GOT A UKULELE - Ukulele reviews and beginners tips

23 Feb 2017

Playing a Ukulele In Tune With Itself

If there are common worries I see from beginners of the ukulele, it's a fear of playing in different keys or of transposing chords and melodies on the fly. It usually shows up in a downright fear of playing baritone ukulele in G tuning and wanting to tune it in C, but it equally applies to all sorts of tunings and transpositions.

relative ukulele tunings


Now, as much as I think the issue of retuning your ukulele to a different relative key tuning is acutally simple, (and have written a guide to show just how simple it is), I do recognise that some people are put off by the whole concept. This got me thinking about a really simple tip that may assist players worrying about keys. Did you realise you can adjust the tuning of the ukulele to suit your voice but not actually worry about what key you are in? In other words, you can play the ukulele in tune with you and itself and be happy with that? No theory, not transposing, no working out new chords. And not necessarily in a regular key either.

What on earth are you on about Barry? Well, what I mean is, if you find that in your regular tuning (For sake of discussion, let's assume that is GCEA tuning here) that most of the songs you like playing and singing along to are either a bit too high or low for your voice, why not just tweak the ukulele tuning a tiny bit to get closer to your natural register? The more traditional and musical way of doing this is to the bit that worries people. That is,  to either transpose the chord or melody progression itself into a key that suits you whilst leaving the ukulele in standard tuning at the nut, or tuning the ukulele to another obvious key and then working out how the chord shapes now play different chords and adjusting your knowledge. I suppose a third way is to use a Capo, but I am not talking about any of those things here. I'm talking about adjusting the open tuning a little to suit, but still then playing the same chord shapes...

You see, so long as you keep the ukulele in 'relative' tuning (ie, relative to the GCEA sequence in standard tuning), it actually may not matter a jot if you don't play in the key of C. Bear with me here! Let's say for example that you find that most songs you sing to accompany your ukulele when tuned to C are just a slight touch too high for your natural vocal range. Have you considered dropping all your strings by half a step or even a whole step (or, for that matter, any fraction of a step without going to far)? By doing that you lower the whole ukulele tuning to something else entirely (in the case of a half step, down to to B tuning (F#, B, D#, G#), but you then don't actually worry about the name of the tuning you are in at all... You just play the same chord shapes you know and the whole song will be a touch lower.

No, you will not actually be making the same chord sounds as they would be on a C tuned ukulele, a C chord for example will become a B if the uke is tuned down a half step, but it may actually not matter in practice. The ukulele will still be in tune with itself.  Now, let's deal with the qualifications to that statement. This will probably only be a viable option if you are playing solo.  If you retune in this way and continue playing the same chord shapes (and, therefore, new chords), if you play with other ukers (or indeed other musicians full stop), they won't thank you if you don't know what key you are in. To play in tune with you, they will need to know that key, and then either re-tune themselves, or transpose their own chords.  Without them doing that you will be out of tune with each other. So, no, this probably isn't helpful for players who perform with others. BUT if you only ever play solo, practice solo, or even perform solo, it actually doesn't matter what relative tuning you are in as long as it stays relative. By doing this, you are still playing 'relatively' in tune, but more importantly in tune with your own vocals but at a more comfortable key.

This can work the other way too of course, if you find that most songs feel just a touch too low, you could tune your ukulele up half a step from GCEA. That would go to G#, C#, F, B, but again, as it's relative, it doesnt actually matter what the actual key name is if you are only accompanying yourself.

It's a simple trick that I think shows, partly, why the concept of transposing a ukulele is actually not all that mysterious, and in some cases, doesn't actually matter. It may sound like a 'cheat' or a 'fast track' and regular Got A Ukulele readers will know that I am not a fan of those things. But it actually isn't. I'm writing about this because it's actually a very important lesson in understanding the relationship between relative string tunings and chord shapes. In fact, by playing around with this, you will probably start to listen to the instrument more and get a greater appreciation for why the chord shapes do what they do. So you may have thought this was another typical 'the ukulele is easy, let's cheat' subject, but actually it demonstrates something at the very core of how standard tunings work. And flowing from this of course is the concept of tuning the ukulele to itself. It's part of the same idea.

You see, you may have been in a situation where you are on your own and your tuner has failed or died. What do you tune the ukulele to? Grab your phone? Let's just say that is dead too. In fact, let's imagine the desert island scenario...  Well, actually, if you are playing on your own, it doesn't really matter too much if you are perfectly bang on C tuning or not... Why would it? Nobody else is playing along. What matters is the ukulele is in tune with itself. And, by knowing the relationship between the strings in standard ukulele tuning, so long as you tune the ukulele strings to EACH OTHER in that same relationship, it will still play in a pleasing way using the very same chord shapes you already know. Sure, you may not actually be in C, or you may not even be in a recognisable named key, but the instrument will be in tune with itself. Hold a G chord shape, and you will get a chord. It may not be a G chord, but it will be a relative chord. At the end of the day a chord is just a group of notes played together.  Change to an F chord shape and that new chord will be correct to itself in the same way the G shape was. And because the ukulele is relatively in tune with itself, chord progressions and melodies will still work as you move through a song. It just wont be in the original key is all. And without other musicians to worry about, that shouldn't matter. In fact this is a classic trick for people who travel on business with ukuleles - it does not matter if you have a tuner if you are not playing with other people. Just get close and tune the ukulele relative to ITSELF.  I actually wrote a short piece on this topic which explains how to tune the strings to themselves here... Just bear in mind that this still works even if you don't have any starter reference pitch.  Just tune one string to sort of where you think it is right (or even the right sort of tension) and tune the others to that. If you get the relative tuning right between the strings, then chord shapes and progressions will still work relative to each other.

