Wizard of Odd: ’60s Tombo 6-String Ukulet

What do you get when you cross a ukulele with a transistor radio?

Want to hear about one of the cutest little planks in the annals of guitar history? Say hi to the Tombo Ukulet (Photo 1)—an adorable electric ukulele that’s perfect for an informal beach party or poolside barbeque that demands some Hawaiian music.

The Ukulet was created by the Tombo Musical Instrument Company of Japan. Established in 1917, Tombo is still in business today, primarily making harmonicas. But back in the mid 1960s, the company jumped into the electric guitar frenzy with a line of sparkly, celluloid-bedecked full-sized axes sold exclusively through Norman Sackheim’s Strum & Drum company in Chicago, under the brand name of Norma.

I suppose a good player could coax compelling tones from the Ukulet’s unique blade pickup, given a nice amp and
some creative tunings.

Tombo, which translates to “Dragonfly,” had its own interesting take on electric instrument design that was clearly evident in its line of crazy and colorful basses and four-pickup guitars. Case in point: Back then, Tombo was the only Japanese guitar maker to offer orange sparkle guitars. Gonzo!

In May of 1965, Tombo released this granddaddy of all electric ukes. The company was advertising the heck out of its original Ukulet lines and there are all sorts of vintage-cool magazine ads to be found in the Japanese publications of the time. Unfortunately, Tombo’s contribution to guitar evolution was short-lived; within a year or two, they abandoned electric guitar and uke production.

But dig this lesson in efficiency: The handy case, which has some surprising hidden compartments, also doubles as a portable amp that can be powered by either batteries or AC (Photo 2). Pumping out about 4 watts, the amp sounds like an old transistor radio on steroids.

These Ukulets are exceedingly rare and were primarily sold in Japan. When you do find one, they’re usually of the 4-string variety, but leave it to yours truly to stumble upon a 6-string version. The scale length is approximately 17.5" and the whole instrument measures around 26". As I said, it’s just so cute—though it really looks odd strapped to my extra-large body. I honestly don’t know what to do with this little guy, other than add a layer of fuzz and make noise. But I suppose a good player could coax compelling tones from the Ukulet’s unique blade pickup, given a nice amp and some creative tunings. One thing is certain: This isn’t another Strat or Tele knockoff, and that alone makes me smile.

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