On Bad Ukulele Advisors

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7 Nov 2013

On Bad Ukulele Advisors

With the massive boom in ukulele popularity in recent years, it comes as no surprise that the inter web thingy has also seen a boom in the armchair expert. I have seen some crazy stuff in the last year.

I thought it would be fun /scary to post a few of these here for discussion, and it forms kind of a companion piece to my Ukulele Myths post written some time ago. But don't get me wrong - the internet and social media are pretty amazing tools for ukulele beginners to get tips and advice, and on the whole the advice is good. There are some great forums where real experts are only too willing to give some advice for nothing. Facebook also has some great forums where beginners can pick up a lot of tips, but as part of my producing this website I find myself delving a little deeper into the web and come across some things that really bother me (have a browse of things like Yahoo Answers for an example!).

Opinions are great and we are all entitled to them, but there is nothing that bothers me more (as a  writer of a website principally aimed at beginners) than to see the ukulele player of say six weeks giving a beginner some terrible advice. These are ALL genuine.

Take the chap I recently came across who responded to a post from a beginner asking that oh so common question of 'I bought a new ukulele but every half an hour it just all goes out of tune on me'. The 'expert' responds with 'I've owned many ukuleles and sometimes they are like that. Sounds like you got a bad one. What I do is put them on ebay and get another'.....

What??? Sure, it may have been an ultra cheap uke with some physical defect that meant it was never going to tune very well (it can happen) but far more likely the answer is - 'no, it's fine, your strings are just settling down'. This was out there, online, in public to the whole world. How many beginners read that and went along with it?

Another one I saw recently was this. A new player was trying to select their first ukulele, and was asking about types of wood (you know, should I get spruce or zebra wood or something similar). In the post they also noted a couple of models they were looking at (in the sub $100 category and both laminate ukes). Our next expert rolls in quick to respond with a set of views about tone woods (presumably copied and pasted from elsewhere), and then points out that 'wood type X always sounds better than wood type Y'.

Now hang on a minute there! Leaving the laminate wood issue aside, who judges what sounds 'better'? That is something totally subjective. But of course, in the cheap end laminate uke world, the outer veneer is the only bit that looks like the wood it is supposed to resemble, and it is just a very thin finish on some unspecified plywood underneath. As such, whether that outer veneer is one wood or another, the traditional properties of the 'solid' version of those woods is not going to transfer to a laminate uke. Don't get me wrong - laminate instruments do differ in their sound but it has nothing to do with the outer laminate veneer. (Further note - there are some superbly resonant high end laminate ukes out there by makers such as Kiwaya, but that is not what we are talking about here!).

Then we have another common one I am seeing when people ask about the differences between the ukulele sizes. One chap decided to boldly respond that the tenor ukulele is lower in sound than the soprano. Now, this may have just been a case of bad use of English, but the tenor ukulele is not tuned any differently than a soprano. It's GCEA, just the same. Perhaps may more likely have a low G, but it is tuned the same. The body is however bigger and that can give the uke a bigger, fuller or more resonant sound, but it is not lower, that would be the baritone. In fact it got worse... somebody else responded to his comment (correctly) stating 'hang on, isn't the tenor tuned the same as a soprano?' to which the initial 'expert' chimes in with 'yeah, but it's still a lower sound'....

How about this next one. There are websites out there which are supposed depositories of articles written by 'experts' for which it seems some sort of vanity project that the 'experts' get likes and praise for. Whilst there are some experts out there there are also many 'experts' (in quotes) - those who don't really have any experience of many of their subjects and write thousands of articles on everything from motorcycle maintenance to flower arranging, most likely culled from other specialist websites, then spend all day tweeting the links. One such expert wrote a guide for beginners on buying ukuleles, and tweets a link to it pretty much every single day. It particularly incensed me because of this line (a direct quote)

"Soprano ukuleles are tiny, but still produce a good sound. What you should know if you're about to start playing the ukulele though, is that although a soprano is cute, and generally the cheapest to buy, most ukulele players move on up in size of ukulele from soprano to concert or tenor pretty quickly when they've started playing. A concert ukulele has 15 to 20 frets, whereas a soprano has only 12 to 15. Therefore, you may save money in the long run if you buy a size up from the start."

Yes, sopranos are small, perhaps even 'cute' (yuk), and in some cases, cheaper to buy... but what is this business about moving up as you progress?  As if, when you earn your stripes, you are entitled to a bigger uke?? Total disregard to the Hawaiian tradition and their love for all scales, particularly the soprano. I personally favour the soprano and the tenor so what happened to me? I also know many players who's first uke was a concert, and that is the only scale they own, and ditto the concert. The soprano is not a toy to be discarded when your playing has improved many people consider it the ultimate ukulele.  What really got me about this article is that it is followed by a bunch of comments saying 'well done, great advice!!'. No, it ISN'T great advice, and what you have there is a prime example of beginners being duped by duff advice. 'Expert' indeed!

