28.10.14

Kala Uke Crazy Alligator Hard Tenor Case - REVIEW

I've not done a great deal of reviewing of ukulele cases, but perhaps that is because I find that they are much of a muchness. Then the other week I took delivery of a ukulele from Kala for review and it arrived in a rather pretty looking hard case. I checked with them as to whether this came with the uke, but they advised that they used it for safe shipping, and that the case was available separately. So here we have a Kala 'Uke Crazy' brand hard shell case for a tenor uke in faux alligator skin finish (no gators were harmed in the making of this case!).



Kala Uke Crazy hard ukulele case

It just screamed at me because... well, just look at it. I say most cases are kind of the same, but I always have a soft spot for those that carry a certain kind of style. It's the reason I really like hard cases in tweed finish, but to me this one knocks those out of the park.

Kala Uke Crazy hard ukulele case name plate


The case is of plywood construction and is covered with a  plastic outer in deep purple finished with an alligator skin design. A quick word about the construction of hard cases. I always recommend them for any uke, but they do come in different degrees of protection. Under the tolex type covering on this one is nothing more than plywood and as such it is not the strongest case you will find. Don't get me wrong, that is not a complaint, I just want to be clear on what you are getting. This will certainly provide protection to your uke, but more a case of protection from knocks, scrapes and small drops. What a uke case like this will not provide is much protection from crushing. If you want to protect a prized instrument from being run over or squashed by a falling amplifier - you really need to be looking at thick ABS or fibreglass type construction. Those cases though come at a high price, and this one is available online in the $80-$90 range, so not a bad buy.

Kala Uke Crazy hard ukulele case stitching and base bumper


A look over the case shows a bunch of features I like to see on a good quality hard case - a strong riveted padded handle, strong clasps and hinges, a locking clasp, and bump and stand protection which this has on the butt and down the side opposite the handle - thus protecting the finish when you set it down on concrete.   The top and back are stitched onto the sides in yellow thread. All looks good so far.

But for me, I was REALLY taken with it when I opened it - it is filled with a deep plush padded interior in  gorgeous copper colour which I think looks wonderful. It's a minor thing I suppose, and a black padded interior would work just as well, but... you know..  (I used to own a Gibson electric guitar that came with a Gibson brand hard case. I didn't much care for the guitar and sold it with the case, but I still miss the case more than the guitar - the simple reason was that the plush padding inside was snow white and looked just stunning... Perhaps it is just me..)

Kala Uke Crazy hard ukulele case plush interior


There is neck support in the case with a pocket for bits and pieces which is good to see and there is also a strap included which hooks on to the riveted eyelets on the outside.  Finally we also have a tough looking name tag for security purposes (or just for those of you with the weird habit of naming your ukes I suppose).

So you might think it strange for me to be raving about something as simple as a case, but as I say, the look of it just took be aback. Simple as that really.

Kala Uke Crazy hard ukulele case ID tag


These are available through Kala and a range of other stores too such as Elderly and Uke Republic - and they also come in other sizes. Not sure who is stocking in the UK as yet, but any Kala dealer should be able to get hold of them if you ask nicely.

For now though - drool at the pics I guess..

http://kala-gear.hostedbyamazon.com/dp/B007KONT48

21.10.14

Noah Campanella Ukulele - REVIEW

Always nice to go back and review a ukulele brand I've looked at before - in this case a new model for me from Noah called the Campanella.


Noah Campanella Ukulele


I was at the recent Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in Huddersfield, UK and spotted Matt Cohen of Noah in the marketplace where he was running a Noah stall. Nice chap that he is, he passed a couple of ukes over on loan for me to take a look at on the site. The one in this review is a model I have seen online for some months now, but had never seen in the flesh before.

What I like about the evolution of this one is that Matt developed it in conjunction with a  ukulele player (Tim Morrisson) to take ideas on board as to what a player would like to see. Matts ukes are made in Vietnam (and that is not a fact he tries to hide, unlike some big brands) - you see, Matt used to live there and built up a friendship with a Vietnamese luthier over there who he trusts to bring all his ideas to life. I like that about Noah.

The Campanella appears to be built as a uke for finger style players (hence the name) and consists of a concert sized uke body fitted with a tenor scale neck to give more space and frets on the fingerboard. I do like hybrid uke.

