Thrilling Discovery Adds New Chapter to Hawaii's Importance in Acoustic Body Development

The origins of the dreadnought acoustic lie, as it turns out, in the Aloha State.
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Kilin Reece with the Martin Custom Shop Kealakai.

Kilin Reece with the Martin Custom Shop Kealakai.

Hawaii has a storied musical history that includes numerous significant contributions to the guitar’s popularity. Now a thrilling discovery adds a new chapter to the Aloha State’s importance in acoustic body development. While working closely with the Martin Custom Shop to recreate a unique instrument made more than a century ago for Hawaiian maestro Mekia Kealakai, master luthier Kilin Reece of KR Strings in Oahu discovered a precursor to the dreadnought body style.

In last month’s Frets Learn column about acoustic body sizes, I wrote that Martin’s official introduction of the dreadnought in 1931 was the big-body shot heard ’round the world. I also explained that Martin had originally produced the dreadnought for the Boston-based Oliver Ditson brand quite a few years earlier, in 1916. But what led Ditson to order the big-bodied guitar in the first place?

According to Reece, in 1915 Martin built an “extra-large jumbo guitar” for Mekia Kealakai, who was touring the vaudeville circuit and making several notable appearances to represent Hawaii at the World’s Fair. Acoustic Hawaiian ensembles of the era included horns and woodwinds, so Kealakai needed extra volume. Martin responded with a custom version of its 12-fret triple 0, with a wider, deeper and longer body. 

Jimmy Leslie tries out the Kealakai.

Jimmy Leslie tries out the Kealakai.

As it happens, a Ditson rep was at Martin’s factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, when he noticed the new design and asked if a bigger instrument could be made for his company as well. The dreadnoughts Ditson ordered soon afterward would also have 12 frets to a body with similar width and depth, but with a slightly less tapered waist. The rest of the dreadnought’s story is well documented, and now its precursor will be as well.

After Reece met with Chris Martin IV in 2016 to present his findings, Martin agreed to check back on the specifics of Mekia Kealakai’s order from 1915 to make a faithful recreation. The Martin Custom Shop created two examples of the Kealakai, one of which Reece has on Oahu. The guitar is scheduled to be displayed in a musical exhibition Reece will curate at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, alongside the dreadnought guitars of Johnny Cash and slack-key guitarists Gabby and Cyril Pahinui. Martin’s head honcho is scheduled to appear at the opening ceremony in April 2020, with many notable guitarists.

Taj Mahal recently performed with Reece’s copy of the Kealakai when he was on Oahu, and I was fortunate enough to check it out first hand as well as at Reece’s house in Kailua. What an incredible instrument! The Kealakai sits comfortably on the lap and naturally facilitates fingerstyle playing, as you’d expect from a guitar based on a 12-fret triple 0, but the undercurrent of low end is uniquely impressive. “It’s like a dreadnought, only sweeter,” Reece says. Reece is currently working on a documentary film about Kealakai under the working title Finding Mekia. Stay tuned for further Frets coverage in GP about the historic career of Mekia Kealakai when the film is completed.