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22.4.15

Going Electro Ukulele Should Cost You MORE Not The Same

There seems to be an awful lot of discussion at the moment in social media circles about people wanting to amplify their ukuleles. I see this generally as a positive thing as I suspect it means they are wanting to perform live. I say 'generally' because amplifying just for the sake of volume is probably not a great reason, but there you go.


ukulele pickup system

I have talked before about amplification options so I won't repeat all of that here. In short though you have a couple of main choices - either to use a microphone in front of the instrument (and that will give you hands down the most authentic tone reproduction) or using a pickup inside the instrument. The pickup option has its downsides, particularly if they are cheap, but with a good quality one and the right amplifier you can get a very pleasing tone from them. In fact the lions share of professionals you will see on festival stages perform with pickups this way. There are people who perform with microphones too of course and they sound great, but for many the versatility of a pickup system is the ability to move around and not be tied to the microphone coupled with a big reduction in feedback on stage. I suppose your type of act will come into play here as to what suits you better.

I do however see something of a worrying trend for people to aim to the lowest possible price on electro ukes and I think there are all sorts of consequences here. You see, if you are purely driven by the overall price of a package, then you must be cutting corners somewhere. Going down the electro route should cost you MORE money I am afraid.

Lets consider an example. Ukulele player Joe has a budget of $200 to buy an instrument with. He sees a range of acoustic instruments he likes for $200. He then spies an acoustic electro instrument, ready fitted with a pickup system for $200. Which is most likely to be the better instrument? Now, I know other things come into play here, and the underlying playability of the uke is what matters most of all, but bear with me - lets consider all things are equal. Whilst the electro may seem like a good deal, corners have surely been cut? The pickup itself and the process of fitting it comes at a price and if the overall uke is the same price as a purely acoustic instrument, where has the saving been made to keep the price low?

The answer is usually in the two most crucial things. Firstly in the construction of the underlying uke itself, which is, of course, critical, but also in the quality of the pickup. Not all pickups are equal!

If you really do want to plug in you need to be happy that the pickup will do its job properly or why bother in the first place? And very sadly there are some shocking examples of poor quality cheap pickups out there as the ever more aggressive drive to cheapen the ukulele shows no signs of stopping.

People may say 'oh but it sounds fine' based on their experience playing them through a £30 battery powered 2.5W amp, but that's really not much of a test. Try recording with it, try playing it through a stage PA system and then ask yourself if it sounds fine. And when you listen - ask yourself - does this sound as nice as it does unplugged? You see, cheap pickup systems can often leave the uke sounding thin and 'electric' and not really very acoustic.

There is something else that comes in to play here too, and thats the reference point that makes people to claim that they 'sound fine'. Even the cheapest pickup will make some sort of musical noise, it may even sound vaguely like a ukulele. But if all you have ever played is that one cheap pickup you happen to own, how can you compare it to a better quality system? In other words, I'd argue that most of those who think they 'sound fine' just haven't heard how nice a better quality pickup can sound.

So in this area I would advise NOT to skimp on cost. You don't get anything for nothing in this world and if you are wanting to consider the electro route add more money to your budget rather than looking for a saving.

So what are the downsides to a cheap pickup? Well, often the cheap models come pre fitted with electronics whacked in the side of the ukulele. They do this, I believe, to give the player less things to worry about (i.e. you just plug in and go), but they do so at another expense. Not only do I think they look ugly, they add weight to the ukulele and create a big, non reversible hole in the side!  All that extra wiring and circuitry also adds complexity to something that should be simple and gives more opportunity for faults, buzzes and noise. Those extra electronics are just not needed and I have blogged before on the fact that a simple passive strip and a nice pre amp will give you a far more reliable and decent tone.

But the main gripes come with the quality of the pickup strip and the way they are fitted. Piezo strips used for most pickups are not complex things, but they do come in quality and bargain basement flavours. A cheap strip will tend to give a harsh thin sound, but, particularly where coupled with an active control system on the side of the uke, can introduce unwanted noise to the signal (hum, crackles, and a plain muddy sound). Personally, I prefer my tone to be as clean and simple as possible. The other thing that cheap systems are plagued by is them being fitted on a tight budget. I have lost count of the amount I have played that give an uneven sound across the strings - basically some strings are amplified louder than others. Fitting an under saddle pickup is a fiddly business and it is essential they are carefully fitted to give a balanced sound. That kind of careful fitting just doesn't happen in a Chinese factory where ukes are being manufactured to the lowest price point possible.