The Campanella is an all solid wood instrument, with a body made of straight grained matched solid spruce on the top, and an orangey matched mahogany back and sides. I think the colour contrast looks great myself.

The top is nicely finished and joined to the sides (as is the back) with the addition of some chunky cream coloured edge binding with black stripe details.

The sides are in two pieces and match at the butt evenly, and the back has a very slight arch to it.

Noah Campanella Ukulele  sides


I'm sure the first thing that strikes you about the looks is the inclusion of a pin bridge at the saddle mount - not something you see on a lot of ukuleles. I think it looks great and is made from a very nicely finished and shaped rosewood mount and what feels like a bone saddle. The knotted strings are held in place by plastic bridge pins complete withe abalone looking details on their tops. It is striking and different, and scaled to compliment the size of the instrument top very nicely.

Noah Campanella Ukulele bridge


The top is elsewhere complimented by a nicely applied sound hole rosette inlay which completes the look nicely I think.

Noah Campanella Ukulele  soundhole


Taking a look inside we see the hand written makers label with the serial number and signature of the builder (me like!) and the uke is otherwise tidy in construction with notched kerfing aroudn the side joints and tidy bracing. A glance at the edge of the sound hole though shows me that the top wood is rather on the thick side for a solid wood uke. More on that later.

The whole of the body is finished in a  satin coat which gives it a very tactile feel in the hands.

The hardwood neck ( mahogany I think) is, as I say, tenor scale and has a nice relatively chunky profile and a very smooth finish. Also nice to see is a wider than average nut width which I really do prefer when playing uke.

The neck appears to be made of two pieces with a joint at the heel and it topped in an evenly coloured rosewood fingerboard. It is fitted with 18 nickel silver frets which are quite chunky, with 14 in total to the start of the body. The edges of the fret board are not rounded, but equally they are not sharp and nor are the fret ends which are dressed nicely.

Noah Campanella Ukulele  neck


We have mother of pearl inlays for the fretboard markers at frets 3, 5, 7, 10 and 12 and thankfully these are repeated on the side of the neck too. I think the fretboard markers themselves are a little on the large side, perhaps more suited to a guitar neck, but that is personal preference - I prefer small dots.

Pass the nut and we have the Noah shaped headstock with the inlaid Noah logo in pearloid. The headstock appears to be faced with Mahogany to give a straighter grain look on the face and looks good.  Tuning is provided by unbranded silver geared tuners which work just fine.

Noah Campanella Ukulele  headstock


Looking closer at the neck and headstock I do notice some finish flaws that it is only right I mention. They do not affect the play at all, and I have seen much worse on other uke of this price (RRP is £229) but it would be wrong for me not to mention them. The body seems unaffected by them, and there are not flaws on the outward edges of the uke that an audience would see.

The package is finished by what look like Aquila Nylguts and a good quality zippered padded bag. Not a bad deal all in for a solid wood uke I think.

Overall, I think the Campanella looks terrific, particularly the body looks and the combination of the larger neck with concert body. How does it play though?

Well it arrived really well setup - I would drop the saddle a very slight touch, but that is just me. The nut is cut perfectly and intonation all down the neck is very good indeed.  One thing that did strike me on first play was the instrument does seem a little heavy for what is a concert body. This takes me back to that thick top and I wonder whether the body is a little on the over built side? How does that translate to play?

Noah Campanella Ukulele  back


First up, the tone of the instrument is really rather nice. Very sweet and good separation between strings. Fingerpicked it is very nice to play, but the volume seems a little low to me. I do like a bit of punch to a picked ukulele, and one that will stand up to play in that way without amplification and I don't think the Campanella really has that. All seems a little subdued to my ears. That comes through a good deal more when strummed as I kind of expected it to have more punch than it does. Even when giving it some powerful strums it doesn't seem to keep up with the power. The tone remains decent as does the clarity across notes, but it just kind of left me wanting a little more from it. Perhaps a string change would help, but actually I do think it comes back to the tone wood thicknesses.  Perhaps more arch on the back would help too, or even a change in string brand. But.. I have to tell it like I see it.

An important word here though - volume is NOT everything, and I would advise to choose tone every time when selecting a uke. That said for a uke that I think looks so good, it left me in a bit of a dilemma for this review. You see, it ticks many boxes for me on design and looks, but I just wish it had a bit more punch.

