In 1996 while walking through the Skytrain overpass in Vancouver’s Waterfront Station I drew level with a street musician who said, “There was someone looking for you. He wants to give you his ukulele.”
Yusuke Kawakami is a third generation luthier. That’s somewhat rare don’t you think? As a boy he visited his uncle’s world-renowned guitar building factory in Gifu, Japan where his father was chief guitar builder making exclusive custom-made instruments for musicians whose names included Ritchie Blackmore of the rock band Deep Purple.
Young Yusuke would pick up discarded pieces of tone-wood, wood known for its acoustic properties, and make small objects. Over time his passion for guitars and woodworking developed until in his early twenties he decided to follow his father’s footsteps and become an instrument builder. To begin with he was forbidden from using machine tools, or indeed from making any instruments. He first had to master traditional Japanese hand tools: saws, chisels, shavers and planers. With these he produced jewelry cases, pencil boxes and “Geta” (Japanese wooden sandals.) Each object, crafted from mahogany, rosewood or spruce (leftover pieces of workshop stock) was a stepping stone on his way to becoming a craftsman. Eventually his father allowed him to build his first instrument: a ukulele.
In time Yusuke moved to North Vancouver, Canada where he set up a luthiery business. That’s where I got to know him.
One day I brought my 1920’s Martin Taropatch uke into his workshop. Taropatches are eight-string ukuleles said to have been popular with Hawaiian farm-workers who played them in the taro fields. I valued my instrument highly. It had been mailed, double-boxed, from Edmonton in 1996 by a fellow called Richard Moses. On a visit to Vancouver Richard had seen me busking and, after getting my contact information from another busker, he phoned me from his home in Edmonton.
He told me he had decided to give me his mother’s ukulele. The instrument had been bought by his mother, Gladys, in the mid-1920s. She passed it to him and he, after keeping it for decades, felt that rather than give it to a family member he’d prefer to put it in the hands of someone who would actually play it.
It was an incredibly kind gesture and to say I was over the moon to receive the instrument would not do justice to the intensity of how I felt. Its full tone was heart-achingly lovely. As my two year old daughter frolicked in the box of Styrofoam packaging peanuts I strummed some of the slower songs in my repertoire (one of them, coincidentally, being the song Deep Purple, the favourite song of Ritchie Blackmore’s grandmother and from which the band took its name.) Unfortunately I discovered it had poor intonation and was virtually unplayable. The Koa body had warped over years of exposure to the dry climate of Edmonton.
Ten years went by and I tired of seeing the taropatch languishing in its battered canvas case and decided to get it repaired. I paid a visit to my friend Yusuke Kawakami. I left the instrument in his hands and waited for his estimate.
I was surprised when, a while later, he gave me two estimates. First was the cost of repairing the instrument. I have since lost the original but I think it came to around $1200. The second estimate was to build me a brand new taropatch from scratch. This amount was a mere $400 but there was a condition attached: if he made me a new instrument he would get to keep the original Martin taropatch.
It was not an easy decision. In fact it smacked of folk tales of deals made with the devil. How could I possibly let it go? Richard Moses had given me his mother’s precious instrument, the one he’d kept with him through all the periods of his adult life including his tours in the army.
In theory I was under no obligation to him but it felt a little wrong to be giving up his ukulele in order to get a sweet deal on a custom-made instrument. But in the end my curiosity for a new instrument won out and, after a period of conscious consideration, I asked Yusuke to go ahead and build me a taropatch. Yusuke said he would but warned me he was quite busy and it might take two years. He was wrong.
It took five.
Two years went by. I didn’t mention the ukulele to Yusuke, who in turn didn’t seem in any hurry to complete the project, and I didn’t want to badger him. (Luthiers are like cooks, cops and customs officials in this regard, you really don’t want to annoy them because they have the power to do things that don’t bear contemplation!)
After three years of waiting I went to his workshop to find it in utter turmoil. His father, visiting from Japan, was helping him renovate the space and not a lot of instrument building was getting done. More time went by. In my mind I composed theories as to why Yusuke was not finishing my ukulele. “Perhaps his love of luthiery died” I wrongly supposed. Maybe he was considering another career, I just didn’t know.
After four and a half years of waiting I deemed that enough was enough and, following a brief phone call, I paid another visit to his workshop. He showed me my unfinished ukulele. It was good to see that something existed at least. I held the unvarnished body and neck in my hands. I pretended to play the string-less instrument and Yusuke adjusted the neck thickness to the exact fit of my hand by shaving off thin scrolls of wood from the neck using a spoke-shaver. “It should feel like home sweet home” he said.
