All we do know is that we now have two unusual, but very similar-looking instruments.
One distinction between the two was that the alternating color in the dark and light rope binding on his was made of wood and did not contain any abalone, making mine, I think, a step up in terms of its beauty and complexity of construction.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone new to collecting ukuleles?
Roth: Well, eBay is one of the great sources. It’s so full of new instruments. You’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of ukulele listings there. You have to sift through them to find the old ones. The ukulele has gotten so popular again that even Martin, who had discontinued them by the ’70s, has started making them again.
Collectors Weekly: What’s next for your collection?
Roth: Well, I’m hoping to write a book. There have been other picture books about ukulele collections, but mostly they’ve only been photographs and descriptions of particular instruments.
I’d like to write a book that would include information about the provenances of the instruments. Many musical instrument collectors have looked at my collection and wanted to know where I got some of my ukuleles. Right from the start, I’ve kept a little log of every instrument I’ve purchased and where I got it. So I think I could answer those kinds of questions for every instrument in my collection.
(All images in this article courtesy Andy Roth)