Noah Campanella Ukulele  tuners


I would still recommend you take a look at this and other Noah uke as your mileage may vary. For me though, as a tenor lover, perhaps I'd like this with a tenor body too!  Check out the video below for some sounds (though forgive my shonky playing and failing voice - am down with a bad cold at the moment!)

http://www.noahukuleles.com/noah-campanella/

PROS

Looks
That bridge
Contrasting wood colours
Nice neck and nut width

CONS

Low volume
Some finish flaws
A little heavy


SCORES

Looks - 9
Fit and Finish - 8.5
Sound - 7
Value for money - 8

OVERALL - 8.1 out of 10


VIDEO REVIEW

16.10.14

UkePunk - Punk Police - REVIEW

I've been looking to writing this one up. The first album from Lancashire's (Ramsbottom's to be precise) own ukulele punk outfit -  UkePunk, with Punk Police.

UkePunk are a trio consisting of Paul Davies (UkePunk himself, songwriter and uke player) with Andy Moore on Bass and Murf on Percussion. All three performers provide vocals, with UkePunk taking the lead.

UkePunk
UkePunk - Paul Davies centre. Credit: UkePunk

I've been looking forward to it because (and he may not know this) since before I starting this site I've enjoyed watching Pauls videos on YouTube. In fact, the band go back to 2009, and have supported the likes of Stiff Little Fingers, The Fall and UK Subs creating quite a following on the punk circuit. I've enjoyed all of it.

As I have said before on this site, not only am I a punk fan, but I am always drawn to anyone who chooses to play a ukulele in a style that steps to the side of 'the norm'. Most of his stuff is (and all of this album is) self penned, and that is also something I always take my hat off to.

So on Punk Police we have 10 tracks of punk uke goodness penned by Davies. We open with the title track 'Punk Police' in which the band rally against those in the uke community who choose to rally and rant against those who don't 'DO' punk in they way they think it should be done.... "We were at the Free Trade Hall where we wrote the book of rules".... Sounds like the ukulele world generally  to me.... It's a spiky opener that sets the scene perfectly.

UkePunk Punk Police


After Imaginary Girlfriend  (a creepily fun take on internet porn.. ("I know you'll never disappear from my screen") is my next favourite - James Bond - a superbly witty and fun tribute to the Bond myth, complete with a tip of the cap at the end to Barry Nelson (Wikipedia if you don't know!).

Throughout the album we have a mix or rants against the establishment (I'm A European, Mister Mister), unrequited  love tales (Girl Across The Road) and vignettes on past times and today (Thrill - a song written by Paul just before the IRA bombing in Manchester and another favourite that has shades of the Blockheads, The Specials and others to me - perhaps a touch of the Arctic Monkeys if that doesn't offend too much Paul!).

Northern Girls Are Gravy, aside from having the best title on the album is a bouncing salute to disco fumblings with the Northern Girls of our youth -  "She only lived round the corner, I used to fancy her mother".  

Then a final couple of songs before the end where we move from straight up punk to punk dub reggae and I love them both. Hate to mention comparisons again, but I am sure Paul won't be too upset with reflections of later era Clash. Who wouldn't want to be compared to Joe Strummer? This Is The Business has a superb groove hook, and Mister Mister just drives along complete with some great keys work by Damien Heakin. Ska punk!

The album ends with Frack Off, his track in support of the anti Fracking lobby which is standing up against the hugely controversial industrial drilling works in his native Lancashire amongst other places. It's a great rallying cry and something I know is important to him. Starting and ending in a honky tonk style, complete with tinkling piano, the band ramp up the punk with a great chant mid way. It's a great end to the CD.



Overall, the album does what every good punk album should. There are those who (still..) class punk as something that meant 'no talent'. Anyone who knows good punk realises that there is some great musicianship out there. This album has just that - a very tight band, good tunes, excellent lyrics and I have really enjoyed it.  It's not really a uke album and I like that. Its a punk album.. with a band. Whilst the uke is there, it never tries to be in your face and it's all nicely balanced.. It's not the longest album in the world though at just under 33 minutes, but, yes, its a punk album...There have been far shorter ones!

And as the cover states, 'NO guitars were used in the making of this album'..!

