A Word of Support For The Humble Soprano Ukulele

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22 May 2017

A Word of Support For The Humble Soprano Ukulele

Whilst it hasn't been deliberate, you may have noticed an increase in ukulele reviews for Soprano scale ukuleles on this site lately. And looking at the review schedule going forward there are even more to come.

Ohana soprano ukulele

And because there have been so many, i've noticed something of a pattern forming in terms of the reaction they create in readers. I think it was brought into sharp focus for me with the last review I wrote of the Kiwaya KTS-5 ukulele. Now I have been reviewing instruments for approaching ten years, and because of that I have a pretty good idea of what the market is thinking based on comparing reactions (comments, likes, page views and the like) for individual models. And the Kiwaya review foxed me. Whilst there were a few people commenting about how nice they are, the level of interest was noticeably lower than I would have seen for any other scale ukulele. And bear in mind this Kiwaya is one of the VERY best I have ever played in all my years. So what's going on here? Well actually, some of the comments I received spell it out quite clearly to me. There are a mass of myths around the soprano that people just don't seem to be able to let go of.

I've always liked the soprano scale ukulele, and in fact mainly only play either sopranos or tenors as they are distinctly 'different' enough for me to enjoy both in different ways. But as I have always said, I never consider one particular scale of instrument to be 'better' than any other. They all have their place and all have their own distinct voices. Yet there is no doubt that my reviews of soprano instruments get less interest than if I review a concert or a tenor. Below I paraphrase some absolutely genuine responses I have seen regarding the soprano together with my counter views. I think it's time we did some sticking up for the soprano!

mainland soprano ukulele


'I don't like them because they sound too high / too tinny'...

First up, in standard tuning the soprano is tuned EXACTLY the same way as a concert and a tenor ukulele. Exactly the same. Exactly the same register, the same C tuning. The differeces between their sounds are not in terms of pitch, but in terms of resonance. A very different thing. I accept that a tenor sounds different to a soprano, but it is in no way 'deeper'. What is happening here is the bigger body and sound box of larger ukuleles creates a more resonant sound than on a soprano. And that's the way it's supposed to be. The soprano is really the original ukulele. The most traditional in sound, and that sound is very much of a more rhythmical instrument, almost staccato if you will. At the other end of the GCEA scale the tenor tends to have a more rounded fuller tone. But that doesn't mean that a soprano has no tone.

I think those suggesting the soprano is thin are basing that on the massive numbers of dreadful Chinese entry level brightly coloured instruments, that indeed DO sound thin. That is your typical 'plinky plonky' soprano sound. But like anything, that is just a very small example of the worst type of ukulele that doesn't represent everything. Play a well made Hawaiian Koa soprano or a decent mahogany soprano and tell me again that the sound isn't rich and warm. In fact I could present to you many great sopranos that have more rich sustain and character in their tone than many cheap end tenors. Don't lump all sopranos in the same boat as cheap Mahalo's..

Kiwaya soprano ukulele


'Sopranos don't have enough frets'..

Another misconception, and again, it depends what you buy. The most standard sopranos tend to have 12 frets that stop at the body joint. That is what people are referring to. But as buyers you really are not restricted to fingerboards like this. Most of my sopranos have between 15 and 17 frets and this is on exactly the same scale length. It absolutely can be done. Add on top of that the long necked or 'super-sopranos' which have the same body size but longer necks and there really is a lot of choice out there.

Bruko soprano ukulele


'I have big hands, soprano ukuleles don't have enough space'...

Ah yes, this old chestnut that the media just keep churning out. Whilst it is true that as the scale length of the ukulele increases so does the space between the frets, that is not actually increasing the space where you need it (and if anything is making some chords more of a stretch). Think about playing a chord like a D with three fingers, or even a G chord for that matter. Chords that require three fingers to be in very close proximity to each other across the fingerboard. THIS is what beginners with larger hands struggle with - actually fitting them all in. And increasing the scale of the ukulele does nothing to change that space across the neck. It's string spacing that does that, and that is in turn dictated by the width of the nut. Put simply, many sopranos are available with wider nuts than most generic Chinese concert scale instruments. The difference is not huge, say 36mm across as opposed to 34mm, but trust me. This IS where you notice the space.

Flight Soprano Ukulele


'I'm too big for a soprano generally / they are difficult to hold'..

