Kanile'a K-1 Tenor ukulele - REVIEW | GOT A UKULELE - Learn Ukulele, beginners tips and reviews

6 Aug 2011

Kanile'a K-1 Tenor ukulele - REVIEW

This one is an absolute peach. It's a Kanile'a K-1 Tenor ukulele all the way from Hawaii.

I have hankered after a Hawaiian ukulele for some time, and am thrilled that I am now an owner. Time for a detailed review!

kanilea k1

Kanile'a ukes (pronounced Kanileya) are made by Joe Souza's team, by hand from wonderful solid woods in Kaneohe, Hawaii. Being a handmade Hawaiian uke gives it the moniker as being a K Brand ukulele (more about that HERE.  Not having the funds to fly to the islands, I placed my order with the wonderful Southern Ukulele Store (great store and a must visit for any uke buyer in the UK) who are the registered UK dealers. Paul at the shop was extremely helpful, and shipped the uke in perfect packaging, inside a pod case that came as part of the price.

Whilst this is an entry level model in the Kanile'a range, this represents my first "professional" grade ukulele. I chose the Tenor as my collection prior to this consisted only of sopranos and concert ukes. Time for a step up in size!

kanilea k1 soundboard

So, first off, the build details.  The uke is constructed from solid, select Koa wood with a stunning bookmatched grain pattern, and this one is finished in satin, not gloss. The photos I have taken of it really do not do justice to how wonderful the wood is. The neck is a single piece of mahogany (strengthened with a carbon fibre rod inside it) with an impeccable rosewood fingerboard and silver nickel frets. Fret markers both on the fingerboard and the upper side of the neck are made from Paua Abalone. The headstock is faced with a veneer of Koa, and the Kanile'a logo is not printed but inlaid in a lighter wood. The tuners are excellent quality Grovers in chrome. At the bridge end you will spot something more unusual - the strings are not tied to the bridge, but held in place by black bridge pins as you would normally see on an acoustic guitar. The bridge is rosewood also, and both nut and saddle are made of NuBone.  Aside from that, there are no other embellishments or binding - this is a plain ukulele. It arrived strung with Aquila strings, but more on that later. Inside the uke is the Kanile'a label showing its provenance and serial number.

kanilea k1 headstock

kanilea k1 fingerboard

The uke is a traditional shape with wider lower bout, and also has a slightly arched back for better sound projection. Inside the uke, it uses the revolutionary Kanile'a TRU (Total Resonating Ukulele) Bracing system - this is a system similar to those seen on very high end custom guitars. You can read the details HERE, but it essentially allows for a more efficient vibration in the soundboard

kanilea k1 back

The first thing that hits you in picking this uke up is the absolute impeccable quality of the build. There is not a mark, blemish or anything anywhere on the instrument. Everything is fitted together perfectly and the uke feels solid in the hands. It is however extremely light for a large instrument and feels perfectly balanced to hold. Frets are finished superbly and smooth, and the fingerboard looks well conditioned. The set up was also just perfect - the action height is just as I would like it, and testing the intonation all over the neck with an accurate tuner shows no issues at all - this is a uke that will be in tune!  The tuner quality is superb, with each one stamped with the name "Grover". They have an excellent turning ratio meaning fine tuning of the uke is an absolute breeze. They are also incredibly smooth and stable.  The nut and saddle are also perfectly finsished, and I adore the way the bridge saddle shape blends with the rosewood of the shaped bridge.  I also like the shaping of the neck which is extremely comfortable to play.

kanilea k1 tuners

So, how does it sound. Well, first off, it arrived with Aquilas as I say, so the first job was to remove them and put some Worths on. I have nothing against Aquilas, but they are a powerful string, and I wanted this uke for its tone and clarity, not volume. The range of tone that comes from this uke is astonishing. There is good bass, but a real shimmery chime across the notes. As is the case with high end guitars, every string shines through equally on this uke, nothing is "lost in the mix" or muddy. Sustain is massive and the volume is great, helped by that bracing system and arched back.  I do mainly strum in my playing, and this ukulele certainly delivers in that regard, but where it really shines in when fingerpicked (part of the reason I bought it) - its glorious in its voice. The other thing that struck me was how balanced it sounded no matter whether you play it quietly or thrash it as hard as you like. Many cheaper ukes can suffer in this regard and either "boom" when played hard, or just lose their tone when played softly. As such, despite it being an acoustic instrument, I can see this as being perfect for late night practice without waking the family - supremely satisfying at low volume.

