From the Summer 2017 issue of Ukulele | Words and Images by SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY
An early ukulele cousin is the taropatch, an instrument with eight strings set in four courses of two strings each, tuned to the standard “my-dog-has-fleas.” Taropatches evolved from the Portuguese rajão, a 5-string instrument that is a bit louder than regular soprano ukes due to its slightly larger body size, and offers a more sonorous sound, thanks to the doubled strings.
Sometimes referred to as “taropatch fiddles” (though they bear little resemblance to violins) the taropatch allegedly got its name from being played in taro fields by native Hawaiians. But scholars suggest that the term was more likely a derogatory slur coined by haoles (white Islanders), who viewed native workers as ignorant and lazy. Mark Twain once referred to indolent native Hawaiian State Legislature delegates as “taropatch members.”
First produced in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1800s, taropatches were soon being made on the mainland by guitar manufacturer C.F. Martin & Co. The company started building taropatches in August of 1916, mere months after the introduction of Martin’s first line of soprano ukuleles. Featuring mahogany bodies and necks, three models were initially offered with the same bindings and decorations as the same-style soprano ukulele: Style 1, Style 2, and Style 3, plain to fancy. By 1919, taropatches appeared in Martin’s instrument catalog alongside other ukes. In 1920, the line expanded to include koa-bodied taropatches in styles 1K, 2K, and 3K. The earliest koa wood taropatches sold for $.75 more than the same model in mahogany (koa only cost around $.30 a board foot back then).
The Style 1 taropatch seen here was purchased from Mike Longworth, onetime Martin historian and the author of the first comprehensive book on the history of the company and its instruments. Built circa 1920 (Martin taropatches don’t have serial numbers), this mahogany-bodied instrument features a 15-inch scale, rosewood fretboard and body bindings, and violin-style friction tuning pegs made of ebonized maple.
Early stars of vaudeville and cinema often played Martin ukuleles, but few adopted the taropatch. One who did was screen legend Buster Keaton. In 1924, Keaton ordered a custom Style 3 taropatch complete with his name inlaid in pearl letters on the headstock. You can see and hear Keaton and uke virtuoso Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards play this very instrument in the 1930 movie Doughboys. It’s a most unorthodox duet: Keaton frets the chords as Edwards rhythmically taps the strings with a pair of drumsticks! [Editor’s note: It’s essential viewing!]
Even though Martin continued to promote and produce taropatches throughout the “uke crazed” 1920s, it remained the least popular of their ukulele line. This was likely because it took more time and trouble to tune the twice as many strings, and it cost about 25 percent more than a regular uke. Martin stopped making taropatches in 1930, but it remained available as a special-order instrument until 1935.
Despite its demise, the taropatch fostered the birth of an instrument that’s still popular today. Four-string taropatches were available on special order as early as 1919, but in 1925, Martin created a new model: the 1C “concert ukulele.” This version mated the taropatch’s scale length and larger-than-soprano-sized body with four strings and a narrower neck. Although it was only offered in Style 1, the public loved it and sales quickly grew. Martin’s catalog described their concert uke as, “A large ukulele with a tone of great carrying power.”
Because of their relatively low production numbers, vintage Martin taropatches are hard to find today. If you’re in the market for a taropatch, a number of contemporary ukulele manufacturers, including Kala, Lanikai, Ohana, and Oscar Schmidt make something similar, but with a slight twist: their instruments have longer scales, tenor-sized bodies, and are called 8-string ukes.