By Sandor Nagyszalanczy
Uke Tales is an exploration of some of the author’s ukulele collection, which numbers 400+ instruments, and other instruments that have an interesting story.
I’ve long admired the lovely ukuleles that my San Francisco Bay Area friend and musical colleague Janet Lenore plays. They are built by luthier Ken Franklin in Ukiah, California, so I was excited to meet him when I attended the 2017 Reno Uke Festival. Not only was Ken a pleasure to get to know, but all the instruments he had on display were impressive in terms of craftsmanship, playability, and tone.
But there was one instrument in particular that struck my fancy: A tenor-sized uke Franklin had named “Pale Moon,” for the remarkable wood the body was made from. Also known as black and white ebony (Latin name: Diospyros malabarica), pale moon ebony comes from south-east Asia and has a color and grain unlike any other wood on the planet. In fact, with light and dark shapes that mingle and flow together and apart, it looks less like wood and more like some kind of abstract landscape painted by Mother Nature. Ken used some particularly spectacular pale moon ebony for the uke’s back and sides, and tastefully employed it for the soundhole rosette and headstock overlays, front and back. He also inlaid small rectangles of it into the uke’s jet-black ebony fingerboard, to serve as position markers. The instrument’s top is creamy Alaskan yellow cedar, and the body sports a “monitor hole” in the top upper bout. The craftsmanship is flawless.
As to the instrument’s sound, I played nearly every hand-made ukulele present at the Festival that year, but felt that none were quite as special sounding as Ken’s Pale Moon. Its sound is bright, but not brittle; deep, but not bassy; full but not congested. When strumming chords, you can hear each note distinctly. Its voice is like that of a sonorous bird; when it sings, you can’t help but listen… and smile.
All that said, I simply don’t know why I didn’t buy the Pale Moon uke at the show (OK, I do know why; Ken was asking more for it than the price I paid for my first two automobiles combined). Still, I kicked myself all the way home for not raiding my savings and purchasing that uke!
Flash forward to the 2018 Reno Uke Fest this past May. I had almost forgotten about Ken’s magnificent ebony uke when I suddenly spotted it at his booth in the merchant’s hall. It didn’t take long for me to decide that there was no way I was going to let this instrument slip away again. I struck a deal with Ken and he was kind enough to hold on to Pale Moon for a couple of months, until I could raise the necessary funds. I’ve now had the uke for a couple of months, and all I can say is, that I’m in ukulele heaven. In addition to having a stunning appearance, it’s one of the very best sounding ukes I’ve ever played, and I’ve played quite a few.
You can check out Ken’s beautiful ukuleles and guitars at his website: www.franklinguitars.com.
Sandor Nagyszalanczy is a regular contributor to Ukulele Magazine and a woodworking expert, an avid ukulele collector, and a uke club member living in Santa Cruz, California.