22.4.14

Octopus Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

Ukulele review time again! I have had a few people say to me recently that I am hard on ukes at the cheap end of the scale. That really isn't the case, and anyone who reads this blog knows I regularly recommend cheap ukes like the Makala Dolphin. Then the Octopus Soprano came my way - do we have a Dolphin killer?


Octopus Soprano Ukulele


The Octopus retails at under £20, and puts it slap bang in the minefield territory of ukes - where your chances of getting total junk are high. But it was explained to me that this is a re-issue of an earlier Octopus, and that the brand went back to make several improvements to the instrument whilst retaining a very low price.

It's an all laminate uke, and thick laminate at that, which is not unexpected at this price. But the body is put together remarkably well. It is finished in a satin stain, and the one with me for test is in a rather unattractive brown colour.  Thankfully, a look at the full range shows a range of bright colours, some with glittery sparkles so there is bound to be something you will like. But the satin finish feels very nice, and I can't find any flaws at all.

Octopus Soprano Ukulele back


The bridge looks like rosewood and is a tie bar design, screwed to the top of the uke. The saddle is white plastic. Up to the sound hole and we have a simple rosette design applied as a transfer.

And overall it feels solid. The back is flat, and is otherwise a traditional ukulele shape. Looking into the sound hole and it all looks very neat and tidy. I also notice that it is unbraced - something presumably considered unnecessary on account of the thick laminate build. Will this affect the tone and volume?

Octopus Soprano Ukulele body


Moving on to the neck, and we have a three piece wooden neck, with joints at the heel and headstock. Nothing unusual. I really don't like how much wood there is at the heel which is incredibly chunky. New players may not be troubled with playing that high up the fingerboard, but I noticed it. Thankfully the profile and finish at the lower frets is very nice and makes for comfortable play. When I moved on to the fingerboard however I was quite blown away. The 12 nickel silver frets are finished flawlessly and better than I have seen on ukes costing hundreds of pounds. And the rosewood fingerboard itself is wonderful. On inspection, they have sanded / rolled the fingerboards meaning there are no sharp edges on the wood. That is remarkable and something you will not find unless you spend considerably more. It really is a highlight of the instrument, and far better than the neck and fingerboard on the Makala Dolphin. Far  far better.

Octopus Soprano Ukulele fingerboard


We have fingerboard markers at the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces in inlaid plastic looking pearl. Sadly there are no markers on the side for the player.

Past the plastic nut, we have a standard Martin style crown headstock shape and the Octopus logo applied in silk screen or decal in white. I like the dual logos too.

Octopus Soprano Ukulele headstock


The tuners are unbranded silver open gears, and I found one or two of them a little sticky with a bit of grind when turned. That said, they hold just fine. The tuner buttons are also delightful, with a  kind of rubberised black coating that makes them feel great.

Octopus Soprano Ukulele tuners

The whole package is completed with a zippered thin gig bag, and strings that may look like Aquila, but are Octopus brand white synthetic gut (whatever that means). What I will say though, is the strings are quick to get in tune and stay there, and feel nice on the fingers with none of the roughness of Aquila brand.

So overall I am rather impressed. There are one or two issues, but it feels great to play and that neck is incredible for the money. How does it sound though?

Well - it sounds like a boxy laminate uke, I didn't expect anything else. There is nothing complex about the tone, and it is a little one dimensional. But then so is the Dolphin. I actually think though this has a brighter and a more traditional uke sound than the Dolphin has. I often think that whilst the Dolphin has great volume, it can sound a little muddy. To my ears the Octopus matches the Dolphin for volume, but has a slightly sweeter, more percussive sound. It's really quite pleasant to both play and listen to for my ears.

The setup needs adjusting at the saddle (hardly a big job) but otherwise the intonation is pretty damn accurate too.

And I really don't know how they do it for the price (it's also quite a bit cheaper than a Dolphin). Sure, it's a cheap uke, and my readers know that I always try to recommend getting something more serious as a first uke, but I appreciate that many people need to stick at this level money wise. And in the contest of the Dolphin vs the Octopus..... well, the Octopus wins.




Read the scores below and take a look at the video review at the end of this review.

