Saturday, January 14, 2012

louis gaspar ukulele

Here is Mom's other ukulele. You can see at a glance that it is a handmade instrument in the pineapple shape—a form pioneered by Sam Kamaka, whose family-run ukulele factory is still operating (and very highly esteemed) in Honolulu. If you peer into the sound hole, you can see this label:
Louis A. Gaspar
Ukulele Manufacturer
Wailulu, Maui
Hawaii 96793
"Wailulu" is a typo for "Wailuku," one of the main towns on the island.

There is not a whole lot of information on Louis Gaspar. Kamaka Ukulele's site tells us that Gaspar was Sam Kamaka's brother-in-law and learned the craft from him. And we can see his oddly lopsided pineapples at one online ukulele museum and in occasional eBay listings. Mine is equally funky: not quite symmetrical, with the grain of the wood running off-parallel to the body. 

A couple of interesting features: the frets are placed directly into the neck, rather than on a fretboard.
And the headstock is elongated, with the tuning pegs lined up in an angled row.
The neck is a little on the narrow side, which for me means that the top G string, in particular, has a tendency to slide off. Maybe it's my novice playing, but I know I don't have the same problem on the Duke uke.

Mom's ukuleles, unfortunately, had sat in a closet for decades after her death and were not in the best shape when we cleared out the house a few years ago. When I had the local luthier replace the bridge on this one (he built a replica vintage Kamaka bridge but had to move it, as the original had been situated in the wrong spot), he was surprised at how many cracks and splits there were.
It was probably a humidity issue, but again, the Duke did not have this problem. Gaspar seems to have used his wood very sparingly. The unfilled grooves around the sound hole are apparently just shy of popping out.

Along with the ukulele were these notebooks:
Did Gaspar teach ukulele, too? I'll ask my grandmother next time I see her, but at 97 years old, I can't be sure she'll remember. The books are identical inside. There is a hand-drawn chord chart:
—and pages and pages of song lyrics with the chord changes typed above them.
All done in that purple hectograph ink—anyone else remember hectographs? :)

This ukulele has a soft, hollow sound and after reading more for this post, I now know that this is due to the pineapple shape, which was and is particularly valued for its warmth. I tend to play mine when I don't want to disturb anyone, but this week I am finding much more to enjoy about it on its own terms.

I can't end without linking to this series in which a Gaspar ukulele is carefully dissected and reconstructed. He explains some of the design elements but also finds his instrument crudely built. I think it's clear why Kamaka ukuleles are still prized, while Gaspar ukuleles quickly died out. My guess is that it was an inexpensive (Maui) local alternative to Kamakas or other brand name ukuleles in the 1950s. If you know more about them, I'd love to hear.


  1. Thank you -i loved these two uke posts!

  2. I think you are a natural with the ukes. Love this post.

  3. This is very interesting stuff! Touching as well. Wonderful that you're sharing this.


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