For those tiring of the noodly uke style, I'd encourage you to grab a copy and do check out the band site at http://www.ukepunk.com. Recommended.

TRACK LISTING

1.  Punk Police
2.  Imaginary Girlfriend
3.  James Bond
4.  Girl Across The Road
5.  I'm A European
6.  Thrill
7.  Northern Girls Are Gravy
8.  This Is The Business
9.  Mister Mister
10.  Frack Off

Paul Davies - UkePunk
Paul Davies - credit UkePunk

10.10.14

Parts Of The Ukulele - VIDEO

Back to absolute basics for a moment - one for people yet to buy their first ukulele. Time to look at the various parts of the uke.


Enjoy!


5.10.14

Online Ukulele Shopping and the Setup Myth

On of the most common pieces of advice you will see being given to any ukulele beginner is to always try the instrument out before you buy it. But that really isn't always possible for some people and they revert to buying online. Are there any pitfalls here? What can you expect?




The opening piece of advice is completely sound. Despite what uke you have your heart set on, playing a few ukuleles in a shop may well change your mind, and it will also allow you to inspect the build, consider how it plays to YOUR fingers and ears. It certainly vastly reduces the chances of  issues later on. But for many people living in remote places, a visit to a dealer may be several hours drive away. Even for me, the nearest dealers I TRUST (and more on that trust a little later) are either several hours drive north or south and very few in-between. As such, the vast majority of my ukes have been bought online (and some internationally).

So how do I deal with risks? Well mainly, I have taught myself the ins and outs of setting a uke up. I know that if a uke needs work on the nut or saddle action, I can do it. I know that if I don't like the strings I will change them immediately. I can deal with setting the friction correctly on peg tuners. As such, I can deal with most things, but of course cannot deal with the potential that I just won't like the uke. That is the risk I knowingly take.  For beginners though, who may find even tuning the instrument a challenge to start with, how should they buy if online shopping is their only option?

Well my advice is to be extremely careful where you buy. I actually only really buy from two or three stores, and they are shops where I have built a relationship with the people who run them. They have always been consistent and care about what they send out and how they send them. Please do beware with the many new online only stores that are cropping up all the time - you will spot them, no real bricks and mortar shops, product ranges at the lower end only..... bandwagon jumping really.  I am not saying all these are bad, but let us just say I have heard some horror stories of ukes unfit for play being sent out, or instruments arriving in next to no packaging... broken.

I actually set up a list of trusted uke stores on this very site ( SEE HERE ).  You will note that there are not many, but that is because I either haven't had experience with others, or haven't had enough sound testimonials from others.  For now though, these are the stores I recommend.

( A side note here - I get many emails from stores around the world asking to feature, some with less than impressive product ranges or websites. This page is not intended to be a Yellow Pages of stores, so please don't ask. If I experience great service then I will add you. If I hear about great service enough from people I really trust, I may add the store. If I simply added every shop then the page would become pointless.)

But back to the point.  Even with a great shop you may get iffy instruments sneaking through. It is natural, and at the end of the day, a busy store doesn't have the time to spend over an hour on each uke that goes out. Perhaps some do, but what I am saying is that I think it is unreasonable to expect that. You would think that all ukes should come from the factory ready to go, but sadly that just isn't the case. Even at the high end, problems can materialise. At the lower end, these instruments are made in vast quantities on a factory production line, put in boxes and shipped around the world with fairly minimal QC checks at the factory in many cases. Problems do arise (and the cheaper you go, the problems get more likely). But a GOOD store will at least give the uke a once over and will also deal with any issues with the customer promptly and politely. I have experienced that with the stores I choose to shop with.

So on to that issue of 'setup'. I think that term is incorrectly used in many cases (and I guess I am guilty of it too). To say 'choose this store, because they will give the uke a full setup' is misleading. Perhaps it would be better to say that a good store will 'give the uke a pre-sale check' . There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, a full setup takes a good deal of time to run through. But also remember that there are elements of a setup that are personal to the uke player and no dealer knows exactly how you like your action for example.