SCORES

Looks - 7
Fit and Finish - 8
Sound - 8.5
Value For Money - 10

Overall - 8.4 out of 10

VIDEO REVIEW

15.4.14

But That's Not On The Songsheet! Get Out Of Your Ukulele Rut

Time for another ukulele rant. Well, like other rants on Got A Ukulele, actually more of a discussion piece to promote some debate and hopefully inspire someone. This time, do you want to move away from up down up down ukulele boredom?

OK, OK, I can hear the angst growing, and that opening was deliberately incendiary, but do read on... I have been meaning to write this piece for some time, and actually decided not to. But then I thought about it  and spoke to several players in clubs who thought it would be healthy and welcomed. ( I hope you folks were right!!). The aim is simple - how do you get beyond unison playing with your club or band when going out performing?

In part, it's connected to this post I wrote some time ago -  (IS IT ACCEPTABLE TO PLAY THIS ON THE UKULELE), but goes a little deeper. It starts with a confession. I really, really don't like the sound of dozens or more ukuleles playing exactly the same thing at the same time. It might just be me (suspect it isn't though) but I find the sound rather annoying in a nails on a blackboard kind of way. You see the standard tuned uke is a very trebly instrument by its very nature. Play two of those together and you are doubling that up. Play 100 together and just consider the sound. Add to that the fact that if the multiple ukes are not all precisely tuned to each other (and not just to their own clip tuners, to each other!) then you can get layers of warbly bad harmonics which kind of jar my ear. Just me?

two many ukes


I'd much rather hear things being mixed up a little.

A quick word. I am not pointing fingers here, and certainly am not aiming anything at the many ukulele clubs around the world. I take my hat off to the organisers of these clubs as getting multiple players, particularly beginners all playing together is no mean feat at all. It's also incredible to see these players stand up (when many ukers may have only been playing a matter of weeks) and perform songs. For those sort of performances, a rigid integrated team performance is absolutely necessary unless you want to alienate newcomers and beginners. I totally 'get' that system and if it gets people confident to play with others, then I think that can only be welcomed.

But more recently (and this is really encouraging) I've had quite a few club players get in touch explaining they are creating a 'band' or a breakaway group, and asking for advice on 'arrangements' and changing their sound. I've seen many more clubs and units doing exactly the same thing and this is great to see. And it is particularly pleasing to see that these players recognise when they go out and perform they want to try to work on something a bit more complicated and worked out. A fuller sound if you will.

the cursed ukulele song sheet


Sadly though, many of the same people who have talked to me have said that they want to change, was because the previous club or band they were with were totally resistant to any form of departure from what the club has always done. In a very sad real world example I know of one such outfit who refuses to deal with anything that is 'not on the song sheet'. No transposing of chords, no individual playing parts, no changing the basic feel of the song by experimenting with alternative rhythms and patterns, no vocal parts. No, if it's not on the sheet, it's not acceptable, no more discussion...  I have had it suggested to me that some 'leaders' of uke clubs prefer the status quo rather than player development... (can't think why...) What the hell is that about?  At a fairly recent gig of The N'Ukes in front of uke players, mid set I encouraged the audience to experiment with their playing, and if their club refused, to stamp their feet and shout about it. I got several 'hear hear's' back from the crowd and that, in part, encouraged me to get around to writing this.

The song sheet really is a blessing and a curse in my opinion. I totally get them (heck I have many on this site too), but I think they can only take you so far. Worse still, many song sheets out there in internet land are actually just plain wrong (compared to being a reliable chord sequence based on the original).  Many are transposed badly in order to avoid things like E chords and as such lose the feel of the song, many miss out interesting chord progressions in instrumentals or middle sections. Sure, they are a great way for a beginner to get playing quickly, and a godsend for a uke club to hand out to new players. I use them myself all the time. But they become a curse when anyone then tries to 'insist' that the playing must stick to what is on the sheet. It really doesn't. In fact, surely more fun comes from going off piste a little? Actually, I will go further. More fun really comes if you start working the chords out yourself and thinking about your own versions, variations and style. With our band, some of the songs that have proved most successful in our shows are not ones that we downloaded a sheet for, but rather kind of fell out of jam sessions, sounded good, and then one of the players went away and worked it up themselves. Far more satisfying we think.

