ST. PETERSBURG — To authorities on the ukulele and the musicians who have heard him play, it's not hyperbole: John King was the best in the world.
He trained himself to unheard-of levels in the ukulele after decades as a classical guitarist, playing Johann Sebastian Bach and John Philip Sousa on an instrument more often associated with songs like Tiptoe Through the Tulips.
Though he never finished college, Mr. King also emerged as a foremost historian of the ukulele, digging through dusty archives in Europe with the zeal of a treasure hunter. In the meantime, he taught classical guitar for 30 years at Eckerd College, influencing students with his blend of humor and gentle encouragement.
In his spare time, he scoured thrift shops for vintage Hawaiian shirts, of which he owned more than 400, or other bargains.
Mr. King died Friday at home, of an apparent heart attack. He was 55. He was finishing a history of the ukulele that he was co-authoring.
"There are hundreds of classical guitarists, but the number of people who can really play fine classical music at the level John could is only one — and that was John," said Jim Beloff, 53, owner of Flea Market Music, an online ukulele store. "I believe he was the finest in the world, and the finest we will ever see in a long time."
The son of a Navy pilot, Mr. King spent his childhood in Hawaii. His mother, who played the ukulele, introduced him to the tiny guitar-shaped instrument that is part of Hawaii's history.
He took his first guitar lesson at 11. He studied as an adult with classical guitarist Pepe Romero.
Mr. King joined the Eckerd College faculty in 1979, where he taught students how to cradle their guitars and press down on the strings, gently and firmly.
"A simple scale came out sounding beautiful; the line of a Bach chorale spoke of eternity, even in the hands of a novice," said Eckerd music professor Joan Epstein.
He pursued hobbies with the same vigor. In 1982, Mr. King bought an old Hawaiian shirt in a downtown thrift store for a dollar. He began to buy more and more, spending next to nothing and selling them for hundreds of dollars. He wore them most days of the year.
As Mr. King accumulated Hawaiian shirts, he also rediscovered the ukulele. He taught himself to play increasingly complex melodies. Music professors were stunned.
"Your first thought is, 'I can't believe he's playing that on the ukulele,' " said David Irwin, Eckerd's band conductor. "And your second thought is, 'That sounds great!' "
He played duets with other musicians, and transformed Siciliana — a Bach sonata written for flute and harpsichord — by switching out the harpsichord with a ukulele.
"In his arrangements, the ukulele is not just a little guitar," said Eckerd flute instructor Barbara Prescott, 58, who played the other half of that duet for nearly 20 years. "It's more like a little harp."
Mr. King became a foremost scholar on the ukulele and its precursor, the machete. In recent years, he scoured archives in Spain and Portugal for music.
"He was the world authority," said Epstein, 55. "He confirmed what I guess historians knew but was seldom publicized, that the instrument we call a ukulele was not native to Hawaii."
Mr. King's death came early Friday.
"I went to the bathroom and came back and he was in distress," said his wife, Debi, 55. "There was no warning at all."
Asked to play the flute at his funeral service, Prescott chose the Siciliana, this time as a solo.
"In this situation," Epstein said, "you couldn't help but supply John's missing notes, in the silences and underneath."
Staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]