24 July 2016

UK Ukulele Festival Overload?

A difficult and contentious topic this one, but one I am seeing discussed more and more on social media. Are there too many ukulele festivals in the calendar year?



ukulele festival


Some will immediately agree with that statement, some will recoil in horror. I would like to think that Got A Ukulele has established a name for itself in not shying away from the difficult subjects and doing a certain amount of telling it like it is. I think it would therefore be wrong of me to avoid the subject. Bear with me....

Regular readers will know that for the last few years I have been compiling the Ukulele Festival Calendar on this site. Even a swift glance at it will show you just how many festivals there are these days. Pretty much one per weekend through the summer months and in several cases, more than one on the same weekend. I should also just make clear that I think the congestion is related mainly (if not solely) to the ukulele festival scene in the UK. It's not anywhere near as busy in mainland Europe, and whilst there are a lot of festivals in the USA, that kind of makes sense as the country is so large.

But the UK is a small place geographically, and has a small (ish) population, so when you have one per weekend (or more than one) so consistently, and ultimately not that far apart in distance - is there a danger of the whole thing becoming overloaded?

There are several ways of looking at this, and clearly there is a clear distinction between the artists that perform and the punters that go to watch.

For artists, naturally they WANT to play festivals and be heard. It's what they do, and if not their actual job, it's certainly their devoted vocation. It's totally understandable that they want to perform and perhaps in that sense the more the merrier? Perhaps. I actually think there is another angle worth considering and that surely has to be over-exposure on the circuit? If you are the sort of person that likes to go to lots of festivals, having the same acts on the bill of each one would (for me at least) get extremely repetitive. I prefer variety and certainly wouldn't go to non-ukulele music festivals if they all had the same acts each time. Perhaps the artists themselves are aware of this and try not to appear everywhere, but I guess it's hard if you are doing very well and every festival is asking you to play. Artists dont like turning down gigs!

There are also a couple of angles to the punter side of things. On the one hand a large number of festivals spread around the country gives more people a chance to go and see one without ridiculous travelling times. In fact some people struggle with travelling full stop, so perhaps one in every town makes sense. There are people who adore filling their summers with festival after festival, and for them, the calendar is a real treat. On the other hand though, there are the people who are still addicted to the ukulele and for whom going to quite so many events would just not be financially possible. These things cost and it certainly adds up. So perhaps so many becomes a temptation they just can't realise, and then find themselves bombarded on Facebook with pictures of their friends enjoying what they couldn't justify.

And aside from the artist / punter side of things, it's worth considering anothr important point. Just how many ukulele receptive audience members are there in the UK? The answer to me is clear, but it also is an answer that many people I dont think want to hear. Whilst I dont know of any reliable census information to be definitive, it is surely a fact that the number of ukulele players in the UK is TINY compared to general music fans. It's a niche thing, pure and simple. If you are within the bubble it may be hard to see this, but I think it's true.  This is no Glastonbury (175,000 attendees), or even something more niche like a folk Festival (Cambridge gets an estimated 10,000, Cropredy and estimated 20,000). No, ukulele festivals tend to attract anything from small multiples of 10, through to a few hundred and in the case of the big ones, perhaps 1,000 or so. These are small numbers of potential customers, and expecting those numbers every weekend of the year (pretty much) is a big ask I would say. And at the rate that the small festivals are developing into big ones, I just dont see how the audience numbers are sustainable.

Looking back a few years, there were still lots of ukulele events around, but as I say, it's the scale of the festivals seems to have changed in the last 1-2 years. In the past you had a couple of large festivals and then a host of smaller, often free or charitable events in towns and villages around the UK. The larger festivals had the bigger names, often international players included, but the local events served to showcase up and coming talent and local clubs more (I even ran one myself). All were enjoyed, and there were far fewer cases of people having to think 'which ticketed event do I choose to go to'. These days some of those local events still happen, but they now also find themselves competing with a big increase in larger, ticketed events. And if you are running a ticketed event you DO have costs. You are either needing to make money, or in the case of many, not make a profit but to not LOSE money. And to not lose money means getting people through the door. And so lies the problem that I see on the horizon. We have a finite number of weekends in the year, and a finite and small number of potential customers. Some will go to lots, but many can't afford that and need to pick and choose. And that surely puts pressure on the organisers with some struggling to get the numbers they need to avoid being in debt. That just seems a crazy situation. The concept of 'build it and they will come' just really doesn't apply when there is cost involved and the country is on the verge of heading into another recession.