Once we’d decided the neck was perfect he took down a small cardboard box from a shelf and showed me the reason my ukulele had taken so long to make. In the box was a prototype tuning peg. To be more specific, a geared 4:1 tuner. It looked like a standard tuning peg except that for four rotations of the knob the winding post turns only once making for accurate tuning. Geared straight-tuners-a.k.a. planetary tuners-have been around for a long time but Yusuke always found they never looked quite right (either too large or too much like violin tuning pegs) and they didn’t turn smoothly enough for his liking. So he’d invented his own.
Impressed as I was with Yusuke’s invention I wondered if he might be discovering a new calling, say that of engineer. I (again wrongly) wondered if he might be about to quit his luthiery business and become a designer of small geared machinery.
By October 2012 I felt it was time to give Yusuke a deadline to finish the instrument. Three months from then I was going to record two new albums: Love and Laughter and dearly wanted the eight-string sound whose tone still resonated in my memory. I told Yusuke straight, If the instrument is not done by end of December I won’t be able to include it on the recordings.
On December 22nd 2012 I got an elated email from Yusuke written in a tone I’d never heard from him before. His excitement jumped out of the screen. He wanted me to come to his workshop as soon as possible to hear the ukulele. In his imperfect English he promised, “It will blow socks off!”
Since luthiers go to a deal of trouble to make their creations look as beautiful as fine cabinetry it’s easy to forget that their chief goal is actually the production of sound. It’s extraordinary that only at the very end of the process, after painstaking hours of woodworking, does the luthier finally put strings on and hear what the instrument actually sounds like. Hence Yusuke’s unbridled enthusiasm for the instrument he’d just completed. Experienced as he was, he couldn’t help but be knocked out by the sound of his own work.
In his workshop the following day Yusuke placed the instrument in my hands and invited me to play. I strummed a few chords acoustically before plugging it into a small amplifier in order to hear the sound quality from the pickup. As I adjusted the volume control Yusuke picked up a video camera and urged me to play.
The song that came to mind in that moment was a punk-rock song by The Clash. That evening I was to appear in a show, ripe with heavy hitting Canadian musicians like Colin James, Steve Dawson and Shaun Verreault where each performer would play two songs by The Clash. Mine were London Calling and Hateful. I’d been trying to get them memorized for two weeks. To say they were going round and round in my head was an understatement. With the camera running I played Hateful on my new taropatch. Listen for Yusuke’s exuberant shout at the end of the song! Watch Taropatch Video
Taropatchwise not much else happened that day. Having a new instrument is like the start of a romance. It’s a precious time. You want to play but you also want to let the relationship develop slowly. Take time to touch, listen and learn. I took the taropatch home and over the next few days I fell in love with it. The acoustic sound was full, rich and resonant; perfect for the songs I wanted to record.
This instrument differed in both looks and sound from the original Martin so I emailed Yusuke (subject line: Your Beautiful Instrument!) to find out exactly what changes he’d made.
His response was part enlightening and part cryptic and here it is word for word so you can see why his answers made me even more curious about the ukulele:
“When I received your taropatch, I completely blew my way.
So may energy/passion from your old taropatch.
I had been researching from that and find out my goal is make best modern taropatch as much as I can.
I know so many luthier just copied Vintage Guitar/ukulele but I don’t want to do that.
We should use old technique if that is still best in 2012 but if not, we should use modern technique.
I could make just Ukulele object but I really wanted to make good looking, best sound ukulele.
To be honest, I haven’t answer past 2 years but finally I might grab something.
The answer is use hand with passion like 1930’s. Not made by CNC [computer numerical control]. But use some modern parts.
So your taropatch is not ultimate 1930’s taropatch’s copy.
Original is 12F but yours is 13F because bridge can dance at center of Lower body. And you can play more high position.
Original is rosewood fingerboard and koa bridge but I selected Honduran Rosewood which used for Marimba. This makes more “warm” sound.
Original taropatch is used Animal glue and I use same one.
Original taropatch doesn’t have neck reinforcement but I install Carbon fiber neck reinforcement. This makes neck stronger and sound better.
Original taropatch is Black/white/black strip rosette but I use flamed koa. Koa itself has beam and power which I like it.
Original taropatch is ebony nut/saddle but I use young cow bone with oil. more sustain, longer life.
Maybe I have another secret.
I am honor to make ukulele for King of Ukulele!”
Just about every line in his email brought up more questions than he had answered. And pushing my brain to the limits of intrigue was the penultimate line where he says, “Maybe I have another secret”.
If it truly was a secret I somehow doubted he’d tell me, but nevertheless I felt another visit was in order.
