For many years Ko’olau Guitar and Ukulele has been building some of the finest quality ukes money can buy, allowing the customer to pick from many woods and decorative options. The company was founded and is still run by John Kitakis, whose career began as a furniture maker. He moved from the mainland US to Hawaii forty years ago, then for a period of time went back to the mainland doing warranty repair work for Martin,Taylor, Gibson, Guild and other guitar manufacturers, and in between built custom guitars and mandolins. Eventually he, his wife and children returned to Oahu to begin Ko’olau Guitar & Ukulele Company. All of John’s children worked in the family business, from sorting screws to sweeping floors. His oldest son, Noa eventually chose to pursue stringed instrument making, and now manages all Ko’olau production. His youngest son, Andrew also joined the family doing repairs and assisting in Ko’olau construction and finishing, but eventually established his own retail guitar and ‘ukulele business.
“Our goal from the very beginning was to produce very high quality instruments” John Kitakis
In the mid 90’s John, Noa, and Andrew moved back to Hawaii and started Ko’olau Guitar and Ukulele. They had already repaired and refinished thousands of high end stringed instruments. And on a custom basis, built acoustic guitars. They knew what works, and now was the time to change the entire scene of ‘ukulele making. High end ‘ukuleles, up to the early 90’s were unknown, still not appreciated as a professional stringed instrument.
But the performers were there, and Ko’olau soon became known as the “high” end ‘ukulele. Finally the ‘ukulele was respected, not as just a fun “toy” but instead earning it’s place in the world of professional music. Early on, the real “old timers” like Lyle Ritz, Benny Chong, Led Kaapana, Ned Kaapana, Ernie Cruz, Chino Montero, Kimo Hussey, Mike Keale, Roy Sakuma, and Tracey Terada bought Koolau’s and were exposing others to the quality coming from the foothills of the Ko’olau mountains. In time the new and upcoming ‘ukulele masters, such as Abe Lagrimas, Craig Brandau, and Paul Hemmings discovered Ko’olau. And so, the beginning of a legend.
Eventually a new line of guitars and ‘ukuleles were introduced. In 2005 John decided a another line of instruments was needed, one of similar high quality, all solid woods, but more affordable. He named them “Pono” which in Hawaiian is defined as excellence. With many years of experience in building Ko’olau guitars and ‘ukuleles, Pono has become the “clone.” The task has been challenging, but the rewards have been proof this was possible, as the Pono line is now at a quality no one has seen before in an import. Current production includes both Pono ‘Ukuleles and Pono Guitars. Guitar production is very limited, again maintaining all solid woods and high quality. All Pono instruments go through multiple and extensive quality control inspections, both in our Java Indonesia factory by John Kitakis, and eventually in Hawaii by both John and his assistant, Danny Navarro.“The methods we use are time consuming and costly …. but make a very big difference!” Noa Bonk
Ko’olau models have continued their reputation as the highest quality ‘ukulele on the market. Focus has become a custom operation, with a very limited production of high end instruments. Noa Bonk (John’s stepson) has taken the reigns at the Ko’olau custom shop. He is serious, with a goal of perfection, seeking a level never before seen in the world of ‘ukuleles.
Ko’olau Guitar & ‘Ukulele is very small operation. Quality requirements are such that rarely does anyone qualify to work on their instruments.
The newest member, Ryan Condon, has proved his place in the Ko’olau custom shop. In the photo to the left Ryan is working on a Ko’olau hand carved archtop ‘ukulele. He is Ko’olau’s modern day “Lloyd Loar” bringing talent and experience in skilled lutherie, and also new and innovative ideas. Ryan apprenticed for 10 years under classical builder, Ron Pinkerton, before moving to Hawaii and joining Ko’olau. Along with John and Noa, Ryan is also a master luthier (stringed instrument builder). There is no weak link at Ko’olau. Production is kept small to retain their standard of excellence.
“it can be depressing working on cheap inferior quality instruments ….. which is why I appreciate working at Ko’olau” Ryan Condon