I could go further on this topic, such as explaining that there are some fans of ukulele who like to deliberately tune slightly out like this as they believe certain individual ukuleles suit certain tunings better than others. It's a concept that makes sense, particularly when you bear in mind that the ukulele was not actually designed solely to be tuned in GCEA tuning at all. But I'm really writing this to try to get you to think a bit more about WHY key tunings do what they do and why it's really not that crazy to think about alternatives. You may now see that the main key alternatives that keep the same relative tuning are all connected. And that applies whether you re-tune to a fixed key or just a random key. The shapes will still work.

I still think that beginners should explore the concept of transposing and understanding tuning key changes in more detail as it is immensely more useful, but I hope this is something to bear in mind that might assist you. In other words, it's all about relative tuning!

22 Feb 2017

Does The Finish On A Ukulele Affect The Tone?

A question you may have asked yourself.  Does the finish on a ukulele affect the tone? And I thought long and hard whether to dip my toe into this pool..

ukulele gloss finish


The reason for my caution, is that this is one of those subjects that has plagued guitar forum discussions for years, and usually results in less than clear views and plenty of arguments on both sides. The discussions often become quite heated as people with their own views slug it out, but never really reach a conclusion.  But as I thought about it for ukulele, there is actually a single very basic answer to this question, then that is followed by a longer answer that partially contradicts the simple answer. See what I mean?

Let's deal with the simple answer first - does the finish affect tone? Well yes, it does. It has to. Adding a finish on to a ukulele, particularly on the soundboard (which is the part of the ukulele that does most of the vibrating to create tone) must add mass to it and affect it. Of course how much it affects it, and whether it affects it for better or worse brings us on to the more longwinded answer... But yes, adding finish to a body of an instrument does affect tone insofar as it changes it.

So why do they add them? Well it's a mixture of changing the looks, particularly at the high end instruments, and a case of hiding a plain wood at the lower end, coupled with an overall level of protection no matter the price point. The difference between higher end finishes and those at the low end though is night and day. A luthier built instrument may use gloss to really make the wood grain pop, but a thick plastic paint finish used by the cheapest Chinese abomination is usually to hide the very unnactractive plywood beneath it.... In both cases though a gloss can provide much more protection to wood than a plain or oiled finish. It stands to reason.

But as I say those finishes can vary extremely widely. There is a world of difference between thick gloss paint, (or thick gloss varnish for that matter) at one end of the scale and a professionally applied and sanded back gloss on a higher instrument. Added to that there is a world of difference between gloss and a satin finish, or a hand rubbed oiled finish. Progressively, out of those options, whilst they are all finishes that cover bare wood, they tend get progressively thinner and lighter. I've discussed this topic with a luthier at one of the most well known Hawaiian Ukulele brands and they are of the view that their satin or oil rubbed instruments sound much more natural because the finish is so much thinner. If you think about it, Violins are almost never finished in high gloss for the same reason. Just his opinion of course, but when a top brand luthier tells you that, you kind of listen. He did, however, recognise that there are plenty of people who prefer a gloss finish, and in reality the difference was extremely subtle and subjective.

Now, the quality of the finish also has an awful lot to do with this impact. If gloss finishes were so bad, high end luthiers and ukulele brands wouldn't use them at all would they? Well, yes and no. Years ago gloss finishes were less common on ukuleles, and those that were available were a heavier form of nitrocellulose that could easily be applied too thickly. More often, vintage ukuleles are finished in either oil or a french polished shellac. Equally that is in part to do with facilities and the hassle involved in creating a spray booth gloss finish..  In fact, going back in time there are also some woeful guitars from some of the worlds very best brands that were made with massively thick gloss coatings that some say really muted the tone (and with age, started to yellow and crack). Things these days are quite different, and technologies like UV cured poly glosses, such as those used by Kanile'a can be applied extremly thinly, but still be extremely strong and glossy. Quite a difference to the older thicker glosses. So these days a good luthier can absolutely create a thin gloss that adds very little mass to the body of the instrument. But that costs because it takes time and a lot of effort. Sadly, at the other end of the scale, any fool can thickly apply gloss and make an instrument shiny, but in doing so, the finish is ultra thick and equally unattractive.

So as you can see we are starting to see the other complexities in finishes that mean that they are not all equal. And because they are not all equal, the answer to the question cannot be just as simple 'yes it does affect tone'. This brings us on to the second answer, which is that 'it depends on so many more variables'.