This one is I suppose more personal as everybody is a different body shape and size. But some things to think about here. The ukulele is most notably connected to Hawaii, and (putting this as politely as I can!), there are a fair few Hawaiians who are on the larger side of the scale. How on earth did the ukulele take off in popularity if they were too big to play them? The answer is, they weren't. And they didn't develop larger ukuleles because of human body size, they did that to create changes in sound. I am six foot four, large build and I actually find the soprano the easiest scale to hold standing up without a strap. Now perhaps there is the issue... Most people I see these days with larger scale ukuleles use a strap, and whilst it's not wrong to put a strap on a soprano, you simply don't see it as much. Perhaps people are confusing 'difficult to hold' with 'I never learned to play a ukulele without a strap'. I personally find them light and the perfect size really.

Ohana SK25 ukulele


'Sopranos are the instruments for beginners / where you start out'..

Probably the one that gets me angry the most this one. I actually did read this on a music website not so long ago. A statement that sopranos are for beginners but as you progress you 'upgrade' to a larger scale. A larger scale ukulele is only and upgrade if it's a better quality instrument. Buying a Koaloha soprano is also an 'upgrade' if you currently have a Mahalo tenor.  The actual truth is as I say above. The soprano is the traditional ukulele, the original, and is revered in Hawaii for that reason. Just because you don't see Jake playing one very often doesn't mean they are not a serious scale... And really, when a Martin 3K soprano will set you back over £2,000... tell me again how this is a beginner instrument...

And yet I think these incorrect perceptions continue to pervade. I am not writing this to tell you that you MUST play a soprano ukulele. Like I said, no one scale is 'best'. But I will pick you up if you publicly tell other people any of the things above. Don't help repeat the myths just because others do!



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22 comments :

  1. I am absolutely in agreement with you, Barry.....it's like those Uke players who dismiss friction tuning pegs as being inferior to geared tuners, isn't it? Speaks more to the ability of the player than to the quality of the instrument.

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  2. In terms of education, the ukulele here in the US, if used at all in schools, is most likely to appear in elementary school. As such--if I, or others, have said that the Soprano is a beginner instrument, it reflects two realities: first, they are usually cheaper and the cheapest way to get into ukulele (think Malala Dolphin) and second in terms of size of children's hands.

    On a related note--I can't think of a single "pro" player (usually the "pure" instrumentalists) that perform with a Soprano--almost all of them use a custom tenor ukulele.

    As for myself, the longer I have played, the easier it has been to play Soprano...so much so that my last purchased ukulele--partly as a result of this website--is a Martin S1. My go to ukuleles are my KoAloha Opio Sapele Tenor (goodness, the sound!) or my Outdoor Ukulele Tenor (best ukulele to play that I own...the set-up is logically perfect)...I find myself playing my S1 a lot.

    It also didn't hurt to buy a Sopranino ($29, Caramel) for a recent trip as luggage space was an issue...playing for a week on a Sopranino really made the Soprano seem quite spacious.

    So--forgive all of us for the "beginner" label--we should just use longer sentences to explain what we mean.

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  3. I can think of a number of pro's who perform with a soprano - Andy Eastwood, Phil Doleman, Samantha Muir, Winin Boys, Mother Ukers, Dead Mans Uke, Remco...

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  4. And several on stage at once with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain!

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  5. Rachel Manke plays mostly sopranos. http://www.rachelmanke.com
    Heidi Swedberg and her husband, Li'l Rev, Kathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, all perform with sopranos as well. (Not exclusively, but definitely part of the mix.)

    That's just off the top of my head.

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  6. https://youtu.be/g6zx1o0-Ylc

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  7. https://youtu.be/tqpWez96Tag

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  8. I absolutely agree. My favourite uke is my long neck soprano (okay, not a standard soprano). I just love that soprano sound and I'm looking for a standard scale soprano someday, with a bit wider neck as you mentioned. I really feel the difference between a Martin and a Kala even though the nut is only 1-2mm difference. Might have something to do with string spacing on the nut too as I have a concert with the same size nut as my soprano, but the strings are spaced 1.4mm wider.
    Early on, I got drawn into the whole "gotta have a tenor" mindset, and while I got a really nice (for me) solid acacia with a rich warm sound, the sound just didn't seem right to me for a ukulele. I won't say I'm sworn off tenors, but they're not on my radar right now. Even though I like the size of my concert, any time I've tried a soprano and concert version of the same instrument, the concert always sounds like it's lost a bit of personality compared to the soprano.
    I'm down to two ukes right now, both with a concert scale, so soprano scale will mess up my muscle memory a bit, but they are a joy when stretching across multiple frets.
    By the way, absolutely loved the Kiwaya.

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  9. Well put, Baz. Couldn't agree more.

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  10. I agree with you?. Prefer the tension on the strings on a soprano

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  11. Is not one reason that soprano ukes are often first ukes is that the slightly less tense strings are easier to fret for absolute beginners?