Like all my rants, some people misconstrue them as me telling people what to do. They aren't and it's sad that I need to point out that they are just discussion pieces that I hope make people think. And that's the case here. It's not for me, or anyone else to tell any festival team what to do, or tell small festivals that they can't grow. They can do whatever they like. I am however entitled to an OPINION of my own, and I have been saying this for some time. I personally think there are too many large events, and if they continue growing in the way they have in 2016, I think that will ultimately (and fairly swiftly) be to the detriment of all ukulele festivals. And that will affect both punters AND artists alike.

So what do I suggest? Well certainly more of the obvious - and thats COMMUNICATION. There really should be no need for events to clash with a bit of communication, and in fact clashing isn't the only problem here. Having large events week after week after week must surely affect which ones the punters choose to go to. I think that communication should extend to keeping the larger festivals spread out as much as possible. I know a few festival organisers and I know how much work they put in to doing exactly this outreach work. Clearly though, a look at the calendar shows that this doesn't apply to everyone. And if everyone is not playing nice, the system then falls down.

For me, in a country the size of the UK with a ukulele fanbase as big as I think it is, I would suggest (please - it's only a suggestion!!) that a couple of large festivals in England, plus one in Scotland, and one in Wales would be plenty. Then fill the rest of the year with smaller free events for local clubs to try to get on the ladder. Kind of like it used to be really....

And I'm having second thoughts about running the festival calendar in 2017. As much as it serves to help punters, I had always hoped that it would help organisers know what is happening where and when to help avoid congestion and clashes. Clearly that didn't work.

But as I say, it's not for this site to tell anyone what to do. I do hope though it creates some discussion and I would very much like to hear your own perspectives. Are you a punter that relishes the thought of attending something every week, or are you the sort that can only justify one and has to think very carefully about what to miss out on?

(nb - I am happy to take comments on this post, but any comments naming names on festivals wont be published. This is a general discussion post and not intended to target any particular events)

- STOP PRESS - 

I kind of knew that this piece would create some debate and difference of opinion. That was the point - to get those with differing opinions actually talking about it. Because there ARE differences of opinion. Sadly I am seeing those who think the number of festivals is 'just fine' are now deliberately scoffing at those who dare say different. Making out like to dare to question what we have is in some way troublemaking. This morning this led to one festival organiser claiming publicly that I am 'hoping ukulele festivals will fail'... The fact that this piece has the intention of avoiding EXACTLY THAT happening, seems lost on people. 

Yes, of course - if you love going to lots of ukulele festivals, of course you will support the busy calendar - the blog post even SAYS that as being a valid point of view, but to just ignore any contrary position as not being relevant is crazy. I've had direct comments in praise of the piece from people who say they have been 'totally put off' ukulele festivals full stop because of the repetitive nature of events. And I've had even more messages of support from people who simply cannot afford to go to more than one. And that final point was perhaps my main concern - you can bleat all you like about how great it is to have lots of festivals, but if they start losing money because they cannot get punters through the door, you will soon have very few again....

23 July 2016

Tiger UKE7 Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

In the world of ukuleles, as we all know it's not all expensive instruments. The market is flooded with cheap offerings, many of which are more 'ukulele shaped objects' and less so 'musical instruments'. At the bargain end of the scale comes the UKE7 model from Tiger. Can this little soprano tip the scales?



Tiger UKE7 Soprano Ukulele


The Tiger brand of instruments and accessories is a British based company that brand a lot of equipment that ends up in schools, from tambourines to piano stools. It comes as no surprise therefore that they have a ukulele offering. Whilst they offer some slightly more expensive instruments under the Theodore brand name, the UKE7 range are a selection of brightly coloured beginner sopranos with a retail price of about £28 (although they can easily be found online for £20).

Occasional readers assume I am always down on cheap instruments (regular readers will know that I am not, and if you dont believe me - take a look at the reviews listing). But what I DO say is that at this sort of price point the chances of you getting an instrument that is fundamentally flawed in it's build are much, much greater. In other words your buying checks need to be a little more thorough. Let's see how the Tiger stands up.

Made in China, this instrument at first glance makes it clear that it is from the ultra cheap stable, being offered in a range of bright colours. It's a very simple construction - typical double bout soprano shape, all laminate wood, coated in a thick coloured poly coating. It's not my thing, but will certainly put a smile on the face of a child considering learning. But fair play to Tiger - unlike so many brightly coloured instruments at this price point, the coloured coating is actually rather nicely applied. So often these types of finish are heavily applied, full of pooling, bubbles and bare patches, but this one is uniform, glossy and pretty flawless. It also has a kind of silver glitter in the paint giving it a sparkle.