You see, no matter what the finish type, there are other things in play here which have a significant effect on the tone of an instrument such as the wood type, the quality of the tonewood, the quality and lightness of the build, the bracing pattern and many more. It's simply impossible to compare a gloss instrument to an oiled instrument and come to a fair view on what the finish is doing to them. In fact, I would wager that you couldn't fairly make a comparisong between two identical models, one satin and one gloss and point to the finish making a difference in the tone, as the woods in the instrument will be slightly different. Can you hear a difference in a side by side test like that? Well, yes youmay be able to, but what I am saying is that there still may be more subtle construction differences that are affecting things too. And of course, if that finish IS affecting the tone, whether it is affecting it for better or worse is purely subjective. Completely.

ukulele thick painted finish


To sum up though, and hopefully provide you with the advice you were hoping to receive, I would say the following:

1. No matter the instrument, a heavier coating (whether gloss or paint) is going to reduce the top vibration.  It just will.

2. On higher end instrument gloss finishes, this effect on vibration is likely to be much more minimal because the gloss tends to be applied professionally and very thinly. In fact, the effect may actually improve the tone to your ears! I do often hear people say that they prefer the sound of the gloss version to the satin, and vice versa.

3. On cheaper end instruments however, these glosses and paints tend to be applied overly thickly. With a lower end instrument, the construction build may already be overly heavy (thick laminates, heavy braces etc) and the last thing an instrument like that needs is yet more material affecting the vibration of the top. It's why on cheaper instruments I would almost always avoid gloss or heavy finishes. In short, if you are spending little on a ukulele, go for the plainer finish every time.

4. Ultimately though, the impact is completely subjective, and if you do like the look AND the sound, then it follows that you like the instrument. No matter what it is covered with. It's ok to like one or the other!

5. Don't however overlook the role that gloss can bring to protect a ukulele. Whilst gloss itself can scratch, from the action of fingernail strumming, belt buckles and zippers, it is usually just the gloss that is wearing. Trust me, as the owner of a high end, oiled finish ukulele, they DO pick up strumming marks directly into the wood more than gloss instruments do. Personally that doesn't bother me as the ukulele still works and such marks show that it has been loved. Some people though prefer to keep their instruments looking like museum pieces..

Oh and as a final point. Adding stickers or hand painting with acrylic all over your ukulele will CERTAINLY mute the sound. If you want to do it, go for your life, it's your ukulele... Just know the risks and try to bear that in mind when advising other people to do the same. Personally, I prefer a ukulele to resonate as freely as possible, not as little as possible.





18 Feb 2017

Andy's Ukuleles Nano - REVIEW

It's always nice to write up a ukulele review of an instrument from a luthier as opposed to a factory. There is something just special about hand made things. And this one is quite different to, well, pretty much most other instruments you will have seen on Got A Ukulele. Be prepared to look VERY closely at the 'Nano' from Andy's Ukuleles. In fact, you might need to zoom the web page..

Andy's Ukuleles Nano


The 'Andy' in question here is a well known chap in the UK ukulele world, full name Andy Miles who hails from Berkshire in the UK. Ukulele building is something of a sideline for him that started with a project that I believe was simply a case of 'I'll see if I can do that'. That developed into salvaging necks from cheap or broken instruments to make cigar box type ukuleles, and more recently he's been making a name for himself in sub-soprano instruments. And we are not just talking sopranino scale ukuleles here, although Andy does make those too, but he hit on a wave of popularity with his Nano range of ukes. These are some of the smallest ukuleles I have ever seen. I will hesitate to call them the smallest in the world as there is bound to be someone who says 'ah, but I know one that is smaller'. But they are still REALLY small and the smallest I have reviewed in any case.

How small? Well, they are half the scale length of a soprano ukulele and this one on review measures 29cm from tip to tail. That is seriously small. And playable too. Oh, did I not mention that bit? Yes, Andy makes these accurately such that they are tuneable and playable as instruments. It's the devil's work I tell you...!

Now, on that point I make an early admission that this has been a really difficult review to write due to that scale. It would be wrong of me to call these a 'novelty' as I know the work that goes into them and they aren't just toys. I also know that some people have played staggering music on them as you will see from one of the videos below. Saying that, I also know that many people will look at them and think of them as nothing but a talking point ukulele. Something not to be taken seriously. So how do I cover that off in a review? As you will also see there are one or two other points that caused some difficulty, particularly in my scoring of this one. The point here being - this is not really comparable to any of the other instruments I have reviewed. You get the picture.  What on earth to compare it to?!

Andy's Ukuleles Nano size comparison


Anyway, enough ramblings. Let's take a closer look. The Nano is, as you can see, extremely tiny. Perhaps if I had not pictured it above in comparison to a regular soprano ukulele you wouldn't notice that at first glance. And that's because it's build and all the usual appointments are just like any other ukulele. We have a solid bodied instrument with a traditional double bout shape and it is all made from solid mahogany although Andy does make these in other woods to order too I should add. That body is otherwise unadorned in terms of bindings or soundhole rosettes, as I would imagine that would be incredibly fiddly to do! Finishing the body are some coats of Danish Oil and a final french polish finish on top. It gives the ukulele a very classy and traditional look that you'd expect from things like vintage Martins. It's not a glossy finish that some may prefer, and is very much hand-made in its look, but it's something I like.

