A welcome return to a UK ukulele builder this week, and the maker of a model that turned into one of my most popular musical instrument reviews. That builder is Andy Miles of Andy's Ukuleles and this time we go a bit 'bigger' with one of his Piccolo ukuleles.
Andy is a small volume builder from Berkshire in the UK and is probably best known for the rather incredible 'Nano ukulele' that became so popular. That was the first uke of his I looked at and it was one which took the concept of small instruments to a whole new level! The big chap that I am did find it a touch difficult to play though, and whilst a big part of that was down to my ability, it's fair to say that whilst I really like sub-soprano ukes, the sopranino / piccolo scale is more my thing. So Andy sent me one of his 'big guns' to take a look at.
And what a nice looking thing it is. It's a traditional double bout ukulele made from all solid woods and completely built by hand. Size wise we are looking at an overall measurement of about 16 inches tip to tail and a scale length of just under 11 inches. Small indeed. Being a hand made instrument, bear in mind that like other luthier build reviews I write, this one is just and 'example' of what Andy can do. He doesn't make all his ukes to these specs and is open to suggestions on wood choices.
The body on this one is made from Lacewood, a tone wood also known as London Plane, and it's dramatically pretty. It has terrific swirls and speckles hat change across the face of the uke and, for want of a better description, make it look like it's melting in a Dali-esque way. I love it. That top and back are single pieces of Lacewood and the sides are a pair, which surprised me. I'm finding the sides particularly pretty on this one with their more uniform speckles. Sides of ukuleles never get talked about much! The whole body is put together really nicely and finished in a rubbed satin coat which makes the instrument feel really tactile in the hands. It's hard to describe, but there are no sharp edges, points or anything that feels unnatural. Great finishing.
For the bridge, Andy again uses a string through the body system on a bridge mount made of ebony with a Corian saddle. I'm seeing through body bridges appearing more an more on ukuleles, particularly on some high end instruments like the Kala Elites. The concept is that it makes a better connection between the bridge and the vibrating top of the instrument. There is another reason though why this makes sense on a small instrument like a piccolo. With a smaller body, you naturally have less space on the top of the instrument, and the last thing you really want on a small instrument is an overly large bridge to dampen the vibrations on the top. With tie bar or slot bridges there is really a limit to how small you can go without them becoming too fragile to work, so the through body helps here. It allows the bridge to be as small as possible yet still be reliable. Neat. Oh, and because I KNOW I will be asked... no, they are not difficult to change..
With such a nice outer build you would expect a neat internal job, and Andy does not disappoint here. Notched linings, delicate braces, no mess and a makers label. Neat, tidy and no complaints.
Up to the neck, this is a single piece of mahogany and has a shape to it, particularly around the heel that is really attractive and touchable. The wood has a very nice grain to it which gives it a swirly look I like. It really is a very nice neck and this one continued to please me when I noted the 34mm width at the nut. Whilst on a sub-soprano scale instrument you would expect a similar down size in the neck width, it's not the case here here. That means as much space as most regular sopranos.
Things continue to impress with the ebony fingerboard which is nicely finished with a curved end, rolled edges and is in good condition too though there are some (expected) tooling marks. It's fitted with a standard 12 nickel frets to the body joint and all are dressed nicely meaning the neck is comfortable as well as tactile. We have dot markers at the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces and these are repeated on the side.
Up to the headstock and you will notice that before we get to the Corian nut we have another fret called a 'zero fret'. This serves as the start point for the vibrating length of the string, leaving the nut to simply maintain string spacing. They are nice to see, particularly on small scale instruments where intonation accuracy is particularly fussy. The headstock has a really nice simple shape, and unlike many sopraninos I see is small in size and not simply a soprano headstock stuck on a small body. The proportions are just right here. It too is faced with more Lacewood which sets it off nicely.
Tuning wise, these are unbranded but good quality (ie many parts to them) friction pegs with black buttons. In a nod to Ken Timms, Andy has re-shaped the buttons on these giving it both a vintage look, but also giving the player more space to turn them. I like that.
Completing this one are a set of Worth Clear strings, as this has been strung and setup for F tuning. That's actually unusual for Andy as he normally gets asked to string these for a high octave C tuning for which he uses Aquila piccolo strings. But being a uke there are a variety of methods and tunings. I personally prefer this tuning, as I find octave above C tuning just too shrill.
And it's always a little difficult to pin down price on hand made ukes because they are just examples and full pricing will depend on spec. It's further complicated by the fact that becuase Andy is in such demand, he tends these days to sell these by auction on his Facebook page meaning the final price will be determined by his customers. So what I can tell you is that the bidding on a spec like this would start at about £180, but where it ends up depends who is bidding. It's a very fair pricing system when you think about it.
What we have here is looking good so far. An impeccable build with wonderful looks. And because of the diminutive size, it's extremly light and easy to hold too. That neck really is SO comfortable too, it makes playing it a joy.
Now of course, with a sub soprano scale instrument you are never going to get beefy warm resonant tones of something like a tenor. You don't by a piccolo for that purpose, but that isn't to say the sound is lacking in some way. Sure, it's higher, but it isn't shrill or overly trebly to my ears. No it's not ultra loud either, but it's certainly far louder than you would expect it to be, particularly when picked. The intonation accuracy is spot on right up the neck, never once making me raise an eyebrow at an off note.
Strummed it's huge, bouncy fun and a great talking point, but it's picked for me where it shines the most. Notes are direct and clear and don't get lost amongst others. Very enjoyable. I just need to practice more to pick it. That's not a fault of the neck width, it's the body size, and I am a big chap. Not a complaint!
The smaller than soprano scale instruments seem to be on a surge at the moment, with lots of new models on the market from the big brands, and countless others from the ultra cheap imports. I have played lots of them, and they always seem to lack something in accuracy, or don't go quite the whole way on the sopranino size by adding things like huge ugly tuners, or out of proportion headstocks. This is where the handmade options out there shine for me, and I personally can't think why you would overlook these builders.
Andy Miles is certainly in that category for me and this as fun, as well made and as good sounding as any other piccolo i've yet played. In the market for one? You really need these on your shopping list I'd say.
Really well made
Attention to detail that matters on a sopranino (proportions, tuners, intonation)
If you want a piccolo, i'm struggling to find any.
Looks - 9.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9 out of 10
Sound - 9 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.1 out of 10
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© Barry Maz
HELP KEEP GOT A UKULELE GOING!