The body is otherwise unadorned, with no edge binding or inlay. We have a fairly generic sound hole rosette applied as a transfer, but it appears to be under the gloss so I suspect it wont be rubbed off.

Tiger UKE7 Soprano Ukulele body


The back is flat (no arch) and it's impossible to tell if the sides are two pieces or a single piece. It does however have an internal tail block.

Tiger UKE7 Soprano Ukulele back


The bridge appears to be rosewood and is a tie bar style, meaning not quite as easy string changes for the beginner.  At appears to be screwed in place, and the saddle is white plastic and uncompensated.

Before we move on, a look inside the body shows a pretty basic construction. No bracing at all (on account of the all laminate body) and un-notched kerfing. This certainly doesn't surprise me at this price point, and to be fair it is far neater than most I have seen at £20. A look at the edge of the sound hole also reveals that the laminate is not overly thick either. Sure, it's not super thin professional grade laminate, but I have seen many bargain ukuleles like this with woods about twice as thick. That just kills the tone and projection.

Moving on we have a fairly generic soprano neck both in terms of profile and nut width, also coated in the same glittery yellow paint. Topping it is a rosewood fingerboard with 12 nickel silver frets to the body. Again - fairly standard.  The rosewood seems a little dry, but it is uniform enough in colour. Edges of the fingerboard are unbound and glossed, and unfortunately the gloss appears to be cracking on some fret ends giving an unsightly look. That said, the fret ends are dressed and in no way sharp at all.

We have pearloid outward facing position markers at the 5th, 7th and 10th fret spaces, but no markers on the side for the player.

Tiger UKE7 Soprano Ukulele fingerboard


Up to the nut, this too is plastic but does look removeable. This is unusual at this price as more often than not they are heavily glued in place or are under the finish, meaning changing the nut will damage the finish on the headstock. I would wager this would pop out easily though.

The heastock is also coated in the same yellow finish and is a standard three pointed crown shape.  The Tiger logo is screen printed on in a kind of uninspiring grey paint and looks quite tacky.

Tiger UKE7 Soprano Ukulele headstock


Tuners are generic open geared pegs (think Makala or Mahalo) but thankfully the buttons are not overly huge and look quite classy. I'd certainly prefer friction pegs (this being a soprano) but as cheap geared pegs go, these really are not too bad. The bushing covers on the front of the headstock for instance are chrome and not (as is often the case) cheap white plastic.

Tiger UKE7 Soprano Ukulele tuners


Completing the deal are what look like Nylgut strings and a zippered but very thin carry case.

So all in all, nothing that is immediately jumping out at me to scream 'great deal' for the price, but equally there are no absolute howlers either. In fact it seems pretty well put together to me.

When considering an ultra cheap ukulele though, there are a number of points that I see more often than not causing problems, ultimately letting the instrument down. I will go through some of those now.

First of all the weight. Being laminate, it's not the lightest soprano I have ever played, but equally not the heaviest either. It's nicely balanced and certainly a touch lighter than a Makala Dolphin (although, to be fair, its a close call). No real complaints here. It makes it nice to hold and play.

Next up is the setup. Ultra cheap ukes I have seen have suffered from problems with the adjustable parts (saddle and nut) through to the unadjustable (bridges in the wrong place, mis set frets, wonky necks). In terms of the adjustable setup on this one, this arrived out of the box pretty much perfect. It was particularly pleasing to see the nut slots cut at about the right height, but equally the saddle is set to give an action above the 12th fret pretty much bang in the middle of acceptable levels. Impressive. Added to that, no other issues seem to be evident. The bridge is correctly placed, the neck is straight  as are the frets. In fact one of the best setup ultra cheap sopranos I have come across. Saying that, I do find these cheap ukuleles always sound very slightly off and this one does too (as do most Makalas to be fair). Nothing major though - just not a high end accuracy. Acceptable though.

Tiger UKE7 Soprano Ukulele top


And of course, finally, the issue that can plague the cheap instruments is an uninspriring, dead and flat sound caused by overly thick and heavy construction. Of course this is a very subjective part of the review, but I do get amazed by people saying this 'doesn't matter' for a beginner. Of COURSE it matters  - the ear is a very sensitive thing and it can tell between a pleasing sound and a 'clunker'  easily. Add to that the fact that you CAN get pleasing sounds from some cheap instruments, the assumption that they naturally will all sound bad worries me greatly. It need not be like that! The drive to cheap mediocrity is not what musical instruments should be about.