Andy's Ukuleles Nano body


Bridge wise, this is an unusual through body style, made from mahogany and fitted with an ebony saddle. Through body stringing means that you have to feed the string through, fish it out of the sound hole and knot it before pulling it tight. It's fiddly enough on regular scale ukulele but I am informed that on the nano, you may well need tweezers... There must be a technical reason for having a bridge like this, probably about strength of the small bridge plate, but there is no getting away from the fact that it will be fiddly all the same. Extremely.

Body wise it's incredibly well put together and feels like a good luthier instrument should. Looking inside shows that Andy has done a tidy job with the construction too. The kerfing is unnotched which does not suprise me being this small, and due to the scale, the bracing is mininal. In fact I don't see back braces at all, but do spot one on the top just south of the soundhole. The top and back are single pieces and the sides are in two pieces. The outer finish also does a great job of showing off the grain and warm orange colour of this wood.

Andy's Ukuleles Nano back


Moving on, we have a single piece mahogany neck topped with walnut fingerboard. The fingerboard wood is really nicely finished with rolled edges and a nice curve to the end where it runs over the body. Fitted into this are 12 nickel silver frets to the body, all dressed nicely too. The edges are unbound, but there are no sharp bits at all. We have pearly inlaid fret markers at the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces, and these are repeated on the side too. The other element of the neck that pleased me (and relieved me!) was that the nut width was wider than you'd expect it to me for the scale. I bang on about this subject so much, but as I point out - nut width is more important for people with big hands than bigger scales are. This is where the space matters. Regardless of whether you have big hands or not, this is a VERY small ukulele, so trust me, you ARE going to want as much space as you can get here. Anyway, this is 30mm across at the nut. When you consider the much bigger Ohana O'Nino is 33mm at the nut, that makes this, comparitively a wide one.

Andy's Ukuleles Nano fingerboard


Also worth mentioning here is the fact that in addition to those 12 playable frets we also have a 13th in the form of a 'zero fret' right next to the nut. This has the advantage of making the intonation at this end as accurate as it can be, with the nut being relegated purely to keeping the string spacing correct. It's a nice feature and you don't see them too often. I understand totally why he has employed it on the Nano.

Moving past the ebony nut we have a plain, but nicely shaped headstock. Most luthier ukuleles omit gaudy maker names on the headstock and this is no different. It still looks nice though and fits with the classy vibe. I believe Andy previously carved these into more generic Martin crown shapes, but I like the fact he's gone more simple and avoided that Martin cloning that so many other builders choose to go with. Tuning is provided by unbranded cream plastic friction pegs. They are pretty cheap, but certainly didn't expect to see branded pegs on something so small, as I doubt they even exist. Naturally, friction pegs are the only option on this one for the same size reason - regular ones just wouldn't fit! Thankfully they work just fine though.

Andy's Ukuleles Nano headstock


Completing the deal are fishing leader line fluorocarbon strings in 40, 50, 60 and 30 lb test. It's actually the same gauge Andy would put on his sopranos, and the brand is Berkeley Trilene. It looks (surprise surprise) like most other clear fluorocarbon strings!

Andy's Ukuleles Nano tuners


Price wise, that will depend on the exact spec you go for, but in this setup it would be around £150. That is very good value for any luthier build (bearing in mind the time it takes to make them is really no different than making larger scales). Equally you may be thinking that it's more than you want to spend if you do just consider it as an occasional ukulele or a talking point. Whatever you think, bear in mind that somebody's time is involved in that and it doesn't come from a Chinese factory...

Taking a closer look, as I say, this is extremely well built and I can see no flaws or issues whatsoever. You can tell this has been put together carefully by someone who cares about what they are doing. Naturally it's light (lighter than any other I have played), and whilst I normally talk about balance, this is just so small it's irrelevant. There's nothing to it!

Andy's Ukuleles Nano neck


But you want to know about the playing don't you, and this again is where I found the review to be a difficult one to write. You see, bearing in mind the small scale, it's never going to be loud, that would be simply impossible. It will also be hard to get a massive amount of sustain out of such a small scale, and it IS short, but actually much longer than I expected when I first picked it up. Incidentally, it's tuned at GCEA one octave above soprano, as is Andy's recommendation. Considering the scale is half the soprano, doubling the tuning up seems to make logical sense. But for that reason it's hard to review this as a more serious musical instrument against others on my reviews page and I hope that Andy won't be offended for me saying that. What I mean is, you would struggle to mix this in with, say, a tenor ukulele and get it to match. In fact the low volume means you'd probably struggle to perform with it unless you relied on a microphone to amplify it. Neither of those things are complaints, as it is what it is, but I just don't want people buying them and expeciting to mix in with their local ukulele jam as it is. (And yes, I also recognise that people are bound to message this post and say "I do just that!").

