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...)
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.
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.
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.
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....
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......
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.