The Tiger certainly doesn't lose out on volume compared to something like a Dolphin - in fact I would say it is a touch louder and with a little more sustain. It does however lose out in terms of the quality of that tone. It's a bright jangly sound, but does sound to me very boxy and thin. Something like the Dolphin has more roundness to the tone when strummed and that is particularly more evident when picked. Dont get me wrong, the Tiger is streets ahead of some of the £20 competition out there, but it kind of sounds more like I expected it to, rather than what I hoped it would sound like. Perfectly useable, accurate enough in tuning,  playable and loud enough. Just not a match for something like the Dolphin in terms of the quality of the tone. It's certainly not a complex tone (but then, neither is the Dolphin) though of course it is a £20 ukulele!!

Still - you could do a LOT worse and nobody should scoff at you if you grab one of these. And it certainly deserves a place alongside the Dolphin and the Octopus as 'bargain priced ukuleles that are not monumentally terrible' section on Got A Ukulele!

http://www.tigermusic.co.uk/



UKULELE PROS

Well put together
Price
Nicely finished and setup
Decent enough tuners

UKULELE CONS

Boxy thin tone

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 7.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 7.5 out of 10
Sound - 7 out of 10
Value For Money - 9 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 7.8 out of 10



UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW


10 July 2016

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

Another first for a brand on the Got A Ukulele reviews pages, this time from globally known Cordoba with their 20TM-CE Tenor ukulele.


Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele


Cordoba is at its heart a guitar brand, but one with a reasonable line of ukuleles. They are also a brand I see talked about considerably on US shores, but less so in the UK. Whilst they are available in the UK, they do seem to be more widely available outside it. Either way, I think you will probably recognise the name.

The 20TM-CE is a standard shaped tenor ukulele, benefiting from a solid top, together with a pickup and a cutaway on the body. It's relatively plain looking (me like!), but first inspections suggest it's been well put together. I see a bit of confusion around regarding where the Cordoba ukuleles are made. Well, they are actaully a US company, and whilst some of their higher end guitars are made in Spain (true to that very Spanish sounding name), I believe that most, if not all of their ukuleles are made in China. This one certainly is. Let's look a little more closely.

So as I say, fairly standard shape for a tenor - a double bout, with a flat base and a cutaway as you would expect it to look. The solid top is made from mahogany and is in two pieces. The grain is uniform and unremarkable - but actually pretty normal for mahogany and no complaints here.

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele body


The top joins two piece mahogany laminate sides and a completely flat laminate mahogany back which appears to be made of one piece of laminate. It's all joined together neatly, and the satin finish is nicely applied with no bubbles, bare patches, pooling or dribbles. A nice instrument to hold actually. In fact, it's nice to look at and has a warm orange glow to it.

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele back


Back to the top, we have a rosewood tie bar bridge with some rather nice herringbone wooden marquetry decoration. The saddle is specified as 'composite' for which that may mean 'plastic', but I think it's actually a type of NuBone. Either way it is flat and un-compensated.

Around the sound hole we have a repeat of that herringbone marquetry for the rosette, which I do rather like. It's nicely applied and adds a classy look to that otherwise plain top.

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele bridge


And aside from that marquetry, it is indeed plain as it is without any edge binding on the top or back where they meet the sides. No complaints from me on that score though. In fact, I think it might spoil it.

Cut into the side of the instrument is the control panel for the active pickup system with volume and tone controls. Regular readers of mine will know that I am not a fan of these as I think they simply add unnecessary wiring gubbins (that's a technical term doncha know...)  to the ukulele that can be totally avoided with a passive pickup. In fact this one runs on a heavy 9v battery, so even more weight. I just don't like them. As you know..

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele pickup controls


Output for the pickup is via a jack socket offeset on the base of the instrument. I know some people prefer their jack sockets off set this way for ease of access, but I always worry that the socket is not being held by anything substantial (ie not in the tail block). I suppose being laminate, this should be stronger, but let's put it this way - I would not want to be plugged in and see someone trip on my cable - I've seen that happen and I've seen the jack socket rip a hole in the side of the ukulele!

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele jack socket


A look inside shows off a very neat and tidy build. No glue drips, notched kerfing and delicate bracing. It does however show off the mass of wiring from that heavy pickup!

Up to the neck, this too is mahogany and finished in satin. It seems to be made from lots of pieces. Five in fact, with three stacked at the heel and a joint at the headstock. That just seems over the top to me! It's got a nice feel to it though and a pretty shallow profile so easy for most hands to hold.

