John King

John King  (1953-2009)

The man who pioneered classical ukulele and the campanela style of playing. King originally learnt to play the ukulele as a child. Not content to just strum he took up classical guitar. His teachers included maestro Pepe Romero. While studying works originally written for the baroque guitar King realised that the campanela technique these composers used would be very effective on the ukulele. By placing the melodic notes across the strings, thus allowing the notes to ring on and over each other, a bell-like sound is created. Hence the name campanela, or little bells. The high G, re-entrant tuning of the ukulele is particularly suited to this technique. King recorded two CDs. One comprising of arrangements of works by JS Bach and the other arrangements of Hawaiian music.

John King was also interested in the history of the ukulele. He and Jim Tranquada wrote the most comprehensive and well researched history of the ukulele to date. Please see below for details. King’s Nalu Music website remains an invaluable resource of ukulele history and anecdotes.

King was also one of the first people outside Madeira to play the machete de braga, or braguinha. This little 4 string guitar is directly related to the ukulele. Here’s what Richard Long said about John King and the machete:

John and I played machete-and-guitar concerts all over California and a couple in Portugal, the music of an obscure but charming composer named Cândido Drumond de Vasconcelos. John got the music (an 1846 manuscript, probably from Funchal) from the Portuguese musicologist Manuel Morais. The harmony was old-fashioned for 1846 but rich in melodies. John also had a machete method manuscript that he found in the case of an old instrument. (He had to buy the instrument to get the manuscript!) The machete itself was unplayable, but he had a beautiful copy made by a luthier he knew, a specialist in ukuleles. John mastered the unusual right-hand techniques, especially the thumb strokes (up-and-down!); he was an amazing player. And it was definitely music no one had heard before. Shortly after he died, another manuscript of machete music turned up, but we never had a chance to play through it. We were planning a recording, but that also never happened. Several of the California concerts were taped and we also played for radio stations in SF and LA, so there are recordings here and there. I know there are several concert excerpts from California and at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon on YouTube, usually with the camera fixed on John (that’s me accompanying off camera).


Photo courtesy of Richard Long.


On a personal note I would like to say that it is thanks to John King that my interest in classical ukulele was sparked. Watching his performances on Youtube made me appreciate the potential of the ukulele. I hope that this website will help to propagate John King’s belief that the ukulele should be taken seriously as a musical instrument.

Music Books

Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Masters: John King, The Classical Ukulele (book / CD) published by Flea Market Music

Famous Solos and Duets for the Ukulele edited & arranged by John King, published by Mel Bay


The ‘Ukulele: A History by Jim Tranquada and John King, published by University of Hawaii Press 2012