So as always on Got A Ukulele, this is an advice post, not a 'you must do it this way' instruction. You are entitled to buy what you want and to fit what you want. My advice however is that if you are going down the pickup route, that small strip or transducer then becomes the most important link in the chain between the uke and the amplifier. Why would you want to skimp on that?

18.4.15

Top Ten Tips for Ukulele Beginners

Surprised myself that I have never done a simple top tips for ukulele beginners post. So, considering I like lists, let's have a go at that.


Ukulele tips


1. Try to 'Try Before You Buy'.

If you really can, do try to at least visit some kind of music store to have a feel for the ukulele. Play the different scales and listen to their differing tones. Listen to their volume and clarity of tone. Trust your own ears in what you buy! For some though, stores are just too far away, and that is where impartial review sites are just for you! This video will probably help you too.

2. Keep it simple to start with

When you get home with your first ukulele you will probably find the urge to print off a song sheet for your favourite song is hard to resist. The fact that song may have many chords and some complex ones at that is really not going to help you on your way. Keep it simple with some two or three chord songs that you already know well (Nursery Rhymes, simple well known tunes like 'Happy Birthday') and get to grips with them. Learn the basic chord forms and focus some of your practice on repetitive moving from one chord to another. That action will build muscle memory of the most common chord shapes and will pay dividends down the line.

3. Be comfortable.

Work out how you like to hold the ukulele the best. Whether that is sitting or standing is up to you. If you are not comfortable with it, it is going to work against your development as a player. If you really struggle, ignore those who say a strap is the work of the devil - if you play better using a strap, then use a strap! This may help you too.

4. Start to take car of those nails

Fingertips are what it's all about with the ukulele whether strumming or fretting. On the fretting hand, keep the nails short and neat to allow clean fretting on the strings. For the strumming or picking hand don't be afraid to let the nails grow out if you can - they make a great sound. You really only need to grow nails a little on the thumb, first, middle and ring fingers. Don't be shocked that as you practice the nails may wear or get sore. It's normal, and they do improve. If you do have really weak nails, try a false nail that can be fitted at a nail bar for very little money.

5. Learn how the ukulele works

The ukulele is a tool to make music and certain parts of it are designed to be adjusted. The main one that surprises me people don't learn from the start is how to change strings. Changing strings is  part of ukulele ownership and you shouldn't be afraid to do it. I hear horror stories of people who have had their strings on for 18 months! NO!

6. Play with other people

One of the great things about the ukulele is how sociable it is. The advantage to playing with others is not just the fun that can be had but that it REALLY will help you develop your playing skills. Find a local club nearby and get over to them. No local clubs? Think about starting one!

7. Be careful with strumming patterns. Rhythm is key

Some people seem unable to even contemplate learning even the most simple songs without a strumming pattern telling them exactly how to strum up and down and when. That really isn't making music. Worse still, if you focus your efforts on that without learning basic rhythm patterns, timing and the ability to change chords in line with those timings, you are not going to progress particularly well. Again, keep it simple, and worry about complex patterns when you are sure you can keep a beat and change between most chords at ease and in time with the beat.

8. A light touch

One of the most common complaints from beginners is the sore fingers they develop on the fretting hand. To a point this is perfectly natural and is a pain you have to go through as you build strength and callouses. But some of the strain comes from a natural tendency when learning to grip the neck of the ukulele like your life depends on it. It really isn't needed. All you need is enough pressure on the strings to engage them cleanly to the frets and nothing more.  A lighter touch is hard to get your head around at first, but DO be conscious of it. Playing with a lighter fretting touch is not only easier on finger strain, but allows for faster chord and note changes too.

9. Don't be afraid to record yourself

I know that it's one of those things that may people hate. I mean, some people hate the sound of their own recorded voice, but recording yourself in practice is a great way to review what you did, spot mistakes and give you something to 'better' next time. You don't need a full on TV studio to do it, most laptops have webcams now, or even your mobile phone. Try it, its fun!

10. Fun

The best way to end. The ukulele is supposed to be enjoyable. Make sure you do. If it doesn't move you in some way positive then you are doing it wrong. If you are enjoying it then that will show through in your practice.

Enjoy! What are your favourite tips?


