17.3.14

Why Do We Accept Cheap Junk Ukuleles?

Time for another rant, and another piece I have been meaning to write for some time. Why do we accept and buy such cheap junk ukuleles? Since when did the assumption that a musical instrument can be a bargain price come along?


This post was prompted by me spotting a cheap ukulele in a local shop that took my breath away. You know the sort of thing - the brightly painted, thick laminate ukes that plague eBay and other dealers who jump on the bandwagon because they see the ukulele as 'popular'. Sadly what they don't do though is actually give much of a damn as to whether the ukulele is actually playable or not, and as such the market is full of instruments that could only very loosely be called 'musical instruments'.

A couple of points before I continue. This is not a case of snobbery and I appreciate that money is tight for many people, but is there really an expectation that you are going to get something that works for only £10 (or in the case of the uke I look at below, £8 or about the price of a good set of strings)? These are musical instruments. Would you expect a violin, guitar, piano, flute or whatever else for £10? Why the uke?

I am writing this because I get a lot of email on the subject of 'I bought a ukulele for cheap and it won't play in tune', and equally see a lot of beginners saying the same on various social media spots. Equally, I have ranted about this subject before, particularly over instruments I have reviewed such as this Mahalo. Interestingly I have had a backlash for my views on Mahalo (for the record, I have never played a good one, and until I do, my position stands), but I could say the same for a range of ukes in the same price category such as Clifton, Hudson, Ashton, examples of which I have played and been totally let down by the build.

People have also said to me that the ukulele should be cheap because it is small. What a complete nonsense. They are musical instruments and need a certain basic level of technicality in the build to make them capable of being played. I am not just talking about action and setup, but basic build characteristics such as the neck angle, the position of the bridge and the frets. I have seen instruments by the likes of Mahalo and Ashton where they were just plain built 'wrong', making accurate playability a total impossibility. In that I mean, not a subjective problem such as 'they sound rubbish', but build defects that would mean the instrument would never play in tune. Ever. And if small should be cheap, a good tin whistle or harmonica costs more than the uke I include in the example below!

So what has happened? Well, with any boom supply grows to meet demand, and China is the powerhouse in this regard. They are churning out instruments by the bucketload and in many cases giving little thought to the end player. I am not down on China, and they produce some fine quality instruments when the order is overseen by a brand that demands quality, but they are equally quite happy to knock out sub par products that find their ways into our homes in their droves.

The price at which ukes become more serious is very subjective, but it certainly isn't at £10. For me (and I am happy to debate this as there are some exceptions to the rule), I think they start getting good at about £100 over here in the UK, and in the £100-£300 range you can find ukes to suit all abilities. Beyond that you get some sublime instruments, and if you top over £1000 you get into the real stunners.

But there is another problem behind this. I am afraid to say that the sales of these junk ukes go hand in hand with the misconception that the ukulele is a toy instrument, a joke, or 'just a bit of fun'. So long as that myth remains, then these monstrosities will continue to appear in stores. It is almost as if the uke is considered a throwaway item....

So lets take a look at this one I picked up today. AND TO BE CLEAR - THIS IS NOT JUST ABOUT THIS PARTICULAR UKE - I AM USING THIS AS AN EXAMPLE - THERE ARE INCREASING NUMBERS OF UKES APPEARING ON THE MARKET AS BAD AS THIS ONE!!!

It comes packaged in a suitably Hawaiian themed box complete with tropical flower motif and goes by the name of the 'Ready Ace' ( a trades description breach if ever there was one as you will see...)

Ready Ace Ukulele

Ready Ace Ukulele headstock


It is a laminate uke complete with thick glossy garish paint finish like so many cheap ukes at this price point. Interestingly, the makers decided that gloss on the body was not enough for this little beauty and decided to paint the fingerboard in gloss black, and then detail the frets in gold paint. I have never seen anything quite like it.

Ready Ace Ukulele fingerboard

The bridge is a slotted type, make of plastic and screwed to the body. A look at the edge of the sound hole shows that the laminate top is super thick, so volume and tone are bound to be compromised. That bridge by the way is set in the wrong place and on a slight angle. Critical error number one.

Ready Ace Ukulele top


It is the neck though where things fall apart completely. Those frets are not set correctly, not only is the spacing somewhat random, they are all set in the fingerboard at a slight angle and as such this instrument will NEVER play in tune. In fact the instrument would play better if they didn't bother with the frets at all!