So if we are going to explore getting out of a rut with your playing, the first thing to bear in mind is that the song sheet is not gospel, it's just a guide. You ARE allowed to experiment. In fact I would positively encourage it.

Sadly, I can't write a complete guide to working with ukulele band arrangements in this post. It's not just that I don't have the time or the space, it's just that it is a massive topic, with very personal elements. When we work on band arrangements, they are our own arrangements that make us sound like 'US' (we hope). They don't make ours perfect or suitable for everyone, they are just what we have worked out and we like.  Others might not like them, and that is cool too - each to their own.  Added to which, we have other instruments in the mix that you may not have (although I strongly feel that other instruments are a big part of any 'band' finding alternative sounds).

What I can do though is provide some thinking points that may help you experiment. Not everything may work for you, but consider this. If you are in a band with five ukes and you move to getting at least half of those into playing separate parts, then you will automatically have given yourselves a far different (and for more interesting) sound. Take a look at these ideas, and bear in mind that these are just simple structural changes you can consider. One of the best ways to improve your sound of course it to improve your playing, learn to use more of the fingerboard etc. But you knew that already!


  • Everyone is not duty bound to play exactly the same thing at the same time. Back to the song sheet dilemma again. All you are then doing is just expanding exactly the same sound to the audience, but not filling out the sound space. Speak to the band members and talk about people doing something different. Not everyone will be comfortable, and that is just fine - having a couple of ukes on rhythm doing the basic song (i.e. - whats on the sheet!), will work if you explore other avenues with the other performers.
  • Think about the bass. And in that I don't just mean the inclusion of a bass ukulele, double bass or bass guitar (although I would heartily recommend that to offset the naturally high uke sound and fill your performance), but think about the bass on the ukes. That may sound odd for such a high pitched instrument, but even the inclusion of a low G on some of the instruments will add a different dynamic to you overall sound. Try having some of the band keep some basic strums to the low G and C of one of the ukes in a percussive style. Better still, why not look at a Baritone or a Guitar. They are allowed!
  • Picking. Often considered scary or just overlooked by those starting out, but even a very basic picked roll over the ukulele chords joined with a partner playing the same chords with strums will immediately change your sound for the better.
  • Lead breaks. Ah yes, release your inner guitar rock god! More seriously, if you have multiple players then you will have 'room' for one or more of your band to play out the melody or a blues lick over the top.
  • Less can be more. Not every player needs to strum like a demon on every song. The beauty of a band with multiple players, is that certain members can just accentuate certain beats and strums in songs to give them more emphasis. Sure individual players can do this too, but if two players alternate such strums on different sounding instruments you can get some cool effects.
  • Starts and finishes. Again, often overlooked as in many cases they are 'not on the sheet', but pick up any record you own and have a listen to some songs. Really, not that many start with "1, 2, 3, 4" and then go straight into the song. Similarly not many end with a 'dooby dee doo' and then stop. Work on each song and see if you can build up some longer starts and finishes. In most cases, these intros and endings will work through a repeat of a bridge / chorus or verse pattern, and there are no rules really.
  • Transpose / learn your Inversions. Just because the sheet says that the song is played in the key of G, does that really suit your style and your vocal ranges. Don't try and stress the vocal chords out just to stick to the sheet - consider transposing the song to suit the majority of the band. Even when the song works and you are happy with the key, bear in mind that there are several ways to play the chords and often a chord played at a higher position can enhance your sound dramatically. There are no hard and fast rules to this - just experiment. (Oh, and an E7 is not exactly the same as an E - just learn the E...)
  • Harmonies. Firstly on vocals - it is just a simple fact that vocal harmonies between two or three people sound hugely better than those singers performing exactly the same tune. The same works for the ukes too and you can find harmonic patterns on chord sequences that will naturally work together, yet still keep the feel of the song right. The science of harmonies is too big a subject for this blog post but I would recommend you do some other reading on the subject.
  • Instrumentals. Another failure of many song sheets - they can often just be verse chorus verse chorus throughout. As well as missing the intro and endings, they often miss out an instrumental verse. Even if they don't miss one, there is no reason why you can't add one to both lengthen the song and allow some of your players to show off some chops in the song.
  • Look beyond the ukulele. Perhaps the one most capable of stirring the hornets nest, and the subject of the other blog post I mentioned earlier. If you really want to work on complimenting the ukulele, getting a thicker sound, then please, please, don't be afraid of bringing other instruments into the mix. Drums, keyboards, other strings, melodicas, fiddles, whistles, brass, bass, whatever, it's all good.
  • Challenge everything you do. A simple last thought. Record your performances and play them back. Does it sound 'samey' or 'simplistic'? If so, at your next practice, try and work on an addition. I am not suggesting you throw everything away, but week by week if you work on adding some other interesting elements, before you know it you may have a fully fledged song on your hands.

