From the Fall 2017 issue of Ukulele | STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY
To many, vintage Hawaiian ukuleles look fairly alike: All of them are soprano-sized and most have thin-waisted, Spanish-guitar-shaped bodies built from koa wood. They differ primarily in their headstock shapes and decorative elements like rosettes and purfling.
Echo-Uke brand ukuleles look just like other 1920s-era Hawaiian ukes, but they have a small and rather curious difference: On the underside of the top, directly beneath the bridge, there’s a small block of wood holding two thin metal prongs, each bent into a shape that’s like the handlebars of a bike (above). These prongs are designed to respond to the vibration of the soundboard when the uke is played, and to resonate, sort of like the sympathetic strings on an Indian sitar, thus producing an “echo-ey” sound.
Unfortunately, the vibrating prongs don’t actually create any sort of sound you can hear, even if you put your ear right up to the soundhole. Despite its lack of performance, the echo device was supposedly patented, as claimed on labels found inside some Echo ukes—not all of them featured the device (I say “supposedly” because no one has ever seen the actual patent). One build feature that does contribute to the sound of an Echo uke is its greater body depth, which, at 2-3/4 inches, gives these ukes a fuller and slightly louder sound than most other Hawaiian ukuleles I’ve played (above).
Echo ukes were made by the Hawaiian Mahogany Company (HMC), which started in 1921 as a timber business that cut, milled, and sold koa, ohia, and other hardwood lumber. (Hawaiian mahogany was then a commonly used name for koa wood.) HMC also ran workshops that used the lumber for manufacturing furniture, flooring, souvenir curios—and Echo-Uke brand ukuleles. The company’s principal owner was the Honolulu-based C.Q. Yee Hop & Co., Ltd., primarily a food business that owned supermarkets, a brewery, and a large cattle operation on Hawaii’s Big Island. In the mid-’20s, Yee Hop expanded HMC’s operations by building a sawmill in Kona to process trees cut from the local forests. The operation not only yielded valuable koa lumber for HMC’s manufacturing endeavors, but also helped Yee Hop’s beef business thrive by creating more open grazing land.
HMC Echo ukes came in several models, ranging from the plainest, which sported three narrow soundhole rings (the right-hand uke in the two-uke photo), to models with rope binding and extended fretboards. Their fanciest model, shown at left, featured multi-colored wood purfling around the top and soundhole, as well as a stripe running down the center of the fingerboard.
Hawaiian ukes typically didn’t feature the name of their actual manufacturer, and often the same instrument made by the same company was sold under different brand names. HMC’s Echo ukes sold in Hawaii were sometimes branded as “Pele,” while Echos sold on the mainland were often re-branded by music retailers: San Francisco dealer Jules M. Sahlein sold them under his trademarked “Y’Ke’Ke” brand name, while Schireson Brothers of Los Angeles offered them as “Mai Kai” ukuleles.
In 1929, HMC reincorporated as C.Q. Yee Hop & Co. and expanded its instrument line to include “Malolo” and “Royal Hawaiian” ukuleles. These were produced for the Matson Shipping Co., as Yee Hop was a shareholder in Matson, and Matson a shareholder in Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which opened in 1927. The flagship S.S. Malolo was the first luxury steamship to transport paradise-seeking tourists from the U.S. mainland to Honolulu. It’s rumored that Matson gave these ukes away to some first-class passengers aboard their cruise liners.