Topping it is a rosewood fingerboard which has some stripe to it, but is nice and even and in good condition. The edges are coloured black to hide the fret ends and we have 18 nickel silver frets in total with 14 to the body join. They are all dressed nicely, roundly crowned and not overly jumbo.

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele fingerboard


Fret position markers face outward in mother of pearl dots at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th spaces and thankfully these are repeated on the side for the player. All fairly standard really.

Past the composite nut, we have an unfaced mahogany headstock with the Cordoba logo in gold screen print. The headstock shape is thankfully not a three pointed crown, but more reminiscent of the Kanile'a / Islander headstock style. Classy.

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele headstock


Flipping it over and we have unbranded open geared tuners. These are a quite a let down actually as I have seen much better tuners on instruments far cheaper than this one. Whilst they turn just fine, they remind me of the sort you will see on Makala instruments and those pearly white square buttons are simply too big for a ukulele and look cheap.  A shame that.

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele tuners


Finishing the deal are Aquila Nylgut strings and for that you will be able to pick one of these up for about £180 or about $200 if you shop around. Price wise, that kind of puts it in the right ballpark I would say. Yes I have seen similar specs for less money but equally I have seen lower specs for more money. It's kind of priced equivalent to similar models (ie, solid top instruments) from Kala and Ohana, so I am not shaken by the price.

All in all, as I say it seems to be nicely put together. The wood grains are even, and the finish is good. It's a nice thing to look at and touch, and I am drawn to the minimal bling and small details like the herringbone marquetry.

The first thing that hit me though when picking it up to play it was the noticeable weight to it in the body. In fact, it's way off balance at the 12th with the body trying to pull downwards. As I have said before in my reviews, I'd take a body heavy instrument over a neck heavy instrument ANY day of the week - but ideally I want them balanced. The balance is better if I remove that heavy 9v battery, but it's still not right. Sorry to go on - but I really DON'T like these pre-packaged pickups, and certainly not when they are adding weight to the body.

Putting that aside, it has a nice feeling neck and the out of the box setup for me was just about right. No complaints at the nut, and although I would take the saddle down a little, it is still within acceptable limits. All that means it's nice on the fingers and the intonation is close to perfect across the neck.

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele cutaway


The sound is actually very pleasing to my ears, and sweeter than I would have expected for the price. Sustain is reasonably good and it doesn't sound too muddy or confused at all - really rather clear. It does however sacrifice a bit of punch and volume for that and I do wonder how much of that is also down to the heavy gear in the body.

Strummed though it's perfectly passable although I do wonder if it would get a little lost in a mass jam type scenario. I've actually enjoyed it the most played fingerpicked as the notes do seem to jump out of it when you want to. It does create some bell like notes that you dont often get at this price. Not massively complex, but pleasing all the same. In fact there is much I like about this one.

But it has still frustrated me too. A nicely made ukulele that I think looks great, but I wonder if it could have had  little more 'pure ukulele' if it wasn't so body heavy. I know, I know - beginners will love the idea of a pickup as standard, and this will certainly 'get them going' with their first forays into plugging in. But I think I would really rather see this one without the pickup at all and would probably still recommend it at the same money. And that's the point here. You may be thinking - 'well then the pickup is just a bonus'?... Well I would agree, but only if it didn't affect the core ukulele in any way, but when it's adding this weight I can't help thinking it's  an unwanted addition for me. It just kind of exemplifies why I prefer straight acoustics and fitting my own pickup..

Cordoba 20TM-CE Tenor Ukulele label


In fact - they do make one without the pickup - the 20TM (albeit without a cutaway) - I'd recommend that one myself! I'll take a pass on the gubbins!

Check out the video review below!

Thanks to Cordoba for the loan - https://www.cordobaguitars.com

And if you are interested:




UKULELE PROS

Nicely put together and finished
Understated looks with small accents of bling
Nice picked sound
Fair price

UKULELE CONS

Poor quality tuners, with overly large buttons
Very body heavy
Unncessary 'gubbins' pickup with heavy battery
Slightly lower volume than I would like
Offset jack

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 7 out of 10
Sound - 8 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.1 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW




3 July 2016

Clearwater UCW7B/PU Roundback Baritone Ukulele - REVIEW

I'm pleased again to be rallying the troops in the Baritone regiment with this ukulele review, with the Clearwater UCW7B/PU Roundback Baritone. (Lets just call it a roundback baritone from here on in!)

Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele


The Clearwater Roundback series are a range of value instruments of various scales, made in China and most likely available in other badged variants around the world. In fact this Baritone looks identical to me to the previously available Ohana BK70RB Baritone... coincidence? Whatever the heritage, this is a standard baritone scale ukulele (scale length is about 19.5 inches) made with a solid spruce top applied to a polycarbonate round or bowl back body.

Construction wise, this one is extremely sound and the solid spruce top (made of two bookmatched pieces) is flawless and finished in a pleasing satin coat. There really are no issues, glue spots, bubbles - just smooth nice wood. Where it meets the rounded back of the ukulele we have some black / white / black edge binding that adds to the quality feel. Some people dont like pale spruce tops and I am one of them I suppose. I think it would look much better with a darker top, but that is minor and very personal complaint.

Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele top


Sound hole decoration is by way of an inlaid mother of pearl rosette (no transfers here!), and we have a fairly standard looking rosewood tie bar bridge with attractive white edge detailing. The saddle appears to be made of plastic and is not compensated.

Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele sound hole


But it's the rounded back that really makes this ukulele stand out, made as it is from a moulded single piece of black polycarbonate. You may say 'oh, just like a Flea then' - but really this is more reminiscent of the backs of Ovation Balladeer guitars which used the same technique. What it allows for is a light weight, thin instrument with a distinctive projection. It's a tried and tested design in guitars so I was interested to see how it would stand up on a baritone ukulele.

The moulded back is actually a little bit shiny for my liking and I would have preferred a textured grain finish like on the Flea. As it is, I'd say this is a difficult instrument to hold against clothing because it's very slippy. Thankfully, it comes pre-fitted with a strap button which is probably the only sensible way you would hold this one standing up. Other than that though, the curve of the back is really tactile and pleasing and certainly will give you a ukulele that looks 'different' to the norm. I love the way the white edge binding contrasts against the jet black of the plastic and how thin it is at the tail end of the instrument.

Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele back


Also as part of the body, we have a cutaway to allow upper fret access, which I think adds to the classy look. It's a double bout design with quite a large square lower portion. I think I would prefer it looking a bit curvier at the base, but that's just personal preference.

Looking inside reveals very little other than a black sound chamber. Naturally there is no kerfing or back bracing to see as the moulded back is providing the strength. All I can report is the Clearwater manufacturers label!

Moving up the ukulele we have a hardwood (unspecified) neck made from three pieces with a joint at the heel and one at the headstock. It's finished in a satin coat too and has a darker rosewood looking veneer piece on the heel cap.

Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele fingerboard


Topping the neck is a rosewood fingerboard which looks to be in good condition and is nicely even in colour. We have 21 nickel silver frets in total with 14 to the body join and all are finished nicely with no sharp edges.

Clearwater are a little mean on the fret marker front, with outward facing pearloid dots at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th, with no side fret markers at all.

Unlike the saddle, the nut appears to be made of bone and possibly removeable too.

We have a fairly generic shaped headstock which is nicely edge bound like the top of the body and faced in what appears to be rosewood. The Clearwater logo (quite a classy logo, I must say) looks to be pearloid but it might actually be a transfer under the satin coat - it's hard to say. Either way I think the headstock looks really smart.

Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele headstock


Tuning is provided by unbranded silver closed geared tuners. They are common on ukuleles and these ones work and turn just fine. Yes, they are essentially guitar tuners, but being a large scale like a baritone means that they dont give the instrument a 'mickey mouse ears' look.

Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele tuners


I'm not entirely sure what strings the instrument comes with, but the B and E look like nylgut and the D and G strings are wound. They are for low DGBE tuning.

And, to top the whole deal off, you may have noticed in the pictures that there is an offset jack socket on the bottom of the instrument. That's right - it comes with a pickup too, and a passive one at that (meaning no unnecessary controls, battery compartments and the like - just how I like them!).

Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele jack socket


So quite a bit on offer here I am sure you will agree. A solid top, edge bound instrument with a moulded back AND a pickup...  What might surprise you is that these can be found online quite easily for about £100 - £120. You read that right. That is a complete bargain of a price for a baritone regardless of the build. And when you bear in mind it has a solid top and a pickup, well that price is frankly incredible.

OK, there is no carry case - you may have spotted the Clearwater bag in the photographs, but that is an extra - but still, it's a bargain and you can hardly complain for the price I suppose.