The tuning is provided by the cheapest friction tuners I have ever seen, that use a piece of cardboard as a washer. They were loose on arrival (which would be enough to fox any new player or child) and one was actually off and rolling around in the box. I tightened them up as far as I dare without splitting the plastic and the strings (nylon by the way, and all of the same gauge) just about held.

Ready Ace Ukulele tuners

Action wise, far too high at the nut and the saddle, but that can be adjusted. Those misplaced frets and bridge cannot....

Playing it, well that high action was pretty awful, but the misplaced frets are the thing. Tuning on the E and A strings was not too bad, but don't ever try to play a chord that uses those strings in conjunction with the G or the C string as they just won't work! I recorded a video to accompany this post which you will find at the end if you are interested. So in other words a totally unplayable instrument. I should take it back for a refund, but......

I wanted to look deeper into this uke. So throwing my £7.99 to the wind for the sake of the good readers of this blog, out came the craft knife. What I found inside was revolting.

Firstly the top. No real surprises here, super thick plywood with some over spray from the painting process and enormous screws holding the bridge down. Presumably that super thick paint and super thick laminate was the reason why there is no bracing....

Ready Ace Ukulele underside of top


Looking into the body though it actually looks like someone has vomited into the uke. There seems to be more glue poured around the body than there is holding the back and top on to the sides. In fact, the top was really easy to prize off, so this uke was never going to last. It is a complete mess. The tail and neck blocks look like they have been sawn off a tree that was growing outside the factory. This is what your princely sum of £7.99 gets you.

Interesting note - the label says it is an Acoustic Guitar......

Ready Ace Ukulele inside body

Ready Ace Ukulele inside body


Why does this matter? We don't play the inside of the uke. Well, it is an indication of just how shoddy the build process is from start to finish (as if that wasn't immediately obvious from the outside...). It shows that this production line couldn't care less about whose hands the 'instrument' lands in, and only cares about fleecing the buying public for what they can on the back of the ukulele trend.

Why do I care? Surely Baz, you knew this was a rubbish uke? You may be confident that you would never buy one of these. That is good to hear, but people ARE buying them, and buying them in great quantities. The very best outcome for someone with one of these is that they have wasted their money (remember the adage 'buy cheap, buy twice.). But the worst outcome is that somebody who wanted to give the ukulele a try would end up frustrated and totally put off because the thing is unplayable. This may be their first and last foray into the uke world. Think of the child on their birthday morning who wanted a uke and opened this box. It's very sad, and whilst there is little I can do about it, if I had my way then these things would be banned. As it is, I can shout about it here and hope that people take note.

If you are buying, buy from a reputable place and please remember that you get what you pay for. If you are a dealer, eBay or otherwise carrying these sort of ukes, and shipping them out without even opening the boxes, then shame on you. Have a think about what you are putting on the market and perhaps have a bit more pride rather than just ripping people off.

As a final point - this is an EDIT - some people are suggesting this sort of uke is not sold as an instrument, but as a toy or decorative piece. Sadly, that is not true - this one even came with a leaflet inside with a chord chart and a how to play and tune guide.... See:


And finally - a STOP PRESS, as suggested by Cliff Adams - what SHOULD you buy for yourself or your kids if these are so bad?

Well if you really don't want to / cannot afford to spend much more than this, then you really should take a look at a Makala Dolphin uke. They will need some adjustment, but are very playable and project well (I own two). They are around 25-30 pounds and I know many top end players who own them because they are fun.

The Lanikai LU11 or 21's are considered to be great for kids and many schools use them. I have seen some quality control issues with some, but think they sound great.

If you want to move to the £100 bracket that I suggest (and that wasn't an order in the post, just my opinion) and get a great first ukulele then I personally think it is hard to beat the Ohana SK25. Wonderful little uke that one.


Take a look at the video. And, I couldn't even justify giving this uke it's own space on my review page. If I did, it is a firm 0 out of 10.... Sadly, this is not the only one out there.



17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks....sadly, a very funny commentary style....maybe they DID vomit into it. MORE interesting, were the Collings ukulele ads that surrounded it as I read. Big Jim Allen, St. Pete, FL

Barry Maz said...

ha ha - thanks Jim!

