Do You Know Your Ukulele Bling?

21 Sept 2014

Do You Know Your Ukulele Bling?

I think it is fair to say that we all love a good looking ukulele right? A weekend or two ago I found myself drooling on a ukulele stall at the GNUF festival as there were some truly stunning instruments on display. I'd even go so far as saying some were breathtaking. But in the wide range of ukes on the market, do you know what you are buying?

This blogger is actually a self confessed lover of the plain ukulele. It's a case of few adornments, and letting the wood speak for itself for me. It's partly a taste thing, but also one about value for money, and I am talking about both here today.

First off, as this may come across as a 'rant', a word of explanation. It seems some who read posts on this site actually enjoy being offended by them and will get quite verbal to me. I am NOT telling anybody what to buy in this post. I am not saying anybody is wrong. You should buy what YOU like, what makes you smile. I just thought however that some thoughts would be useful for those starting out on their ukulele journey as there are a few myths about.

So what do I mean by 'bling'?. Well firstly (and mainly) I am talking about adornments on an instrument. You know, bindings, inlays, rosettes, fancy fretboard markers and the like. But I also include in this post the use of fancy woods that are used to make the instruments bodies. And there are variances within these factors too depending on price.

Lets look at standard bling first of all. They are merely pieces of 'eye candy' (if you excuse the americanism) designed to make the uke look good and stand out. Here is the thing to remember though. THIS DOESN'T CREATE TONE. Simple as that, and pretty obvious really. As I say above I tend to prefer plainer instruments, like my Kanile'a K1 pictured below. Absolutely no adornments whatsoever, not even a gloss finish. Just Koa wood, and it sounds heavenly. The company make more expensive grades of the exact same uke, by adding gloss, a sound hole rosette, changing the tuners to a gold finish but keeping the exact same underlying uke. And they cost SIGNIFICANTLY more. Same uke, fancy finish. Nice if you have the budget, but it doesn't make the uke play any better. In fact some argue that by avoiding a gloss finish the uke can actually ring a little more naturally.

Kanile'a K1 Tenor ukulele in Koa Wood

And as such, if you are buying to a budget, such things should matter. For me it was an easy choice - I wanted a uke that sounded great and played well for a budget.  But this is not just about high end ukes.  There is actually a worrying trend in the massive number of ukes that are now being imported from China to dress them up like Christmas trees. As I said above, your uke, your choice, and I am not saying that these are wrong if you like the looks, but take a look at the prices. I am now regularly seeing discussions on music forums where Mr X posts a picture of his latest glossy uke, covered in faux abalone, pearl, tortoiseshell. Fancy inlays in the fretboard, you name it. Then the other posters coo about it... 'That is SO beautiful man!".  Perhaps it is beautiful, but that is not really my point. It's when you find out that it cost about $140 that I start to raise an eyebrow.  If that is the cost of the fully loaded model, how much is the underlying uke worth? You know, the bit that is there to make the music?  The answer in my experience is, not a lot. Corners are cut somewhere (even with the ridiculously low labour costs in China). Simple maths really.

Some of you may be aware of the super blingy Vietnamese ukes that crop up on ebay for bargain prices. I have some friends who have bought them. Blingy to the max, very detailed adornments, but often they are shoddy ukuleles underneath (either overly thick woods with no tone, or ludicrously thin with dipping sound boards, bows or splits).  Sure, there may be some good ones that come through, but I am repeatedly told of some horror stories. Style over substance in my book. Why spend your money on the stuff that doesn't make music?

Credit: Fleamarket Music

At the end of the day adornments cost in time and money. Personally I would rather put my funds into the core instrument myself.  If you are getting a custom uke made, then I get it. Nothing will be nicer that specifying detailing that will make the instrument personal to you - I totally understand that (and have done it myself). But please don't confuse the work of a master craftsman / artist on a hand made ukulele with the same sort of adornments on cheap ukes. It is one thing paying a craftsman for his time, but the cheap varieties are made on factory production lines. That isn't craft, that is a lure to make you buy.  So if you are browsing online or in a music store and see a plain $150 uke hanging there and one next to it that looks like it was made for Elvis at $140, perhaps be careful (and of course play them first). Chances are the plain one may have more care put into the core instrument.  Perhaps there is some psychological effect I can't account for. Perhaps a pretty uke makes you happier and then in turn makes you play better. Perhaps you enjoy going to events and have people admire the uke. All of that is cool. But no amount of mother of pearl flowers inlaid into the headstock  will change a badly made instrument into a good one.