But those are just ideas, and as I say, they are not compulsory and may not work for your band. But at the very least they should help you get some variation in your sound, and in doing so I strongly believe you will have more fun in your gigging exploits. Make notes of what you practice and then keep experimenting. We often try things out and then hate them, but often we usually find something we like and then try it out on stage. If it goes down badly we try again.

I may well get get some questions back on this such as 'but we want to be a ukulele band'. I get that, and I am not suggesting that you stop the ukulele playing, but consider this. How many 'guitar bands' out there consist of a range of guitars, all playing exactly the same pattern, chords in every song. Mix it up!

Oh and finally - no, the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain don't sit in a line and all play exactly the same thing. Look closer!

Have fun experimenting!

10.4.14

Mobius Ukulele Strap - REVIEW

Ahhh, ukulele straps... if ever there was a subject to divide opinion. Readers of my blog will know mine - want to use a strap, then use a strap! I do! I have been aware of this particular product for some time now, but only recently got around to having a closer look at one. The Mobius Strap.


Mobius Ukulele Strap


The mobius uses a simple but clever bit of mathematics based on the 'mobius ring' to create a support system for the uke that I must say, is pretty decent.

The strap consists of simple bit of webbing as used in so many straps with velcro closures on the ends. But the closures don't match in a way that allows you to create a basic loop - they require you to put a half turn into the loop creating a twist, that rather cleverly helps this to work.

The strap is passed underneath the strings on the front of the uke, then attached in the loop with the all important half twist in the loop. When the strap is then put over the head in the right way (I got it wrong first time) and held in place in the waist of the uke, the twist kind of resolves itself around your body and feels very comfortable. And because of the way the strap runs and twists, it doesn't flap about under the strings, or cover the sound hole - it naturally, and lightly presses down on the soundboard behind the uke, thereby not affecting the sound projection and actually holding the uke against your body. Devilishly simple I thought and it just works.  (And whilst I got it wrong first time, that was because I, typically, didn't read the instructions properly - thankfully they are included and very clear to understand!)

Mobius Ukulele Strap


The system comes with a standard strap buckle adjustment for length, allowing you to have the uke held just where you want it.

In play, I didn't really notice it was there and it didn't interfere with my play at all. I would say that I would class this as more of a support than a full strap. It does allow you to go hands free, but you need to ensure that the uke is balanced as I found it quite easy for the uke to tip one direction or the other. Thankfully the instrument is not going to hit the floor as the strap will be stopped by either the neck or the bridge, so it is quite safe, but isn't quite so sturdy as using strap buttons. But really, this is aimed at people who don't want to drill their ukes for whatever reason.

I like this as an alternative to the sound hole hook (something I have NEVER liked as I don't want that kind of pressure on my sound hole, nor does it offer hands free support), and whilst I was apprehensive before it arrived, was pleasantly surprised at the comfort and ease of use.

Mobius Ukulele Strap in use


It won't suit every uke though - pineapple body shapes may be tricky to keep the strap held, and the makers advise that ukes like resonators may be too bottom heavy to hold too. But for the vast majority of ukes, it will work just fine.

I like simple ideas put to good use and this fits the bill very well. If you are wanting to avoid the drill option, then I think you should check them out.

They are available through the Mobius Strap website at http://www.mobiusstrap.com/index.html. They retail at $16.95.


7.4.14

Lanikai LUTU-21C 'TunaUke' Concert Ukulele REVIEW

A new one for me in the review stakes. Despite having owned Lanikai ukes, and having regularly recommended them, I found I had not actually reviewed one. Therefore was delighted when Leon from Lanikai got in touch asking me to take a look at this new development. The LUTU-21C TunaUke.


Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke


I have a lot of respect for Lanikai in many ways. They don't purport to make the worlds best ukuleles, but they do make some fine and reliable beginner instruments. They also do a lot of work in pushing boundaries and developing new ideas, such as their USB instrument. In this case, Lanikai have focussed on one gripe that many beginners have with cheaper instruments, and that is poor intonation (the accuracy of the instrument when tuned). These problems are often caused by a poor setup or a badly placed saddle and Lanikai have developed a whole new bridge concept that allows complete adjustment of the saddle for each individual string. In theory this means that, with adjustment, you can reach tuning nirvana! Let's take a look.

The TunaUke is based on their standard LU21 series of ukes that come in soprano, concert and tenor flavours, and is essentially the same as the standard LU21C uke apart from the bridge system.  I have found the TunaUke on line from anywhere between $100 and $120, whereas the stock LU21C can be found from $80 to $100. You are therefore paying a slight premium for this system.

As such you get a laminate mahogany finished body (no solid woods here), and few other embellishments apart from some cream edge binding where the top and back meet the sides. It is plain looking, in a deep brown, but like other LU21 ukes I have played or owned, has a very nice solid and tactile feel to it. This one is extremely tidily put together with no marks or issues with the bindings.

The top is one piece, as are the sides and the back, and all have a straight regular grain pattern that runs in parallel with the uke. We have no other decoration and the sound hole is unadorned.  Simple to look at but pleasing is my view. That back is dead flat with no arch at all.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke body


But that new bridge system really stands out. What we have is a rosewood bridge mounting, and within is a plastic insert where a standard saddle would sit. The insert comprises four separate slots into which individually shaped saddle pieces are fitted. Therefore we have no single saddle, rather a saddle for each string.

The concept is similar to that seen on electric guitars, and allows you to move the saddles back and forth, which either lengthens or shortens the string. An accurate ukulele needs accuracy in the distance between the nut and saddle, and the concept here is that you can set that perfectly. Many people assume that the distance should be the same for each string, but as the strings are different thicknesses, technically they need separate scale lengths. Therefore, to test your accuracy, you tune the uke up, then compare the note played at the 12th fret to the note played when the string is open. They should be exactly the same, just an octave apart. If the note at the 12th fret is slightly flatter in tone, then by moving the saddle toward the nut you shorten the string and try again. Eventually you will get a note at the 12th which is the same as the open note, and your uke is perfectly intonated. Likewise if the note at the 12th is sharp, you move it the other way to lengthen the string. Repeat that for each string and you are done. It's a simple concept and it works. My views on it are further down though.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke bridge



Moving on from the body we have a very comfortable and tidy mahogany neck, made from three pieces of wood. The rosewood fingerboard is equally tidy and has some nice shaping at the end. The edges of the rosewood are a little sharp, but I wouldn't expect rolled fingerboard edges at this price. The frets are nickel silver and we have 18 in all and 14 to the body. They are dressed very well and comfortable on the fingers.

Fingerboard markers are inlaid in a mother of pearl type material at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th frets, but sadly there are no side fretboard markers for the player. The edges of the fingerboard look to be bound to hide the fret edges, though this may just be a wood stain or paint. Either way though it is a nice touch.

The nut both interests and confuses me. It appears to be made of NuBone or Tusq and is itself cut for intonation. I have not seen nut slots like them before and give a different break point to each individual string. I like the concept, but with the adjustable bridge I wonder why it is needed? That said, with a nut like this and a bridge you could NOT move, you would then face issues if you moved to thicker strings or a low G. Still, interesting to note.

The headstock is a typical Lanikai design, and is unfaced and made from the same neck material. The Lanikai logo is in gold and is applied a sticker rather than an inlay or screen print. I don't personally like it as I believe that consistent use of a clip on tuner may eventually cause the sticker to peel.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke headstock


Tuning is provided by silver sealed geared tuners with no branding. They work really well though and feel great. The buttons especially I really like. Not only are they sized to compliment the instrument, they are made of a kind of soft touch matte plastic and are really pleasing on the fingers. The kind of material you may expect on the dashboard of a premium car.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke tuners


The package is completed by Aquila brand strings (what else) a booklet and chord charts showing you how to adjust the bridge and, helpfully, a second spare set of saddle pieces that are higher allowing you to adjust the action up.