What I WOULD expect from a good store

1. A check that the action at nut and saddle are within acceptable tolerances. Importantly this does not mean that they will be perfect for you, but just that they are playable in tune.
2. A check that fittings like tuners and buttons are tight
3. A check that strings do not have any nicks in them
4. Most importantly, an all over visual check of the build to ensure that the body is not twisted or cracked, the neck is not twisted or mis set, that the bridge is not lifting or the top sinking etc. If they find one of those I would expect them to have already returned it to their supplier and not have sent it to you!

Some dealers may do more, some may do less, but I consider these the basics.

When we use the term 'setup' though this can include changing strings, adjusting the saddle height to a position that the player  wants, filing fret edges, oiling dry fingerboards, inspecting bracing and the like. Whilst you may be able to pay a store to do that, personally I think this should be for the player to learn. For example, the height of the saddle, adjusting the action of the uke as it does, is not a universal thing. There is no one right height for every player, only a range within which the uke will accurately intonate. Some people prefer a slightly higher action, some very close to the fretboard. Personally I like an action set at about 3mm (or just under ⅛ inch) above the top of the 12th fret, but that doesn't mean it is right for you.

And I say this because I have read people commenting on stores saying the action was 'all wrong' and I often genuinely wonder what the hell they mean. Personally I have never been in a receipt of a uke from a trusted dealer where the action was 'all wrong' (and I assume that to mean either the strings were touching the frets or they were an inch above!). In my reviews I will not mark a uke down if the action is tolerable, but not quite to my liking as I will adjust that. Send me a uke though with an action ridiculously high and I WILL mark it down!   In fact, most factories and stores will tend to send ukes out with action a little on the high side for the simple reason that it is safer in terms of returns and complaints.

You really wouldn't want this through your letterbox...


I HAVE however bought cheaper ukes from random dealers on places like ebay or Amazon and found exactly that. I once bought a Mahalo (direct from Amazon) to find the neck was mis set, the bridge was mis set and the action was way, way too high. And that really highlights my point. A good dealer would have had trouble getting that through the pre-sale checks, and I would never have received it. Still it made for a good review to highlight the flaws that can plague ukuleles at the lower end. Do I blame the dealer? Partly I suppose for letting it through, but ultimately the manufacturer needs to answer for allowing it out of China too!

I've even received ukes with a slight bit of buzz, but don't consider that to be a capital crime necessarily. These things can often be fixed with a string change, a thin shim under the saddle, or even just letting the uke settle down from transit. I would never take to the internet to slam a store if that happened to me.

So to sum up, knowing that buying a first uke can be a daunting experience, take note of these bullet points.
  • If you can buy a uke in person, DO SO. If you are in a random store and the dealer refuses to check it over or simply has a wall of £19.99 ukes,  choose another shop!
  • Problems can be found in ALL ukes whether cheap or highly expensive. The chances of problems as you go cheaper rises considerably though!
  • A trusted dealer should not let flawed instruments go out, but bear in mind mistakes DO happen. A trusted dealer is also one who will deal with your problems professionally.
  • Do not assume that a dealer is going to spend hours on your ukulele setting it up to a standard fit for Jake Shimabukuro. Expect to need to do some tweaking yourself and learn how to do so.
  • If you are buying online, choose a bricks and mortar shop, and try to place your order over the phone. Actually ask the dealer to give it a once over.
  • There is only so much a dealer can inspect in the process of a sale. I would challenge anyone to spot that a brace is about to pop loose, or there is a hairline crack starting on the underside of the soundboard that may, in time, manifest itself as a full on split. If they happen, you have your manufacturers warranty
  • If you don't like the strings the uke arrives with, that isn't the dealers fault. A good dealer though will stock good string brands and for a charge will fit them before they ship to you
  • Generally speaking, avoid eBay, Amazon, Walmart etc. They will simply ship you the uke straight as it arrived from the factory without opening the box. (There are some exceptions, as some trusted dealers run eBay and Amazon marketplace stores). 
  • Remember, going to a random shop or supermarket to save $2 in the instrument price is crazy logic. There are specialist stores out there, so use them. (Try calling Amazon Customer Support lines to explain that you have a problem with a fret or nut action and see if they have a single clue as to what you mean....)

So go carefully people. Question anybody suggesting you buy from 'WeSellAnyUke.com' just because they are a dollar or two cheaper. Understand that dealers can only do so much, but their reputation rests on you being happy so work with them if things go wrong. And most of all, support your local specialist shops!