Mark S. said...

Unfortunately cheap beginner guitars are built the same way. I bought a $100 CA guitar on sale for $25 thinking I could make it playable. Hah, fat chance. Not only is it hard to play physically (I'm an somewhat experienced guitarist) but also will not tune. I could see a kid giving up trying to learn almost immediately. Why do they make instruments that won't tune and is unplayable? Obviously the makers and sellers have their own interest in mind.. $$

Anonymous said...

Just need to hope people looking for ukuleles are able to use a search engine to find a site like yours, ukulele underground or reddit to at least ask for where to start looking for a ukulele.

mcp said...

The same thing happens with other instruments and with bicycles. How many people buy a $150 bike then decide that they don't like riding because they got a lousy bike. But you also don't have to be priced out of either hobby. My tenor Hora sounds nearly as nice as my Lanikai but cost me 100 lei (less than 20 pounds).

Cliff Adams said...

Great post. Perhaps a link to a post or three about the better "inexpensive" ukuleles available? Let's keep grammas and grampas and aunties and uncles (and a few parents) finding playable instruments for the kids. I've given away a number of Makala Dolphins and Sharks, often restrung with Aquilas, with a good inexpensive tuner and a learn to play ukulele book. Only one has gone on to purchase a finer instrument... but all still play and care for their plastic backed ukes.

Barry Maz said...

That is a great idea Cliff - I will make an edit.

Zahra Lowzley said...

I think they average person paying for a £10 isn't looking to perform in a concert hall, if they are happy with their purchase then there is no harm. The validity of an instrument is not due to its craftsmanship but merely its recognizable construction. I own ukuleles that go as cheap as £30 and i have an electric guitar that cost £15, it has no truss rod hehe, i find them a challenge to work with but they are capable of producing musical sounds. If i have a ukulele that buzzes you can bet il use that buzz in a musical context, if its a guitar with no truss rod then il bend the neck as i play.

The first uke i played was a friends that cost her £15, first thing i did was start tapping on it, i saw the potential not the bad craftmanship. A lesson can be learnt from the early blues players that would nail a string to the side of a wooden shack with two bottles at either end and use it as the first version of what we recognize now as the diddlybow They produced music just as valid as a musician with a £5000 custom scientifically-engineered perfect-intonation instrument. I always say that i work toward a time when i am able to master one string, a musicians true talent is shown when they are confronted with limitations not when they feel musically safe. I known so so many musicians whom would be lost if you merely removed one string from their instrument. Someone whom plays a stringed instrument should be able to pick up any stringed instrument , any tuning and be able to create music, a skill often repressed by scales and chordal theory, forgetting the true essence of the music.

There are no unplayable instruments, there are only challenges to our creativity. I put a pickup in my pocket ukuleles to try and show this to be true. I love getting to know an instrument that buzzes with out of tune intonation, those are extra features not hindrances . i have a few instrument that i made "unplayable" purposefully to always challenge my creative process, all of which i never tune , just pick up and listen and adapt, molding harmoniously into the character of the instrument

Barry Maz said...

I think you are missing my point a little. I have no issue with cheaper ukes, and own several. I do have an issue with a uke where the frets are misplaced and the bridge is wrong, or a uke I had where the neck was set in such a way that it was impossible to string without the strings bottoming on the first fret (unless) I raised the nut to about 1cm high... These are sold to unwitting new players, and particularly children as instruments and are capable of putting them off.

Your playing Zahra is sublime and many many leagues above most beginners. The vast majority of buyers of these may only have intentions of strumming in uke clubs, and for those, this thing is useless

Barry Maz said...

I also had a comment earlier from a uke teacher who said he has kids turning up for lessons with ukes this bad, and their parents then paying more for the lesson than they did for the uke....

Sonsdad said...

Good article Baz and good comment Cliff

karl said...

There were terrible ukulele-shaped things for sale 20 years ago, then marketed as 'souvenirs' or 'props' rather than 'toys'. Price and quality were at the same low point. It isn't new, but the scale is.

Ask any music teacher about the awful new instruments their pupils bring along, and everyone will answer: classical guitars, trumpets, flutes and even accordeons (which have unusually high starting prices). That's hard discounting for you, and relatively new. Hard discounting supermarkets have discovered that they can sell shiny instrument-shaped objects for less than a day's wages, and that's something new. And perhaps worth a rant: are those lidl-offers cheap stepping stones to good instruments (or bicycles, or fishing equipment, or whatever hobby you'd like to start), or are they impassable hurdles?


