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 internet has also seen a boom in the armchair expert. I have seen some crazy stuff in the last few years...




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 amazing tools for ukulele beginners to get tips and advice, and on the whole the advice is good and well natured. There are some truly great forums where real experts are only too willing to give some advice based on years of experience for nothing. Facebook also has some good 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 and many of those Facebook groups have taken a downward turn.

Opinions are great and we ar, of course,  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 not opinions based on anything other than a sudden passion or at worst a case of 'my mate said this so here is what I "reckon"..' An opinion is something that comes from the heart as a view. Telling somebody something that is factually WRONG is not an opinion, but sadly this whole 'it's just my opinion' has become the byword for a get out clause for spouting rubbish. These examples 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 then 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 easily (it can happen for a variety of reasons) but far more likely the answer is - 'no, it's fine, your strings are just settling down or something adjustable needs looking at by someone who knows what they are doing'. This was out there, online, in public to the whole world. How many beginners read that and went along with it? There is another lesson in this one of course and that's that if you don't understand setups, then please PLEASE buy from a reputable dealer that does.

Another one I saw recently was this one. A new player was trying to select their first ukulele, and was asking about different types of wood (you know the sort of question, "should I get spruce or mahogany" or something similar - a perfectly valid question). In the post they also noted a couple of models they were looking at (in the sub $100 category and both were laminate ukes). Our next expert rolls in quick to respond with a set of views about tone woods (presumably copied and pasted from elsewhere), their tonal properties, 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 element of this topic aside for a moment, who judges what sounds 'better'? That is something totally subjective to the player. You can't say a certain wood is better in any way - only 'different'.  And of course, back to laminates, in the cheaper end laminate ukulele world, the outer veneer is the only bit that looks like the wood it is supposed to resemble, and it is usually 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 here - 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!).

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. In standard tuning it's GCEA, just the same as a soprano and a concert. The same key. Perhaps the ukulele they saw may have had a low G, but it is still tuned in the same key. The body is however bigger and that 'can' give the uke a bigger, fuller or more resonant sound (generally), but it is not 'lower'. That would be the baritone. In fact it then 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'.... No, no it isn't.

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. The 'Wiki How' and 'eHow' types of sites that prompt would be experts to have their 5 seconds of fame by writing free articles for them in some sort of vanity back slapping exercise. Whilst there are some true experts out there there are also many 'experts' (in quotes) - those who don't really have any experience of many of their subjects yet 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 to what they spouted. 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 ( this is 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."

Where to begin here.... yes, sopranos are small, perhaps even 'cute' (yuk), and in some cases they can be cheaper to buy... but what is this business about 'moving up' as you progress?  As if, when you have earned your stripes, you are entitled to a bigger uke?? That's a total disregard to the Hawaiian tradition and their love for all scales, particularly the soprano and just plain wrong. If anything the soprano IS the most revered ukulele. 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. The soprano is not a toy to be discarded when your playing has improved, and many people consider it the ultimate ukulele.  What really got me about this article is that it is then followed by a bunch of comments from readers saying 'well done, great advice!!'. NO!, it ISN'T great advice. What you are praising there is a prime example of beginners being duped by duff advice from those with only a little knowledge. '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 that irritates me (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 in some way easier on the fingers and that solid wood is 'better' than laminate. It REALLY saddens me. Beginners actually read and 'like' this stuff. Worse, beginners actually take this stuff in and in a few months will be advising others of the very same. The received wisdom slowly starts to become fact.

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 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 these days.

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 they cannot be on every single site all the time. 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 and why things are not like the media told them they would be. They decide to ask a question online and hit the first place on the internet they can find. They find this mis-information. Everyone is an expert.

I find it really 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 and experts. Such hangouts DO exist - Ukulele Underground Forums are an obvious place and there are others, but there are also a growing number of groups, particularly on Facebook where the blind really are leading the blind.

I know that some of the people on there may just be genuinely trying to help out, and I totally get that too, but it's pretty random out there these days. Of course some of these 'experts' are just loving the position they have created for themselves despite only playing a ukulele for two months.  I've personally dabbled with the mandolin but would never go onto a beginners mandolin group and start giving advice having not really played one 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 out there. Question everything. Heck, I have even heard stories of less reputable music stores now 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 i'm afraid.

In summary, if you are taking advice online - there is one question you can ask to check... 'how long have you been playing?'. Take the answer to that question and act on the advice they are giving with appropriate caution.

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






15 comments :

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

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  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

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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

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  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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  9. This probably going to sound really dumb, but I only started playing in June, so I'm still figuring a lot of things out. Did not know that a tenor isn't an octave below the soprano! I've read so many places that it's lower than a soprano! I almost bought one because I was curious about a "lower" sound.

    Mind. Blown.

    Thanks for the information. This is super helpful!

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  10. I agree with this post except for two small cavils:

    1. Solid wood makes a huge difference on the face of the instrument. If the rest of the body is laminate, not such big deal.

    2. While the Ukulele Underground is a fab place, it is where I first ran across someone assuring a newbie that it was cool to buy a soprano as their first uke because they could always "graduate to a tenor" later.

    My comment is not meant to dis the UU, but simply to point out that particular canard is all too common.

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  11. What I mean re solid / laminate is that I would rather have good laminate top than a bad solid top. I see a lot of brands rushing to put solid tops on, but they are thick and over braced. Dead sounding. Nice pro laminate is better than those. Of course, with good solid tops - yes you are right, it makes a huge difference.

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  12. You're entirely correct there, Baz. If it's not a quality build, nothing is going to save them. I'd actually thought about pointing that out in my comment, but the late hour and the excitement of the rest of the day fogged my aging brain.

    Part of the excitement was that I'd just bought a tenor. Of course, it was a tenor guitar, but I've got it in Chicago tuning and I'm just treating it like a large, steel stringed, baritone ukulele. :-)

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  13. If we take away the re from review and then let people post views it would be better. A reviewer really needs some er, reviewing experience/skills, where as a view can be passed at anytime....by anyone unqualified or otherwise unqualified or experienced......it then allows us to seperate the crap from the fact :-)

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