But the key thing to bear in mind here is that it is accurately made, and it DOES play, and plays in tune too. The intonation is actually pretty damn good and I actually like the tone too. Admittedly, at the higher frets, the notes are getting so high, perhaps only dogs would notice a note being off, but for regular cowboy chords it sounds like a ukulele should. I did check the notes up the neck though with a strobe tuner and they are actually pretty accurate all over. The personal issue I have, as borne out by my review video below, is that I have very big fingers, am nearly six foot four and am not actually that good a ukulele player... Whilst that wide nut certainly gives you more room than you would expect, I struggled to play it without having to adjust my hands regularly. That's just me though, and you will note that I have included another video below featuring Ben Rouse playing exactly the same scale Nano rather brilliantly. I think what this shows you is more about how bad my technique is rather than saying anything bad about the Nano itself. It CAN be played, and it works - you will likely have to work at it though! Nothing like a challenge though eh? Sadly, certain circles of the ukulele community are bought into the 'easy' myth and want things with minimal effort. I'll make it clear now - this is not a ukulele for those people...

All in all, it's a great little build, and yes, certainly a great talking point. I can't remember a preview photo of a ukulele that I threw on Facebook that received quite so much interest as this one. I also can't remember a ukulele coming in to Got A Ukulele towers for review that had so much interest from my nearest and dearest (and as you can imagine, they see a LOT of instruments). There really  is much to love about it. In fact when it arrived by post - Andy had packed it in a plastic sandwich box - that's how small it is! If you are a beginner, it might totally fox you in playability, but for a more seasoned player, I think it may present an interesting challenge for your practice routines.

As for that scoring, some may question some of the numbers I have given it, but I've tried to take into account both the 'talking point' element as well as the fact that it IS well made and nice looking. Looks and fit and finish are a given, they are both good. Sound wise, well I guess it's NOT a serious instrument and doesn't have high volume or massive sustain, something I'd normally pick a ukulele apart for. But that isn't a fault when you consider the scale, and it does what it does very well. I thought a fair score of 8 was appropriate so long as you are not expecting a super loud long sustaining big instrument.

Andy's Ukuleles Nano sound hole


I'm also aware that some people think that ukuleles priced at  even £50 is too much to spend and they might reel at a price of £150. But bear in mind though that this is not a factory instrument with huge branding and marketing money behind it. It's hand made by one guy with a lot of care and attention using his own time and efforts.... to order.  I'm afraid that costs as it rightly should. So price is relative really. Likewise, I considered 8 to be a fair high score on this front. And if you think it should be cheap just because it's small then a) you don't know how ukuleles are made and b) by that reasoning, small items of jewellery should be cheap..

All in all, I think it's a lot of fun and will rightly generate a lot of interest in ukulele circles. In fact I can see most people wanting one to keep on their desk or throw in the overnight bag for the fun of it. It therefore ends up with a score in the high 8's from me, which for Got A Ukulele puts it firmly in the 'recommended' category. In fact I would rather this one didn't have to go back. A serious instrument for all round performance? No, clearly not, but so what? It made me smile.

Contact Andy at his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/andysukuleles/

UKULELE PROS

Build
Looks
Great fingerboard finish and fret dressing
Just the sheer bonkers-ness of it
The fact it actually plays accurately

UKULELE CONS

Understandably low volume
Fiddly bridge stringing
Would likely need careful amplification to play alongside others
Price may be much for an occasional ukulele

UKULELE SCORES

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

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.5 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW




BEN ROUSE PLAYS A NANO


15 Feb 2017

I'm Tired of the Ukulele Versus Guitar Debates - RANT

It has been a while since I went off on a ukulele rant, but this one has been bubbling away for some time now. It's the endless 'the ukulele is easier than the guitar' statement that people seem to use as some sort of badge of honour in ukulele circles. And some go further than just commenting on the 'easy' thing and actually step towards being openly hostile to the guitar.

guitar vs ukulele


You may recall my earlier rants on the media endlessly calling the ukulele 'easy'. You may have been bored by those rants in fact as I did keep going back to them... The thing is though, I felt it was really important to shout against this generalisation. The simple fact is this, the word 'easy' is extremely subjective and because of that I don't find it to be a helpful 'tag' whatsoever. It excludes too many people. When you have spoken to so many beginners (as I have) who found starting out anything BUT easy, and then hear them tell you that they felt useless and talentless because THEY found it difficult but the media told them it was easy... well, you start to see why I dislike the claim. For some people the ukulele may be 'easy' to them, but please bear in mind that for some others that just doesn't hold true.

And without a doubt, one of the most common lines of 'defence' I heard in response to my rants on the 'easy myth' were those along the lines of, 'yeah, but, the ukulele is certainly easier than the guitar'. And for that matter, you could add in 'yeah, but, the ukulele is certainly easier than the piano'.. Once again though, totally subjective, totally unhelpful and very much open to debate. In fact it's as big a generalisation as saying the ukulele is 'easy', full stop. And anyway, since when was 'ease' a valid plus point for any instrument anyway? Why are you judging something being 'better' because it is 'easy'? Surely the instrument you choose to play should be based on the one that moves you most musically, not the one that gives you a fast track pass?

On the face of it, you may perhaps think you see what they are getting at. In fact you may have a number of 'reasons' that spring to mind. For example, when starting out on a steel strung guitar, most people may find that the strings hurt their fingers more than on a nylon strung ukulele. Perhaps that is true, but to me that's just a side effect and has nothing to do with 'ease'. In fact, i've seen plenty of sore fingers on new ukulele players too, so again... completely subjective. It's also temporary.

