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The jumping flea:
I'm not a musician: I'm just someone who likes to make music. I hack away at it; I have since I was 14, back when the Beatles were still new. For a short while in my 20s and 30s, I was very serious about playing music; I studied, I tried many instruments, and I jammed a lot, sometimes daily, at least weekly, but because I don't have any real musical talent or training, my enthusiasm generally outpaced my talent. Still, I enjoy playing, and perhaps learning even more. So this is a page for amateurs like me.
I had sold my last guitar a few years back in order to focus on other things (the shakuhachi, for one). Last Spring, Susan gave me a beautiful blue Takamine 540C. Wonderful guitar with excellent sound. Blue because of my affinity for Wallace Stevens' famous poem. I later bought an electric guitar, an American-made Stratocaster clone. Plus I started playing harmonica again (see my harmonica review pages).
Towards the end of winter '08, I decided to add ukulele to my practice. It was not intentional. I actually wanted to learn to play the charango. I had heard buskers playing charango in Zihuatanejo at La Casa Cafe and I became very interested in the little instrument. I spoke at length (in my abysmal Spanish) to one of the performers, and he even let me try out his charango. I thought it would be fun to learn. How hard could it be, something that small?
So I ordered a charango from an eBay seller. It came right from Bolivia. In the intervening month or so between order and arrival, I decided I could learn some ukulele because I read they're tuned similarly. Besides, I had been brought up listening to George Formby on the banjo ukulele (or banjolele), and a bit of Cliff Edwards, so it was in my blood, more or less.
I went to the local music stores for advice and to purchase (always shop local, first). I was shown some cheap $30-or-less knock-offs, and my inquiries for something of higher quality met with a shrug of the shoulders, and the presentation of a catalogue with a single "better" ($75) uke listed. I got the impression ukuleles weren't treated as "serious" instruments, not serious enough for either store to have a tuned one on hand at least. And certainly not serious for anyone to want to take more of my money for one. I still have difficulty ordering ukulele strings, straps and accessories locally.
I went online, looking for something a little better than the inexpensive laminate-topped Chinese-made brands I had seen locally. And I got caught in the tar baby trap. So many brands, such a range of quality! Choices, choices, choices. I spent hours surfing uke-related forums, blogs and websites, trying to match my growing interests with my limited budget, trying to understand everything about ukulele brands, woods, strings, sizes and finishes, reading reviews and comparisons. A whole world opened up for me.
I also spent time on YouTube and similar sites looking at the brilliant new performers - like Jake Shimabukuro and Mike Okouchi and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, Brittni Paiva, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and others - musicians who have returned the uke from a novelty into a serious musical instrument for a new generation, and in turn helped spawn the ukulele renaissance. And let us not forget Tiny Tim, whose novelty act hid a wealth of talent, and to whom most of us owe a debt because he kept the ukulele in vogue at a time when it had waned in popularity. Their talent was an inspiration to me, although I could never aspire to anything that good.
It was also an inspiration to spend a whole lot more than I originally intended for what was then a passing fancy. I spent more than $300 for the ukulele, case, shipping from Hawaii, plus the Canadian and Ontario governments' egregious tax grab (why must I pay provincial sales tax on an item that isn't sold or distributed anywhere in Canada, much less made in Canada? Thieves in high places. ).
My first uke was a solid-spruce top Kala tenor (see below). It was a huge leap up from my first thought of a $30 'throw-away' uke. I immediately fell in love with the instrument. It was beautifully made, sounded crisp and clear and played like a charm. I was hooked, and couldn't stop playing. I downloaded songs and tabs and practiced late into the night (much to Susan's distress), trying to become accustomed to the instrument.
"UAS" - Ukulele acquisition Syndrome. It strikes all of us who start to play. I think it's spread through Web pages that feature ukuleles. I got it early in my introduction to the uke. I ended up buying several ukuleles in quick succession, most from the same eBay seller ('musicguymic' or MGM, who has a large eBay store). Every time a UAS sufferer sees a new model, he or she wants to get it, just to try it out. I met a chap from a nearby Ontario town with 45 ukuleles. Now that's a serious case of UAS*!
Eventually the charango arrived. I spent a few hours tuning it and tinkering with it. It wasn't nearly as well made as any of the ukes I'd purchased by then; it sounded thin and had rough fret edges. Not like I remembered it at all. I put it on consignment at the local music store a few days later and sold it within a week (at a loss, of course). By that time, I was thoroughly hooked on ukuleles and didn't want the distraction. I even sold my Strumstick, some harmonicas and several flutes to purchase more ukes.
I've had more fun with the uke than I've had in ages. It's a lot more expensive than buying harmonicas, so I can't indulge in a comprehensive review of ukes like I did with harmonicas. But I've found that even a mediocre guitar player can sound pretty damn good on a ukulele. And it surprises a lot of people who never knew a ukulele could sound or look that good.
I'm completely taken by the sound of the uke. I have several good ukes now, and hope one day to own a truly premium model (as soon as I win the lottery. ). I'm enjoying playing the 'old time' songs that have been resurrected with the ukulele renaissance, music from the 1920s through 40s. Another is the fun challenge of trying to adapt favourite guitar songs for the uke. But pound for pound, the ukulele is hard to beat for putting smiles on your face.
A brief comment for people not familiar with ukuleles: a uke is really a small, four-string guitar (ukulele owners may blanch at this description; it is true, but you could equally think of a guitar as a fat ukulele. ). Or to be technically correct using musicology terms, a ukulele is classified as a chordophone in the plucked lute group of musical instruments. That makes it a member of the of the guitar family.
Ukuleles usually have four strings, although six- and eight-stringed versions exist. The strings are tuned like the higher four strings on a guitar; the same relationship except five frets higher. Those same strings on a guitar are tuned D-G-B-E, but a ukulele (soprano, concert and tenor) is tuned higher, at G-C-E-A (or A-D-F#-B: see the sidebar on tuning under shapes and sizes). Baritone ukes are tuned D-G-B-E, like a guitar (which sometimes causes their critics to belittle them as tenor guitars).
However, the traditional uke is tuned with the fourth (G) string an octave higher. This is called re-entrant tuning. So it's the same note, just higher and brighter. If you're a guitar player, you can play the same chords and finger picking patterns on a uke, but the high-G string creates a different sort of sound. You have to change some of your patterns if you use bass runs or particular finger picking patterns, but it's easy to get accustomed to playing a uke coming from a guitar. You may even find that, with only four strings to contend with, you're a better uke player than a guitar player!
You can also string a uke in low-G tuning, so it has a bass note in the fourth string, not a high note. This makes it even more guitar-like for chords and picking patterns. Some songs definitely work better in low-G, but others are best in high-G. Personally, I like both, but I tend to play my high-G ukes more because I prefer the sound and it makes the uke different from a guitar. But you should have both on hand.
In the 1920s and 30s, there were other popular tunings for ukuleles (A-D-F#-B most often) and you'll see them noted in song sheets from that era, but you seldom see them today. Some string packages make note of these tunings because the strings can be used in standard or alternate tunings. But the most common is G-C-E-A. In G tuning (except, apparently, in Nova Scotia where the A tuning reigns). You can put a capo on the second fret and be able to play with ukes in A tuning.
I have experimented a bit with tuning to an open chord and playing songs. Think Joni Mitchell on a ukulele. I've also tried using a slide on a ukulele, but it's not a popular technique. Nylon strings don't lend themselves well to certain styles. My experiments with slide suggest it's possible, but sounds better with a glass slide rather than a brass one.
Ukuleles are small, as you can see by the photo above, with our tiny cat Abbey and my tenor uke (a Pono mango). Baritone ukuleles are much more like a mini guitar because they're the largest in size, and are tuned D-G-B-E, exactly like a guitar, with a low D. But this size is not as popular as the smaller sizes and some uke owners get sniffy about baritones as being too big and too much like a guitar. Tenors and concerts seem to be the most popular these days, but there are people passionate about all sizes. The small size of the soprano gives it a certain novelty cachet that attracts people. The even smaller sopranino is still a fairly uncommon instrument.
Possibly the most difficult thing about learning to play the ukulele was unlearning some guitar habits. I initially over-reached, trying to find bass strings that weren't there, or to reach for frets that were much closer than I expected, and then feeling cramped in the small space. But you adjust with practice and persistence. Now I find guitars harder to play because they have so much space and those extra strings. not to mention all that weight.
Then there's the playing style: the uke lends itself to a strumming/picking style, without a pick (although a few people use a felt pick to strum - I personally find it dulls the sound). My own hybrid style comes from playing a lot of folk music in the 1960s and 70s. My guitar heroes included John Fahey, Leo Kottke and Fred Neil. But when I listen to George Formby again, I appreciate how good you can be as just a strummer.
As uke writer and player, Al Wood, wrote, "Playing the ukulele marks you out as being a bit different. While most people are hacking away on guitars and pianos, we choose to pursue something a little bit different." As the uke rapidly grows in popularity, that "difference" seems to get less and less!
Herein are my notes and conclusions (ongoing as I get and learn more, ukuleles reviewed roughly in order of receiving them). I hope they may help you make your own decisions about some ukuleles.
Caveat emptor: pros may likely have other ideas and reach different conclusions. After all, I'm just a passionate amateur. But I don't sell anything, and I don't have any sponsorship or links with any of these companies to protect, and I bought all the ukes and accessories here, so I can afford to be honest.
This is an ongoing project, and will grow as I learn more and get more ukuleles to test. I will also post some sound and video clips shortly, once I perfect the technology to record them at home. YouTube? Perhaps in the near future. (I just got the camera and some software so I need time to learn how to use both).
Comments? Want me to include something I missed? Know of ukuleles or uke accessories I should consider? Or links I should include? Email me: email@example.com
And a final thought: my experience in buying online has been mixed and not always positive, although usually entertaining. Descriptions are not always accurate and may owe more to artistic licence than to accuracy. Some manufacturers and distributors have been very fast to ship, but others have taken four or more weeks to get items to me. Beware of excessive shipping charges. Some sellers may use shipping costs to help pad a low selling price. One seller, musicguymic, in Hawaii charged me a reasonable $30 to mail a ukulele with hardshell case to Canada. Elderly Instruments, in the continental US wanted $70 to mail a smaller, lighter uke without even a simple gig bag. Guess which one got my business? Always check and confirm shipping costs before committing to buy on eBay or through online sellers.
International buyers beware: "brokerage" fees charged by couriers like UPS can be excessive and make an instrument a lot more expensive than you expect. UPS recently charged me $40 for "brokerage" on a used uke valued at $100 USD while Canada Post charged $8.95 processing fee (the exact same work and effort as "brokerage" requires) for a new uke valued at $250 USD and the same for one valued at $500 USD. UPS charged almost four and a half times the amount for the same work. Exorbitant? Excessive? Customer hostile? Pick your synonym. And when I called to complain about this excess? The UPS rep basically said, "too bad, pay up." Needless to say, I don't use UPS for shipping instruments across a border any more!
