In a conversation this morning helping out a new ukulele buyer, I once again came across the issue of choosing your ukulele shop with care. It was being answered by the usual suggestion of buying from Amazon...
|This Stagg ukulele was rated one of the best ranked ukuleles on Amazon - it was more fit for firewood...|
Now this is a subject I have touched on in various other blog posts, but realised that I hadn't written a more consolidated advice guide on where I think you should consider buying your instrument, particularly your first one. Well, that and why I don't recommend the 'Zon..
You see, I see comments made online quite often on this subject that say, 'That chap at Got A Ukulele doesn't recommend buying from Amazon'. And it is almost always followed with someone saying 'I bought from Amazon and it was absolutely fine, so he doesn't know what he is talking about'..
So lets be clear - NO, I don't recommend buying from Amazon except in certain cases. Same goes for eBay if you are a beginner, and in fact also goes for a worrying number of big brand music stores too. I will deal with the exceptions further on in this piece, as like anything there is no one size fits all here, but lets first look at where and why I make the general warning against the big A.
The likes of Amazon, big selling channels on eBay and the large brand music stores come with a couple of issues for me. First of all, those sellers tend to concentrate (in the main) on the cheaper end of the ukulele market. We are talking the sub £200 price point with a particular focus on the sub £100 (or even sub £50) price. And the second point is that direct purchases from Amazon (and sadly, many big brand music stores) mean that for online shopping the ukulele will come to you unopened. In other words what the factory sends to Amazon is exactly what you will get. And here lies my problem.
It is a simple fact that the cheaper you go with a ukulele, the greater the chance you will find that the instrument needs (at the least) some setup work (adjustment of the saddle or nut to ensure accurate intonation), or something more serious like a warped neck or misplaced bridge that means that it should have been weeded out from sale altogether. Not every cheap ukulele needs that, and of course such issues can occur even with higher end instruments, but it's about percentage chances. Trust me - the cheaper you go, the more the chance a ukulele will need checking over before being shipped. Enough instruments have come through my hands over the years to see the pattern.
And Amazon just don't do that checking over. Big channels on eBay just don't do that and even big brand music stores who have jumped on the uke bandwagon just don't do that. So why is that such a problem?
Well put simply, the majority of buyers of instruments at this price may well be beginners. It may be their first instrument in fact. Do they really know how to adjust setup on a ukulele, or how to reject an instrument that has a fatal build flaw. In fact will they even know that there is an issue? I see lots of beginners talking about cheap ukuleles saying things like 'this one is good because it holds tuning, the other one I bought sounded out of tune'. I've seen beginners suggesting that wonky tuning is actually a 'feature' of the humble ukulele and is to be expected. Holding tuning is not something that is good or bad and specific to certain brands - it's something that can be fixed on ANY ukulele. That is part of setup! But I think more often than not, if they hear an instrument playing out of tune, they tend to blame the strings and not the setup. And no, wonky tuning is NOT a feature of the ukulele.
And for those people who DO recognise there is an issue with the ukulele, what do they then do to resolve it? Return it? Have a go themselves and get frustrated? Take it to a shop and pay them to fix it? All of a sudden that cheap ukulele isn't so cheap any longer. If you spend £30 on a ukulele, then another £10 on strings because it sounds out of tune because somebody on the internet told you its a string issue, but then that doesn't fix it... You then pay another £20 to get a shop to set it up and all of a sudden your £30 ukulele becomes a £50 ukulele complete with a load of hassle and wasted time.
And that price issue is really the reason why people choose Amazon. They are highly competitive, and also offer excellent and cheap delivery options. Similar ukuleles, when you consider shipping, from independent specialists may cost you more money and people go with their wallets. What I am saying is it's false economy if you are going to have to spend more money down the line. And it's for that simple reason that I recommend specialists who will look the instrument over and adjust the setup if needed. It's called peace of mind.
Now, back to that comment of 'I bought one from Amazon, and it's fine' that I always get in defence. I never said that it's impossible to get a good one. In fact you could buy ten ukuleles from Amazon and find that they are all setup just fine. Great. I'm glad for you! But I'm afraid there are many examples that are not fine and just because you did well doesn't make it a hard and fast rule. Case in point is the Kaka ukulele I recently had from Amazon for review. The saddle needs adjustment and so does the nut. Those are fixable if you know how, but the bridge that is in the wrong place is more fatal and a massive job to fix (if it's even worth it). These things happen more than I would like and the simple fact is that a good ukulele specialist would have weeded this one out from sale. I've seen many like that from Amazon. Oh, and bear in mind that ukulele specialists that do setups do so for a REASON.
So what are those exceptions I talked about? Well there are a couple of situations in which I wouldn't hesitate buying from Amazon.
1. When know how to undertake a full ukulele setup. I do, so I know that if a uke arrives with a high saddle, high nut or dodgy tuners, that I can easily put it right. I wouldn't want to tackle a warped neck however, but I can sort the majority of issues. If you are not comfortable with this, I'd recommend using a dealer who will do that for you and remove the worry.
2. That you are dealing with a real specialist who is using Amazon or eBay as a marketplace. When you look at your product listing - have a look whether it says who is fulfilling the order. If it is coming from Amazon it is coming direct - from a shelf in a warehouse and will NOT be set up. It may however be coming from a marketplace seller who is a reputable ukulele specialist. I know a few great stores who use Amazon this way - those sort of sales are fine because you KNOW that you are getting one from a dealer who has opened the box before shipping it.
But sadly that's it.
People often ask why my list of ukulele dealers isn't any longer. It's short for the simple reason that I only list stores that I know will check instruments over before despatch and may offer a full setup a part of the price. And the sad thing is - there are not all that many of them. Just because a big brand music store is on every high street and happens to sell ukuleles - doesn't mean they are ukulele specialists. In fact for online sales, most of the big brand stores are despatching, unopened, from warehouses themselves. So I'd really urge sticking to the stores who know and understand that instrument. Trust me, it will be less of a headache in the long run.
And yes, I know that some of you can only rely on online shopping, but most if not all the specialists I know offer that. And yes, even the specialists can get things wrong too - but again, it's all about the chances. Mistakes do happen, but at least they are opening the boxes which is more than can be said for the big box shippers..
© Barry Maz