Perhaps it's down to the size of the instruments - that many beginners find the larger guitar more cumbersome to hold and fret. Yet again though, totally subjective and depends on your size as well as the size of the instrument. And of course, a very common beginners issue with the ukulele is the fact it's too small... so the same issue from the other end of the telescope. Some will find one thing diffiuclt, some will find the opposite.

Is the claim down to the fact that there are more strings on a guitar? Well, that naturally makes certain pieces of music more complicated in some, but equally, some are just as easy if not easier than on ukulele. In fact the shorter scale and fewer notes on a ukulele actually mean you have to work harder to adapt music. And are you really telling me that an E major chord on a guitar is harder for a beginner to get their head around than and E major on the ukulele? Bear in mind, that whilst a guitar has a couple of extra strings, the majority of players have only five fingers and that doesn't change with either instrument. When you take away the thumb that sits behind the neck, whether playing guitar or ukulele, the majority of chord forms are going to use three fretting fingers. Exactly the same on both. And the 'easier' angle can't be purely down to the number of strings anyway can it? I mean, are you honestly saying that a violin is easy? I don't think anyone would agree with you on that!

Yes, I suppose the guitar has more notes on the neck to play with. A piano has lots of notes too, and I just as regularly see people suggessting that learning to play the piano is one of the hardest instruments to play. But really? To master, perhaps, but to start to play? I actually don't think so. When you consider that part of the real problem here is that ukulele players assume they have 'learned' their instruent when they have only mastered 5 chords, I actually think the concept of playing five chords on a ukulele is HARDER than playing five on a piano. Think about it. Playing a chord on a piano requires only one hand to play it (not two - there is no strumming to deal with), and it doesn't hurt the fingertips either. In fact the only skill action you require to play a chord on a piano is the ability for your brain to press a combination of 'buttons' together in close proximity. Hey! they piano is easy!! The example may sound extreme, but actually it really isn't. Like so many instrument comparisons, when you break them down to the core elements you find things that are both easy and hard on most of them. The problem comes when you  pick and choose the easy ones and ignore the difficult bits to justify your argument that the ukulele is the 'easiest' of all. Or even that you think the 'easier than' argument is a particularly helpful one in the first place.

Maybe intimidation comes into play. Most of us these days are exposed to a massive number of guitars in music and perhaps new players approach it with trepidation - a fear of much to live up to. That may be true, but that again says nothing of the learning process, only of the mindset BEFORE you start learning. A common point I also see raised is along the lines of 'I know people who tried on guitar and struggled, but were good on ukulele'. But that is merely an anecdote, not evidence that fits the whole ukulele playing population.  That was simply the case for THAT person, and once again it doesn't apply to everyone.  Sure enough, the comments may come in saying 'yeah, but it's easier for kids in a classroom'. Cheaper, perhaps. Smaller, definitely (so you can fit more in a class). Easier? Dunno - there are plenty of kids learning guitar to a high level at very young ages. Are they geniuses? And anyway, using kids in a classroom as a defence to the whole population is, yes, another generalisation..

Looing at this another way, surely the guitar would be a minority instrument if it was just SO difficult. As it is you will struggle to put music radio or TV on an NOT find a guitar in a band. How many ukuleles do you see? People sure got over that intense difficulty with guitar huh? How on earth have they done that (repeatedly) for decades in towns across the globe and in such great numbers... it must be magic.

Just like the generalisation of the ukulele being 'easy', I equally don't like the endless comparison between it and other instruments as a justification for people playing it. In fact I don't much care for one upmanship between different instruments for any reason. They are all just tools to make music and, you know, each to their own.  It's not helpful and it certainly doesn't, to my mind, put ukulele players in a very good light. In fact I think it clearly puts them in the spotlight as being a bit too evangelical about things. And with that statement I think we are getting to a couple of cores of the problem.

First up, we have an assumption, no, in fact an 'assumed right' that the ukulele has to be easy. This is something I've touched on before and I am seeing it more and more. Only a quick browse around the mass of resources on the internet will show you a real swing towards the 'easy' the 'learn in five minutes', the 'I want it NOW' kind of teaching. Those learning are to blame of course, and maybe this is deep rooted in the way society is these days. Everybody wanting things instantly, NOW, with the minimum of effort. The difference between guitar players of the pre-internet age (who didn't have a world wide web to turn to in order to get chords for their favourite song - they had to work them out themselves - yeah, imagine that!), and today's players who want, nay EXPECT every single performance to come with chords or tabs ready for them, pre-packaged and at the click of a mouse. They want others to do the work for them, and the concept of working it out themselves is completely lost. I WANT easy, it MUST be easy and I will kick back against anything that STOPS it being easy...  It's all wrapped up in the same 'but it's all about fun' tag the community has given the instrument. REALITY CHECK - music is NOT necessarily easy, and music can be fun as well as being difficult. You have to work at it to be rewarded, and no particular instrument is going to fast track that for you. Nor should it. Wanting everything to be easy is just a descent to mediocrity in music.

