Kamaka HF-4DS Deluxe Spruce and Koa Baritone Ukulele - REVIEW

15 Aug 2021

Kamaka HF-4DS Deluxe Spruce and Koa Baritone Ukulele - REVIEW

One of those ukulele reviews this week that show me how lucky I am to get to do this. It will also please the Baritone fiends out there. This is the Kamaka HF-4DS Deluxe Baritone.

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele

If you don't know anything about the Kamaka brand, you really need to do some reading up. Kamaka are one of the most revered ukulele brands on the planet and arguably the original Hawaiian 'K Brand' formed in 1916 in Honolulu. Their instruments are truly magical and still made by hand and by the Kamaka family to this day. When you consider that Kamaka is the brand of choice of Jake Shimabukuro, it does make you wonder what use a review is of such a brand! They don't need my endorsement! This one has been very kindly loaned to me by UK Kamaka dealers Southern Ukulele Store.

It's not the first Kamaka I have reviewed as I previously looked at the HF-1 Standard Soprano which was a wonderful instrument. This one goes to the other end of the scale and is both one of the big guns (baritone) but also a level above as it is one of their 'Deluxe' models. The HF-4D line comes in three varieties of solid woods, either all solid koa, solid koa with a cedar top or this one, solid koa back and sides with a spruce top. I will disclose my subjectivity here in that I am not a huge fan of the use of spruce on ukuleles. Added to which I do suspect that all koa will be most people's choice considering the brand heritage. With spruce I think it adds a bright sharpness to tone on an already bright (little) instrument and I find it can overkill them. Saying all that I see how it will probably work with a baritone sized body and on the other side of the coin I do find some all mahogany baritones can be too dark and earthy even for me. Lets's see how it goes.

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele body


It's a standard double bout body with a slightly more diminutive sized body that some bari's out there. The woods are clearly both excellent quality with tight straight grain on the spruce and one or two attractive 'bear claws' in the right light. The koa is not super curly or flamed, but is attractive and stripy.

The bridge here is made from ebony and is an extremely tidy tie bar fitted with a compensated NuBone saddle. It's so smoothly finished you would think it was richlite.  Spacing is 51mm

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele bridge


Decor here is what sets apart the 'deluxe' line in Kamaka from the standards. Whilst the standards get very little of anything in decor, this deluxe comes with edge binding and very well done 'rope' marquetry around the top edge and soundhole. I think it works very well and pairs with the spruce nicely. I put up a sneak peek picture of this and a few people guessed at some other brands. That doesn't surprise me as imitation is flattery! Why wouldn't you want to follow Kamaka? Overall I think the combination of the spruce, koa and marquetry here gives it the air of a VERY classy instrument. I find it extremely pretty.

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele decor

The finish itself on this deserves some specific mention. This is not grain filled and as such is a semi open pore finish. I 'believe' that Kamaka also use nitro gloss rather than polyesters so that means the finish will soften and 'sink' into the wood grain over time. Because of that, on this example, and on other Kamaka instruments I have seen the finish is never quite perfect and is obviously hand done rather than being a flawless mirror. I actually like their finishes for that and it means there is less to interfere with the vibrations of the wood. If you want your gloss a flawless mirror I suspect you will look elsewhere, but I like it.

Inside is extremely tidy. There is no mess around the notched kerfing and the braces are thin and tapered. The top if braced vertically below the sound hole. It's also very thin and you can see the sunlight outside coming through the soundboard top in the picture here.

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone ukulele inside


The neck is made from mahogany in what looks like a single piece and is suitably Hawaiian in profile meaning it tapers to a flattened back profile at the nut and a roomy 38mm and 32mm from D to E. Nice.

That is topped in more ebony which is in excellent condition. Much like the gloss finish you can see some very minor finishing marks in part of the edging but again these sort of things don't bother me as it's a sign this was made by a family in a workshop and not a robot in China. It comes with 19 frets joined at the 14th and position markers at 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th repeated with dots on the side.

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele neck


Beyond the NuBone nut is a crown headstock shape. With a brand like this I can't point out that they are being derivative as Kamaka have probably used that shape more than anyone else still making ukuleles. It's theirs now and probably goes back to the fact the original Kamaka builder was trained by Nunes! In the top face of koa is the trademark double K logo inlaid in the wood.