    On another point, I love a wide nut and was wondering has any manufacturer taken nut width to the extreme, so it is almost too wide?

    Keep up the great reviews and comments/rants, Barry!

    Mike

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  12. I think the problem still persists of the soprano being linked to Tiny Tim & George Formby - as a comedian's prop & not a 'proper' instrument - whereas all the larger sizes are not. :)

    My own perception is of a lack of sustain, but I mainly play melodies on the larger sizes, so leave the soprano to chord strumming in the main, but John King could certainly play one. ;)

    Each size has it's place.

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  13. P.S. I too have long neck sopranos, which I personally prefer over the regular scale, I find them easier to play. :)

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  14. Great article, Barry!

    The Soprano=tinny, Tenor=mellow thing that so many people have got into their heads is bizarre. They are just not using their ears. I can almost guarantee that every time I suddenly hear a new, thin, scratchy sound in a session that someone is proudly strumming a new tenor that they declare is louder (it's not) and deeper (it's not) than the soprano they have abandoned.

    I wonder if they have sought out a tenor that is roughly the same price as their soprano? As tenors tend to cost a little more than sopranos in the same range from the same maker, that might mean that they have "downgraded" in everything other than size? That might account for it.

    Personally, I find the Concert size easier to play than either Soprano or Tenor. I also think it gives the best of both worlds rather than a wishy-washy neither one thing nor the otherness. Each to their own :-)

    I was advised to get a Concert as my first uke, for the extra space on the fretboard. However, friends bought me a soprano so that is what I started off with. I got my Concert uke about 18 months later and it does have quite a wide fretboard so it might not be a fair comparison. However . . . I do so wish that I had started on a Concert! I found it so much easier to play than the Soprano. A few years later I went back to the Soprano and I found it a lot easier to play after a those few more years of practice. There are some songs though where I still really struggle with the soprano. Don't fall off your chair - I play barre chords now! However, I just can't fit my fat fingers between the frets playing up the neck on a soprano :-)

    Oh - and a couple more pro-players of Sopranos to add to the list: Del Rey and Adam Franklin :-)

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  15. I only own sopranos. They're comfortable to play and pleasing to hear (this from a first wave punk rocker who still listens to the Dead Kennedys and the Clash).

    I accompany a 6th grade choir on uke and it projects nicely and blends with the young voices beautifully!

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  16. I could not possibly have said it better myself, Barry, nor can I add anything to your fabulous article. I am so happy that you've come out to talk about these myths because most people out there still think the Soprano is a toy, a starter instrument and way too small to hold or play, etc...SO not true. Thank you Barry for clarifying these ongoing misconceptions! Kudos Sir! ;-) Mario (Facebook's only Soprano Ukulele Lovers group :-)

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  17. Barry - thanks for opening this subject. I play only standard size ukuleles - AKA “Soprano. “ When the instrument was introduced to Hawai’i in 1879 they were all this ±21” size and almost exclusively remained this “standard” length for 150 years. I own many, many ukuleles but my playing instruments of choice are my 20 or so old Martin 21” standards. They are all just sublime playing and sounding ukes. Not once can I recall that anyone has described their sound as “tinny’ or ”thin” or “lacking tone” or “not much resonance” or any other disparaging comments. I do however hear “wow, that litlle uke sounds amazing.” The deeper sound of the 26” uke that some allude to is likely the sound of the low G tuning of the 4th string - and that is a discussion of that will open another can of worms. Other thoughts on previous comments - George Formby almost entirely played a banjo uke - and quite well I might add. As to no “pro” players playing sopranos, I personally have sold old Martin standards to 4 or 5 of the best traveling uke pros today and they play them regularly at festivals and on recordings. One of the true greats of ukulele - Herb Ohta - has always played a Martin standard. The late, and truly great John King played a 21” uke. So the use of a phrase like “comedian‘s prop” to describe a standard uke is a strange choice of words. And here in the Hawaiian Islands standard ukes are found regularly in the hands of countless excellent players. May the ukulele size that started it all get the respect it has earned and deserves. Many thanks for this discussion and keep uke’n - Andy Andrews

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  18. I could not have said it better myself! Thank you, Barry. And some of the thoughtful replies are also brilliant. I am lucky to have been playing my dad's 1948 Martin S1M for 40 years, and it always brings a smile.

    I really enjoy your no-B.S. style and your reviews. Keep it up, and thanks!

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  19. Baz this is fantastically written and a well thought out article. Love the sopranos. Easy on the fingers too! Also price-wise they're a better value compared to tenors.

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