Been toying with writing this ukulele post for a while now, and was unsure as I suspect it may raise some eyebrows or elicit a negative comment or two.
The thing is though, the boom in popularity of the ukulele over the last few years has coincided with the boom in social media. As such, LOTS of people are talking about ukuleles online and it can be hard sometimes to cut through the noise. Within those discussions are a lot of very knowledgeable and helpful people, but equally I repeatedly see bad advice being given out to beginners, and that is a worry. I therefore thought I would share some of my views, (and they are just that, views). Feel free to take exception to them, but do read carefully! Here are ten of the common misconceptions I see floating around.
1. You should / shouldn't use a strap
I've blogged on this topic before and yet the debate online still rages on. Debate is good, opinions are good, but increasingly I am seeing people telling others that it is either definitely right or definitely wrong and that is just crazy. On a recent post I wrote about straps, I received an online message telling me I was an idiot and that 'I've got two hands, why do I need a strap'. One chap recently, and proudly stated online that 'you are not playing a ukulele properly if you use a strap'.... Seriously - this is quite common.
Honestly - if you want to use a strap, use a strap, if you don't, then don't. But please don't state its completely wrong. For me it's about giving me free hands when gigging, which is likely the same for professional players like James Hill, Brittni Paiva, Jake Shimabukuro etc who use straps. Yes, you read that right - some of the top players on the planet.....
I will drop in one exception - if you play banjolele in the Formby style, then I can see how a strap will totally go against the technique you are using. Fair play. But I am making this point regarding ukuleles in general.
2. After a soprano, a concert is an 'upgrade'
I am seeing this statement bandied about more and more. The suggestion is that the soprano is the beginner instrument, and once you have learned your chops you are allowed to move on to a 'better' ukulele which happens to be bigger. I've seen the same people recommending first time buyers should 'buy up a size from the start, as it you will only upgrade anyway'... I struggle with this logic. The soprano is not a beginner ukulele, it is THE traditional ukulele scale. If anything, the soprano is the daddy of the ukulele world. Some players I know prefer sopranos solely and have been playing for years. For me, my favourite sizes are sopranos and tenors. Both have their attractions for me. If you are a beginner and like a soprano, please don't feel that you MUST 'upgrade'..
Choose your instrument based on the tone you want, how comfortable you find it, and how it looks and speaks to you. No one size is 'the winner'.
Please do read my article about the soprano and host of myths associated with that here.
3. Larger scale ukuleles are easier for beginners to play
This statement is extremely common and is closely linked to point 2 above. Beginner X asks for help online saying he finds the fingerboard cramped on a soprano, and dozens say 'get a bigger uke'. A couple of points here. All fingerboards on ukes are pretty cramped. It's a ukulele! Second, whilst a bigger uke can help, it is not always going to be the case. The misconception that a concert is naturally easier because the fret spacing is wider is just plain wrong. The difference in scale is actually pretty small, and what is FAR more important to giving you comfort on the neck are a range of things, namely; The scale, the neck width and the neck profile. Other factors can also come in to play that are a little more subtle too, such as the size of the frets, string choice and action, but generally it's the first three.
What tends to happen here is people struggle with cheap sopranos and then buy concerts and tenors and think 'oh, this is easier'. But it's almost always easier because the nut has naturally become wider. And THAT is where you feel relief - across the neck. And here's the thing. You CAN get sopranos with necks just as wide as tenors! So it's not the scale increase that is giving you the space, it's the nut width!
I have owned soprano ukes that have wider nut widths than concerts, as much as most tenors and as such have more space on the fretboard. The Bruko 6, the Flea and the Koaloha all fit this category and have far more space than narrow neck concerts. The only real answer is go to a store and try a few out. You may find that a concert is indeed easier for you if you are a beginner and that is great, but depending on the ukes you play, you equally may not. I also know accomplished players who find tenors difficult to hold and get their arms around, even with a strap. Please, please please - it is NOT the scale increase that is helping you!
|The wide nut Bruko No.6 Soprano|
4. The electro uke price conundrum...
Quite simply, a pickup in a ukulele costs money. They are not thrown in for free. If you have £150 to spend on a ukulele, and get an electro acoustic for that price, you are NOT buying a £150 ukulele. The pickup has to have a price. Putting that in perspective, a half decent entry level piezo pickup, such as a Shadow under saddle, will cost you RRP about £50. Let's say that the cost price is half that (I am guessing), then if you want a £150 quality ukulele that has a pickup, perhaps you should extend your budget to £175?
The real issue here comes at the absolute entry level price point, where people pick up an electro for about £75. This means that either the ukulele or the pickup is woeful in quality (usually both). I've inspected the pickup strips on some of these ultra cheap electro ukes, and they really are poor quality, and often badly fitted. That means a muddy, electric sound, and often volume differences between the strings. Prime example. And back to prices, you can pick those Peanuts up for only a little more than the cost of a shadow piezo pickup. Corners are cut somewhere!
Plugging in a uke is a lot of fun, and essential for our band, but I am afraid it will cost you more, not the same amount. Choose wisely!
5. The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain use music stands, so should we!
OK, I 'ummed and ahhed' about whether to post this one, as it's most likely to get me flamed. But the UOGB have an act (a very good one). They sit down, wear bow ties, tails and evening gowns, they read from music stands..... Because of the word 'orchestra' in their name. They are aiming to look like a full blown orchestra. Behind that though are some of the most talented performers you will meet. Do you think they really need sheets to tell them the next chord is a G7? They are props in the main.