February 14 2009: I've been debating with myself whether to get a banjo ukulele (banjolele - what George Formby usually played) or another tenor uke. I've read some good things about both Waverly Street Ukuleles (the source of a handmade banjo uke at an exceptionally reasonable price) and Mainland Ukuleles (source of a red cedar-topped tenor). My only hesitation with WSU is that he builds in either soprano or concert scale only - no tenors. I personally don't like smaller scales and prefer tenors. I'd have to settle for a concert scale BU. This quest for another uke has also prompted me to work on a redesign of this section to make it more efficient and easier to read, which I hope to get online before the end of winter (or June, whichever comes first).
* "Thought is an infection. In the case of certain thoughts, it becomes an epidemic." Wallace Stevens. Apologists call it "Ukulele Appreciation Syndrome." Susan looks at the ukes I've collected since I first manifested symptoms, and disagrees, although she admits it seems to be catching online. She is, however, immune.
My first ukulele was this Kala solid spruce top, cutaway tenor with electric pickup (KA-STE). It has mahogany back and sides, but since it is not specified as solid, I suspect the back and sides are laminates. I don't mind laminates on the back and side, but I really prefer solid wood soundboards. The spruce gives a clear, bright tone.
I was completely unsure of what to expect, and only hoped for something that didn't disappoint me, but the Kala exceeded everything. It is beautifully made, with a brilliant gloss finish, nice binding and a solid wood (Sitka spruce) top. On top of that it came with a nice hard-shell case. This is the instrument that started me on this road.
I immediately noticed that the strings are tight, more so than my guitar. The tenor is the same tuning as the soprano, but with a longer scale length, it means the strings are stretched much tighter. This has two effects. First it makes the strings loud and bright. Second, they are tighter, so they don't bend as easily as soprano strings (and indeed guitar strings, especially electric). This was felt in my aching finger tips of my left hand: new calluses are forming.
Kalas are, from what I have seen and read online, probably the best 'production line' ukuleles around. They're made in China, but the build quality is very, very good based on the one I received. The finish is good, the neck smooth, the intonation good. The tuners are sealed, geared tuners.
Intonation is how well the frets line up with the notes you should produce at that location on the string. It's important because if it is not perfect, your notes will sound flat or sharp, not in tune. For a small neck, it's critical because even a minute distance from the right spot can affect play.
Plugging the guitar into an amp produces a bit of feedback through the piezo pickup and active electronics, but not an excessive amount unless you really crank up the volume. This Kala model comes with basic volume and tone controls through a built-in pre-amp. It uses a small, easily replaced battery for power. If you look at the photos, you can see the wiring running from the pre-amp to the pickup, visible through the sound hole. That's not very attractive. This wiring sometimes shifts and touches the back, causing a bit of a buzz. It's easily fixed by moving it by hand, but I will need to devise a permanent solution (or better yet, the factory should!).
Another source for buzzing was the pickup connector button on the bottom. It screws in and is easy to correct, but the entire assembly was loose when the Kala arrived. The connector, by the way, is a great place to hang a strap on. Unfortunately there isn't a second strap button, so you'll need a tie-on style strap that attaches to the head.
The cutaway design is non-traditional, but lets me reach higher frets more easily than I might be able to reach on a traditional figure-8 design.
The hardshell case is hard foam - good, light, albeit a teensy bit bulky: it has lots of room to carry other things, plus Velcro straps to hold the uke's neck safely in place. It has two external straps to it's easy to carry on tour shoulder or back.
As an introduction to the world of ukuleles, this was probably the best choice I could have made. I will likely get a second Kala in the future, but I am not sure about which model to choose.
Update: Sold this uke to help finance another purchase.
NB: The strap did not come with the uke. It's my guitar strap. And it's too big and doesn't fit in the case very well, either. A smaller strap is recommended, see below.
I had the opportunity, in mid-September, to play several ukes belonging to a friend I met on a uke forum. These included a vintage regal, Bushman Jenny, a Sonny D and a Kala KA-TE-CT-C, which translates to tenor scale (T), solid cedar top and koa sides and back (CT), cutaway (C), electronics (E), and a satin finish, as well as a few others I've forgotten. Of all the ukes this gentleman brought, I was very impressed with the Kala. I liked the satin finish, too. I thought it would be interesting to compare its sound with my Pono cedar top. I had decided at that point I wasn't getting enough play time from the Republic Resonator (see below), so I sold it and ordered the Kala from Musicguymic (MGM). It arrived Sept. 26 after what must be the shortest-ever trip by mail from Hawaii.
First impressions: it's lovely, with a sweet sound that has a wonderful ringing sustain. This is surely a combination of the satin finish and the cedar top. The finish seems thin and light, almost unnoticeable. The top is solid cedar - which I have become increasingly fond of as a tonewood for ukuleles. It has a wonderful, warm but bright sound.
The sides and back are koa, laminated. It's quite attractive; the satin finish doesn't seem to redden the koa as much as some of the gloss finish ukes I've seen made of that wood. I am also becoming convinced that satin or matte finishes really have a different effect on the sound.
I really like the cutaway design. The projection is very good and quite loud. I think it sounds a bit better when I pick it than when I strum it, something I found with the Pono cedar previously. I think the longer sustain of cedar tends to muddy sound if too many strings are played at once, too often. Just a hypothesis, but the spruce top seems to sound clearer than the cedar when strummed.
The Kala cedar seems much lighter than the other Kala I own, and certainly a bit lighter than my Ponos. I'm not sure if that's just my imagination or if it's because it actually weighs less than the spruce top. Have to weigh it.
The head has sealed, geared tuners. The neck is smooth, straight and with excellent intonation, and well-dressed frets (and it's a narrow neck). The Kala came with Aquila strings which I really have come to appreciate.
The Kala has the same active pickup and small pre-amp with tone and volume controls as the spruce top (above). The battery is very easy to remove and replace. The output jack doubles as a strap peg.
Comparing the Kala's tone with the Pono cedar, the Kala seems a bit thinner, with somewhat less sustain, and fewer low-end tones, but also a bit brighter and louder than the Pono. Once again, it's different from all the other ukuleles I own. That's the amazing thing about ukes: every model is different. That's an excuse to own more, I suppose. Update: See my review of the Mainland cedar tenor, below.
This is a really lovely instrument. My first impressions were correct and I was pleased to be able to add it to my collection. Over the past few months, I have come to like the crisp sound of this uke more than the others I have, so I play it more often.
I should add that this uke came with the same light but bulky foam-padded case the spruce top came with.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, without reservation.
I purchased this solid-body electric tenor ukulele for my wife, Susan. Not for her to play, mind you, rather so I could practice quietly at night without disturbing her. This model has a built-in pre-amp that includes a headphone jack (plus headphones) so I can practice late at night. Plus I figured it would let me wail through my amp.
First thing I noticed is that the Eleuke does not sound like a ukulele. It sounds like a nylon-string guitar, capoed up high and amplified. That's not bad, but it came as a bit of a surprise, although when you think about it, it makes sense. The sound we expect from a uke comes from the body - the wood, the soundboard, and the empty space (including sound hole). An electric instrument does not have the hollow body in which sound can bounce around. Nor does it have the sustain of an electric guitar or the grunt and flexibility of steel strings.
The Eleuke has a single piezo pickup, and a tone and volume button, with both headphone and 1/4" output jack. The tone control helps because the uke tends to be 'boomy' and adding a treble end make it sound more uke-like. Of course, you can get better effects from most amps, but this helps when you're using headphones. It does sound good through my Roland Cube 30X amp.
The Eleuke's pre-amp is powered by a 9-volt battery, held in the back. It's easy to replace. It also powers the headphones (included with the uke, but not shown here.) I seriously considered adding some homebrew effects circuits to the pre-amp, until a forum poster pointed out I could buy a small, portable electronic device like a Line 6 Pod that gave me a ton of effects, built in, for not a lot of money.
The only complaint I have is that the highest string (A) is located very, very close to the edge of the fretboard. This means that aggressive pull-offs or down-strumming can push (or pull) the string off the fretboard. It requires a bit of conservative action to keep from doing that. Possibly thicker strings might help prevent it. But the action is otherwise quite good and it's easy to reach far up the neck to playable notes.
The padded gig bag (or soft case) was also included. It's a trifle snug; not to the point of being awkward to put the uke in or remove it, but it won't carry a lot other than a uke and a set of extra strings. It does have an external pouch, but it's not very large. At least it zips shut.
The design is a little odd, but the holes make the uke much lighter than you expect, and are an easy way to carry it around, and even hold it up when playing. The neck appeared to me to be dry, so I immediately applied some Dunlop fretboard oil/cleaner. The fretboard is not rough to the touch, however.
Tuners are sealed, geared. Price ranges about $250-$350 depending on woods, inlay and size. Some Eleuke clones are showing up on eBay at a lower price, but caveat emptor.
There is a second strap button on the back where the neck joins the body. This is certainly convenient, but because the uke body is so small, a wide guitar strap feels tight and uncomfortable at that location. I prefer to tie a strap to the head, but it's a matter of personal taste. Look for something thinner if you want a strap. Or make your own (see straps, below).
I've never compared the Eleuke to other solid-body electric ukuleles on the market (like the Risa), but from comments online, they all sound similar: the differences are mostly in style and design. The advantage of this model is the headphone capability. If you're looking for something that combines acoustic and electric capability, this isn't the appropriate instrument.
After a few months, I decided I preferred acoustic ukes, and since I wasn't performing, I offered this one for sale of trade online on the various ukulele forums. I traded it for the Applause tenor, reviewed below.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, with caveats about the expected sound.
Based on some very positive comments on the various ukulele forums about the Flea and Fluke, and the apparently rabid fan base they have, I was curious about the Fluke. It's an American-made instrument, with a plastic back and wooden top, similar in theory to the Ovation guitar (and their Applause ukulele - see my review below), but with some significant differences. First, it has a plastic fretboard - you can get a rosewood fretboard, but it costs more. Owners spoke well of the plastic, with the exception that it can't take wound strings, which wear down the plastic frets.
Second, it's an unusual shape. The bottom is flat, so it can sit upright on a flat surface without a stand. I'm not sure how the shape affects the sound, but the general comment on the Fluke versus a traditional shape is that the Fluke sound is 'mellow.' The shape and plastic back creates a different sort of overtone than a traditional wooden instrument. It's different, neither better nor worse, and quite pleasant.
It's really nice to have the Fluke as an distinctly alternate sound to my other ukuleles. Compared to the Applause, it has a warmer sound, with better high-end tonal range.
The soundboard is wood: Australian hoop pine. I originally thought it was solid, but it seems it is a laminate. It's very thin for a laminate, however.
Flukes come with many design and colour options, some quite attractive, others rather kitschy, all more expensive than the solid colours, most because they include custom artwork by Tiki King. Although I actually wanted a pale blue one - blueberry I think it's called - that colour is no longer available. I chose instead the unadorned 'natural' finish, a rather yellow wood, but I always presumed I might do some artwork on it myself, at a later date (see below for updates).
The flat bottom makes it easy to store the Fluke: just put it down on any reasonably flat surface. No stand or hook needed! I routinely leave mine on counters, tables or the sideboard, much to the annoyance of my much tidier (and long-suffering) wife. Plus the plastic back is very durable and weathers bumps and scuffs well (a definite plus in a house with animals, children or someone clumsy like me).