I sat in Yusuke’s workshop desperately wishing I’d brought along a video camera, or at the very least, a voice recorder. I didn’t even have a notepad; just one piece of letter-size paper on which to scribble hasty words and incomplete phrases. Yusuke was more animated than I’d ever seen him and more effusive and colorfully descriptive than most luthiers will ever be. I was in awe, like a child at the feet of a mighty storyteller as he acted out for me the amazing adventure from which he had successfully returned after five years. All I could do was listen, ask questions, and scribble furiously.
His epic began with the opening of the back of my 1920’s era Martin taropatch. The effect of the workmanship on him was visceral. He likened it to peering inside a venerable church organ or lifting the hood of a vintage Rolls Royce. I seriously doubt the effect would have been the same for every builder, only someone who had years spent working with hand tools in the presence of master craftspeople.
As he talked his eyes shone and his body movements recalled the wonder he’d felt at discovering the inner world of the instrument. To my eyes the old ukulele pieces on the bench looked sad and uninteresting. Yusuke’s eyes told a different tale.
He spoke of the immediate connection he’d felt with the original builder. To him the innards of the ukulele spoke of a craftsman who knew woodworking to a transcendent degree. This someone, very likely a German, would have served an apprenticeship with master woodworkers.
He pointed out the bracing. This is the structure of supporting struts you see glued to the underside of the ukulele’s top. Bracing is an art-form unto itself. It provides support but also transfers sound across the instrument to make it vibrate and dance in the hands of the player. If the bracing is too solid the ukulele will project sound no better than a plank. So the form and placement of the bracing must combine lightness and strength in a symbiotic alchemy of stability and freedom.
These days Sitka Spruce is a wood commonly used for bracing but in the original Martin the rarer Adirondack Spruce was favoured and so this is what Yusuke used to reproduce the Martin’s brace pattern, albeit with a slightly thinner bridge plate.
On opening the Martin taropatch Yusuke discovered it to be a time capsule of the finest ukulele work possible in the 1920s. He was profoundly affected by what he saw.
It touched him so much that he dedicated himself to making an equivalent instrument: the best possible taropatch ukulele for our time. In keeping with the spirit of the original it would necessarily be a marriage of traditional and new skills. For example, one aspect of old-school luthiery that he didn’t change was the glue. Many modern luthiers use Titebond, a premium wood glue. But Yusuke’s view is that modern glue creates a thin layer between the pieces preventing vibration, thus absorbing sound and leading to a less lively tone. Traditional animal glue, though somewhat trickier to use because of its shorter work time, is absorbed into the surface of the woods keeping them in direct contact so as to give a sound that Yusuke says is “…brighter and more organic. Every wood should dance with each other”.
Partly because English is his second language Yusuke’s speech delivers colourful bouquets of simple yet meaningful quotes. He compares ukulele building to the cooking of a fine stew. “Ingredients are available to everyone, but how ingredients are combined is the difference.”
He made a few changes to the design of the bridge. The original bridge had each pair of strings knotted into a single slot. Yusuke created a more classical looking bridge with each string separate. One innovation was to make the bridge from Honduran Rosewood. It’s an amazing tone-wood from which marimbas are made and a rare, precious resource that should be used with discretion. He hurried to a stock shelf and pulled down a two foot long chunk of the stuff. He rapped on it with his knuckles and the wood rang. I didn’t expect a large solid lump of wood to ring like a bell and to my look of surprise he said of the dull-looking block, “This guy is an instrument!”
As with the original Martin, Yusuke elected to make the body of my ukulele from Koa and the neck from Honduran Mahogany (apparently superior to African and American Mahoganies for this particular purpose.) For the fingerboard it’s good to have a ringing tone-wood to transmit the taps of fingers, so, instead of using Brazilian Rosewood, as with the Martin, Yusuke chose the same wood as for the bridge: the bell-like Honduran Rosewood. Such departures from the original woods and construction were small but significant.
One important change was the placement of where ukulele body meets neck. In most soprano ukuleles this is at the twelfth fret but Yusuke opted to have the body meet the neck at the thirteenth fret. This has two advantages. Firstly it means that fretting fingers can reach further up the higher frets without need for a cutaway in the body. Second, since the distance from twelfth fret to bridge always equals the distance from nut to twelfth fret, the bridge is now positioned closer to the sound hole and therefore more central to the bulbous part of the ukulele. The idea is, that since the tension now pulls from a more central position, the sound output will be greater, like hitting a drum in the middle instead of closer to the edge.