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele headstock


Tuners are sealed gears with koa buttons made by Schaller. These are German tuners and are extremely good quality. No complaints at all.

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele tuners


Finishing it off are a set of Kamaka strings using black nylon for strings one and two and a couple of wound nylon for the bass pair. You also get the usual, wonderful Kamaka branded hard case with plush interior. The price..... OK, Kamaka are not cheap but I don't mind admitting that I had something of a sharp intake of breath when I saw that this costs £2,499. Yes, it's handmade in the USA and ok, it's a baritone.. but...  I could buy a hand made in the USA Gibson or Martin guitar for less than that. I couldn't ever see me spending that sort of money on a ukulele, but, of course...... people do!

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele case


Aside from the very minor handmade imperfections I mention the instrument is wonderfully built and feels great in the hands - something about that finish that just feels 'natural'. It's heavier than many instruments being a baritone but at 785g I actually think it's pretty light - especially when you compare it to the 750g CONCERT ukulele I reviewed last week. It's also nicely balanced. The setup is spot on, but I will point out that I really don't like Kamaka nylon strings and find them having a flabby feeling on the fingers.

The volume is excellent and on the sustain and resonance stakes is one of the best I have played, vibrating into every part of your body that touches it. It's remarkable.

Kamaka HF-4DS Baritone Ukulele back


Tone wise, the spruce is certainly helping it not sound too earthy and gives it a brighter, clear edge that particularly comes through when picking. I will say that I am not a fan of baritones played strummed myself and don't much care for the sound which is just too guitar like for me. It's the case here, but you may feel different. It's a clear pleasing tone though and very accurate and forward projecting with a great range. Perhaps the all koa version will have more range, as this certainly does seem to be more about the mids and highs. Still - it's clearly a very classy tone from a well made instrument.

Where this really shines though is in fingerpicking which I found utterly charming no matter where you fret on the neck. It's kind of laid back yet clear that really doesn't need much effort to get it to punch.  It's shimmery and zingy particularly on the higher strings. Of course somebody with far more skill than me (such as Jake) will get incredible sounds out of an instrument like this - I certainly can't do it justice. But I enjoyed my time with it as it has a lot of life to it and the neck profile makes it a joy to play.

Summing up seems somewhat churlish here as this really is a special instrument in both build and tone. And I kind of new it would be. I suppose traditionalists may suggest that Kamaka should not be about baritones and that their instruments should stick to all Hawaiian Koa, but it's not as if Kamaka have a huge range and having been in the game so long, frankly, they can do what they like. There's really not much to dislike here if the big guns are your thing bar the price which is still jarring with me. Of course - my shonky playing isn't going to be your decider spending this much on an instrument - you'd need to sit down with all three in the HF-4D range and play them yourself. I've loved time with this one though and it has to be a big recommendation... if you've got the means!



UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Model: Kamaka HF-4DS
Scale: Baritone
Body: Solid spruce top, solid koa back and sides
Bridge: Ebony
Saddle: NuBone
Spacing at saddle: 51mm
Finish: Open pore gloss
Neck: Mahogany
Fingerboard: Ebony
Frets: 19, 14 to body
Nut: NuBone
Nut width: 38mm, 32mm D to E
Tuners: Schaller gears
Strings: Kamaka Black Nylon with two wound bass strings
Extras: Kamaka hard case
Country of origin: USA
Price: £2,499

UKULELE PROS

Great build
Classy looks
Great neck 
Great tuners
Great volume
Excellent sustain
A wonderful, clear, pickers tone

UKULELE CONS

Some finish and tooling marks
Price

UKULELE SCORES

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

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.1 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW




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1 comments :

  1. I have the HF-3DC (Tenor cedar top) and it is awesome, i will never sell it...ever. Saying that I'm not a huge fan of Baritones either I agree its too close to a guitar and for the price you can get a decent all solid guitar (hell i have a Recording King all solid Dreadnaught with an Adirondack spruce top that only cost me £400 new and it is ace). I think the HF4D (all koa) makes more sense, whereas the spruce is maybe more of a collectors piece ? Thanks for the review...

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