15.4.15

The Ukulele Busker, David Cameron and The Occasional Madness of the Ukulele Community

So I toyed with doing a piece about this story in the press. Thought against it, but then started to notice some craziness in the ukulele community and felt that a prominent uke blog should say something about it all. If you don't know what I am talking about, see this short video clip of ukulele player Robin Grey and his protest in front of the Prime Minister David Cameron (NSFW)




Now, this is not a political blog post - my political choices are between me and the ballot box, but I will say this. Political protest against our elected Members of Parliament is a right I think we should preserve absolutely in the country. These people work for and serve us as citizens and we have a right to mock them if we wish. For the record, I would support Robins ability to do what he did regardless of the political party in question.

But that is missing the real point of why I have chosen to blog about it. You see as well as Robin hitting the headlines, he has unwittingly stirred up a quite a few rather choice views about the ukulele that worry me greatly. These are not 'one off' views, but some quite common themes I have seen over the last couple of days. Many people, including me, saw the funny side of this and, as I say, his right to protest against the PM however he likes. But it's odd how such an act can bring out what I think is the worst in the so called 'happy ukulele world'.

One of the worst suggestions was along the lines that this sort of thing is not suitable for the ukulele. Now, forgive me if I am wrong, but I personally must have missed the rule book that stated that only certain things could be played on the ukulele.... This is HIS instrument and he can play what HE likes on it. On a couple of discussions I read on this point there was a suggestion that he had 'let down the ukulele community', that the ukulele should be about 'love and happiness' and other such nonsense. Sure, people have a right to express their own feelings about it, but please stop short of telling people what they should and shouldn't play on their instrument. It's none of your business.

Lets break down some of the objections a little further. First of all we have the language he used. I have seen people claiming it was 'offensive' and 'aggressive'. Offensive to some maybe, but aggressive? In reality his performance is clearly in a satirical jokey manner - he is not making any physical threats to David Cameron - he is singing a jokey tune on a ukulele delivered in a kind of dead pan humorous way. I personally don't see a lot of aggression here.  Besides that, if he hadn't used a swear word, the video would never have become popular and as political protest was his aim, would have been pointless. The swearing IS the point of it. But please don't suggest that the whole country is going to hell because he used the F word. And really, PLEASE don't suggest that it is against the rules to swear whilst holding a ukulele (or any musical instrument for that matter). Again - none of your business.

Another interesting argument put forward was that he is not a very good player / singer. I think that kind of misses the point of why he did what he did. Besides the fact that whether he can play or sing is a completely subjective viewpoint anyway, he was not there to show off his 'Jake like skills' , he was there to protest to the Prime Minister and happened to be a ukulele player. The fact that he was playing a ukulele is almost kind of irrelevant, but it did help to make the story. It also led to so many ukulele players getting upset too though..

Why am I going on about this then? Well, it comes across to me as something of a continuing and growing theme in the ukulele world. People who are quick to publicly tell people what they should and should not do with the ukulele. Note, I am not talking about views on taste here. I accept that many people won't like what Robin did, and that is their right. But I am really more concerned with anyone who says that this should not be 'allowed',  is not right for the ukulele, or has brought some form of shame on the community. It's in the same league as those who will berate anyone who plays ukulele in a different style to something traditional, mocks those who use straps or picks or just generally thinks that they control the rule book. There is no rule book.

It's growing and regular readers of this blog will have seen my various rants on the subject before. Telling people how they should hold or play the instrument is one thing, but this episode launched a whole new raft of opinions that I personally should have been kept to themselves.

In short - people can play what they want how they want on THEIR instrument. You might not like it, but please don't suggest they are wrong for doing so.

And this from the same people tho claim that their ukulele world is so happy and loving. Yeah right....

13.4.15

The Most Viewed Ukulele Videos On YouTube

So, just because it sounded kind of fun, I thought I would look up the most watched ukulele videos on YouTube.  There certainly is something about the ukulele, perhaps more so than other instruments these days, that makes people keen to point a camera on themselves to perform. But what is getting all the hits?


Well with a search for the term 'UKULELE', in the number one spot with a whopping 64 million views, we have the most over played song on the ukulele ever, played by a cute kid.



Hot on his heels with over 19 million views we have.... Another cute kid and another massively over played ukulele song..



In at number three. With 15 million views, it's..... a kid on a ukulele. Sensing a pattern here?



