Few things conjure up images of Hawaii faster than the sweet sound of a ukulele. Its distinctive tones magically transports listeners to warm sunny beaches filled with grass skirted hula dancers draped in colorful leis gently strumming a ukulele on the beach. There are varied stories in Hawaiian folklore that describe how the ukulele got its name but they all agree that it was first introduced to Hawaii around 1879 by Portuguese immigrants who arrived in the islands to work on sugar plantations. Three of those immigrants, Augusto Dias, Jose do Espirito Santo and Manuel Nunes, were excellent craftsmen and cabinetmakers and are credited with making the first true ukuleles in Hawaii. Responding to a growing local interest in this small guitar-like instrument, Dias, Nunes, and Santo all opened their own instrument shops in Honolulu by 1886. The little instrument became an almost instant hit among the native Hawaiians. The Royal Family, including King Kalakaua, Queen Emma, and Queen Lilioukalani, began playing it and incorporating it into performances at royal gatherings. In part because of their patronage and also the use of native woods and materials, the instrument became acceptable and Hawaiians soon developed their own musical style and sound around it. The ukulele’s popularity has since grown worldwide and today many different companies manufacture them. The best, however, are still created right here in Hawaii. Today, the Hawaiian “K Brand” ukulele are considered to be among the best and most sought after in the world. The “K Brand” refers to the four main ukulele manufactures in Hawaii that still make handmade, custom, high quality ukuleles using age old building techniques. All four of these companies, Kanilea, KoAloha, Kamaka, and Koolau are located on Oahu and offer factory tours that make for an interesting and entertaining family adventure. We recently toured 2 of the 4 factories, Kanile’a and KoAloha, and came away quite impressed with their knowledge of ukuleles, precise manufacturing standards and methods, and dedication to spreading the joy of the music through the ukulele. Kanilea Ukulele in Kaneohe (www.kanileaukulele.com) is run by Kristen and Joe Souza. They give tours daily at 10:30 a.m. It is evident by the depth and detail of the tour that Joe is passionate about the ukulele and determined to make a quality instrument soon to be a family heirloom. Joe eagerly provides a wealth of information on the manufacturing process and what sets Kanilea apart from other Hawaiian “K Brand” ukulele makers. They have innovated advances in environmentally friendly finishing and engineered unique bracing methods for their ukulele. Each ukulele is a work of art, with options for ornamental accents and custom configurations. Joe will walk you through the entire Kanilea manufacturing process and you can watch these instruments being brought to life right before your eyes! To take a tour, call them at (808) 234-2868. The second factory that we visited was KoAloha Ukulele (www.koaloha.com) in Honolulu. Tours are available Monday through Friday at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., no reservation is required but we recommend you call ahead just to make sure. They can be reached at (808) 847-4911. The tour here was not as extensive as Kanilea. It was limited to the milling and assembly processes and did not include the finishing process. While there, you can see the world’s smallest playable ukulele (5 ½”) created by owner Alvin Okami who started the company as a maker of household plastic products, Precision Plastics Hawaii, before he began to build ukuleles in 1995. You can also see some of the other unique ukulele’s made by KoAloha such as the Pineapple Sunday, Sceptre, and Juke-a-lele ukuleles. Praised for their beauty, craftsmanship and sound quality, KoAloha ukuleles are selling out faster than the Okamis and their staff can make them. We have yet to visit the other two “K Brand” companies although we hope to very soon. Kamaka Ukulele (www.kamakahawaii.com) gives free guided tours every Tuesday through Friday at 10:30 a.m. The tour usually lasts about 30 minutes. Again we recommend that you call ahead of time to confirm the tour at 808-531-3165. Kamaka is the oldest ukulele maker in the islands. The original founder of the company Samuel Kamaka was an apprentice to Manuel Nunes. The last company is Ko’olau (www.koolauukulele.com) in Wahiawa. There is no set schedule for tours at Ko’olau so call them at 808-622-1064 to schedule one. They are free as well! The great thing about factory tours, besides learning about the instruments, is that all of them let you play their ukuleles in their showroom! It may be the only chance you and your family ever get to play a handmade ukulele that costs well into the thousands of dollars! This was a fun excursion for the family! Our toddler's interest waned towards the very end of the tours but he was fascinated by the showrooms and made sure that we played every ukulele for him before we left! So bring the family out and take a closer look at what it takes to make the most famous sound in the islands come to life!