The Revelator™ Q&A with Mike Upton and Pete Howlett
The Revelator™ by Kala is a true revelation of creative ukulele design and aesthetic. Handcrafted in the Kala Brand Music Co. Lutherie Studio in Petaluma, California, The Revelator™ is an “Acoustic Anomaly”—a slim line electro-acoustic ukulele that has all of the acoustic tone and volume of a full body ukulele. The instrument is as inspiring to view as it is to play.
Kala’s Luthier Team has collaborated with renowned U.K. Luthier Pete Howlett to craft The Revelator Ukulele in its Petaluma, California Lutherie Studio. Pete’s inspired design approach reflects over 30 years of experience and exploration handcrafting guitars and ukulele in his studio in Talysarn, Wales. In early 2023 the torch was passed to Kala Brand Music Co. for production and distribution of The Revelator Ukulele.
Our President and founder, Mike Upton sat down with Pete to learn more about the process and philosophy that led him to develop this unique and beautiful ukulele:
Mike Upton (MU): Hello, This is Mike Upton with Kala Ukulele, and I'm here with luthier Pete Howlett from Wales. It's a pleasure to have you here, Pete.
Pete Howlett (PH): It's a blast to be here, I can tell you!
MU: Pete's here with our luthiers in the shop, teaching them how to build a very special instrument that he's designed. And this is it, right here. (Holds up ukulele)
This is The Revelator™. This is Pete's design, and this is The Nautilus iteration. We're excited to be partnering with Pete on this project. Pete, first of all, how did you become interested [in being] a luthier and building musical instruments?
PH: Well, I wanted to actually be a luthier, or be a guitar maker when I was 15. By the time I was 17, I made an application to the London College of Furniture and unfortunately their guitar-making course was oversubscribed for two years. So I went to a teacher training college, which has a musical instrument making component in the craft department, and that's how I got there.
But I taught for five years, I made furniture for eight years and sold insurance for five and then decided that, yeah, time come right to be a maker. I got involved in making guitars for Shiro Arai of Aria guitars, and by chance met Collier Thielen in Arlington, Texas, and the rest is history.
MU: I met Collier years ago and he helped me at the beginning of Kala; Gave me some pointers about what makes a good ukulele, and it was very helpful to have that knowledge.
Tell me about the genesis of The Revelator. I know this has evolved over some time, but tell me how the idea came to you.
PH: Well, it started when I started making an electric ukulele. Most people, if they're going to make an electric instrument, use the solidbody and I didn't want to do that. And I had a pin router at the time - which was like a rocket ship when it started up - and filled the workshop with noise and dust and everything. And I made an instrument called the Firefly.
The Firefly was designed on a base by a guy in America called John Mica. I think his name is John Mica. I asked permission if I could use it, and he said, “Yeah”. And I chambered it. So it meant that there was an acoustic cavity there, but there was no soundhole. But everybody said, “Yeah, you know, this sounds really good acoustically”.
So I thought, Right, okay, I'm going to put a sound hole in this thing and see what it sounds like. From that point forward, I began to research ways of actually building this instrument, which coincided with an event in my life, which was Parkinson's. And what I found was that I needed to have a way of still building quality ukulele that didn't involve fine motor skills, which I am no longer capable of executing.
And that's where it came from. Three years ago, I started on this journey of having a basic design. I went to the Gulf of Canada Ukulele Festival, sold all of the instruments. Most of them went to ladies, and they just loved it. And so I thought, Well, this is worth looking at. I will reduce my standard catalog and concentrate on The Revelator.
MU: The instrument has some unique features, both visually and just in the design. Can you show us some of the features that make this unique?
PH: I think what most people comment on is the lightness of it. It's a very light instrument, but also is light because it's not very deep. The body itself is made from one piece of a jointed piece of wood and is machined out. So the cavity is created like that rather than bending the wood. The other thing is that we tend to use really highly figured wood for the fronts if we can get it and we focus on using korina.
Korina is black limba or afara and it’s a beautiful wood to machine. It's acoustically perfect for this type of instrument. The other thing is the true – Mike is in love with this, aren’t you Mike?
MU: I love the back of the instrument, the profile, the way the neck blends into the body, the curves. It is aesthetically just a beautiful instrument. For me, it's important for something to be beautiful as well as sound great.
PH: Way, way back when I was making guitars with a guy called Tony Revell, he had something called a Heelless Neck Joint, which was similar to this in his acoustic instruments, but it never quite worked for me. I wanted to have that sculptural transition, that kind of sexy thing at the back of the neck of the instrument - which not a lot of people get to see - but you get the feeling. It gives you real smooth transition to the opposite frets and stuff.
