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.
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!
'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..
'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.
'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.
You see, what's happening here is essentially this...
a) Person with large hands plays narrow nut soprano and struggles
b) Person plays a tenor and finds it has more space
c) Person assumes that the extra space is on account of it being a tenor
d) Person fails to realise that as well as being longer, tenors naturally tend to have wider nuts. And Person fails to realise that you CAN get sopranos with wider nuts too.. They just dont tend to be wide on the cheap entry level trash.
e) Person has therefore created a false correlation between tenors having more space and the assumption that ALL sopranos do not...
'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.
'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!
© Barry Maz
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