And in fact at that sort of price, I'd forgive it for quite a lot in the playing stakes. And that's where I continue to shake my head... in disbelief... in a good way. You see, it's really rather good.

clearwater roundback baritone ukulele strap button


First of all it's really nice to hold. Aside from that slippy back meaning you will want a strap, the instrument is light, nice to touch and nicely balanced in weight. And it really is a tactile thing. As review instruments on this site go, this one has had more of that 'go on, pick me up one more time' about it than many others have. That thin body may also asssist you in storage and travelling as compared to many standard baritones, this one is really thin!


Clearwater roundback baritone ukulele bridge


Setup was just fine for me, no complaints at all with the saddle or the nut and intonation is acceptable all over the neck. In fact the nut is particularly nicely done with strings sitting on grooves rather in deep channels.

Sound wise, it has a nice strong projection, good sustain and tons of bass. That plastic back will be helping it here, although strummed hard it can boom and echo a little, but it's a minor complaint. I suppose it's very slightly on the muddy side, but I find that quite a lot with baritones and think a string change could easily sort that I think. In fact I find that changing the strum position to the back of the soundhole opposed to the  end of the neck as is more traditional with a ukulele brightens it up significantly. At the end of the day, I suppose this is closer to a guitar than a soprano ukulele so I guess that figures!

Strummed or fingerpicked it's pleasing either way and I am really rather taken with it!

It's not a high end classy bell like tone, but then its a £100 ukulele with a plastic back... But lets just clear this price thing up. Yes, it is an incredibly good value instrument, but cheap does not mean nasty in this case. In fact two musicians I know who have played the biggest ukulele stages in the UK (Ian Emmerson and Zoë Bestel) have BOTH performed on stage with one of these Clearwaters.  And I think that is the point. It doesn't matter what name it says on the headstock or what it costs if it sounds good. And it does sound good!

Oh, and the pickup? Perfectly useable and balanced. OK, it will benefit from a pre-amp to shape the tone, but that's the way I prefer them myself so no complaints from me on that score. Unlike certain other pickups I have seen pre-installed in instruments recently - this one just works. Each string rings out and no muddy tone. As is should be! All I would say is I can't tell if it is a soundboard transducer or under saddle. There is very little body noise though, so I dont suppose it matters much.

In summary though - at this price, seriously, can you afford NOT to get one! It's a small price to pay if you want to take a step into baritone ukuleles and you would be getting a brilliantly functional instrument that far exceeds it's price. I've got much more expensive baritones, and really would like to keep this one. Just experiment with the strings!



UKULELE PROS

Price
Solid top
Build quality
Classy looks from pearl and edge binding
Passive pickup

UKULELE CONS

Slippery back
No side fret markers
Gig bag is extra

UKULELE SCORES

Looks -                   8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish -        8.5 out of 10
Sound -                   8.5 out of 10
Value for money -   9.5 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.8 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW



17 June 2016

Waverly Ukulele Friction Pegs - REVIEW

Well it's the ukulele myth that just never seems to go away. The 'friction pegs are universally awful' claim seems to be alive and kicking in the ukulele world. And it really gets me down for the simple reason that it's just not true. (What is it with the ukulele world that makes untruths 'stick' so easily??)

Waverly Friction Ukulele tuners
Waverly friction pegs on my Bruko tenor


Regular readers will have seen me rant about this before, and I include an original video of mine on the subject at the foot of this article which shows you what I mean. Put simply, CHEAP friction tuners are indeed awful, but GOOD friction tuners are sublime. They simply dont suffer from the problems people encounter when they are dealing with cheap ones. The trouble is, people assume the problems they face with cheap tuners (slipping and sticking) applies to all friction pegs. It doesn't!

And why exactly do I like friction pegs? Well lots of reasons, but mainly because they dont weigh a headstock on a soprano down like gears do and I think they just look better. They remove the look of 'ears' that geared tuners create. But, I ONLY use friction pegs that work well!

Anyway, back to the point at hand. The Waverly tuners. I'd been looking for some time to try these out. For good quality friction pegs I usually go for Grover 4 style pegs, that move like butter and hold like a rock. However I was looking to change the tuners on my John Daniel Pixie ukulele which has a very small headstock. I kind of thought the Grovers were a little too big for that headstock, and possibly a little heavy as well. I'd actually changed the tuners on the Daniel before and was using fairly standard basic pegs.

John Daniel ukulele tuners
The John Daniel before with cheap friction pegs


Waverly make a whole range of instrument tuners and are kind of the 'Rolls Royce' in the tuner world. They are used by brands like Martin, Collings and Santa Cruz on their high end guitars and for good reason. They represent an acclaimed choice where 'only the best will do'. They are based in Montana, USA.

