For as long as I’ve been playing ‘ukulele, the Kala Brand Music Co. has been establishing a standard of quality. If you want an affordable uke that had a decent sound and good playability, Kala has always been one of your best bets.
I spent the last week in California visiting family and helping with an across-town move. Since Petaluma was only a short drive from where I was staying, I figured it was worth a trip out to the Kala headquarters to see what they were up to.
They’re located in a nondescript industrial building that sits a little bit out of town, sharing space with the Strauss Creamery offices (free organic ice cream for roommates, I wonder?). The only indicator that the world’s biggest ‘ukulele empire exists inside is a little 1×2’ sticker logo on the window.
Upon entering the Kala offices, the first thing I noticed were many cubicles. Like office cubicles. I instantly thought that this might be one of very few office jobs in the world I might be able to handle.
My mom was my traveling companion for the week so I took her along for the tour. They welcomed us with open arms and hooked us up right away with a tour guide who led the way over to the show room. Every ‘ukulele they have in production was on display there. The cheap ones, the expensive ones, guitars, UBasses – take your pick. All were available to play and I was shortly trying out everything that looked interesting.
I started with one of Kala’s new Elite models. These ‘ukuleles are Kala’s untested answer to the handmade Hawaiian models that come from makers like Kamaka, KoAloha, Kanile’a, and the rest.
The first thing I noticed on the tenor I played was an exceptionally wide neck and string spacing. Our tour guide, Pat, explained that this was Kala’s interpretation of a higher level instrument. He said that their reasoning is a more advanced player will appreciate having more space between the strings for fingerpicking and intricate pieces. It’s an interesting departure from the entry-level Kala models which are known for a skinny string spacing – from one extreme to the other!
The sound was warm and loud and the setup was great. Just want you’d expect from a quality handmade instrument. Pat told us that Kala’s big challenge with these instruments is overcoming the stigma that they make “affordable ‘ukuleles.”
Kala builds the Elites with three grades of koa wood in a gloss UV finish. The flashy 3A models will set you back $1599, $1699, and $1799 for the soprano, concert, and tenor sizes, respectively. 2A models are $1199, $1299, and $1399. And the simplest looking wood of the 1A comes out at $1069, $1139, and $1199. The 1A models are also available in a satin finish for slightly less money. Each ‘ukulele ships with a case and humidifier.
Another highlight for me was trying out the solid body UBasses. I’m not a bass player, but I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of having a small version of the normally large low-end instrument. The build quality is fantastic and the rubber strings are surprisingly easy to play. They don’t bend out of tune as much as I would have guessed and feel natural under the fingers. I also played a steel string version (the rubber and steel strings are interchangeable on the same instrument, according to Pat). I didn’t think this was nearly as nice to play on the short scale, but my mom thought the sound was better – more articulate and precise, but I would still choose the rubber strings over the steel, I think.
After half an hour of schmoozing and trying out instruments, Pat led us into the workshop where a crew of eight or so guys build their handmade Elites and UBasses. I’m used to seeing small, one-person productions and have never been to any larger ‘ukulele factories so the layout was very interesting and different from what I’m used to. Each guy has a station and repeats one small step in the production all day long across many instruments. They said they were able to make about five Elite models a day with this format, more if they were building Ubasses.
The custom work that they’re doing looked fantastic and I was quite impressed with what they were producing. The finest piece I saw was a beautiful ‘ukulele for the band 21 Pilots. I’m not familiar with their music, but know the name and imagine they’ll be stoked with their new uke!
Along with the handmade models, there was a crew of guys checking and setting up the import instruments that come out of China. Each one is tested and inspected for quality. When I was there they were piecing together some standard UBasses and testing their pickup balance.
All of Kala’s ukes are stored on huge Costco-sized storage racks in the warehouse, letting us see the impressive volume of instruments they must move each year. All the imported ‘ukuleles stop by the warehouse before they are distributed to music stores and players around the world.
A big mahalo out to the Kala crew – especially Pat – for giving a warm-and-fuzzy feeling tour and welcoming us into their facility.
Here are some more pictures (reverse order):