At number four we have an adult at last, and who else? Jake Shimabukuro. Strangely, he does look kind of baby faced too I always find. He clearly can't match the cute kids on the vocals though as he keeps his mouth shut... Nearly 14 million views



And in fifth place, thankfully another adult. Sadly another cover of that damn 'I'm Yours' song. Admittedly a nice enough one though.




Incidentally, in the 6th to 10th place slots we have a touch more variety (including the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain) but two MORE children and one more cover of I'm Yours.

Read in to all that what you will. For me, if aliens from another world visited planet Earth and looked at this posting as a means to understand our culture, I think they would reach a few of conclusions

1. That ukulele masters are actually children and we are somehow born with innate ability to play which diminishes as we get older
2. That there are a small number of adults who retain that gift, but they lose the power to sing...
3. That Jason Mraz is a cultural GOD worshipped on four strings the world over.

And, now, I'm depressed...

6.4.15

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano Ukulele REVIEW

A new brand for me, and quite a looker. Brought to you by Snail Ukuleles, this is their UKS-220 Rosewood Laminate Soprano.

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele


Snail brand ukuleles are fairly new to me. In fact I have been aware of them for a couple of years, but don't think they were being widely distributed in the UK. That now seems to have changed, and this is available from Omega Music where this one is on loan to me from.

The UKS-220 is a pretty standard shaped and sized soprano ukulele built from laminate wood with a rosewood outer veneer. It comes in at a penny under £85 and includes a gig bag (more on that later).

First things first - this one has, in my opinion, looks to die for. Sure it's a laminate so not solid Rosewood, but the darkness of the outer veneer is not only something slightly unusual in the world of ukuleles, but it contrasts so perfectly with the lighter coloured edge binding that I think it just looks extremely classy.

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele  body


The body is finished in a satin coating which allows some of the grain pores in the outer veneer to show through the finish. This is a good thing in my view as I am not a fan of laminates that are finished so thoroughly that they almost look fake. This looks like wood. And the finish is pretty flawless too. There isn't a mark or rough spot on it anywhere that I can see.

But let's look at that binding first of all. I must say, it comes as something of a surprise at this price point to see that it is not plastic. It's actually made of individual pieces of contrasting lighter woods set in place. It appears on both the top and back edges and I think looks really, really smart and reminiscent of something from a much higher end instrument.

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele binding


Around the sound hole too, we have wooden inlay, and not a transfer. It's interesting to see a normal round sound hole here as on some other Snail instruments I have seen, the sound hole has been Snail shaped. I must say, I think this is better for the normal sound hole. I think the snail shaped ones were overly quirky and also looked a little fragile to me.

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele sound hole


Otherwise on the top, we have a rosewood tie bar style bridge mount which is very neat and tidy and fitted with a plastic saddle piece. I'd expect plastic at this price, but to be honest I never think they make all that much difference.

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele bridge


The back is very slightly arched, and the sides are made from two pieces.

The quality of construction can also be seen when looking inside the instrument. The bracing and kerfing is neat and thin and a look at the edge of the soundboard shows that this is NOT an over built instrument. That should mean for a light body, better resonance and projection. I particularly liked the makers label inside which is not printed on a paper sticker, but rather is a piece of wood that has the details burned into it in pyrographics.

The neck is made from hardwood and I suppose a little bit of a let down on the looks department when compared to the body. It's made from three pieces, with a joint at the heel and the headstock, but thankfully it is topped with a very nice uniform piece of rosewood for the fingerboard. It's not a bound fingerboard, but fitted very neatly, as are the 14 nickel silver frets which have no rough edges at all.

We have pearloid finger position markers set into the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces, but sadly there are no side markers for the player. Why do they continue to miss those off?

The nut is neat and looks easily removable for adjustment. That's a bonus that I don't think you see enough of on ukuleles and I despise nuts that are layered with loads of gloss and finish as removing them is likely to mess up the finish on the headstock. Not here.

I adore the headstock for a couple of reasons. First, it's faced in that same dark rosewood, but also because it eschews the 'easy' choice of a Martin headstock copy and goes with a shape of it's own. I also like the logo as they didn't go for a transfer, but rather an engraved Snail logo. Flip the headstock over and you have another logo and the serial number, also engraved. Nice.

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele headstock


Tuners seem decent quality and smooth. They are silver sealed but unbranded tuners, but the buttons are small enough and finished in a black rubberised coating which feels nice on the fingers.

