It's nice to get a new brand on Got A Ukulele and one that I knew literally nothing about beforehand. This week we hop over to Japan and the TkiTki HKT Hawaiian Koa Tenor.
Japanese ukuleles are something I always look forward to looking at. In my experience they all share an astonishing level of accuracy of build and quality control which are a joy to play. Think of brands like Kiwaya and you will see what I mean. TkiTki are a brand I'd not come across before, probably because until very recently they have really only been on sale in Japan itself. That's now changed as Southern Ukulele Store in the UK have managed to get some supplies and very kindly loaned me this to take a look at. They are a brand renowned over there for their quality and some mouth watering customs. This actually forms part of a trio of more 'regular' designs.
At first glance out of the case I was immediately reminded of Kiwaya level build and finishing. Though the other thing that sprung to mind was high end Martin ukuleles. You may see similarities yourself with both, but lets get into it. This model is the tenor version, though they also make a soprano and a concert.
It's a traditionally shaped double bout tenor made from all solid Hawaiian Koa. It's not the most stripy Koa I have ever seen, but it's clearly nice wood and very reminiscent to my eyes of standard Kamaka instruments. If the pictures and video make it appear to be two tone, it isn't. That's the effect of properly quartersawn woods that are paired in reverse such that when you shift the light the darker sides switch. Because of that you can see it's made from two pieces on the top back and sides. The overall size is quite diminutive for a tenor and noticeably smaller than a tenor from, say, Kanile'a or Koaloha. I rather like that though as it has a more vintage (Martin!) vibe.
The bridge is made of rosewood and is a pin bridge style. It's fitted with a compensated top bone saddle. I really like how small and low profile it is as some pin bridges can be rather chunky. I have to say though what I don't like is the fact it has been glossed and much prefer my bridge wood to be oiled only. Spacing here is 43mm.
Decoration is limited to an abalone sound hole ring and nothing else, but this is a case of letting the wood speak for itself and it suits it. The finish is ultra thin gloss that Alex at SUS questioned whether it was nitrocellulose rather than poly. I think he might be right as it looks almost melted into the wood. Because of that it means you don't get a full mirror finish, but again I think it looks more vintage and certainly feels nicer because of it. Another similarity to Kamaka here.
Inside is extremely tidy with notched linings and very low profile braces (some of the lowest I have ever seen). The sound hole edge also shows that the woods are really thin too - a similarity to Kiwaya that immediately sprung to mind.
The neck wood is not specified, though I suspect it's mahogany. It has a joint in the heel, but not one I can spy at the other end. I adore the softened carving of the neck heel shape and adore even more how shallow the profile is at the nut end. It's 36mm here and 30mm from G to A. This is a far cry from modern Chinese broom handle necks and absolutely the sort of neck shape I prefer. Gorgeous.
Topping it is a rosewood fingerboard which is in superb condition and end shaped like an old Martin. It's not edge bound and you have a total of 18 frets joined, more unusually though traditionally, at the body at the 12th. They are broad in width but shallow topped and very comfortable. Position dots are also Martin-esque with outward facing white dots at the 5th, double 7th and 10th. Those are repeated on the side with extra dots at the 12th and 15th.
Beyond the bone nut the headstock is very much Martin styled with a wide tapered three pointed crown faced in more koa. Because of the shaping at the base you have have masses of room for the fretting hand at first position chords. The TkiTki logo is a transfer in gold under the gloss.
Tuners are the sublime Gotoh UPT Planetary tuners that look like friction pegs but actually have gears inside. These are finished in gold with black buttons and are utterly superb.
The strings are not specified but look like fluorocarbon to me. Coming with the package is a really good quality hard case with a white fluffy interior. You will tell from my description above that this is not a lower level instrument or even an intermediate, so it comes with a high level price tag currently at £1,424 at Southern Ukulele Store. Serious money for sure, but I think you can tell this is a serious ukulele.
The build here is absolutely impeccable and makes it one of those difficult instruments for me to review as I can't say anything bad about it. OK, I don't like that bridge finish, but that is absolutely it. Everything else, absolutely everything else is just how I would want a ukulele to be. I adore the smaller body and that means lower weight at only 475g. It feels like holding concert or even a soprano! The thin body woods and low profile braces are helping that too of course, and it adds up to a delightful instrument to hold and play. I'd see no need for a strap to play this because you almost wouldn't know it was there.
And with a lightness of build you would expect a punch from the sound. It does not disappoint. The volume here is absolutely superb and has a real bark if played with some force. Sustain is also absolutely delicious and runs on and on as the whole thing vibrates into your chest. It's a delight.
It ticks the right boxes for being responsive too. You will get great projection out of this with minimal effort from the picking or strumming hand. One of those instruments that feels alive in the hands, and where i've used the phrase 'it almost plays itself'. Strummed it sounds really traditional with a real jangle coming through as the instrument harmonises with itself without ever sounding muddy. There is a typical koa richness to the tone which i'd expect meaning that when played you get a combination of trebles, mids and bass coming through (and this is strung high G). Fingerpicked it is an absolute charm with searingly crisp bell like tones that zing out of the instrument, again with little effort. I won't beat around the bush - this is without a doubt one of the nicest sounding tenors I have played or reviewed. I think you'll see my reaction in the video... it doesn't need words..
Like I say, it's difficult to review instruments like this as I absolutely adore it. The quality here is absolutely top draw (some of the best I have seen in a ukulele), I totally love the diminutive body shape and light weight, the wood looks wonderful and the sound is just exactly what I would want a tenor ukulele to sound like. For sure, the price will put many off and it's too rich for my own wallet, but that doesn't mean I don't think it's worth it.
If you are a discerning buyer or collector you really do need to be taking a look at these. VERY highly recommended.
UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP
Model: TkiTki HKT
Body: All solid Hawaiian Koa
Bridge: Rosewood pin bridge
Saddle: Compensated bone
Spacing at saddle: 43mm
Decoration: Abalone soundhole ring
Finish: Thin open pore gloss
Frets: 18, 12 to body
Nut width: 36mm, 30m G to A
Tuners: Gotoh UPT
Country of origin: Japan
Wonderful vintage looks
Superb tone wood
Wonderfully playable neck
Superb volume and projection
Rich, balanced, rounded tone
Don't like the glossed bridge!
Looks - 9.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 10 out of 10
Sound - 9.5 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.5 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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