Martin routinely goes to marathon lengths to celebrate its history. Not surprisingly, the oldest surviving maker of guitars in the world has taken great pains to accurately replicate the Konter Uke, an acoustic artifact that went to the edge of the planet and back. The original Martin Style 1 K ukulele is one of the most valuable and carefully examined ukes on the planet, thanks to its rich and storied history. Richard Konter, a.k.a. Ukulele Dick, took the instrument along on Admiral Richard Byrd’s arctic sailing expedition in 1926. Pilot Floyd Bennett smuggled it under his seat on the first airplane to fly over the North Pole, and Konter subsequently had Byrd’s entire crew sign it.
Upon his return to the U.S., Konter continued to gather notable signatures on the ukulele, including those of U.S. president Calvin Coolidge, inventor Thomas Edison, and aviators Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. In 1952, he exchanged the ukulele for a new Martin dreadnought, and the instrument now sits in the Martin Guitar Museum and Visitor Center in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Introduced in mid 2018 as part of Martin’s 185th anniversary celebration, the Konter replica includes re-creations of all 155 signatures, plus a replica of the original interior label.
The Martin Style 1 K is a soprano ukulele, the smallest of the four main body styles, but the Konter is small even by soprano standards. For perspective, consider that it’s actually sitting on the edge of a music stand as I write this review. It was wild to get such a small box from Martin in the mail and find inside a fantastic miniature hardshell case containing the beautiful and endlessly interesting little uke inside. (The instrument ships with a copy of Larry Bartram and Dick Boak’s historical account, A Stowaway Ukulele Revealed.) The Konter’s all-koa back, top and sides appear well aged and, ironically, the ukulele looks more like it washed ashore from a Hawaiian island than from the North Pole. The replicated signatures and inscriptions are laser-etched in painstaking detail, and include notes such as, “Left Kings Bay Spitsbergen for North Pole May 9th, ’26; 1:28 am, Returned 5:38 pm same date. 15 hrs & 52 mins, 1,520 miles round trip.” Each view reveals new discoveries. In fact, the Konter is so visually compelling that it’s easy to forget you can actually play this incredible conversation piece.
The Konter’s hallmark is a vivacious, boisterous sound with astonishing volume that belies its diminutive size. It rings out so loud and steely that it sounds almost like some sort of resonator uke to my ears. The old-fashioned violin-style peg tuners work well, and it’s super-easy to play. The Konter is well suited for strumming simple chords and leading sing-alongs, not for showing off the tricky licks you’ve picked up studying Jake Shimabukuro. I got a chance to compare the Konter to a whole wall of Martin ukuleles at the 2019 Winter NAMM Show, and I can say with certainty that it’s in a league of its own. If you’re looking for something inexpensive, balmy-sounding or with modern playability attributes, check out Martin’s myriad other offerings. If you’re a history buff who’s interested in an adventurous-sounding instrument that beautifully replicates one of the most iconic Martin ukes ever made, look no further than the Konter.
Konter Ukulele Style 1
PRICE $1,999 street
NUT WIDTH 1.406", black Tusq
FRETBOARD East Indian rosewood, 13.614" scale length
TUNERS Black planetary-gear peg heads
BODY Koa back, sides, and top
FACTORY STRINGS Martin Ukulele Premium Soprano
WEIGHT .6 lbs
KUDOS The ultimate conversation piece. Astonishingly loud for such small size. Fab hardshell case to keep it safe
CONCERNS Super-lively tone a bit on the bright side