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele tuners


Finishing the deal are a set of Aquila New Nylgut strings and a padded gig bag with shoulder straps and a Snail logo. As gig bags go, this is a nice one and a far cry from some of the nylon things you see with cheaper instruments (and better than no bag at all).Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele gig bag


So there we have a it. A great price, striking looks, really nice looking construction. How does it sound though?

Well first of all, that light construction makes for a nice balanced light weight instrument. This bodes well.

The first thing that strikes you is an impressive volume for a small laminate instrument. It really does have a good bite to it (a good thing with a soprano) and some reasonable sustain too.

In fact it has a voice that is what you would expect a typical soprano to sound like. Bright, punchy, jumpy and really rather impressive. The setup on this helps, as do the Aquila strings no doubt, but I do think the light construction and thin laminate is coming in to play here. It's resonant, responsive and a lot of fun to play.

Sure, it's not going to win in a contest against a high end solid Hawaiian soprano, but it's not trying to be that sort of instrument. It doesn't have the complex harmonics that those instruments will provide, but it's not a bad tone at all. In fact I've heard worse on more expensive solid wood sopranos which sounded dead. What it is, is a very well made, nice sounding and looking instrument at a great price.

Snail UKS-220 Rosewood Soprano ukulele wooden binding


I am finding it hard to fault for the price. Yes, for £100 -£125 ish you can just about get into solid wood ukuleles, but it won't look as nice as this and really, there is nothing wrong with the tone of this. Another fine example of what really can be done with laminates if a company puts the effort and quality control in.

In fact I'll be bolder. Whilst I know that money is tight for many people, I think the days of me recommending £30 ukes are really gone. I mean, £85 for an instrument that plays as well as this does, looks this nice, comes with a gig bag - well really - it's not a huge amount of money for a musical instrument is it?

Highly recommended. Good choice Omega!

PROS

Looks
Volume
Sustain
Build quality

CONS

No side markers

SCORES

Looks - 9.5
Fit and Finish - 9
Sound - 8
Value For Money - 9

OVERALL - 8.9 Out of 10

VIDEO REVIEW


31.3.15

Got A Ukulele Spring Competition - Win a Moselele Electro Concert!

COMPETITION CLOSED - WATCH THIS SPACE FOR MORE PRIZE DRAWS!


Time for another competition giveaway courtesy of Got A Ukulele and the fine folks at Moselele. Yes, you can win yourself a Moselele solid bamboo electro concert complete with gig bag!


Moselele ukulele giveaway

I do try to mix up how to enter my competitions, so this one is available on Facebook.  You may have seen my recent review of this model of uke - http://www.gotaukulele.com/2015/03/moselele-solid-electro-concert.html Well - now one could be yours!!

RULES

1. Go to the Got A Ukulele Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/GotAUkulele
2. Like the Facebook page
3. Find the competition post with the image above in it and Share that post to your timeline

That's it really. Sorry but due to some horror stories with international shipping, this is open to people in the UK and EU ONLY!!

Competition closes on 19 April 2015 and after that date I will make a random draw from the names. You must have shared the post and have liked the page to enter!!

Please read the terms below and GOOD LUCK!

1. Competition  ends at midnight GMT on 19 April 2015
2. To be eligible for the draw you must enter have liked the Got A Ukulele Facebook page and shared the competition post to your timeline.
3. I reserve the right to reject entries that are duplicates, offensive or anything else unsavoury!  My decision on this is final.
4. After the draw day, a winners name will be drawn from a hat (or hat shaped receptacle).  My decision on the winnersis final and no correspondence will be entered into.
5. The winner will be selected within 7 days of the draw day, and will be announced on this site.  I will also contact the winner by Facebook and they will need to provide a postal address for shipping.
6. This prizes have no alternative cash value.
7. No purchase necessary
8.  No responsibility can be accepted for entries that are lost or delayed, or which are not received for any reason
9. The prize is not transferable to another person
10. The prize  will be shipped to the winner direct. Got A Ukulele, Moselele or Barry Maz are not responsible for carriage of the prize and cannot be held responsible for problems with delivery. Your shipping address is critical as this is where the prize will be sent!
11. Got A Ukulele will NOT use any personal data submitted by you in entering this competition except as required under the terms of this competition
12. Got A Ukulele reserves the right to substitute, in their reasonable discretion, the prize with a prize of equal value

29.3.15

Grand Northern Ukulele Festival - A Main Stage Preview

Well, only about a couple of months to go before one of the worlds most 'feel good' ukulele festivals takes place in Huddersfield. Time, I think, for a preview of some of the leading acts on show this year.