And I will be frank here. The reason I had shied away from the Waverly tuners was because they are expensive. By that I mean they are around $45 dollars a set (not a huge amount of money, but still expensive) but bear in mind that I am in the UK so international shipping pushes that yet higher. That's about twice the price of the Grovers I normally go with. Still, they seemed a perfect option for a small ukulele on account of how sleek they look. Add to that the fact that I read nothing but great user reviews of them and I thought it was time to bite the bullet.

ukulele friction pegs
Pegs compared: From L-R Grover style 2, Grover style 4, Waverly


The Waverlys arrived. I actually bought a couple of sets, one with black buttons that I retro fitted to a Brüko Tenor ukulele and another set with Koa buttons for the John Daniel.

The friction element of the Waverly tuners is simplicity itself, and genius too. As you will have seen from the video below, the improvement on sticking and slipping with good geared tuners like the Grovers is created through the use of many internal parts (washers, bushings and collars) that hold when tight, but equally move extremely smoothly. The Waverly brand are different though - in fact there are a minimal number of parts - just 5 parts in fact, or 6 if you count the screw.

waverly ukulele friction peg


First we have a collar bushing for the front face of the ukulele. This needs the outer face to have a countersink chamfer, which wasn't really needed on the Daniel as the holes were already quite large, and was also in place on the Brüko. This allows the collar to sit flat against the headstock and not protrude and the collar serves to centre the post. If you dont have a counter sunk hole it's pretty easy to drill one and Waverly even make their own drill bit for the purpose (though most drill counter sink bits will do the job).

John Daniel ukulele headstock

Through that runs the tuning post which is a pretty standard affair. A hole in one end for the string and a hole in the other into which to screw the button.

On the back of the headstock you fit the metal chromed collar (its nickel plated brass), complete with the embossed Waverly name (which I think looks extremely classy) and into that fit a spring. Yes, a spring. These are the first friction pegs that I have seen that use a spring to create the friction effect. You then attach the button and screw it down. The action of screwing the button compresses the spring and that creates the friction. There are no metal on metal, or plastic on plastic faces that are creating the friction - these work though that spring creating the grip between the tuner and the headstock. Bear in mind that Waverly also recommend a chamfer on the back of the ukulele like the one for the collar on the front although I am not totally sure how essential that is.

It works kind of perfectly I found. At first I needed to work out how much tension to apply to stop the pegs slipping but with a few turns of the screwdriver eventually I found the nice balance between them holding and yet still turning for tuning purposes. And that turning is just ultra smooth and accurate. Unlike cheap friction pegs there is no judder, they simply turn when you want them to and then hold. Perfect!

When completely fitted I think they look the part too - and certainly for soprano ukuleles or smaller they will really look classy and remove the neck heavy 'ears' look of geared tuners. Saying that - I also fitted them to a tenor and they look great too!  If I had one complaint its that the adjustment screw uses a flat head screwdriver rather than a posi-drive / cross head. It's a minor complaint, but I just find it easier to quickly apply a cross head screwdriver than I do a flat head. Other than that though - I am absolutely delighted.

waverly pegs on John Daniel ukulele
The John Daniel after!


Now - in both of my cases, the Waverly tuners slipped right in to the holes that were already there. I can't, however, say that will the case for every instrument. According to Waverly these will retrofit directly into holes between 5.56mm and 6.35mm so that should allow you to check. Don't panic though - widening a peg hole is not as scary as you might think - I've done it to several instruments. Simply use a drill with the correct sized bit, cover the back and front of the headstock with masking tape and GO CAREFULLY and slowly - remember you are not drilling a new hole, rather enlarging one very slightly. In terms of headstock thickness, Waverly say that these will work on headstocks anywhere between 7.94mm and 14.29mm.

So yet another example of a tuner that completely disproves the myth that all friction tuners are bad. Whether you choose good quality Grovers or these Waverlys, I recommend them both. Both will show you the world of difference between cheap pegs and good quality pegs. I fully understand why the cheapest ukuleles dont fit these - it just couldn't be done for the price, but then tuners are only one of the things that are wrong with cheap ukuleles...  You get what you pay for! And to be honest with you, I would happily see these on all instruments!

(and if you want to know where I got these - StewMac)

And here is that original rant about the untruths surrounding friction tuners.



And be sure to read my other ukulele and ukulele product reviews here!

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