I really am thrilled with it, and fully understand where the money goes in making a step up to a pro level instrument. As much as I love my other ukes, this is a significant step up in quality. I suppose its like spending your life playing a Yamaha piano, then sitting down to a Steinway Grand, or upgrading from a Volkswagen Golf to an Aston Martin - sure they are both cars, but... well, you know what I mean!

But lets be balanced. Do I have any gripes?  Small ones I suppose.

Firstly, I really dont know why they ship these with Aquilas (presume a deal was done with the Company), but I cant believe they are the best option. This is a uke that wants to shine and show off its voice, and many many players prefer the use of Worths or D'addario Pro Artes.

I suppose that if I had the choice, I would have preferred high quality friction tuners rather than geared. Dont get me wrong, there is NOTHING wrong with the Grovers on this uke, I just prefer friction tuners for their looks. 

Finally, I suppose some (not me), may think that the uke is a little too plain. Going up in price to the K-2 model gives you binding on the uke that some may prefer, but bear in mind that the K-2 is an identical uke musically. The binding is purely decorative. I prefer understated, but this is a VERY plain looking uke.

But those gripes are so minor they should not be worried about.

Would I recommend it?  What do you think?!


Looks - 9
Fit and finish - 10
Sound - 9.5
Value for money - 8.5


(If you are looking for another uke - check out my reviews page HERE

STOP PRESS - You can read my update to my review, having had some proper playing time Here, and my Long Term Test having owned the ukulele for nearly 18 months.


  1. I've played one of these and loved it too. The plain looks are very good. Personally I don;t like friction tuners though - too fiddly. I have friction tuners on my Double Island soprano and will probably replace them eventually as they are way too touchy.

    I am looking for a pro quality tenor and am undecided between this uke and the Ko-Aloha. Any thoughts? Price is similar. I compared the two next to each other in a store once but the had different string sets on (the Koaloha had a low G set) so it was hard to tell.

  2. Don't think there is much between them Greg. Read some reports that kanilea is more earthy and koaloha brighter. Speaking of satin finishes only I think koaloha is more durable. Suspect they are evens in gloss. I think the build quality of kanileas is slightly better but it misses some nice design touches that koaloha employ. Difficult choice!

  3. Great review. Trying to decide to get this or the tatt version.

  4. I can't find this ukulele on their site, can someone give me the link?

  5. http://kanileaukulele.com/k-1_tenor.php

  6. They are a fantastic instrument. Absolute quality with beautiful sound. I had one and could not fault it at all.
    However, I could not play it. It is the strangest of things but, having looked online, I am not alone. I just could not play barre chords on it. My guess is that the frets are too shallow for me. They really are low profile and maybe my fingers are too fatty of something. I have other ukes, like a Pono pro classic tenor, Pono standard tenor, Ohana tenor, Kala Concert and Soprano, all of which barre chords are no problem on. I can only assume it is the fret height that made the difference. It was such a shame to have to part-ex it.

  7. Each to their own I guess. I find the neck on this uke to be the most comfortable I have ever played - in fact I took measurements on the neck and frets for my custom build to recreate it!

  8. Hi Barry, great fan of your site. John R from Ireland here. May have the only Kanilea on the emerald isle?? Not sure but havent seen anyone else play one here. I have a gloss version of your uke. I agree, its absolutely sublime. I actually use Ken Middleton's living water strings on most of my ukes. Use a low g set on my kanilea and it sounds just fab. Much better suited to it than aquila in my opinion. Ken is very reliable in terms of delivery etc. I agree with you re plainness of looks.I also like the understated appearance. I also have Kanilea Islander tenors and concert which aint bad either. My "real" Kanilea will stay with me till I die though which hopefully wont be too soon!!

    Keep up the good work.



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