The trouble with this post though, there are so many acts performing this year, that I couldn't possibly feature them all in one post. Your browser and your internet connections wouldn't thank me.... So first up, let's take a look at some of the headliners for 2015.

Grand Northern Ukulele Festival logo


Manitoba Hal Brolund

A regular in the headline slot in festivals all around the world, and a top end performer. Hal has a natural 'blues gift' that transcends the ukulele he chooses to play it on. I've featured him on Got A Ukulele before which was a joy! Not to be missed.

Here he is performing at the UK's Southern Ukulele Store last year.




Sarah Maisel

Sarah made her UK debut in 2013 and absolutely blew the audiences away. Another Got A Ukulele interviewee, and another performer who not only oozes talent but is one of the nicest people you would ever meet. Can't wait to see her again.

Here she is performing in the UK in 2014. Sublime.



The Quiet American

The Quiet American are husband and wife duo Aaron and Nicole Keim from the USA, who deliver a great set of old time Americana with some style. I've not yet seen them live or met them, so I am really looking forward to this one.

Check out the video what also includes Keim Jr!



Craig Chee

Whilst understandably associated with Sarah Maisel since he became engaged to her (!), Craig has been an extremely well known name in his own right on the ukulele circuit and someone else I will be meeting for the first time this year.

Have a listen to him performing with Sarah and Ukulele Undergrounds own Aldrine Guerrero here.



Phil Doleman

Where would a UK festival be without an appearance from one of the UK's best loved stars - Phil Doleman? A real 'players player' and a jolly good egg too. Cover star of the new UKE Magazine as well don't you know?

Here he is at last years Uke East festival in Norwich.



Zoë Bestel

When she performed at her first ukulele festival last year at GNUF 2014 she absolutely knocked the audience sideways. I should know, I was there! A true rising star who is going to go on to great things in the world of music.

Oh boy that voice!


And there you go - she says herself that the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival was the best festival she has ever played at EVER! Wise words Zoë!

So that's about it for this main stage round up - but there are 30 plus artist in total across several stages. Really something for everyone. Hope I may see you there!

I know that tickets may well have run out now - but now it's time to book your Workshops!!

http://northernuke.com

What Do You Mean by 'Over Built' Ukuleles?

You may have noticed me use the term 'Over Built' when describing my thoughts on particular ukulele models. What do I mean by that and why should you be concerned?

Martin T1K Tenor Ukulele
Martin T1K - an example of a well made, thin resonant solid wood ukulele. Bags of volume!


There are a variety of factors that come in to play that influence how a ukulele is going to play and sound, and it certainly goes beyond the usual suspects that people focus on of 'solid tone woods and strings'. You see no matter how nice a piece of tone wood has been used in the construction of the instrument, it is always going to let you down with its sound if it has been badly built. And 'Over Built' is a term I use to describe the heavier built ukuleles, most commonly put out by the cheaper end ukulele brands looking to provide a solid wood offering (because people assume they are 'better').

Now we have talked before on here about the huge myth that surrounds solid woods and laminates (and the horrible tendency for some to buy cheap solid wood ukes and immediately claim they are automatically better than any laminates) so we won't go over all that again. But it does tend to be the preserve of those cheaper 'buy me!!! I'm SOLID wood' types of instrument that exist.

Generally speaking a good sounding ukulele needs a nice mix of tonal clarity and volume projection and those things come in a large part from the way it has been built. More specifically in how the sound board wood has been finished and then braced. In a perfect world a ukulele would have very thin woods in the soundboard and the bracing that keeps the soundboard in one piece, but it's a balancing act between keeping things light and not creating an instrument that will implode and split under the tension from the strings. This is why good laminate ukes can be much thinner, as the laminate wood is naturally stronger.

Think of the sound box of the ukulele as a taut drum, and in part it is the tension of those strings keeping the sound board top (the bit that does most of the work) tight and resonant. It's the vibration of the strings travelling down through the bridge and creating vibrations in that taut sound board that gives the ukulele it's tone and projection. Consider an over built ukulele as being like a drum that has a bunch of old rags stuffed inside it... Alternatively, you would never buy a drum whose head was made from thick plastic.