So, why am I making that point? Well because I suspect that because of their act, ukulele clubs up and down the country use music stands in the same way. Now, time to dig myself somewhat out of the hole I appear to be digging... I am not against music stands at all. Our band use them for practice all the time. They are absolutely essential for large clubs to ensure everyone is on the same page, particularly for beginners. But if you go out as a club to perform a real 'gig', particularly one where you may be getting paid, I just think it looks all wrong if you are staring at them, and to some extent is taking liberties with your venue. Go out to your local live music venues and watch a few bands. How many stand stock still behind music stands? Very few. Would you be impressed if you went to see your favourite musical artist and he or she stood behind a music stand, head down, reading?
Please don't get me wrong, performing a show takes a lot of work, and that means a lot of words and progressions to learn. It takes time and effort. And heck, crib sheets on stands are fine - but why not place them where they are not directly in front of your face. Engage with your audience. My band used them all the time, but kept them hidden or subtle! Some players stick reminders on the back of their instruments! The point being, you are not hiding behind a music stand, and playing to your audience whilst looking down as opposed to looking at them! In live performance I just think they kill interaction and look unprofessional.
And I am not knocking clubs here - as I say, stands and sheets are essential for those with huge songbooks and many beginner players. But try to encourage people to step away from them as they progress and play from memory, and if they can't to learn to play glancing at them rather than with their noses buried in a folder of sheets.
Oh, and if you do play full on classical music, then of course, a music stand is entirely appropriate, as it would be if you were playing violin at the Royal Albert Hall.
And as I type this, next to me in my room, is a music stand....
6. Ukulele X is cheaper on Amazon, buy it there!
Ah, Amazon... Strange of me to knock them considering I sell my books through them, but to me, that is what they are at heart - a bookseller.
I see countless examples of people recommending beginners get their first uke from Amazon, usually because it means you save a dollar or two on the price compared to a music shop. With ultra cheap ukes though, whilst you can find a good one slip through, you really want them to be checked over by a musician or tech who can ensure that things like intonation and action are acceptable. Amazon will NOT do that. What you will get is a box straight from the factory in China that has probably not even been opened. I have seen people on line asking for help, having bought a £30 uke on Amazon which is unplayable. They then either spend another £25 on a tech giving it a setup, or they buy another uke. Suddenly their basic outlay has jumped up dramatically. Do yourself a favour if you are buying your first instrument, go and support your local music shop!
And yes, someone will point out I do have links to Amazon products on this very site. I am not saying you shouldn't buy from Amazon - anyone who is confident in adjusting action and changing strings themselves will likely be fine with them. This advice is really aimed at the first time buyer.
7. Koa is the holy grail..
This one may ruffle a few feathers too, but seriously, Koa wood, as pretty as it is to look at, is not some sort of holy grail in ukulele construction beyond which nothing can be bettered. Koa does make (in my opinion) a very nice sounding ukulele. It's also the traditional wood used in Hawaii, so I appreciate it has some real heritage. But, that is only my opinion. Wood choice is totally personal, and it is in no way wrong to play a uke made of mahogany, cedar, spruce or whatever. Nor is it any way sub standard to a koa uke. It is just different. Vintage Martin sopranos tended to be made of mahogany, and some of those can fetch huge prices. Play a few ukes, and choose a wood type based on what your ear tells you, not based on what Facebook told you about Koa.
8. Volume is not everything
Take a cheap laminate ukulele, add Aquila brand strings and have a strum. Big noise! But if I strapped Aquila strings over a biscuit tin I would get a big noise.
I know many players who moved on from their first laminate uke to a solid wood instrument and then complained that it was too quiet. What you are gaining moving to more serious instruments is an increase in tone, sustain, harmonics and just ukulele loveliness that you just don't get on an entry level laminate uke. Your ears will adjust, and as you progress as a player you will learn to spot these nuances and never turn back.
But a final word about laminate ukes. There is laminate and there is laminate. Cheap laminate is nothing more than plywood. Get a ukulele made from professional laminate however, and that is another story. Check out this sublime Kiwaya. I'd take good laminate over cheap solid wood EVERY TIME.
9. These strings are THE BEST!
Another extremely common piece of 'advice' you will see online is the string recommendation. Of course it is always great to hear other peoples views on strings (and I have reviewed several brands on this very site), but always bear in mind the phrase, 'your mileage may vary'!
String choices are a very personal thing. How they perform on an instrument will depend on a variety of factors; the instrument itself (and even two identical models can perform differently), your own playing style, and perhaps most importantly, your own ears. Nobody else can tell you what a particular string brand will sound like to YOU. Only you can decide that. I use a variety of strings, and that is because on each uke I own, I have tested several brands. Eventually I will settle on the strings that suit that particular instrument when using my own ears. You might not agree with my choices and that is just fine. All that matters is that you like the strings you choose yourself.
And as a final point. No set of strings will make you a better player.
10. The Ukulele is easy to play!
Ah the big one! Perhaps the most commonly used statement trotted out, usually by local newspapers to start a piece on a local event, club or whatever. The ukulele is not 'easy'. No musical instrument is easy to play (well, perhaps the tambourine...). Learning any instrument takes time, dedication and practice.
What the ukulele does have though is a shallower learning curve in the early stages of learning than many other instruments. That means an absolute beginner can get going in a relatively short space of time and get a two or three chord song basically right. That is a huge plus point for the instrument, as it allows clubs to be inclusive and encourages new players to keep going.
But easy is not the right word. If you want to master the ukulele, you may need to spend a lifetime, like most things in life!
So, there you go. If you are a beginner just starting out do be careful with what advice you take on board. Social media creates a lot of noise, but not all of it helpful. Be wise though and you will have many years of fun with this little instrument!
AND! Be sure to check out my other ukulele RANTS - where I explode the many myths and bad advice that surrounds the instrument - CLICK this link! http://www.gotaukulele.com/search/label/rants