MU: I love the (if you would call it a) soundhole. Tell me about the thought behind that shape.
PH: It’s from research and I can never remember the guy's name… I think his name is Bowman and he has a guitar with this Nautilus type of teardrop thing here. And I thought, Well, I'll try that. I'll see what that looks like. And it worked. About this instrument; A lot of the things are just inspiration. I just thought, I'll try this and it just happened to work out right.
MU: Even the shape of the headstock I love. We found out yesterday, I think Marcos asked what the radius was, and you said, “Well, that's not quite the way you look at it”. Tell us about the headstock.
PH: The headstock is created using bezier curves, which means that you get to manipulate the actual shape of the curved surface . You can get it so that it's kind of not an ellipse and not quite an arc. And I just like to be able to manipulate that. It's not noticeable, it's just something I know.
MU: It's something that's understated, yet to me it stands out because it's a very pleasing shape. It's different [from] our normal Kala headstock. I'm glad to be able to adopt this to what is going to be now, the Kala Revelator, designed by Pete Howlett. It's exciting to have a unique instrument like this.
If we move on, maybe just for a time to the tone of the instrument, the sound. Tell me about that. Tell me about what you were looking for and how the sound of the ukulele may compare to other instruments.
PH: My standard instruments are known for three things: volume, intonation and tone. Therefore, I was really interested [in being] able to keep those elements in a unique instrument which shouldn't work. I mean, effectively, this shouldn't work as an instrument, should it? If you look at it…Because it's got thick sides, it's got a thick back.
In the course of my research, I discovered two things: One of the things which is really quite important is that the front is stressed. It’s kind of already under tension as it goes together and to use as little bracing in the actual instrument as possible. So it has a unique bracing pattern and a unique form of construction…Which is top secret, unfortunately. (Laughs). Don't want everybody copying it!
MU: I love the sound of it. It's very clear. It's very balanced. It's loud. It's got bass, it's got treble, it's got projection. You wouldn't believe that it was coming out of an instrument this thin, because you typically think that you need a little deeper body to produce the sound. But this is half the width, or maybe even less than half the width of a normal instrument.
Why The Revelator? What was the inspiration for the name, where did that come from?
PH: Well, I have a ukulele whisperer back in the UK who is capable of getting the essence of what I've done. I had a part of the ukulele, which he called the Marmite, because you either like or you don't. And if you're British, you'll understand what I mean. If you've ever had Marmite. It was either on one side of disgusting or another side of “That's kind of interesting. I'll try that again, maybe sometime, 20 years hence.”
But Paul Tucker said, you know, “It's a revelation. This instrument is really a revelator.” And the other thing, of course, is that my first iteration was called The Deacon. Being a man of faith, I wanted to name the last of my instruments and get them to have some sort of biblical affinity, because music is a heavenly thing.
Both Mike and I really love a guy called Blind Willie Johnson, and he has a song called The Revelator. “Who's that writin’? John the Revelator.” And that's how it came about. Just my interest in blues and early African-American music. And a chance idea by my good friend Paul Tucker, the ukulele whisperer. Used to be the manager of Southern Ukulele Store.
MU: Ah ha! Yes. Alex and Rob. Shout out to them! And I love Son House’s version of John the Revelator. I mean, a lot, you know, Government Mule. A lot of people have done it.
PH: Oh yeah, yeah.
MU: This is a little off topic - but since we're talking about the blues - I've heard you play both on ukulele and guitar some very cool old-timey blues. I grabbed my upright and we jammed a little bit last Friday, which is a thrill because…
PH: It's magical, that was just magic.
MU: That's just some of the best music. Reverend Gary Davis, Howlin' Wolf, you know, Blind Willie Johnson. Robert Johnson, of course.
PH: Stefan Grossman, who made the effort to transcribe that stuff. It was extremely popular in the U.K. Moreso in the U.K. than I think in the U.S. All the players are here, really. So, every time I play it, I think of a gravelly-voiced Blind Willie Johnson.
MU: Yeah, what a voice. If you haven't heard him, check him out!
Now, this [Revelator] has been out for several years, primarily in the U.K.. Tell me tell me how it's been received and what the comments have been about it.
PH: Well, as far as I know, my instruments have never sat on the shelf of a music store. And probably about a year and a half ago, I closed my order book, and sold exclusively through music stores and my Facebook page. So every time I made one and put it up on Facebook, about 2 hours later it was gone.
So they have sold very quickly, and I have been very blessed from that point of view, because of my situation in the ukulele-making world. People trust my brand. But the other thing is, of course, that it is such a good instrument and it's a versatile instrument, and I think that's what you really need at the end of the day. If you're going to spend a considerable amount of money on something, you need it so that it just doesn't do one thing.