So how do they over build them? Well, the most obvious casualties are seen in the thickness of the soundboard (and to an extent, the back and sides) and in the thickness of the bracing. I have found that at the cheapest end some of the main culprits of this practice have used noticeably thick sound board woods and bracing that look like pieces of skirting board taken from a house! Add on top of that there is the common tendency for these sort of instruments to come with an extremely heavy gloss finish (these makers seem more concerned at how they will look on the wall of a music shop than how they actually sound) and you have another factor in killing that tone and volume. The more you add to that vibrating body and the more you are going to dampen the sound.

Hang on Baz.. we are talking cheap ukes here -why would they use MORE materials? Surely they would skimp on materials wouldn't they? Well, no actually. The use of a thick soundboard or heavy braces is not, in the bigger scheme of things, really any more expensive than thinner / smaller ones. In fact the process of getting a thin soundboard made to a standard that will not split yet sound resonant and a brace into a nice thin delicate scalloped shape takes time, effort and skill. And that time effort and skill costs money.

And there is another reason this tends to happen (and, indeed where I see many examples of this from the 'guitar makers ukes' - you know - the famous guitar brands who have stuck their name on the headstock of a generic Chinese instrument in order to climb on the ukulele bandwagon...). You see the heavier a uke is, the less likely it is to split and crack and that means less chances of a return or bad reviews appearing online thus damaging their reputation. Any ukulele can split with the wrong treatment, and even the highest end ukes can suffer if there is an inherent flaw in the finely balanced woods it is made from. But if you work in a numbers game, importing factory made ukuleles at a budget from China, and if you have a respected brand name attached to the headstock, the last thing you want is a flood of returns.

So for such builders, it's not only cheaper and quicker to build a ukulele without much care and attention to tone and volume, but it's safer too.

So how can you tell? Well first of all, bear in mind that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Do your homework and compare prices at all ranges in the uke world. If something stands out far too noticeably in the 'how can they make a solid ukulele at that price' stakes,  then chances are you may want to take some care. But most of all you are really best advised to play the thing before you buy it. How does it feel compared to other ukes? Does it feel heavy in the hands? Warning sign! It should not be heavy! Does it feel resonant? Tap the soundboard with your fingers - does it sound like a drum or does it sound dead? I would argue that a ukulele body that doesnt function as a half decent hand drum  with some snappy response from the fingers will never really sound great as a ukulele. Play the thing - ukuleles are not really known for their sustain, but you should get some. Do the notes just die off very quickly? How is the volume? A well made ukulele can get a surprising amount of projection and volume, but that will quickly be sapped by heavy woods and braces.

I'm no luthier who would be able to explore all sorts of other factors that come in to play, such as brace placement, bracing shapes and patterns. In fact there are also plenty of armchair enthusiasts who will debate this subject until the cows come home (time better spent playing the thing I say). But the general rule of thumb has to be this. If the uke is built with too much wood and too heavy a construction, it will kill the tone and resonance. There was a reason why, as children, we strung rubber bands around tissue boxes and not around bricks....

And finally, to repeat an old theme. Just because it says solid wood does not been it's 'better'. If you are in a shop and play a few and the laminate model projects and sounds better - get the laminate. Because after all, eye candy and misconceptions are not what playing a ukulele is all about. Surely it should be about sound and playability. So to the builders who just throw them together with little care other than making sure they are shiny and that your makers logo is applied in sparkly mother of pearl... Shame on you. Why not direct your efforts into making a good sounding instrument instead?

(Also note, that whilst the over built cheap uke is almost certainly the most common, there are also some cheaper end models where they have gone for ultra thin cheap woods in order to make that projection stand out. Sadly, I've seen countless examples of these that have split or bowed. I think it says more about their quality control standards on building and lack of expertise than anything else. A nicely made, thin, light solid wood ukulele takes the skill of a builder to pull off. Go carefully!)



23.3.15

Should You Worry About Solid Woods Opening Up on a Ukulele?

In the world of stringed instruments, particularly guitars, if there is one topic that seems to create more disagreement than any other, it's the concept of solid wood tops 'opening up' with time. So in what may prove to cause exactly the same sort of debate, lets look at that concept with ukuleles.


Solid wood ukulele



First up, if you are playing a laminate or plastic uke, then this doesn't apply to you. Nothing wrong with those ukes, it's just that they will never open up with time by virtue of their very nature, as I will explain below. I'm certainly not excluding you for any other reason than that, and I too own laminate instruments. Just beware any salesperson claiming that they will open up and change with time. They won't.


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