And that second type of bling I talked about - the wood itself. I would need a separate blog post entirely to discuss the dark art of tone wood choices, but generally speaking they are split into laminates and solid woods. There are good laminates and bad (ignore anyone telling you they are for beginners only - just play a laminate Kiwaya if you don't believe me). There are also good and bad solid woods depending on the builder. In fact I have played laminates that sound far, far nicer than some cheap solid wood ukes. Not everything is as it seems. Woods can come with vanilla looks, or with 'flame' and 'curl' in the grain. I strongly believe that the jury is out on whether the fancier curls make a single bit of difference to the sound - it is all about aesthetics. And those nice woods DO look very nice, but they are only worth their salt if the build of the instrument lives up to the looks.

So I wanted to focus on another growing trend that is flooding the market, and that is the fancy finished laminate uke gaining respect for the wrong reasons. You know the type, the laminate finished in 'spalted maple', 'curly Koa' or similar. Striking to look at for sure. But I genuinely read a discussion online the other day where somebody was advising a uke buyer along the lines that certain blingy laminate uke X was better than something in 'plain old solid mahogany'. And not just advising in terms of looks either. They were advising that such and such a laminate had a warmer tone.  Nonsense.  Sure, as I said above, some high end laminates can have their own distinctive tones, but at the $100 end of the market it may as well be a transfer stuck to plywood. I've even seem some laminates labelled as 'grade AAA' or similar....   And there are people choosing super glossy fancy laminate finishes over plain solid wood of the same price. As I say, I can't argue with anyone who chooses based on looks IF that is what makes them happy, but please don't recommend them as being better or having their own unique characteristics.

If you are in the market to start experimenting with beautiful solid tone woods, then the world is your oyster and there are some stunning examples out there.  The reality is though that this doesn't apply at the cheap end. If you find a fancy covered laminate that you really like, then go for it. But please, don't overlook the similarly priced plain uke that may well be made from far better materials.

Big Island Concert ukulele in Koa Wood Gloss

End of the day though, the choice is yours not mine. But do buy carefully and think about where your pennies are going on the uke you choose.  For me though, well... I never understood why people spend $1000 extra on getting sparkly paint on a new car. I'd rather save the money or put it towards something that makes the car drive better....

(My car is black by the way)

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!


  1. I agree, I generally prefer the plain look when it comes to ukuleles. I do tend to like a rosette though as I think some ukes can look unfinished without.

  2. Thanks, Barry. Totally agree. I love my plain, solid little guys.

  3. As always, Barry, you make excellent sense. I've had students who have bought an `ukulele just because they wanted a blue one. Personally, I realize I'm lucky being married to a luthier, but my ukes tend to be very plain with the exception of something that has meaning to me as a headstock inlay - and those tend to be fairly small as well. To each their own, but I work up the price sheets, and adding all that bling certainly marks up the price of what should be an excellent `ukulele just on its own.

  4. Jim from The Ukulele Club of Winnipeg6 March 2015 at 14:37:00 GMT

    Just check out the finest instrument makers and learn from them. Example :Martin Guitars .In business since 1833 .Very plain look ! No fancy inlays or finishes ( unless custom ordered ) Plain square - ended headstocks..Everything put into the quality of the build giving you great sound, action and playability ! They are world class masters. Learn from them !

  5. I like my uke on the simpler side, but one possible exception to bling adding cost is a simple purfling/binding might be cheaper than achieving the beautiful joinery (terminology?) on the uke in your last photo.

  6. The "bling" factor is clearly illustrated in the banjo world. The defference between a good banjo and an expensive banjo is bling.


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