Time for another ukulele rant, and another piece I have been meaning to write for some time. Why is it that people accept and buy such cheap junk ukuleles? Since when did the assumption that a musical instrument has become a bargain price impulse purchase? Why is this considered normal in so many quarters?
A couple of points before I continue. This is not a case of instument 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)?? Really? These are musical instruments! Would you expect a violin, guitar, piano, flute or whatever else for £10? A single ukulele lesson, just a lesson, can cost you twice that! Why is the uke considered to be the cheap one in the instrument world?
I am also 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', but also because I see a lot of beginners saying the same thing on various social media spots. I have ranted about this subject before, particularly over instruments I have reviewed such as this Mahalo which should never be considered 'intruments' in my view.
People have also said to me that the ukulele should be cheap because it is small - like THAT is a good reason. The media endlessly tell us the same. What a complete nonsense! They are still musical instruments and need a certain basic level of technicality in the build to make them capable of being played properly. 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 from certain brands where they were just plain built 'wrong', making accurate playability a total impossibility. In that I mean, this is not a subjective problem such as 'they sound rubbish', but are actual build defects that would mean the instrument would never play in tune. Ever. And anyway, if it follows that small should be cheap, a good tin whistle or harmonica costs more than the uke I include in the example below...
So what is going on here? 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 or Chinese instruments, and they produce some fine quality ukuleles when the production is overseen by a brand that demands quality. Sadly, in other areas they are equally quite happy to knock out sub par products that find their ways into our homes in their droves. And I mean droves. That's where ones like the one in this review fit.
The price at which ukuleles become basically playable is very, very subjective, but it certainly isn't at £10 or even £20... It just isn't and don't believe the hype that it is. Don't expect it because it's small and don't expect it because it's fun. Most of all, don't expect it just because you want it. For me 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. Below £100 you 'may' (and I stress, MAY here) get something playable if you take advice, but generally speaking you will get rubbish.
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 just a toy instrument, a joke, or 'just a bit of fun'. And 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.... Nothing serious, no harm done... Never mind whether they actually play in tune or not..
Anyway, lets take a look at this one I picked up today. AND TO BE CLEAR - THIS IS NOT JUST A PIECE 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!!!
Specimen A 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...)
It is a laminate bodied uke complete with a 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. Paint, paint, paint, and lots of it.
The bridge is a slotted type, with a saddle of plastic and is screwed to the body. Nothing massively wrong here I guess. 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. This is probably one of the thickest I have ever seen. Bear in mind the body of a ukulele is a sound box. It's supposed to be resonant, light and snappy. Thick woods do not create resonance. Added to that, the bridge is actually set in the wrong place and on a slight angle. Critical error number one. Put the bridge in the wrong place and you will never get accurate scale length on the strings, and that means you will never get accurate play on the fretboard. Things like this matter. Greatly.
It is the neck though where things then fall apart completely. Those frets are not set correctly either. Not only is the spacing somewhat random, most of them are 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! And that's all before I talk about just how hideous that black paint looks and feels on the hands. So bridge out of place, frets out of place... we already have a massive failure.
The tuning is provided by some of the cheapest friction tuners I have ever seen, that use a piece of cardboard as a washer to create the friction. They were loose on arrival (which would be enough to fox any new player or child) and one was actually detached completely 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 exactly the same gauge) just about held. To use them though is just awful. You either have these so tight that they hold the strings but make it impossible to tune them, or they are moveable but just spin backwards with any sort of string tension.
Action wise, this is far too high at the nut and the saddle, but that can be adjusted I suppose. Those misplaced frets and bridge cannot....
So the build is horrible as I say, but the feel of that ultra thick paint is just horrid on the hands and naturally it feels far heavier than it should for a soprano.
Playing it, well that high action was pretty awful, but the misplaced frets are the killer here. 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! The thick body woods mean that the instrument has virtually no tone or sustain to speak of and a pitiful volume too. Hardly surprising.
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 wasn't finished with it just yet...
I wanted to look deeper into this uke. Literally. So throwing my £7.99 to the wind for the sake of the good readers of this site, out came the craft knife. What I found inside was frankly 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.... at all... none.
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 and utter 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......
Why does any of 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 popular ukulele trend.
Why do I care about this one? Surely Baz, you knew this was going to be a rubbish uke? You may yourself be confident that you would never buy one of these. That is good to hear, but sadly 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. 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. In fact the concept of a child getting one of these really upsets me. Destroying a musical instrument relationship so early is just not on. As it is, all I can do is shout about it here and hope that people take note. And remember - it's not just Ready Ace that are guilty here. Lots of junk like this is available. This one is just indicative of the problem.
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 - some people are suggesting this sort of uke is not sold as an instrument, but just 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 below.
So.. what SHOULD you buy for yourself or your kids if these are quite so bad?
Well if you really don't want to / cannot afford to spend much more than twenty quid, 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 30-35 pounds and I know many top end players who own them because they are fun. They really are not too bad.
Or how about another favourite of mine - the Octopus Brand soprano ukulele- seriously nice for next to no money.
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 ok too.
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.
But I am wavering here and just listing the exceptions to the rule. If you choose to buy the cheapest ukulele you can find because you think they are naturally cheap you WILL be disappointed.
I couldn't even be bothered to score this one properly. If I did, it is a firm 0 out of 10.... And very sadly, this is not the only one out there of this calibre.
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
AND! Be sure to check out my other ukulele RANTS - where I explode the many myths and bad advice that surrounds the instrument - CLICK HERE!