The slotted head is also interesting, and unlike any of the others I own. The friction tuners appear to hold quite well, although they do slip out of tune at times. I would have thought humidity and heat changes would not affect the Fluke as much as a solid wood uke, but they do.
The shape raises some eyebrows, but everyone seems to love it. It is a tiny bit more of a challenge to hold, and when playing doesn't rest as comfortably on a thigh as a traditional uke.
Flukes really stand out. The custom painted models stand out even more and add a whole new, exciting look to the staid ukulele. However the plain, natural finish lends itself to creative thinking about custom paintwork of my own. The photo on the right shows some ideas I've been playing with - putting a blue agave decal and a rosette decal on my Fluke. Haven't tried it yet, but I did find some water-slide decals that should work, and I've played with several designs.
The plastic fretboard is actually quite good, and my fingers can't tell the difference from wood. Frets are low and thin, and comfortable to play. Flea Market Music should really consider adding fret markers on the side of the neck, but I did it myself with a silver, permanent marker (an idea from a member of the EZ-Folk forums).
The Flea is the soprano model. The Fluke is concert-sized, also available with a tenor neck at a higher price. My first Fluke was the concert, and it came with thin (but bendable) Hilo strings. I was a bit unsure about the concert neck, because it's smaller than the tenor, and I didn't like it as much, but I got used to it. The thinner strings were both easy to play and quieter. I didn't find it difficult to play, but thought I would prefer a longer neck. So I found someone who was willing to trade my Ohana for one (see below).
I much prefer the Fluke with a tenor neck for the extra finger room. Only the neck is different: they share the same body size. However, the tenor came with thicker strings (gold) and is louder than the concert. I also find the thinner strings of the concert tend to get pulled off the edge of the fretboard more easily than the tighter tenor strings.
Both Flukes came with their own padded gig bags with a shoulder strap. These are really bags: you put the uke in from the top and pull the drawstrings to close. The padding is concentrated on the bottom where the wood sound board is. The bag has an external pouch, but it's open and doesn't seal (a Velcro closer would a real help!). For travel (as in airline), you might want to consider a more protective hardshell case.
There are factory options for things like strap buttons and electric pickups, too, if you buy your Fluke from them. Mine came from other sellers, so I missed them. I recommend a strap button, however. Keep in mind: a strap button on the bottom means it won't stand upright.
Any future Fluke I get will probably come with a rosewood fretboard, so I can string it as a low-G to test it. Finding a non-wound low-G set is not as easy as finding wound-G strings.
Easy to carry, clean, play, funky looking, fun, durable - this is a great instrument all-round. Update: I've actually put decals on my tenor Fluke, as the photos above show. Still need to put on the rosette, but I can't do it with the strings on, so I need to wait until it's ready to restring. I LIKE the agave motif look!
Update: I sold the concert Fluke. I really didn't like the size as much as the tenor, although it was a fine little instrument. I'm in the mood for a six-string instead, but I am also seriously thinking about a tenor Fluke with a rosewood fretboard. This is my workhorse ukulele: it sits on a sideboard in the dining room and I pick it up top strum it almost every time I'm downstairs. It's the one I'll probably take with me when I travel, too.
Would I purchase another Fluke? Yes, another tenor, but I would prefer a rosewood fretboard.
I've tried soprano ukes, but find the fretboard is too restricted and cramped for my fingers. Years of guitar playing has set me in my hard-to-break habits. Several companies make soprano ukes with concert and tenor necks for old codger like myself. I thought this solid-mahogany soprano uke with its tenor neck would be an interesting yet playable addition to my collection, and the solid mahogany would create a different sound from what I already had. It might best be described as a "warmer" sound than the spruce.
First thought was: can the neck take this string tension? The neck long looks a bit awkward on such a small body and I wondered if it was properly anchored to prevent it from bending. Yet the Ohana showed no signs of warping or bending and the intonation was good, so perhaps they have engineered the proper solution. Obviously, you want a thin/light string to avoid putting too much tension on the neck.
My second thought was that the neck was rather narrow, and the high A (first) string perilously close to the edge of the fretboard (like the Eleuke). Close enough to deter me from making any aggressive pull-offs. But that's more a matter of style than a serious design flaw, and seems more common in ukes than I perhaps was aware.
Another note: the Ohana was a matte, or silk, finish. My Kala and Pono ukuleles are all gloss finish. As a personal preference, I prefer the look of gloss. There is talk on the forums and around the Web about the tonal benefits of matte over gloss, but I haven't seen enough of either to notice any significant difference. Both are some form of polyurethane coating that will restrict the wood in some manner. Even lacquers and shellac used by fine vintage instruments restrict wood vibration. Only an oil-based finish would not. I think that while any finish will dampen the vibrations, the real factor to be concerned about is the thickness of the finish rather than the sound reflectivity. Cheaper ukes tend to have thicker skins (good in politicians, bad in musical instruments. ).
The sound is what matters. Soprano ukes are all about the upper end of the tone range and this Ohana was no different. It was loud, almost to the point of annoyance when I used fingerpicking style, but much more pleasant when strummed. It sounded a bit shrill and 'plinky' to my ears, though. This may be a desirable sound for some players, but not for me. I found the smaller body didn't have the resonance and complexity of a larger tenor. It had that slightly saccharine sound I've heard on some older recordings, but none of the sustain or richness of my tenors. I didn't care for it as much.
The Ohana was light and cheerful and appeared reasonably well made, with no imperfections or blemishes visible. It came with a padded gig bag, too. Tuners were the friction type, which I don't like as much as geared tuners. I found it harder to keep in tune than any geared uke. Friction tuners may be traditional, but they're a pain in the backside too. A tiny twist can be a big change with friction tuners, where a geared tuner allows far more subtle changes.
After a couple of weeks of playing, I just wasn't moved by the tone, so I traded it for the tenor Fluke, above. Update: Kala is also offering a soprano body with a tenor neck, nicknamed the 'giraffe' by some people on the ukulele forums.
In spring 09, I saw an Ohana zebrawood model online and was so taken by the beauty of the wood, that I ordered one - even though it's only a soprano! I had learned in late spring that my English grandmother had played the ukulele at family singalongs. I won't ever know for sure, but it's likely she played a soprano. That made me consider changing my mind about being so obsessively tenor-oriented.
After hemming and hawing about the size, I ordered this uke from the local Canadian distributor, Stringalong Ukuleles, in Hamilton, ON. While I waited for it to arrive, I read some complimentary reviews about it, including one in issue 6 of the Ukulele Player.
When it arrived I was a bit surprised. First, it was a stunning wood; the grain and the gloss finish give it a 3D effect. But the colour in almost every image I had seen online was significantly more yellow than the one I received. The yellow accentuates the contrast in the grain. While mine was good looking, it certainly wasn't as eye-popping as the yellow. It was more subtle, with browns and golds. Nice, but not what I had expected.
Second, is that Ohana failed to line up the grain of the top wood with the strings. Not that this will affect the sound, but the grain runs at a distinct and very noticeable angle. The back is much straighter. It just looks a bit goofy to me (see the front picture, above) and makes me wonder who wasn't paying attention during production (and what else they missed)!.
I also found the frets edges slightly rough on both sides of the neck, and the edge of the nut a bit sharp (I hit that edge a lot when I play). Nothing I can't fix easily with a needle file, but noticeable.
This is a solid-wood ukulele; even the back and sides are solid. At this price range, that's uncommon.
The Ohana SK-25Z uses friction tuners. I personally don't like friction tuners, but these work well enough. There's still a bit of slippage as the string settle, but overall they keep the uke in tune fairly well (it requires more frequent adjustment than my geared-tuner ukes, though). It came with Aquila strings, too. No pickup, traditional figure-8 shape and no strap pegs. But it's so light (382g), a strap really isn't necessary. I find the size makes it easy to pick up and strum around the house without any strain. My uke thong is handy for this instrument.
Sound-wise, it's unexceptional. Not unpleasant, just not exciting. To my ear, all sopranos - while bright - lack the depth, complexity and richness of a tenor. Even if they have their own charm, they all sound a little thin and plinky to me. This Ohana is not very different from other sopranos I've played, perhaps not as bright side as a satin-finish mahogany, but overall close enough. It might be modestly improved with a different saddle. Sustain is fair and notes are clear.
I can't hear a significant difference in the zebrawood over other tonewoods like mahogany that I can attribute to the wood alone. Perhaps the gloss finish has a minor dampening effect, too.
Neck is good, and the strings not too close to the fretboard edges. I had no issues with playability, although at the higher frets (12 and up) I find the intonation seems a little sharp.
After 18 months of ukulele playing, I find I can play a soprano much more easily than when I first picked one up; my fingers feel more at home and my hand doesn't cramp. It still takes a bit of time before I become accustomed to the smaller scale, however, and I overreach a lot playing familiar tunes.
This is more of a novelty for me, rather than a regular player. I will use it to practice my soprano skills, but for my regular playing I will still return to a tenor. I would have preferred it in a larger scale, but Ohana only makes the zebrawood in soprano.
Because I bought it for the expected looks, I would have been a lot happier with it had it been closer to the images I had seen on the Web, but I'm not entirely displeased with it, either. It's not a bad ukulele, just not an exceptional one. Since it's hard to find solid-wood ukuleles in this price range, I shouldn't complain too much. I'll practice with it and have fun.
On the plus side, this has made me more interested in trying other soprano ukes. So I may end up with more of this scale in future! And who knows - maybe I'll even appreciate concert scale, too!
By the way, Stringalong Ukuleles are good folk for Canadians to deal with - great service, friendly and accommodating. And very reasonable prices.
July 2009: Despite my misgivings about sopranos, this little uke is so damned light and cheerful sounding, that I pick it up and play it a lot more than I expected I would. I also like the challenge of making my hands and fingers fit the smaller fretboard.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
Again, my decision to buy a Pono was based on some very positive comments on various forums about this brand, I decided to buy a solid-cedar top tenor Pono, cutaway design, with electric pickup. It has solid rosewood sides and back, abalone rosette, ebony tuner heads, sealed Grover tuners, and maple binding. I wanted cedar because it has different sound qualities than spruce. "Warm" is often used to describe cedar: good bass and overtones, lots of sustain.
It is a considerable step above my other ukes in cost. That difference is - or should be - reflected in a superb build quality and stunning tone. This is also my first low-G ukulele and I wanted to see what it was like to play with a different sort of tuning, more like a guitar. I like it, but I still prefer high-G for most songs I play. It's nice to have both because there are times you really want the lower note in runs or chords.
Pono was my first foray into the ukulele 'big league' over $500, an area I will only visit sporadically. Although I'm nowhere near good enough to really warrant buying an instrument as expensive as this, I decided to treat myself as a birthday gift. I agonized over it for weeks before making the buy, and was excited, with great hopes for this uke.
First impressions: gorgeous. And sound: rich tone to spare: the cedar really gives it projection and wonderful, low but warm overtones. It even has a truss rod in the neck to enable owners to keep the neck straight, the first I'd seen in any uke and an indication of attention to detail. Unlike many other ukuleles he sells, MGM doesn't set these ukes up for customers: they come set up at the factory. That may be one source for my problems.