I read an increasingly popular ukulele website this morning that had put up a post 'advising' on how to choose your first ukulele. Aside from some other stuff (including claiming that the Mahalo Les Paul was a good first buy...) there we see again a repeat of the usual nonsense. In two of their bullet points they claim that larger scale ukuleles are easier on the fingers and that solid wood is better than laminate. It saddens me. Beginners actually read and 'like' this stuff.

And so it goes on. From the poster recently responding to someone saying they were struggling with the E chord with 'just play an E7, it is the same thing', (Argggghhhhhhh!!! no it ISN'T), to the respondent to the (admittedly comically naive) person who asked which were better strings, the black ones or the white ones with very assured comment of, "definitely the black strings - they are much fuller sounding", this stuff is everywhere.

Why post this rant? Well because I know there are a heap of very knowledgeable players out there who give up a lot of time for beginners, but cannot be on every single site. There are also a growing number of brand new players either about to get their first instrument, or just sitting down with one for the first time wondering what is wrong. They decide to answer a question and hit the first place on the internet they can find. It's concerning for new players. Sure, some might say they 'need to learn' and will soon realise the error of the advice they took, but I would rather such new beginners sought out their advice carefully and took it from trusted players. Such hangouts exist - Ukulele Underground Forums are an obvious place and there are others, but there are an increasing number of Facebook groups (if that is your thing) full of very talented, and in some cases, professional players who can give you advice (check out the groups Learn Ukulele Free, Ukulele-itis, Ukulele Tabs and Keep Ukulele Playing Live as just some that I like (and where I hang out) and feel free to ask for advice.  You will find other beginners on there too, so don't consider any question is too silly to ask. If you don't like those ideas, really consider joining a club as each one tends to have a host of more seasoned players willing to help out.

Some of those advisors may just be trying to help out, and I get that too, but it's pretty random out there at times. I've dabbled with the mandolin but would never go out onto a beginners group and start giving advice having not really played them all that long. Remember, just because it is easy to set up a website these days and simply repeat what you read somewhere parrot fashion does not mean the advice is sound.

If you are on this site considering your first ukulele, then do take care with advice. Heck, I have even heard stories of less reputable music stores jumping on the bandwagon and giving bad advice when it comes to ukuleles. Like the pools of ukulele advisors there are, sadly, good and bad dealers too.

So tread carefully, take LOTS of advice and have fun!

AND! Be sure to check out my other ukulele RANTS - where I explode the many myths and bad advice that surrounds the instrument - CLICK this link! http://www.gotaukulele.com/search/label/rants


  1. my playing is so good now I've moved on to an upright bass uke

  2. Barry, one of my gripes has been the nonchalant use of the term "tablature" There are so many confused people out there who think that mere Lyric/chord charts are "tabs". The Ukutabs.com site doesn't help with this misconception at all. They among others offer these "charts" in the name of "tabs" which just continues to perpetuate the conception they are offering tablatures. I even contacted them and they said they know it's incorrect but they use it to keep their site "popular" and draw more people to them. Blatantly misleading. arghhhhhhh

  3. A Uke with low and high G (g&G) That is most beautiful. How does it sound? I am going to build a uke from Black Wattle. It is a little known Australian Acacia (in Australia) but prolific in Swaziland where it is the chief firewood. I have received enough fret wire to build about 3 Soprano ukes and hope that mandolin wire will be okay. I also have a set of Grover machine heads and am exited to get started. Next will be an upright base Uke as soon as I can play E in all 10 positions.

  4. Michael Lynch has hit one of my own dislikes, With the miss use of the word tablature , if you actually searching for tablature all you get is chord / lyric charts.

  5. My son had a cat they named "Pet Peeve" who has since died, so I am free to use this term once more. My pet peeve is one you mentioned above. The music stores who jumped on the marketing bandwagon when the uke groups were popping up and newbies needed a uke. They were buying crap and selling them right and left. This was trouble from the very beginning. Early on, I bought a laminate from a known maker. It sounded like a rock. I soon got rid of it to someone who was in awe of the "look" of it. Ah, well.

  6. I was taught to "consider the source" when researching stuff. And I research a lot of things before I buy them. There were not too many of these beginner comments, suggestions, blogs?? out there when I decided to begin playing. A friend bought me a really really bad handcrafted uke..nasty. Nice of him, but he knew nothing about instruments. Dad was a professional musician. He always said to get the best you could afford, especially to learn on, because if you didn't like it, you wouldn't use it. And you could always move up to a better instrument as your playing improved. Which is why I have at least 8 ukes here at home. Take advice with a grain of salt.

  7. Can you check this specs for me?
    Body Material: Basswood
    Strings Material: Nylon
    Size: 54×16.5×5.6cm
    Weight: 400g?

  8. Sorry - what are you wanting me to check? Probably easier to let me know the model name! The material being Basswood means this is almost certainly a very cheap ukulele - basswood is not a great wood for instrument making


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