This article by Pam Kragen appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 3, 2018.
Luthiers' Rare Ukuleles Answer Musical Riddle
This time last year, a group of ukulele builders from around the world came up with a way to answer one of history’s great musical mysteries and raise money for charity at the same time.
For centuries, scientists and musicologists have puzzled over the secret behind the one-of-a-kind sound produced by 17th-century Stradivarius and Guarneri del Gesu violins. Was it the maker? Was it the varnish, the glue or the chemicals used in the building process? Or was it the wood itself?
To find an answer, six ukulele builders from around the world — including Fallbrook’s John S. Kinnard — were appointed a task. Using the same sheets of wood from two old-growth trees, the men were invited to build six identically sized tenor ukuleles using their own construction techniques and finishing details.
In November, all six instruments were flown to Hawaii, where they were played by the same musician to determine whether the builders’ individual craftsmanship influenced the sound or whether it was all in the wood.
Although there were some minor differences in tonality when ukulele master Kimo Hussey played the six instruments, “they sounded more alike than they sounded different,” said Carlsbad resident Kevin Beddoe, who owns KinnardUkes, the company that distributes Kinnard’s ukuleles worldwide.
KinnardUkes owner Kevin Beddoe, left, and master ukulele builder John S. Kinnard play some of Kinnard's instruments at his Fallbrook workshop in June 2017. (U-T File)
The musical test could mean the prized wood used in the six instruments — 100-year-old Honduran mahogany and a section of the famous Lucky Strike redwood tree that fell during a storm in the 1990s — created the near-uniform sound. Or it could prove Kinnard’s own theory.
“I say it’s the nut behind the wheel: A good musician can play a cigar box,” he said.
Beddoe, who attended the recent Ukulele Guild of Hawaii gathering, said there is some evidence to support Kinnard’s theory. When Hussey strummed all six instruments, they sounded virtually the same. But two other musicians, who play with a different technique, found some unique qualities in each ukulele.
Although the main materials and dimensions of the six ukuleles were the same, Beddoe said the instruments were quite different in design. They had different body shapes, fretboards, tuning boards and custom inlays that reflected their creators: Kinnard, Steve Grimes of Hawaii, Beau Hannam of Colorado, Jay Lichty of North Carolina, Jake Maclay of West Virginia and Joji Yoshida of Okinawa, Japan.
All six men donated their time to the project, which was organized by Luthiers for a Cause. Lichty said he was eager to be involved because of the “mojo factor” of the assignment.
“I’ve not had a more fun build,” he said. “To be able to build what I want out of this special wood for this special project with these special guys was a huge inspiration.”
After the musical meet-up in Hawaii in November, Luthiers for a Cause planned to sell the instruments in an online auction. The goal was to raise $25,000 for the Ukulele Kids Club, a Florida-based nonprofit that provides free ukuleles and music instruction to children facing long-term hospitalization.
The sale met with unexpected success when an American couple who attended the musical gathering offered to buy the whole set for $100,000. The anonymous donors said they plan to keep the instruments together for use in exhibits and special events to raise money for musical therapy programs like the Ukulele Kids Club.
Kinnard, 66, didn’t attend the November meeting because he’s a solitary sort who prefers working quietly in his Fallbrook workshop to traveling and marketing his instruments.
The Vista native has been building string instruments since the 1970s, including jobs with Taylor Guitars and the Delle’Arte brand Gypsy jazz guitars. He started making ukuleles about six years ago. Kinnard ukuleles are tuned differently to have a deeper, richer sound that especially appeals to guitarists.
Working at a leisurely pace, Kinnard turns out about 30 custom-order ukuleles each year, priced from $1,750 to $5,000 apiece. Beddoe said Kinnard has a 10-month backlog of orders.
Beddoe said the Luthiers for a Cause project exceeded everyone’s expectations, and not just for the money it raised.
“This is a legacy thing,” Beddoe said. “For those six guys, it doesn’t matter what they do from here on out. Their names are on those instruments. If that set is still together in 150 years, that will be quite a legacy that they’ve left behind.”
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