I plugged the uke into an amp and found it produced feedback fairly easily. I think that's because the soundboard is so responsive that it vibrates easily. Unlike the Kala, it has a passive pickup, without a pre-amp, so it has no controls on the uke and you have to set the tone and volume on your amp. I personally prefer this because it means the uke body isn't broken by electronics and there are fewer internal wires to cause buzzing. It shares the same sort of tail button input jack as the Kala.
Nice finish, bindings, good detailing. It felt nice to hold. Sound was stunning. What more could I want?
Well, it wasn't perfect, sadly enough. Build quality initially seemed terrific, but there are some flaws I quickly found. At first I thought the uke had some surface blemishes, but they turned out to be some gummy material that cleaned off fairly easily. But why, I had to ask, would a uke - especially an expensive one - ship out with such noticeable imperfections? They were easy enough to spot and clean.
When I started to play this uke - did I mention its gorgeous sound? - I found the edges of the frets around the 12th and higher fret, a bit sharper on the edge, than on other ukes I owned. To my fingers the fret wires seem to stand out a bit from the edge of the fretboard, particularly on the first string side at the higher frets. Tiny, perhaps, but very noticeable to my fingertips. I worry that these slightly sharper edges will wear away the first string much faster than should be expected from a high-end ukulele. My other ukes feel much smoother in comparison. It's also rougher than my electric guitar (but not my steel-stringed acoustic Takamine, which is about the same but because of where I place my hands for picking is not as noticeable).
If you look closely at the photos of the fret edges, you can see the filed edges of the higher frets have a steeper bevel, so they stand out more when you are running your fingers along them (you can download and enlarge the photos to better see this). Plus the fret dressing at the sound-hole end of the fretboard has been sloppy enough that the wood has been filed away at the edges between several of the frets, leaving a scalloped impression with the fret wires standing out. This too can be felt on the fingers. It's not this bad further down the neck at the lower notes, where I do most of my playing, however.
There are a couple of small imperfections in the finish, too. Most noticeable are two at the high end of the neck, one on the right hand side of the photo, and another at the very end of the fretboard, just above the sound hole. Neither of these affect play or sound, but again, I expect a better quality control on an instrument that cost me considerably more than $600 to get here (plus $80 in the egregious government tax grab!).
No one on the forums I haunt seems to such issues with their Pono. Most speak in unstintingly glowing terms about their instrument. So most likely mine was one that simply slipped past their vaunted quality control.
I wrote to the seller and to Pono ukes, and got an immediate answer from both (MGM, as he is known, offered to pay for a luthier to dress the frets properly, even without me asking for any such solution). Pono showed concern and a willingness to work to some mutual satisfaction, even paying for a luthier to do the work, but my problem is compounded by not having a qualified luthier within a two-hour drive.
I was unwilling, however, to send the uke back, and lose it possibly for a long time. So I expect I will have to live with its flaws, chalk it up to the problem of buying something unseen from the Internet. But it did make me reluctant to spend that much on another Pono again. However, I grant them kudos for their attempts to satisfy a customer. Perhaps it's simply a matter of getting used to the neck, or just living with its imperfections, but as much as I wanted to be, I wasn't 100% satisfied. Still, it does sound beautiful, so I am not disappointed in that category.
Update Feb. 09: I continue to play the Pono cedartop and enjoy its sound, but the rough fret edges remain annoying enough to make me prefer other ukes. I have since bought or traded several other ukuleles, none of which have such noticeably rough frets.
Update: I just received a solid mango tenor Pono, with pickup, again purchased from MGM on eBay. Tuned low-G, but I also purchased a set of Worth CT strings to restring it as high-G once I've played it a bit.
The tone is different from the cedar - not as much sustain, but a little fuller in the bass and not as 'boomy', especially when plugged in. It also projects a little less than the cedar when unplugged. In part I think the difference comes from the strings (different brands apparently). The cedar top has two wound strings; on the mango only the low-G is wound. It is also not as crisp as my spruce-top at the higher tone range, but offers a stronger, fuller mid-range.
Mango is not a popular tonewood like spruce, mahogany and koa, but it is one of the exotic woods gaining greater popularity among makers. Several manufacturers offer laminated mango: this was the first solid-mango I found (I prefer solid-wood over laminates). I have not read anything on how long it takes mango to 'settle' compared to other tonewoods.
The tuners are Grover open-gear machines with chrome heads, utilitarian and functional, but not the nice sealed tuners with their ebony heads on the cedar model. The neck and frets are smooth this time, with no rough edges. Finish is beautiful - very glossy, but possibly a little thicker than it might have been. Otherwise: no blemishes or faults to be seen.
The mango wood is simply stunning. It's got skeins of yellow and orange running through it and the grain is wildly abstract and patchy, not straight. It's speckled like a gecko in some areas. It reminds me of those polished slices of fossilized rock. It makes the cedar and spruce tops look staid and conventional. I really like it, and even Susan thinks its damned attractive. The photos barely capture its beauty, and tend to be redder than the actual wood shows in real light.
The A string snapped almost immediately when I began to tune this instrument, right at the nut. It probably got nicked at some point and tightening the string exacerbated it into a tear. Not a big deal: I replaced it with an Aquila, but it's a little odd looking now - the original strings are yellow (Gold Koolau), but now the A is white. I'm not sure if these string brands have such different tones, but as soon as I get a new set of Koolau strings, I'll replace the lone Aquila to find out.
I also took the moment to use a metal bead on the string end instead of the traditional saddle-hugging knot. It's an experiment, but I believe beads will dampen the bridge vibrations less than a knot does. See the photo above. I've read that many classical guitarists string their instruments with a bead rather than tying the string to the bridge. This apparently improves the treble end of the tone. I found a few different types of beads to try at a local craft shop (glass and metal) and will see if there's any noticeable change once I restring an entire uke. There's some discussion of this technique by Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music at the University of Hawaii and other sites.
It's not a cutaway model, but I don't really have any difficulty reaching the upper frets, at least the ones I generally play on. For all of the ukes I have, playing up above the 12th fret is not as good as on a guitar: the strings are closer to the frets so they can buzz easily if not fingered exactly, and the strings don't have that clear resonance or tone that they have further down the neck.
The passive pickup works well and doesn't provide feedback until I get into the "nuke the neighbours" volume range on my Roland Cube 30X amp. I suggest the mango top is less sensitive to feedback than the cedar.
Price with case and shipping was $480 USD (plus another $64 in blood money to the government). I can't complain about the quality or sound, but for that price, the gear heads should be a little more upscale, at the very least sealed to prevent dirt and debris from corroding them. I plan to replace them with some nicer Grover or similar sealed tuning gears in the near future (in my experience, open-geared tuners get dirty and corrode faster - I live in a house with four cats and a dog, and their hair gets everywhere). I would have given it a little higher rating but for that - however they don't affect the sound. (Open tuners are often used t keep the weight of the head down, which is more noticeable on a ukulele than on a guitar).
This model certainly helped quell my earlier doubts about Pono's build quality after the problems with my cedar-top model. I wasn't sure about ordering another, but was easily seduced by the photos of the wood grain in this particular model. I'm glad I did.
I think because of its more mellow, mid-range sound, this is more a strummer than a picker, but I will know better with more play and a change to high-G tuning.
Both Ponos came with excellent hardshell cases, but they are very snug, with little extra carrying room aside from a small, closeable interior space, but no external pockets and no shoulder straps.
Update, Sept. 12/08: Humidity changes caused my cedar-topped Pono to snap a string while in its case. I took advantage of that to replace the stings with a set of D'Addario J71s and add glass beads to the string ends. The original strings were low-G Ko'olaus with wound C and C strings. Personally, I think they are better strings for this uke than the D'Addarios. The J71s seem a little muted in comparison, but the high-G on the J71s gives a nice sound too, although I miss the low end of the low-G (cedar gives such a nice resonant low end). Here's a photo of how the beads look at the bridge. I chose some anodized glass beads for a bit of extra colour. Make sure you trim the string end after they're settled and tight. If you do it too soon, the string can end up pulling itself through the bead as you tighten the string. If you leave it too long, it can contact the sound board and buzz.
Over the past year, I've found I play the mango more than the cedar. Although not as rich a sound or as long a sustain, the mango is a nice, warm tone. Also, the rough edges on the cedar's fretboard discourage me from playing it a lot. I tried D'Addario J71 strings on the cedar, but don't like them as much as the Aquilas I put on the mango.
March 2009: I replaced the bone saddle with a Tusq ("artificial ivory") saddle on the mango. It made a small but noticeable improvement in the brightness of the sound. May 09: The mango top popped a string in its case too! None of my other ukes have ever done this, except these Ponos. That's a bit off - both have truss rods in their neck - you'd think that would discourage bending.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
The Ovation Guitar site has nothing about their Applause line, not the guitars, not the ukuleles. It's almost like Ovation - guitar maker since 1966 - doesn't want to acknowledge them. In fact, the entire Applause line, guitars and all, vanishes from Ovation's promotional horizon like a flatulent relative at a wedding party.
The best I could find about them online was this PDF sales brochure from 2004, hosted on a third party site. All that says about the Korean-made ukes is, "Applause acoustic and acoustic-electric ukes have found their way from World Champion Surfing events to reality television shows. These are no “dime-store” ukes, they’re the real deal." Endorsements like these, I fear, will hardly garner the support of the uke world or even public at large. "Reality" TV isn't exactly aimed at the highest common denominator.
That's a sad comment on Ovation's affection for their little stepchild ukulele, but fortunately not a reflection on the uke itself. The Applause is a fine instrument, although I think it suffers from the schizophrenia of not knowing if it's a small guitar or a big uke.
And big it is, weight-wise anyway. My UA148 tenor tops the scales at 2.4 lbs (just over 1 kg). It's also got a wider body (lower bout) than any other uke I own. You can read some comparison weights in this thread at Fleamarket Music)
Like other Ovation products, it uses the trademark rounded, lyrachord back (it's also written lyracord, which is, apparently, fibreglass, not really plastic). This pushes the sound forward, but offers other challenges, not least trying to hold against your body, or balancing it on a thigh when sitting. But it's somewhat easier to hold in your lap than a Fluke.
The top is laminated spruce. Soprano Applause ukes get solid spruce, so that's a little disappointing in the more expensive tenor (although online comments suggest there is a solid mahogany version available and perhaps other woods - but information is difficult to find).
There are also decorative wooden leaves (exotic wood "epaulets" in Ovation speak) glued around the unusual sound holes (placed to the upper end of the body, on both sides of the neck). Nice as they are to look at, I suspect these epaulets dampen the sound. These are not inlaid flush as they appear to be on recent Ovation guitars, and stand up above the sound board slightly.
The design has a cutaway to allow greater access to the higher frets (it has 18).
The headstock is attractive, albeit a bit tall, although this design might make it easier to hang on a wall peg. The tuners are inexpensive but sealed, with attractive plastic (mock amber) heads. Rosewood fretboard and mahogany neck, which has a satin finish. Frets were nicely dressed and smooth.
Overall, the sound is much more muted than any other uke I have, with a mellow projection, lots of mid range, and low sustain. It sounds more (dare I say it) like a small guitar than the others. That's not bad, just different. Part of the joy of owning ukes is collecting different sounds and tones. The Applause has its place in a collection for that reason alone. It's somewhat fuller and fatter than the Fluke sound, too, but that may also be because mine is in low-G tuning while my Flukes are high-G, and a difference in strings.