So all in all a nice little package, well made and just that little bit different. But how did I get on with it.

Well let us deal with the bridge system first of all. I don't mind admitting that when I first saw these I thought, WHY? A couple of things crossed my mind really. Firstly, why not just make the uke properly and well intonated?  Sure, many beginner ukes can be woeful in this department, but is the answer to that creating a system that puts the adjustment in the hands of the player and not the manufacturer?

Secondly, is intonation on a concert scale uke really that much in need of adjustment?  My Kanile'a Tenor has a pretty straight bridge saddle but intonates incredibly well and I am often confused at the need for compensated saddles.

Sounds like I am being down on it, right? Well then I thought a little more and things started to make some sense to me.

1. Intonation is an issue for many ukes, and not everybody is buying a hand crafted instrument that you would expect to be perfect. And here is the thing, even with hand crafted uke saddles, they too can often need adjustment. I have adjusted these for scale myself through the use of a bit of very careful sanding at the top of the saddle to adjust the break point of the string. But does a beginner with a budget of $100 really want to go through that? The TunaUke gives them the ability to adjust, and that should be a good thing.

2. When you make a change to a low G string (or to fatter strings) you can throw intonation out if you don't adjust the bridge. This model removes any worries in that regard.

3. What if you are left handed? This allows you to re configure all strings to intonate correctly without getting a saddle reshaped

4. Of course, this will appeal to anyone who is addicted to 'meddling'. If you like fiddling with instruments, you will knock yourselves out with this!

So on the whole, I 'get' the system to some degree, and I would give top marks to Lanikai for working with new ideas. I do have an issue though, and that is with action height. Because of the way the saddles fit in the mounting, it seems to me that you have little option but the two action heights Lanikai allows with the two sets of saddle pieces. Action, I find, is a very personal thing and I cannot see how, for example, you could find a halfway house height between the two saddle sets. Perhaps if Lanikai offered more sets, such as extra low, low, medium, high this could be solved.

But I am nit picking and for a beginner, so long as it plays in tune, without buzzing, they should be happy. Thankfully, this one does just that, and the setup out of the box on mine was pretty much perfect. A little high on action at the higher frets, but nothing crazy. Action at the nut is pretty much perfect as it can be.

The whole uke 'feels' good and solid in the hands. It is not overly heavy, and feels tactile and playable. The neck has a nice profile for my hands, and aside from the slightly sharp wood edges is comfortable and fast to play.

Sound wise, well, being a laminate uke, it is never going to give you a highly complex tone and bags of harmonics, but it has a bold 'uke like' tone to it that is perfectly acceptable. Sustain is a touch on the low side, but that is to be expected for a laminate body such as this, but it is percussive and enjoyable. Picking seems a little sweeter, but again the lack of sustain is noticeable. But for the price I have played a LOT worse, usually ukes made by guitar makers that are totally overbuilt and dead sounding. This one is not, it sounds like a fun percussive uke.

All in all, I think if you are in the market for a uke at this price, Lanikai should always be on your shopping list. Whether you will drop the extra dollars for the new bridge system I am not sure. I think it certainly should give you some peace of mind that you can adjust if you need to on string changes, low G, being left handed etc. However if you play one side by side with a cheaper LU21c and find the standard uke intonates well, do you really need the new system? It certainly doesn't hamper the uke, so I guess it will come down to your own choice. Full marks though for working with new innovations Lanikai.

Scores and video review below!

PROS

Build quality
Tuners
Innovation

CONS

Inability to fine tune action
Price premium over standard

SCORES

Looks - 8
Fit and Finish - 9
Sound - 7.5
Value For Money - 8.5

OVERALL - 8.4 out of 10

VIDEO REVIEW




( DIRECT LINK )

2.4.14

The Burning Glass - Air Of Grandeur - Ukulele Carnage!

Got this tune stuck in my head. Warning now - contains scenes of ukulele carnage.


That said, I can think of a fair few junk ukuleles on the market that I would happily do this to....




( DIRECT LINK )