I think that very often you get instruments and they just do one thing. You can tell that when you see a guitarist on stage and then the guitar tech comes on, gives another instrument. Another instrument. They’re swapping instruments, because they're trying to search for a sound within that instrument. I think this has something which suits every single style of playing, and every single genre of music.
When you plug it in, you can either have a sweet sound, or you put it through an effects pedal and loop with it and do all those lovely things.
MU: So they're all equipped with a pickup.
PH: Oh yeah, yeah, under-saddle pickup. Something I decided very early on was going to happen. My experience was that, when I was making boutique instruments, they would always ask for a pickup system.
PH: Even if they were just bedroom players, they would want a pickup system.
MU: It's good to have it in there. I agree completely.
Now, we don't have one here, but there is another iteration of The Revelator. Tell me about the other model.
PH: The Night Owl?
MU: That would be it!
PH: Well the Night Owl was the original design. What I wanted to do is use up a whole pile of spruce I had acquired from Kearney Hardwoods, or Kearney Softwoods at the Canadian-American border. So it has an elliptical soundhole here. The good thing about that instrument is that I can put binding on. I can bling it up, and it’s the model where you option for it.
Putting the spruce front on it was a complete revelation. This (Nautilus) has quite a good sustain, but [Night Owl has] a phenomenal sustain and it looks cool. We're going to experiment with some paint finishes. I'm really interested in the early Gibson guitar finishes used, and it was explained to me how they were done. We're going to be working with Frankie, the fantastic finisher that Kala has, to try and replicate these early finishes.
MU: Some exciting things coming down the pipe! What other woods have you used for either the Nautilus or the Night Owl either for top or for body that were interesting?
PH: Well, body-wise. I've only used the korina and Khaya Ivorensis. The equivalent of the macrophilia family of mahoganies: Brazilian mahogany, Honduras mahogany, Belize mahogany that we cannot get in the UK. But we can get the khaya which is the African version. Now, khaya is slightly denser than some of these American mahoganies.
The story of the actual wood is really quite interesting, because it came into the country in 1996, sat in a warehouse, and in the warehouse was mothballed. About three or four years ago, a guy got into an agreement with the owner of the warehouse where all this wood was stored, and he started selling it on eBay.
I got in touch with him, and then managed to crawl through stacks and stacks of wood and select the wood that I wanted. I like to use wood which is old. With mahogany, we pair that either with a sweet piece of figured mahogany for the top, or we’ve got to say the word, haven’t we? Koa.
MU: Yeah, people want koa, and we've got koa. We'll be releasing that in the future.
We also made a nice discovery, pulling out a bunch of stuff out of a storage container. We found three huge slabs of mango that we were using for the trade show display. You took a look at that and went, “AHHH!” And so you've immediately started slicing and dicing it. We will have a limited release of mango - all mango, neck, headstock, body, everything - figured mango.
PH: The interesting thing is, the figure was in the right place, right on the side of the board. The wood has been dried forever. When I cut wood, I mean, I have to say, I've written to Mike about it. I enjoy building an instrument. I enjoy getting the strings on to hear the sound of it. But the thing that I enjoy most is actually cutting out wood and working with that.
You can tell when you're cutting wood, if it's dry, if it's going to be any good, and how sweet it is and stuff. This mango just cut absolutely beautifully. No distortion, no springing away from the saw cut, just perfect for use.And normally we'd have to acclimate that for several months. But it's been stuck in the dark and lonely storage.
MU: It was crying out to us. I'm glad I finally opened that container!
PH: It was saying “Help - Let me out - I want to be a ukulele!”
MU: So we have a very limited supply, but we'll try to release maybe two or three a month, if we can fit that into the schedule upcoming. There's some other wood out there that we haven't quite got to, some chocolate acacia, some maples and there's all kinds of walnut.
PH: For the future, it's the weed that you have here, which is myrtle. It ends up in a chipper for most cases. I'm really anxious to get ahold of that for some body wood and trying an all-myrtle model. You talked about top woods; We've used the korina, koa, myrtle, some lovely walnuts.
But it’s possible to put anything on there. It's just got to be the ethos of the build. It has to be figured. It has to have something extraordinary about it. And if it doesn't, then it's not a Revelator. Because that's what I'm aiming for, and that's what we're aiming for with Kala; to produce an elite brand of instrument that has the best quality, the highest quality woods available to you and the highest methods of construction. We’re aiming at perfection, really, I think with this one.
MU: Well, we'll strive for it! We'll see where we get.
PH: I'm sure you will, I’ve met the team!