The neck is a bit thicker than any other uke I've owned, but it's not an impediment to playing. The fretboard edge has a single marker for the seventh fret. I would have preferred a full set because I use these markers frequently when playing. Ah, well, a silver permanent marker will add a few dots.
While the rounded back makes the Applause more difficult to hold, a bit like the Fluke, fortunately it has strap buttons, although unlike most manufacturers, Ovation chose not to use the strap button for the cable jack, and added that a little lower on the body.
The built-in pre-amp is a nice package: it has a volume control, built-in equalizer with slider controls for bass, mid and treble tones, a pre-shape and mid shift buttons. My Applause was a trade, so it didn't come with a manual: I'll have to experiment to figure out what these do. Once plugged in, the Applause loses most of its woody acoustic sound and instead sounds much more like am amplified nylon-string guitar. It has more body in its amplified sound than the Eleuke, however. Ovations electronics get good reviews everywhere. And it is in the amplified sound that the Applause really shines.
The pickup is Ovation's own slimline. The soprano uses a passive pickup, not the active of the tenor. I personally like passive pickups because I think the amp should - can can - do the work of shaping the sound and it saves the horror of having a battery die during a performance. But one can't argue about the good quality of the electronics package provided.
Changing the battery is a test of skill. You need the dexterity of a neurosurgeon combined with the patience of the Dali Lama waiting for the Chinese to get civilized about Tibet and the physical agility of a Cirque du Soleil performer.
First you need to open the back port and carefully remove the cover - held in by four obstinate, stiff springy clips. This requires fishing around inside the back with a finger or two while the cover remains stubbornly attached, trying to locate each clip so the cover can be moved and the clip freed until the port comes off. Then you have to sick a hand inside to hold the battery case (attached to the inside back), because it will fall against the soundboard if you don't. Then loosen the battery screw, remove the 9V battery case, slide the cover off, exchange batteries, and replace the cover. That's the easy part.
Replacing the battery pack inside the uke means stuffing your hand into the back through that port, trying to hold the battery case inside against the back (foam side towards the back) with a couple of fingers, without tangling up in all the wires, and feeling for the small screw slot in the case through a screwdriver precariously balanced against the screw head on the outside - all done blind. The screw fits into the case slot exactly, requiring the precision of a Mars lander finding its destination, with nanometer tolerance for positioning.
Expect to attempt this mating of screw head and slot numerous times. The Space Shuttle docks more easily than these two.
Put aside at least 30 minutes to change the battery, and I recommend learning some Latin vulgarities so you won't as easily offend anyone around you when you start cursing (about three minutes into the procedure).
The battery placement is the most serious drawback to the Applause, and not one to shrug off lightly if you expect to use the electronics at all. Since there doesn't seem to be an off switch for the electronics, the battery will be draining from the moment it's replaced. Be prepared to change it with annoying frequency, especially if you perform live. Who designed this insanity? Is the science of ergonomic design dead?
The Applause is an oddity. It could be a great performance uke with its excellent electronics and pickup. It looks nice, and it's well made and carries a prestigious name. But the battery placement is discouraging. The unamplified sound is acceptable, if not stellar, and would be greatly improved with a solid top. The action and intonation are very good.
This ukulele deserves more attention from its parent company and some place to shine on the company's website. It needs a redesign for its battery placement and perhaps a few ounces trimmed from its hefty bulk. And if Ovation wants to attract serious uke players, switch the laminate to a solid top. That would make it a much more serious contender in a very competitive market.
I am not disappointed with my Applause, merely bemused by its design. It's nice to play and in the end, that's what counts. Mine came with a padded gig bag made by Hohner, with a single shoulder strap and a zippered outside pouch. Mine was also in low-G tuning and I've left it there until I've had some experience with it.
Update, Feb. 09: Comments from Applause owners on various ukulele forums suggest that new models are made in China, while the previous models were made in Korea. There has been some dissatisfaction expressed over the newer models by some posters, although I have not had the opportunity to examine them myself and compare.
I gave this uke to a friend who used to play guitar and admired it. He has since been spending countless hours practicing and enjoying it.
Would I purchase another Applause? Not likely unless the battery-replacement design changes.
Would I recommend them to others? Perhaps, but with caveats about the weight, laminated top and the owner-hostile method required to change the battery.
Rating (0-5): ***1/2 for the instrument alone, ** when you factor in the battery changing process.
I ordered a Republic Resonator ukulele: a concert scale, metal-body uke, from Guitar Safari, in San Pedro. I spoke with Dirk there and enjoyed our chat enough to give me confidence to buy from him. I expected the uke to arrive in about a week. It took two, thanks to the combined delaying efforts of the US and Canadian postal services, and a few days enjoying the company of Canada Customs.
Resonators are a subclass of ukulele that is just beginning to gain real popularity. It sounds a bit like a banjo uke, but more metallic. The nylon strings produce a different sort of result than steel strings, so it doesn't have that sharp bite that steel strings offer. Some resos are all-metal, others are wood with the metal cone.
I've wanted a reso uke for a while to do some blues and maybe some slide pieces, but most are in the premium uke price range, close to and even topping $1,000. That's way outside my budget.
Only two - both Chinese made - are affordable (under $300 USD) to me: Johnson and Republic. Bother are similar - metal body, concert scale. The Johnson is bright and shiny with a pattern embossed in the metal. The Republic most commonly shown is the Reso Relic: artificially aged to look like it was found buried in a barn. Personally I prefer the Johnson's look because I think the "relic" look is an affectation. There are several Johnson uke dealers online, but few selling Republics. Perhaps it's because customers don't like the look, either. The Johnson looks new and spiffy.
I was pleasantly surprised when the Republic arrived: I had expected it to be the "relic" version but it was instead bright and shiny. I hadn't realized Republic made two models. The downside is that the nickel plating shows ever single fingerprint and smudge! But I like this bright, metallic look.
For the price, this is a classy little instrument. The body is the traditional figure-eight style, wider at the bottom, and nicely proportioned.
The back is plain with a small hump. The uke is very heavy - 2.4 lbs. on my bathroom scale - and has no tail button for a strap - a major oversight on the designer's part. The weight (most of it in the body so it has poor balance) makes it awkward to hold for a long time and discourages stand-up play. Your standard uke thong won't work on this uke, either, because there's no place to put the hook.
I'd read better things online about the build quality of the Republic than the Johnson, particularly about some sharp edges on the cover plate where the strings attach. I've not been able to determine if the Johnson is made by the same company that makes Johnson harmonicas. If so, then the questionable quality might be explicable. Johnson harps aren't particularly well made, either. But I've been told that the Republics are American-designed and have better quality control.
I have few complaints about the build quality, all of them minor. The fret edges on the upper side (towards your head when you are playing) are a teensy bit rougher than those on the other side (but not as noticeable because you seldom play that edge). The screw heads that hold the cover plate on have tiny burrs. Some of the fretboard markers are non-standard: one is at the ninth fret (not the usual tenth), the marker at the 12th fret is single, not double, and there is a double at the 16th fret.
But the neck is straight and smooth, the intonation seems accurate (see below), there are no blemishes, marks or poorly finished edges on the body: the uke seems well made and well finished.
My uke came with the cover pressed down (see picture above) as if someone had sat on it. Since there was no visible damage to the case, I can only assume the damage was done at Canada Customs when it was stopped and opened. This gave me considerable concern, but I decided to try and fix it myself rather than return it. I removed the cover and was able to pop the cover back into shape with no damage and not a lot of effort. The plating was not broken or marked. The cone, inside, was also slightly dented but easily restored because it's thin aluminum and easy to reshape. However, I am getting a replacement cone for it (see update, below).
Doing this gave me a chance to look inside. There's a wooden brace that runs inside the body. I'm not sure why a metal body (bell brass) instrument would need it, unless it's to help anchor the neck. You can see areas inside and under the cover there the metal as been polished to remove any burrs. I was especially keen to see if the string holes were smooth because on a metal-body instrument, using nylon strings, that's a danger zone. There are online comments about Johnson reso ukes breaking strings there. They seemed to be smooth enough on this Republic, and there's evidence of some polishing underneath. I've read this is a much bigger problem with the Johnson resonators.
The saddle is ""ebony capped maple" but seems to be roughly made and the wood appeared dry (I applied fretboard oil). The notches for the strings are too small and strings can miss them or slip out easily. I think the bridge and saddle are the areas of weakest quality; the utilitarian design works well enough but it needs a little more effort.
The cone - which sports the bridge and saddle - sits loosely on a rim inside and moves quite easily when the strings are loosened. This is a bit problematic because even with the cover on, there's a small amount of free play in the cone's position. It's easy to slide the bridge as much as 1/8" in any direction, and end up with the bridge on a poor angle or the strings angled down the neck. This, of course, affects intonation and you have to be very careful when restringing to try and position the bridge exactly. Some sort of notch or stop to hold the cone in the right spot and at the right angle would have made sense because you will have to fidget with the cover position every time you change strings. I'll have to ask online on the forums for some engineering solutions (no, you can't glue it because you don't know the exact placement until you have the cover back on. )
I've had a bit of a problem getting it tuned spot-on because of the shifting bridge, but also because the tuners were a bit loose and the strings new. The Republic has friction tuners which may look more authentic but seem to slide a lot and are an annoyance to use until the strings stop slipping. I always prefer modern geared tuners and am seriously thinking of replacing these with geared versions. That way I could also experiment with steel strings.
The knotted end of the strings go into holes on the cover and tighten into small slots. I might try using beads on the ends of my next strings to see if they change the tone. The slot is the danger zone where the metal can cut into the nylon string and break it. The Republic's metal edges seem smooth enough, but when you remove the strings you can feel an indentation on them where they rest against the metal. So far none have snapped, but it's something to keep an eye on, especially if I increase the string tension (such as tuning it up to A).
The big question is, of course, the sound. Well, the uke comes strung with black GHS strings, which I think are too soft for a resonator (I have them on a concert Fluke, too, and don't like them). It really wants the tension on the saddle to transmit the most sound to the cone. I personally feel the GHS strings are too light and have ordered some thicker Pro Arte strings to test. Aquilas might work as well, but they're harder to get where I live. I'm almost tempted to try metal strings because the uke should be able to take the added tension, but the tunes wouldn't.
As set up, the reso doesn't live up to what I believe is its potential. A reso should be slightly twangy - almost a banjo sound, bright, but metallic and loud. The Republic is all of those, just not as much of any as I think it ought to be - or what it really could be. Plus the C string seems a bit 'boomy' compared to the others (and it's more the sound I want from all the strings!). That may be because it has the most tension, so perhaps changing the others and leaving it could help balance that out. So until I can change the strings and test it, I would say the sound is only average, but has the potential to be excellent.
Overall, it's an old-fashioned sound with some echoes of old style blues and even banjolele tunes. That's what I was looking for. Now all I need to do is sweeten it a bit.
I also tried changing to an open tuning and try some slide playing, bottleneck blues stuff. I think a reso lends itself to that more than the other ukes I have. The Republic comes strung in high-G tuning, by the way. Again, I may change that to low-G just to experiment, especially if I try it with open tuning.