The second angle I think is one of ukulele tribalism. Only last week I saw yet another meme along the lines of 'guitars are bad'. In fact this one talked about 'guitars only being fit for firewood'. It was supposed to be a 'joke', but I actually find it rather sickly. Yes, ukulele players will say that they too have to put up with other instrument players sneering at them, but honestly, do you think the best form of retalliation is to do exactly the same thing back? Don't you think that actually shaking off the easy myth and showing these other musicians exactly what the ukulele is capable of may actually do more for the cause than simply perpetuating the division? But no, sadly, it continues. And because of that of course, it also becomes 'cool' or 'on message' to say that ukuleles are easier or, indeed, 'better' than those pesky guitars.  REALITY CHECK 2 - I play both. I like both. I think both have their merits. I don't think one is easier than the other and irrespective, that's not why I play both either.

Ultimately, the joy from any musical instrument comes from the music that you make on it. 'Ease' is completely subjective and not necessarily the mark of something being better.  Ease is actually an indicator of something you don't have to work as hard at and I am certainly not sure that is 'better' either. I realise this post is wide open for a flood of comments disputing it. Telling me, 'but I knew someone who'.. but it wont change my mind. I just don't like such comparisons between instruments. And dare I say it, if you are finding ANY instrument 'easy', then maybe you are not trying hard enough?

(If you liked this rant, found it resonated in any way, you might like my other shout outs for common sense on my ukulele rants page!)

11 Feb 2017

Ibanez UKS 10 Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

A first on the Got A Ukulele reviews page for this brand, and it's a brand that will be well known to guitar makers - the Ibanez UKS 10 Soprano.



Ibanez UKS 10 Ukulele


Regular readers of this site will know that I am not usually a big fan of guitar makers ukuleles. That is to say the ukuleles that are made by very well known guitar brands and tend to come across as afterthoughts, or bandwagon jumping. The Epiphone Les Paul ukulele is a prime example. As a guitar brand, I adore them and own several, but their ukulele offering really should never have seen the light of day. I've played several Fender brand ukuleles that fall in the same category. Ibanez themselves are probably best known for electric guitars on the rock end of the scale, and they are admired in those circles. I don't consider them to be as well loved in making acoustic instruments so do we have another bandwagon jumper here?

The UKS 10 is the entry level ukulele from Ibanez, but at an RRP about £70 - £75, it's far from the cheapest ukulele on the block. First confusions come with the product description that on some sites has this as all mahogany laminate, and on others as all sapele laminate. Even more confusing is one site that lists the name as a mahogany ukulele but then the sub specs list it as sapele. Sapele is often used as a cheaper substitute for mahogany, but it ISN'T mahogany. Oh well, whatever it is, perhaps it doesn't matter as it's only the outer veneer that indicates that wood as the rest of is laminated. Mahogany laminate, sapele laminate, either way it looks like wood, is orangey brown and generally pretty plain looking but classy enough.

Ibanez UKS 10 Ukulele body


It's a standard double bout shaped soprano in the standard soprano scale, with a slightly rounded base to the body. The laminate body is finished in an open pore satin and is otherwise undecorated. That is to say there is no body binding to the edges, and no sound hole rosette. You know, I don't mind that so much, as there is one thing I really don't like it's over done decoration on a cheap ukulele. A look at the edge of the sound hole shows that this laminate is extremely thin and that really is a good sign. Laminate, by it's very nature can be thin, and thin means resonance and volume. Usually cheap laminate ukes tend to be made like tanks out of thick plywood, but this one is pleasing. It actually reminds me of the sort of thinner laminate you will see on a Baton Rouge or something like the Kala KA-S. Trust me, these are good comparisons, not bad.

The back and sides on this one appear to be made from two pieces, whereas the top seems to be a single piece of laminate. The back incidentally is completely flat.

Ibanez UKS 10 Ukulele back


Bridge wise we have a slotted style bridge for easy string changes, with a plate made from rosewood and nicely shaped. It's always nice to see something different from the bog standard in this area, and this shaping is very reminiscent of Taylor guitars bridges. Set in the bridge is a compensated saddle that appears to be made from NuBone composite or similar. The bridge plate also has a couple of plugged holes which indicate that it is screwed in place. That is not unusual at this price, and in fact is not actually unusual at much higher prices, contrary to popular belief.

Ibanez UKS 10 Ukulele bridge


A look inside shows a tidy build, with no glue drips and notched kerfing. The braces sadly seem to be on the heavy side which is a shame considering that it uses thin laminate for the build. Lighter braces would make it even more resonant.

On the whole though, no huge complaints with the body, which, although plain is put together well and has no build or finish issues.

Up to the neck this is made of mahogany and also finished in satin. It's constructed from three pieces with a joint at the heel and a nicely hidden joint at the headstock. Profile wise it's quite a chunky C shape, but the width is standard narrow Chinese at about 34mm.

Topping the neck is a rosewood fingeboard which is in good condition and evenly dark all over.  We have pearloid inlaid position markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th spaces with the 12th being a double spot. Thankfully these are repeated on the side. And yes, I did say 15th space and yes, this is a soprano. This one is really generous with the frets with 17 in total and 12 to the body joint. It's really nice to see that on a soprano rather than the usual measly 12.  They are nickel silver, but sadly the fret ends are sharp and need much better dressing. They are also unhidden as the fingerboard edges are not bound so you see the fret ends showing on the edges. Worse still the edges are stained, but not quite enough so you see a variable attempt to hide them. Either hide them or don't I say. The halfway house looks cheap.