What has also changed, is that there now are cheap beginner's instruments available, in the Makala/Aloha/Korala league.

To make it a bit more clear, here's a price chart:
- dirt cheap, unplayable 7£ ukulele: not new, marketed either as souvenirs or carnival toys
- supermarket 15£ ukulele: new for the last 5 years, marketed as a serious instrument with a gig bag and a bookle and sometimes a tuner, but with a lousy construction and very hard to play
- 30£ ukulele, sold in music shops: new for the last 10 years, in a growing variety, perhaps not-so-nice sounding but very playable
- anything with a much higher pricetag, all of it better sounding, easier to play or much fancier to look at: it had almost dissappeared in the 1990s, but came back with a force since the millenium turn.

Kate Ferris and Fred Casey said...

An excellent article, Barry - thanks. My husband Fred (C. F. Casey Guitars) starts his ukes at $550 Cdn. They're worth every penny. But so many people are shocked, thinking - as you stated - that because it's small, it should be cheap. They don't realize that the same skills that go into building a guitar go into building an `ukulele. It's gotten to the point where, if someone says to me after I've explained this, "But why should I pay $550.00 for one of your ukes when I can get one in Walmart for $30?" I just smile and say, "I think that a Walmart uke would be perfect for you."

Barry Maz said...

Well said Kate!

Evie Coakley-Williams said...

I think this is a great review, but I do think people need to take into consideration the benefits of cheap ukuleles, I recently bought a cheap uke off eBay for around £20 as a complete novice I wanted something affordable that I coud throw away if I thought it wasn't for me, I simply wanted to have a feel for the size of a uke and have a go at some basic chords. Luckily for me I believe that the uke I purchased isn't all that bad, granted it doesn't stay in tune for very long but hey ho. This cheap uke has really helped me decide that I want to continue to learn and am looking for a higher end uke for this, people aren't completely brain dead if you buy an instrument for £8 no ones going to be expecting amazing results, but surely a child getting a cheap uke and strumming away on it because they don't know the difference between a 'good' and a 'bad' ukulele is better than them not having one at all right?
-Evie

Barry Maz said...

Evie - Sorry but I cannot agree with any of that. The post above covers it really, but here is the main thing. There ARE good cheap ukes out there (check out the Octopus Soprano reviewed on this site). They DO exist. It's just that the vast majority are terrible. So why are others doing so badly? You say that you believe that the uke you have isn't all that bad, but then immediately say that it doesnt stay in tune long. In which case it fails as a musical instrument. Buy with an informed choice, read up on reviews and cheap AND reliable can be found - what bothers me is the huge number of terrible ukes. I would never put one in the hands of a child - what a perfect way to put them off for life.

Anonymous said...

Buy cheap, buy twice, you say?

I've just purchased my third uke (the aforementioned Octopus), with the other two being more or less unplayable.
My reason for having a uke was purely as something small and portable, that I can noodle away on where it's impractical to take a full sized guitar. I had no real ambitions to perform or even record with it.

My first was a nameless thing that I bought for a fiver from a lad at college. It had a nice looking grain on the top, but had frictionless friction pegs and intonation that was so far out it was never clear which fret was actually the 12th. I learned the chord shapes, but it always sounded awful, and when a string broke (which meant two strings broke, as it was just one string wrapped under the bridge) it went in a cupboard and never came out.

I must have mentioned that I was considering getting another one, as a friend bought me one for Christmas. To my ignorant eyes it looked pretty impressive, with it's padded mock-leather bag, glossy, glossy black finish (it was like, how much more black could it be? And the answer was none, none more black), postcard of an attractive bikini clad woman on a beach, and a body shape usually associated with Freddy King or Randy Rhoads.

Maybe it's my heavy fretting hand? Maybe it's those tuning pegs and I should replace them with geared tuners? Nope. Despite going back to it again and again, I just couldn't get it to sound pleasant.
A quick bit of Googling last month, and it seems that there's a unanimously agreed reason why my Mahalo Vkulele wasn't emitting the sweet sounds I'd hoped for.

Third time lucky, hopefully.

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