The Republic came in a well-padded thick foam case that's has a soft plush lining. The uke fits quite snugly in it. The case has two zippered pockets outside and both a handle and shoulder straps for easy carrying. That's another bonus.
This is my second concert-scale uke and I have to admit I don't like the shorter neck as much as I like tenor scale. Had this been a tenor, I would have been much happier. Unless the new strings change it more in favour of the sound I want, I will likely not play it as much because I really don't like the shorter scale and I find my fingers are sloppy and grab the wrong strings or hit the wrong frets more than with a tenor.
Update: Frank at Republic guitars sent me a new cone to replace the one damaged in shipping, no charge. That's great customer service! He's also been corresponding with me about string upgrades. If I want to try metal strings, he says they'll work but I'll need to upgrade to geared tuners. Heavier strings, like Aquila, he warns, may snap at the place where their ends meet the cover. So I'm trying to come up with a suitable sleeve to protect the string. Perhaps a small slice from a ballpoint pen refill? And I want to add a glass bead to the string ends as well.
August 13/08: I got the new cone and replaced it this afternoon. I also changed the GHS strings to Aquilas. While the strings were off, I also oiled the fretboard and the bridge/biscuit assembly.
The new sound is noticeably louder and brighter, with a slight metallic echo. It sounds very much like a banjo uke to my ears. I even wonder if the Aquilas make it too loud and twangy now. It's a sound you either love or hate, with no apparent middle ground. Susan hates it, me I like it for its old-fashioned bluesy kick.
I added a glass bead at the end of each string (see above), then used a piece of red plastic air pipe from a can of pressurized air as a sleeve to protect the end from being cut by the metal cover. I was guessing at the length and as you can see by the photo above, a couple of sleeves were cut a bit too long (the cover's colour is a reflection of my dining room walls). The ballpoint pen idea is good, but the barrel of the refill is too wide for the notches in the cover. The air pipe was also a bit too wide, but I crimped the tube (with my teeth) after I put it on the string so it fit nicely into the notch.
I had to really tighten the tuner heads to keep them from slipping, because the Aquilas have more tension than the GHS strings. The uke continued to go out of tune after a few minutes' playing, but that settled down when the strings were properly stretched. My only problem putting this together was with the C string: it's too thick to make a loop around the bead and thread it back through. I'm depending on the knot to hold it in place. I need to find some other beads with just a little bigger diameter hole for future use. But the other strings were easy to set up with a bead and sleeve.
Update, Sept. 20: I love the look of this uke, and the sound is funky, but can't warm to the scale as much as I can to tenors. I play it a bit and then go back to the longer scales. I ended up selling it to another forum member and getting another tenor.
Would I purchase another Republic? Not a concert scale; likely if they ever make a tenor.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, for those who want a specific sound, with caveats about the moveable cone and bridge.
I've wanted a six- or eight-string uke for a while now, to see what sort of sound it had and how it played (I used to play the 12-string guitar too). But I've been reluctant to invest in a good instrument at $500 and up in case I didn't like playing it.
I kept my eyes open for bargains and when I found a "factory second" Lanikai six-string offered at $100, I figured I could buy it, investigate the style of play, and if I liked it, move up to a more expensive model later. If I didn't like it, well I hadn't invested a lot of money to learn that, so I could sell it and not lose a lot.
Pardon me while I digress a bit: I innocently posted a question on the Ukulele Cosmos forum, asking what people thought of the Lanikai - build quality, tone, intonation, etc. Immediately two of the more acerbic members dumped all over me in post after post, attacking my intelligence, my judgment, this web site, my personal integrity, my reading skills, my ukulele collection - just because I dared to ask about a ukulele brand they deemed too "cheap" (their word) to be worth a courteous response.
Instead of a civil thread about the pros and cons of the Lanikai brand and that model, as I asked, the whole thing turned into a vituperative personal attack by two rabid members, an attack that stretched on through eight or nine pages of ichor (some of it still continues).
There are those, it seems, for whom anything less than a custom-built uke made from rare, old-growth trees tended from seedling by Buddhist monks, built by a hermit luthier whose output is perhaps one uke a year, and costing as much as a motorcycle or car is an irredeemable sign you are not serious about ukuleles. Therefore you must be deserving of a verbal thrashing for daring to post about anything as trivial as a factory-made instrument. One of these members even suggested I sell every instrument I had, then save up even more to purchase a ukulele she personally thought was suitable for discussion!
Such is the way of the Internet. Since this particular forum allows such attacks, I don't recommend it to anyone not looking for a fight. Other forums keep a tighter rein on their less civil members when such unprovoked assaults arise.
But in the meantime, a few members did provide a far more courteous and reasonable response, albeit somewhat drowned out in the angry din from the two harridans. I heard many positive comments from other ukulele aficionados about this brand, most sent in private to avoid being criticized online like I was.
Unfortunately for me, the instrument I had originally asked about was sold before I could get a fair response from my question. But the vehemence of the responses made me more curious about the item of their ire, rather than less. After all, if such annoying people dislike it so much, it's probably worth investigating by the rest of us! And so it proved: the Lanikai is a good instrument.
And for me as well as many other aficionados, $250-$350 is not inexpensive: it's a serious commitment and investment. It isn't "cheap" by my standards. There are good quality guitars out there around that price, or even less.
So I hunted online for another bargain and found an eight-string Lanikai O8-E, tenor, solid spruce top, with pickup and case, for about 60% its retail price ($260 plus $35 shipping).
Update, August 29: Back from a municipal conference and my Lanikai was waiting for me. Took about 15 minutes to get in tune, and the strings are still slipping a lot, meaning I have to retune every couple of minutes. But I like the rich sound and it's nowhere near as difficult to play - strumming and fingerpicking - as I had expected from some forum comments. Nice, clear sound, good build quality, too. The seller make a mistake and didn't ship the case, so it's coming separately. More to come.
September 1: Getting more playable, and the strings slip a lot less, although a couple are still shifting pitch a bit during play. The high C in particular keeps loosening. But it's a lot better than it was a few days ago. I keep a digital tuner attached to the head right now because I need to correct that string so often.
Some post-initial thoughts: The Lanikai is on par with the Kala. Nice build quality, no obvious flaws, gloss finish doesn't seem overly thick. This has a solid cedar top and laminated ovankol sides, rosewood fretboard. Ovankol, according to this site about tonewoods, "or shedua, is from Western Africa near the Ivory Coast. It is in the same family as bubinga. It has yellowish brown color with some black stripes at times. Excellent tonewood similar to Koa." Bridge appears to be rosewood as well.
The heads have open-geared tuners, gold with while plastic heads. The slotted headstock is also quite attractive. Binding is white. Overall, it's a very pretty uke. Despite the extra equipment for the additional strings, it feels only minimally heavier than a standard four-string tenor.
The sound is quite nice - bright and cheerful. The doubled strings give it a ringing sound, a bit like a 12-string guitar. I had expected it to be a bit difficult to play the string pairs when fingerpicking, but that's not the case. I find it quite easy to pick them together or separately, although I'm still prone to make mistakes while I get accustomed to the spacing and grouping. It's tuned Gg-Cc-EE-AA (the first two sets in unison, the last two an octave apart respectively). Overall, I like this sound a lot and have been playing it almost exclusively for a couple of weeks.
September 20: The man who started Kala originally started Lanikai for Hohner, and both were built in the same factory for a while. He since moved on to his own company and, apparently, the two are built in separate facilities. Kala has gone on to a lot more innovation in design and woods, while Lanikai has stuck with what worked (and sold). Still, this is a fine instrument and I have really grown to like the sound. I showed it to a visiting ukulele aficionado last week and he too was struck by its bright, cheerful and rich sound. It reminds me a little of the music by the Byrds or perhaps the Rickenbacker sound of the Beatles.
The only problem with this uke: strings. Local music stores don't even list 8-string sets for ukes and one advised me to just buy two sets and string them together! That, of course, doesn't work because while the E and A strings are strung in unison, the G and C are an octave apart, requiring different diameter strings. It seems I have to buy my string sets online. But that's a small hiccup. And a small tip: carry a guitar pick in your case. Using the pick is much easier when tuning the separate strings. It's difficult to pluck just one of a pair when you're tuning. The pick just makes it easier.
I had originally thought that, should I like the playing style, I would start looking for an upscale model in 8-string design, perhaps a Pono or Mele. But now I feel the Lanikai has proven itself to be as good as anything I'll ever need. This one is a keeper.
June 2009: Lanikai's latest line of spalted mango has the uke community abuzz. What a stunning wood!
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, especially this 8-string.
Mainland Ukes is a relatively new ukulele company which describes itself as a "home grown family business" based in Indiana. A cursory comparison of the models Mainland offers shows they are strikingly similar in build to the Bushman models. Bushman has a strong following, and I had the opportunity to play one last year, but wasn't interested in dealing with the company after a very unsatisfactory experience trying to purchase harmonicas from them. Mainland gave me the chance to own something very similar without the hassles (read a little more about Mainland at Ukulelereview.com).
With the Canadian dollar again low, I hesitated, but Mike Hater, owner at Mainland, gave me a break on the shipping costs, which helped convince me to order one in February 09. This time I also got a tweed case - very stylish, but also very snug. Too snug, in fact, for most of my other ukes - partly because most have tail buttons, but also because of different body heights. Like every other hardshell case I have, it is plush-lined, with a small storage area, but no exterior pockets for chord books, songbooks, etc. No reflection on Mainland, but someone has to talk to case makers about that.
I have a particular liking for cedar as a tonewood, so I chose the red cedar tenor model with the gloss finish instead of the mahogany. The mahogany comes in a matte finish, which was sorely tempting, but I was equally interested in comparing this cedar with the two others I have (Kala and Pono). Plus the cedar is very attractive and quite red - both the Kala and Pono cedar tops are brown or slightly yellow cedar. The grain is tight and very linear, too, with no blemishes.
The sides and back are solid rosewood, as are the fretboard and bridge. Rosewood gives the sound warmth and complexity and some low-end tonality.
Mainland ukes are made in Indonesia (I believe) with final assembly and setup in the USA. They offer strictly acoustic models, solid mahogany or a solid cedar top, in traditional figure-8 shape, with no cutaways, pickups or electronics. A banjo ukulele is in the works, and some new models may be forthcoming from other sources, but no dates are mentioned on the company website. (Personally I'm really keen on getting a banjolele, especially if I can get a tenor neck on one.)
All models come strung with Aquilas. This makes them loud and bright. The tenor I received is probably the loudest uke I own. It's not as crisp as the Kala cedar (I attribute that to the difference in finishes and the different woods used for side and back), but it's brighter than my Pono cedar (which is currently strung with the more mellow J71 strings). So it sits comfortably between the two, in tone quality, suitable for both strumming and picking styles.
It has great sustain, too, one of the best of my collection. Sustain is very important in a ukulele because without it, a uke can sound 'plinky' like a toy or plastic instrument.
The neck is a tad wider than the Kalas, too. For me neck width is a minor consideration, and I easily get accustomed to any width, but there are other players who don't like the narrow Kala necks and look for wider necks. The Mainland ukes will probably suit them better. It's also a relatively lightweight uke - which is good because it doesn't have a tailpiece to hold a strap. I like to use a strap, so will have to investigate adding a button.