Ibanez UKS 10 Ukulele neck


Beyond the NuBone nut we have an interestingly shaped headstock, complete with the Ibanez logo. Sadly this is an extremely cheap looking gold silk screen affair and just looks nasty.

Ibanez UKS 10 Ukulele headstock


Tuning is provided by unbranded open gears in chrome. At least the buttons are small, but they still look too big on a soprano. They work reasonably well though and are decorated if that matters to you. Pretty generic though.

Ibanez UKS 10 Ukulele tuners


Completing the deal is a thin gig bag with the Ibanez logo. Sadly this is one of those that is so thin it would only serve to protect the instrument from dust and very minor scratches. When they are this thin, I tend to ignore that they are even included. As you know I also don't tend to mark ukuleles down on string choices on the basis that most players will change them anyway. That only applies though when the supplied string choice is of a good standard in the first place and a change would really only serve to suit different tastes. Sadly this comes with those black nylon, GHS type strings that I thought we had seen the back of. I have been around ukuleles long enough to remember when most instruments came with these as stock, and hoped they had been phased out. I say that because they are simply horrible. Stretchy, slippy, dead sounding things. Trust me, you WILL want to change the strings on this one from the off. So that £75 ukulele now becomes an £80 plus ukulele.. Even the absolute cheapest Chinese ukuleles these days come with better string that this.

On the whole though, generally well made with one or two issues, but not massive problems. Certainly a far cry from the absolute cheapest on the market, but then perhaps it should be at this sort of price.

To hold, this one is light in the hands and nicely balanced too. A rap of the soundboard shows that it is indeed resonant, so that thin laminate is doing it's job. It feels lively. Out of the box setup is less impressive though with a saddle that clearly needs taking down but also a nut that is too high. That nut is bound to cause intonation issues at frets 1-3 and certainly needs work. Perhaps you will get that checked if you buy this from a ukulele specialist, but there's the rub. I am not actually seeing this model at any ukulele specialists. In fact I am only seeing it at the big box online stores like Amazon and Thomann. The simple fact here is that you WON'T get a setup when you buy one... Bear that in mind. If it comes like this, it will need more work.

Sound wise, it's impressively loud and punchy like good soprano should be. It's got a bark that I like. No complaints there and clearly that resonant body is doing its job.

But otherwise those strings just make it sound pretty poor. It's one dimensional, plinky, lacking in sustain and the intonation is woeful too. A telltale sign of these cheap strings is a really dull thudding C string, and we certainly have that here. I have absolutely no doubt that this would sound much better with decent quality strings fitted and a nut setup, but like I say, take a careful note of that price. As it comes though, it sounds like a loud version of the the very cheapest ukulele examples out there.  So it has the punch and volume that many are lacking, but the tone is a let down. Like my review of the Les Paul I will get people commenting on this saying 'yeah, but if you change the strings it will be brilliant'. Perhaps it will, but I always review instruments on Got A Ukulele as stock for obvious reasons. And to repeat, a string change will add to the price which I think is already too expensive.

Ibanez UKS 10 Ukulele sound hole


Don't get me wrong, there is much to like here, and I really thought I would dislike this one more than I did. The build is generally good and the thin resonant laminate is great to see. But for me the price and QC is all wrong. Bear in mind that for £15 less than the list price for this you can get a Baton Rouge V1 or a Kala KA-15S and neither of these will need a string change from the off as they come with Aquila brand. Adding in a string change on this one and the price difference from the obvious competition is even bigger. Why would you?

It's certainly not the worst example of a guitar makers ukulele I have come across, but once again my quest for a decent one continues. Close but no cigar.

http://www.ibanez.com






UKULELE PROS

Light thin build
Resonance
Generous fret number
Volume

UKULELE CONS

Terrible strings
Sharp fret edges
Uncompetitive price point

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 8 out of 10
Fit and finish - 7 out of 10
Sound - 6 out of 10
Value for money - 7 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 7 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW



10 Feb 2017

The Essential Ukulele Accessories

Just a short Ukulele Beginners Tips video I was compelled to make following a discussion I saw online recently.

ukulele accesories


In that discussion, somebody (a new ukulele player) was asking what accessories they should buy to go with it. I was staggered by the rather unhelpful responses, including odd ideas and several items that really just are not needed when starting out. I was also staggered at the lack of mention of the basics.

So, here you go... enjoy


Now - please bear in mind that these are the ABSOLUTE BASICS I recommend. If you like buying gear, you will find my fuller list of ukulele accessories here - some of your suggestions may be on the longer list - but this video was about BASICS.

Got A Ukulele will always be free to view - help keep it that way!

If you enjoy this blog, donations are welcomed to allow me to invest more time in bringing you ukulele articles. Aside from the Google ads, I don't get paid to write this blog. Call it a labour of love! And, no, I don't get to keep the ukuleles that are loaned to to review...