Decoration was minimal. As Yusuke said, “A beautiful woman needs no cosmetics.” He inlaid a simple but beautiful Curly Koa rosette, that is, a circle of ornamentation around the sound-hole. The binding around the edge is ivoroid (imitation ivory made from plastic) and here Yusuke added a touch only noticeable when you look very closely. Ivoroid has a grain that I usually see running lengthways. Instead he has the ivoroid grain lying perpendicular to the length in order to match the tight stripy grain of the Koa sides. It’s a small but delightful detail. He took similar pains to match the grain of the Rosewood bridge to that of the Koa body. Coordinating each part with every connecting part in this way gives the object an eye-pleasing completeness.
The Blue Stick under-saddle electric pickup (by Swiss company Schertler) had been Yusuke’s suggestion. He finds piezoelectric pickups to have a dry sound and said this was the best pickup he’d heard. He’d instructed me to buy one at the very start of the process so he could install it while building the instrument. By the time I finally received the finished instrument I had to ask him again what pickup I’d bought since by then it felt like another lifetime. It has a volume wheel you can operate by poking a finger in the sound-hole and uses two coin batteries which last a long time but could be somewhat awkward to replace if you had to do so in a hurry. Great sound though.
I asked Yusuke whatever possessed him to design his own tuners. It’s not exactly normal for a ukulele builder to go to such lengths. After a little thought he responded, “Ukuleles should make smile but ukulele pegs always make angry!” And again he referred to the quality of the original Martin. He told me those old Grover tuning pegs were state-of-the-art pieces of machinery when they were created in 1921. Yusuke had looked up the original patent and printed out the drawings to show me. He was impressed that someone had created such tuners nearly one hundred years ago. Not only did they still work perfectly but their design; each one a perfectly machined little nugget in the palm of your hand, “…is like jewelry,” he said, beautiful in its simplicity.
Yusuke said, “Some guy in 1921 designed this. And then it came to me” he snapped his fingers resolutely, “I do same thing!”
So Yusuke, took time from instrument building to design a superior tuning peg. He spoke with makers of small gears such as watchmakers, eyeglass manufacturers and the like. He made drawings and finally sent his work to Gotoh: the Japanese manufacturer of musical instrument tuners. At first they were dubious, but he persisted and eventually the Gotoh chiefs instructed their Research and Development team to work on the project.
Geared ukulele tuning pegs often stick out sideways, guitar-style, from the headstock. It’s an aesthetic irrelevant to some but bothersome to others such as myself. I mostly feel that ukulele tuners should, more like violin tuners, go straight through from front to back or they don’t look quite right. Now, at his workbench, Yusuke urged me to try the little tuner I was holding in my hand, “Try it. See how smooth. Like butter!” he said. And he was right. While he finds other 4:1 geared pegs to be good but “creaky”, his pegs are indeed “smooth like butter” by virtue of the three internal gears he designed instead of the usual two. My instrument was among the first to have the new tuners installed which are now available for general sale from Gotoh.
I asked him why modern Martin ukuleles are no longer held in the same high esteem as their vintage counterparts. He replied, “There is too much building with computer. They need to throw away the mouse. Get a chisel, get a spoke-shaver”.
There was one more question I had to ask. What had he meant in his email when he wrote “Maybe I have another secret”? He didn’t hold back. His words came clearly and forcefully,
“Instrument should be made with PASSION!”
He told me how, on removing the back of the Martin taropatch, he had felt the passion flood out of it. So powerful was the feeling it brought him, “It gave me goosebumps; it made me cry; it made me smile; it made me want to pee my pants.” It also explained the somewhat cryptic email message where he wrote: To be honest, I haven’t answer past 2 years but finally I might grab something. The answer is use hand with passion like 1930’s.
That is why the warped pieces of dismembered koa from the old taropatch had meant so much to him. This was why he had made for me a top level instrument at a fraction of what it should have cost me. In various ways the whole process had changed his life and made him a more evolved luthier.
Yusuke’s story-telling energy was spent. He picked up a piece of the old instrument saying, “I hope my passion and this guy’s passion are the same”.
Well Yusuke, all I can say to you is I suppose we’ll only know for sure in a hundred years or so when a gifted young ukulele builder in say Scandinavia, New Zealand, SE Asia or, who knows where, opens up my old taropatch and sees within it a world of meaning, wonder and passionate craftsmanship.
And should he be inspired to pursue his own artistry to the fullest then you’ll know you did the finest possible work.
Or perhaps that person will be a child of one of your own offspring such as your young son, Shinnosuke, often to be seen quietly drawing and playing with pieces of wood whenever I visit your workshop. You always call him over to shake my hand and in that moment I sense the relentless tide of past, present and future meeting together and roiling slowly forward in a never-ending tsunami of joy and passion.