The action was higher than I like: about 4-4.5mm at the 12th fret (top of fret to bottom of string - enough to easily stack two US quarters there without them sticking). I played a lot of electric guitar with action 2mm or less at the 12th fret, and all my other ukes are lower, so 4mm felt uncomfortably high. That was easily reduced by removing the saddle and sanding it down a small amount (fortunately the saddle is not glued in!). Right now the action is about 3mm, and I may try to reduce it a little more, closer to 2 mm. Mike graciously offered to mail me another saddle if I ground mine down a little too much.
My own style is a mix of fingerpicking and strumming. When picking, I often anchor my non-playing fingers against the soundboard, and pluck upwards. When the strings are high, it means I have to change the arch of my hand and lift my picking fingers a bit more. That's when string height becomes noticeable to me. The action at the lower frets - up to about the seventh - was fine, but my picking is done closer to the sound hole, around the 12th-15th fret.
At the same time as I was reducing the saddle, I smoothed a couple of fret edges around the 12th fret region. My playing style involves a lot of fingerpicking and I often brush the frets around this area with my fingertips in the upsweep. That makes me very sensitive to even the slightest flaws or roughness in fret dressing.
While the Mainland's frets were not as rough or as noticeable as the Pono's fret edges (see above) and would be acceptable by most players, they still annoyed me. But a small bit of careful filing fixed that quickly. And now I have the confidence to tackle the Pono's rough edges, a problem that has bothered me for the last year and has relegated the Pono cedar to its case most of the time.
Mainland offers a choice of tuner colours, depending on the model: ebony and gold, white and silver or mother of pearl and gold or silver. Nice touch. I chose gold and ebony. Tuners are geared and sealed.
The ukes have a traditional 'rope' binding that's one of those love-hate cosmetic touches. I like it; Susan doesn't (she associates it with C&W style). On close inspection, it almost looks like raffia or straw. It certainly makes their models stand out from a lot of other designs. I also like the little scalloping at the end of the fretboard - another nice touch.
The only flaw I found in the fit and finish was a small blob of either glue or finish that accumulated under the top near the neck and went unnoticed in the final setup. You can see it in the photo (sorry for the blur). When I change strings, I will get inside and see if it comes off. It's hard to see, and doesn't affect anything, so it's really just a minor cosmetic hiccup. Otherwise it's a well-made instrument; there were not flaws or marks in the gloss finish.
Nicely made, solid wood, reasonable price, good sound - they all make Mainland ukes very attractive to anyone looking for a good uke without shelling out the big bucks for the high-end models. Mainland competes in the same market as most of the ukes listed here, with the small advantage of having a slightly wider neck and some cosmetic options. And being located in the continental USA, shipping may prove somewhat lower than from Hawaii, especially for Canadians.
And speaking of Canadians, I hope Mainland gives some consideration to getting a Canadian distributor. We're ukulele-deprived up here.
May, 2009: This bright, cheerful sound has made this uke a favourite of mine. It's my constant companion - as the 'beside my computer' uke I strum as I work and surf.
Would I purchase another Mainland? Yes. Probably my next will have a satin finish.
Tom Guy's Cigar Box Uke
I became intrigued about cigar-box ukuleles after reading many positive comments from members of various online forums who had either bought or built cigar-box ukes. I started looking into the history and practice of cigar-box instruments. That led me to find a maker, order a tenor model, then write a blog post about it.
Cigar box instruments have a long and respectable tradition as folk instruments, as I mention in my blog. That gives them a panache that factory-made instruments lack, and their unusual shape gives them an added visual punch.
Tom Guy is the maker I chose, mostly because he offered one of his ukes for sale on a ukulele forum, and linked back to a YouTube video of him playing Danny Boy on it. It sounded incredibly sweet, plus the instrument itself looked funky, but without being kitschy. He makes ukes under the company name Bluegrass Ukes, and makes both cigar-box and standard designs.
It is a custom-made instrument - Tom makes one or two a month, mostly by special order, and few on spec. I've had custom-made flutes, but this is the first custom stringed instrument. Comments from other customers suggested I would not be disappointed by his quality and care. I wasn't. getting a quality instrument like this for the very reasonable price he charges is amazing.
During construction, Tom emailed me photographs of the uke-in-progress. That built my anticipation up to a fever pitch. You can check my blog post for images of the various stages, and some taken when it arrived. I opted for a fairly simple but elegant presentation. The result is an understated yet eye-catching instrument that demands attention when you see it.
I asked for only a few small enhancements: strap buttons (at the bottom and neck heel); red tuner heads (Susan loves them! I like the sealed geared tuners), and a double-inlaid dot at the side for the 12th fret indicator. I wanted a simple, clean white circle for a rosette. Again, see the photos on my blog post.
Tom packaged the uke carefully and it arrived intact and without a scratch. I received it at my store and stood it on a counter where it attracted the attention of a lot of customers who wanted to know more about it.
Everything is nicely made - the wood is well cut and finished smoothly. I could find nothing but praise for the workmanship. The frets were well-dressed, the tuners perfectly aligned. Tom even applies a label, inside, with the name of his customer and the date. That's a nice touch (picture here). He also included a custom stand made from three thin slices of redwood or possibly mahogany. That's really appreciated, because without it, the uke wouldn't be able to stand upright because of the strap button on the bottom.
The big questions are always: how does it sound? and how does it play? To answer the latter: it plays beautifully. Action is low, intonation is great and the neck is nicely smooth and long, so I can play the high frets easily (over 14 they are a bit plinky as they are on most other ukes). No issues with playability (and for neck watchers: it's a standard width, not as narrow as the Kalas).
The sound is unusual for a tenor-scale, based on my experience. It's a bit like the long-necked Ohana, above: it's not as loud or as deep as my other tenors, in part because it's a smaller physical body space. It's also because the back and sides are the same wood at the top (solid redwood - it is a real cigar box!). In most ukulele and guitar designs, the back and sides are another material - usually a denser wood - to reflect sound back to the front. The softer redwood is not as reflective as, say, rosewood.
It sounds fine playing alone, but it would benefit greatly from amplification in the company of other instruments or as a performance instrument. I also think it would sound fairly good with a slide (few ukes do, but this one, I think, has better potential).
This is where I have to say caveat emptor. It's a different sound - not worse, not better; just different. Like resonators and banjoleles, cigar box ukueles are not for everyone. If you only have one or two instruments, this may not be the appropriate one. But if you want a full range of tonal possibilities in your collection, you'll want one.
But it is rich with lots of overtones, and has good sustain. Tonally it's very balanced - the Ohana I found a little biased on the treble side. It took me a little while to get used to the sound - I've been playing a lot of my Mainland uke of late and they are so very different in tone and volume that they almost seem unrelated. But it grew on me very quickly.
It's a bit like one of those unknown red wines you buy on a whim, that at first sip seem ordinary, until the finish kicks in, and then turn out to be full of delightful surprises, unexpected richness and hidden complexity. The more I play this uke, the more I appreciate it.
Tom strings his ukes low-G with wound C and G strings (he uses Hilo strings, which I hadn't liked previously in high-G tuning, but they work quite well on this uke). That gives it a solid tone with that added bass in the chords. I had originally intended to replace the low-G with a high-G set, but after a couple of days playing this instrument, I've grown to like it. I think I'll leave it as is. It's the only low-G uke I have at present. I may change to Aquila strings when it comes time to restring it, however.
The saddle is ebony (as is the nut), and I may experiment with a Tusq saddle when I restring it, just to see if it makes a difference to the tone (it did with my Pono mango uke, brightening up a bit).
UPDATE: A sudden change in heat and humidity, in mid-August 09, affected many of my ukes. The most dramatic was the cigar-box. It self destructed. A part of the bridge snapped and torn off under the increased string tension of the obviously shifting wood (mostly the neck). See the photo, on the left. You can see the saddle on the cabinet under the uke.
I immediately contacted the maker, and while he offered to fix it for free, he expected me to pay the shipping there and back. That would mean another $75-$85, perhaps more, plus the delay in getting it fixed. I was not happy with that additional expense - not to mention Susan has placed a moratorium on future ukulele-related expenses until I reduce the herd a bit. A luthier would probably have cost as much or more to repair it. I should have asked about guarantees before I ordered it, I suppose.
Had the uke been older - not a mere three months old - I would probably have done so without a qualm. But not with an almost brand-new instrument. And this is one of my favourite instruments in my collection, so I didn't want to just leave it until I could get the cash.
The damage seems a design issue, not just a glue problem. The bridge is scalloped to allow the strings to pass through small holes to anchor them, and then over the saddle without the wood interfering with them. That scallop leaves a very thin slice of wood, the groove running parallel with the grain. That seems to have been a weak spot.
I was again faced with trying to fix it myself. The maker recommended "Titebond" wood glue, but I could not find it locally, and he cautioned against epoxy. So I checked the local hardware stores and although I found several alternates, opted for Gorilla wood glue. I carefully sanded the old glue - difficult because the redwood of the box shows every scrape and mark. And once I started sanding, the outline of the old piece disappeared, so I ended up sanding a bit more than was necessary. I then glued and clamped the piece - again carefully because I was applying pressure to the top and even a small amount too much could crack it. I used smaller clamps on the winds to keep the piece from sliding back. See photo on right.
I left the clamps on overnight. I also took advantage of the opportunity to fit a Tusq saddle into the slot, to see how it sounded compared to the ebony original (more on this later when I get more time to play it).
As you can see from the photo on the left, I used glass beads to anchor the strings, thinking perhaps they would reduce the vertical stress that the traditional tied ends create. Yes, the ends still need to be clipped - I usually wait until they hold their tune before trimming the strings, so there's still a bit of string to pull into the knots.
The seam between the pieces is, unfortunately, visible. But it should not affect sound or playability. I still need to do some minor refinishing around the edges to mask the sanding marks better.
Now I'm just waiting for the strings to settle and hold their tune, to be sure my attempt was successful and the piece remains in place (and future weather changes don't affect the glue!). But this experience has caused me to downgrade my review comments and rating somewhat. I'm afraid I can't recommend these ukes unless the design issue is resolved so this doesn't happen to others. I am not sure what the solution might be - a thicker slice of wood, or anchoring the lower portion in a different manner come to mind. It certainly dampened my enthusiasm for them.
Would I purchase another Bluegrass cigar-box uke? Perhaps, but only if the bridge is redesigned.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, but only with an improved bridge design.
Waverly Street Banjo Ukulele
Since I was brought up listening to George Formby, the banjo ukulele - or banjolele - was always a familiar instrument for me, at least to hear. Plus the banjolele gets more than passing mention in P. G. Wodehouse's funny "Thank You, Jeeves" novel.
I like the sound, Susan doesn't. I can listen to a George Formby recording and hear in it his strumming patterns and his rhythm and I can appreciate his considerable skill on the instrument, not just his comedic side. So I've been interested in getting a banjo uke for my own almost ever since I started playing the ukulele. Every collection should have one, just like every ukulele player should have at least one George Formby album.
