By Breeze Kinsey / Excerpted from Ukulele No. 6, Fall 2014
The word kala has a handful of meanings in Hawaiian. According to Mike Upton, the founder of Kala Brand ukuleles, the connotations range from “a unicorn fish” to “slang for money” to something more profound. “Tribes of the various islands would fight, but when they came to a truce, they would have something called the kala where they would forgive each other, make peace and move on,” Upton says.
In California, Kala, the esteemed ukulele manufacturer, has become a defining force in the instrument market, with a product line more varied than the shades of meaning behind its name. In less than ten years, the company has grown to produce a rainbow of ukuleles, covering the spectrum from ukulele basses to ukulele banjos. Among the company’s latest offerings are two new tenors: a recently redesigned wood-bodied resonator and an exotic wood-bodied uke from a new line.
The KA-ASOU-T is a unique ukulele (say that ten times fast!) whose simple appearance belies its complexity. Its spare spruce top is adorned with a no-frills rosette around the soundhole. Behind that hides ovangkol back and sides, trimmed with a nice reddish-brown wood called padauk (pronounced “pad-DUKE”). Both are attractive West African woods that are used instead of the more common rosewood, which they are distantly related to.
The distinctive woods are matched by an unusual design. There is a strong taper across the body, from the neck joint to the tail end, which varies over half-an-inch in depth. The back was subtly saddle-shaped—the opposite of an arched back design. According to Kala, “the radius on the back is mainly to provide structural strength to the back of the instrument.” The headstock was topped off with a mother of pearl artichoke vine inlay. The artichoke design is a throwback to the art deco era of the 1920s and 30s. Upton says, “The artichoke was commonly used in art deco art, décor and furniture. Plus I just like the way it looks.”
Indeed the KA-ASOU-T is a ukulele that grows on you the more you play it. There is a lot to appreciate about its smooth tone and comfortable feel. The spruce top, U-shaped neck, and swooping curves on the body give the instrument a very guitar-like look and feel, and the sound is closer to that of a classical guitar than a traditional koa ukulele. The combination of woods produces a sound as bright and clear as it looks, and the size and tone of the KA-ASOU-T make it a good instrument for strumming or fingerpicking. This style is also available in soprano and concert size.
Wallflowers Need Not Apply
The KA-RES-BRS resonator is for the attention-seekers out there. Its mahogany body is outlined with gleaming pearloid trim and an antiqued-brass coverplate in the center of its subtle, vintage-inspired sunburst finish. The body is rounded out with a gently figured back and classic f-holes on the treble bouts. It’s enough to give you a reason to sing the blues with a smile.
This model has the “biscuit-style” resonator pioneered by National Reso-Phonic Guitars in the 1920s. The string vibrations are channeled through a bridge piece called a biscuit, which drives a speaker-like metal cone, rather than simply causing the top to vibrate.
You’ll really be able to belt it out with this ukulele backing you up as the resonator cone adds some serious kick to the volume, and the wood body nicely balances out the harsher attack found in some resonators. Overall, the sound of the aluminum cone really comes through, while still retaining that bouncy sound from the nylon strings and the body’s rich, warm mahogany character.
On the down side, I found the Kala’s A string jumping out of the bridge notch occasionally when picking too forcefully near the bridge. The A string’s slot on the biscuit seemed to be too shallow. I remedied this problem by playing closer to the neck, but that workaround could be better addressed by having a professional repairer adjust the bridge with a file.
Still, the KA-RES-BRS is a blast. With the wicked combination of good looks and a great voice, this instrument turns heads wherever it goes. It’s the perfect thing to bring to the stage, or take to the streets for a few extra decibels of fun!
- Tenor ukulele with solid spruce top and solid ovangkol back and sides
- Padauk trim
- Gloss finish
- NUBone XB Nut & Saddle
- 2 1/2″ to 3 1/8″ deep
- Mother of Pearl artichoke headstock inlay
- Grover tuners
- $499.99 (MSRP); $350 (street)
- Tenor-sized resonator ukulele with pearloid-bound mahogany body
- Spun aluminum resonator cone and antiqued brass coverplate
- NUBone XB Nut & Maple Saddle
- Rosewood fingerboard
- $429.99 (MSRP); $300 (street)