Dave G is a small-scale builder who makes unadorned, but well-received instruments, including banjoleles, under his Waverly Street brand. His output has always been soprano and concert scale, and I teased him numerous times on several forums about his lack of tenor products. Then he called my bluff and made a tenor-scale banjo uke - his first tenor scale. I was honour-bound to buy it.
I had also learned a few weeks before I ordered it, that my father had played the banjo at family singalongs, with his mother on ukulele, and his father on piano. So I found myself following the family musical tradition, quite unconsciously. Sure wish I had a picture of him playing, though. While not a full banjo, a banjo uke is close enough.
The BU arrived the same day my Ohana soprano arrived (see above). The banjo uke was packaged in the best box I've ever seen - all wood. As such, it survived the tender ministrations of two postal services and Customs without a dent or scratch. My biggest worry had been the skin of the BU, but it was fine.
Dave does good, solid work, but if you're look for ornate, that's not his style. His prices reflect that: for a handmade instrument, Dave offers bargain pricing. His instruments routinely get good reviews on the forums from his customers.
He uses friction tuners on his banjo ukes, but recent online comments suggest he will also be using geared tuners in the near future (as he does with some of his ukuleles). I don't like friction tuners and found these slipped a lot, until I tightened the screws enough for the strings to settle. Personally, I would recommend geared tuners to potential buyers.
My first impression was that it was longer than it really is. The small, 8-inch round body makes the neck appear unusually long, exacerbated by the neck connecting so far along its length to the body, but it's still a regular tenor scale.
The body is a wooden drum head (oak, I believe), the neck oak (made from a piece of scrap, so it has some interesting markings and might have even had some spalting in a different cut) and the fretboard is stained oak.
The fret edges were a trifle rougher than I like and I intend to file them a little when I change strings. I tend to play the uke with my right hand hear the soundhole, often sweeping my fingertips up against the fretboard, so I really notice any rough fret edges on that side. However, with the banjo uke, I tend to hold my hand away from the head and don't touch the fret edges as much: these edges are not as noticeable as they might be on a standard uke.
Dave includes a key to tune the skin. This is something I need to experiment with it. Too tight, and the sound can be loud and harsh (and raise the action uncomfortably). Too loose and it loses texture as well as volume (and might make the bridge slip). I loosed it a half-turn, and it seemed to sound a bit better. I will play with it a bit to see how that works.
The strings wrap over the bridge and over the rim, then are inserted into four small holes on the body and are tied up inside with a bead. Might be a little clumsy to restring, but the system is simple and effective. A lot of BUs have tailpieces to hold the strings, which may be more ornamental than functional.
Holding the BU takes a little getting used to. I find my arm presses on the skin, and even found the heel of my hand pressing the ends of the strings near the bridge. I find it a tad awkward to hold it in a way that doesn't involve pressing on the top and dampening the sound. On the other side of that, dampening the top does soften it a bit.
I am currently experimenting with some strap ideas. I may screw in a strap peg to make it easier to hold. Dave normally provides an arm rest with his BUs, but he was waiting for his supplier to ship them, and I took mine without it. I may buy one from him and put it on myself, but it will add some weight to the instrument. Update: a cat leash works fine, although the buckle clatters a bit.
The bridge is a simple piece of wood. It looks handmade and oak, but may be a commercial item. It looks a little fragile to me, but I'm used to more substantial saddles and bridges. Again, it makes me wonder how another material and design would work. The way it is now, the two outside strings are not directly over one of the bridge's feet. I would like to try a design where they were each over a foot. And I would also like to try ebony.
The action is a bit high around the 12th fret - most noticeable because that's where I strum and pick most.
I found the initial sound surprisingly loud and brash, uncomfortably so at first. Since the BU doesn't have a back, the sound doesn't bounce around inside and get warmed by the wood - it just blasts out. Banjos are not particularly subtle instruments, despite what Bela Fleck can do with one, but I had thought the nylon strings would mitigate some of the BU's effrontery.
You quickly get used to it (well, I did: Susan probably never will), although it does beg for some changes in plucking style to avoid overpowering a song with the occasional strong note. And I find I do hit some strings a little harder than intended, and those notes come across as strident. I might experiment with a back to see how that affects the sound. There isn't any noticeable sustain, so the decay is fast. A back may add a little sustain, too (Susan says it makes it louder, too).
You can also buy different after-market skins, including 'natural' skin. One of these might also be interesting to try. The bridge is a simple item to replace, and I've bought an inexpensive banjo bridge to try in the near future. Just have to get the height set properly.
The extra tension on tenor scale strings probably contributes to the loudness and brashness of this BU. His soprano and concert ukes may have a different sound because of the lower tension.
I am also tempted to retune it to an open tuning to see if I can do some slide blues. Nylon strings are not particularly well suited to slide, but like a reso uke, the BU might produce an acceptable sound.
Perhaps the biggest consideration when getting a banjo ukulele is what music you intend to play with it. While you can finger or strum any song you play on a standard uke, the BU sound does not always lend itself to every tune or style. For some of the 1920s-30s music I play, it lends an old-fashioned sound that seems to suit. But to my ears, a lot of modern music doesn't always sound great on the BU. There's always bluegrass, although I am not a great fan of it.
Update: Intending to thin the herd a bit, and reduce the collection to a more manageable lot (before Susan starts taking them off the table chucking them into the garage) I plan to offer this instrument for sale. Email me if interested.
Would I purchase another Waverly Street uke? Yes. Perhaps not another banjo uke (unless Susan warms to the sound in the meantime!). But a concert or soprano would probably be better.
There had been a thread on the Ukulele Underground about a small, new Chinese manufacturer, calling itself Samwill. This was read by several people as "Sawmill" but apparently it's based on the sound of some Chinese characters for strong will. I haven't managed to uncover those characters, but I'm still looking.
I was intrigued - Samwill was not the typical mass-production factory, but rather a small company with limited output, and working on several designs (including some custom work) apparently with just a small crew of craftspeople. And neither a website nor a North American distributor for more information (although a couple of their ukes were listed online through a US uke store). Just posts and pictures in the forum. I wanted to know more.
I decided to take a chance and buy one. Shipping from China is expensive and it was a gamble to order from an unknown. But who knows - if they prove a popular success in future, I could say I have one of their first!
China has a reputation for mass-produced goods, often of mediocre quality, for big-box outlets like Wal-Mart. However, they are capable of making much higher quality products, as this and several other ukulele companies are showing. It's nice to see a 'reputation-buster' like this one coming from China (Kala is also Chinese made).
Payment is a currently bit of a muddle and still being sorted out (my attempt to send a wire transfer through my bank failed, Paypal doesn't work in China, so I had to use Western Union). I assume when they have a North American distributor, these problems will not occur.
The pineapple soprano pictured here arrived Friday, an act of trust, since I still have to pay for it. It spent as much time in the glacial grip of DHL in Canada as it took to get from China to Canada. But it arrived safely and undamaged.
Basic features: solid mahogany top, back and sides, rosewood fretboard, nut width 1 3/8", soprano scale. Fret edges were smooth, high-gloss finish immaculate, intonation appears accurate. Overall it appears well-made. From what I can see inside, the lining is well attached, and there are no glue spots or finish glitches anywhere.
Nice topboard wood, well bookmatched. The back is a bit plainer, but it's not relevant - I never see it.
Weight is 386 g, so it's light. Fret markers at the fifth, seventh and 10th fret (and neck-side marker dots as well), 12 frets, slightly high action for my taste, but playable.
Not sure about the bridge and saddle material but I think rosewood and possibly bone (although perhaps plastic). The bridge area is small, perhaps a little too small and could do with some side 'wings' to help distribute the string energy more fully. Since the bridge isn't changing, I want to experiment to see if replacing the saddle with a Tusq saddle will change the sound.
I would have preferred 14 frets rather than just 12, although I don't play much above the 12th fret usually.
It feels a bit thin in depth compared to my Ohana soprano, but measures only marginally thinner.
Sound is louder than the Ohana, and not as bright as cedar or spruce - the mahogany is a bit more mellow. Sustain is fair (the Mainland beats all comers in that area). Overall, its a nice sound - Susan thinks it's sweeter than the Ohana.
This is my first pineapple-shape ukulele. I know it's popular with many ukulele players, but I'm somewhat indifferent to it. I like the waist of a traditional shape which fits nicely on a leg when sitting down to play. But this shape may offer sound enhancements, too - the sound bouncing around inside the body may be less diffused.
What initially interested me was the amount of decorative purfling work had been done - the 'rope' binding (see the Mainland, above). The rosette is a double circle, the rope work runs along both sides of the fretboard and around the headstock, and the bridge even has a herringbone strip on it. Very fancy! I suspect that means a lot of labour will go into this brand, at least some of their models. That might translate into greater expense. But it is worth it - the ukulele has the look of a custom-made instrument, not a factory product.
The Samwill is, at the moment, poised in the same general price range as the Kala, Ohana and Lanikai ukes. But the limited output and small-scale production puts them more in the Pono bracket for output scale. So any uke you can get from them is going to be either one-off or limited production at this point. That alone may get some collectors interested.
None of my other ukes show as much decorative work on them - the Mainland coming closest. I suspect Samwill will offer different options - plain and more decorated - because the work involved in the that amount of purfling must be extensive. But what I've seen of their ukuleles in pictures posted in the Ukulele Underground forum, they make some very fancy instruments (the quilted maple model is particularly nice).
I'm still testing - the strings are still stretching and need to be retuned every few minutes (a common experience with ukuleles and synthetic strings). But my initial impressions are very positive. It has all the right elements - look, feel, sound and build quality - to make it a success in the market, if Samwill can get their ukes into the hands of the players. I'll update this once it's settled in more and I've had more time to ply it and compare it with others.
Susan, by the way, thinks the Samwill is nicer sounding, and louder, than my Ohana soprano. There's a greater richness in the tone she hears from the Samwill.
Samwill does not have a Web site yet, nor a distributor outside China.
Would I purchase another Samwill? Yes - a more traditional shape, and possibly a concert or tenor
I had made up my mind to buy a used, upper-end tenor from an online seller, when one of the members of the Ukulele Underground offered several of his ukes at bargain prices, trying to reduce his collection size. Among them was a Boat Paddle tenor. BP is a small output, custom manufacturer with some intriguingly different designs. The model up for sale looked, appropriately enough, like a boat paddle; a bit ungainly to look at, but all that soundboard seemed promising for the resulting sound.
I really knew nothing about BP ukes, except what I'd read on the forums. But the general appreciation level was high and several members recommended buying the BP instead of the uke I'd been looking at, as a better deal for a rarer instrument. So I made the transaction and waited anxiously while the instrument moved through the postal systems and Customs purveyors at the usual glacial speed (two weeks to arrive from a nearby US state - longer than it would take to walk there!).
When the uke arrived, it had suffered in transit from what seemed a lack of humidity. The glue joint at the neck had apparently dried out and the neck easily separated from the body. The rest of the instrument was intact, however.
While I'm not a luthier nor even a reasonably good carpenter (fences and decks are my strong points), since nothing was broken, it seemed to me the problem could be easily repaired with a bit of care. I called BP ukes and Jerry gave me some advice on how to repair it. After a quick trip to the local hardware store for some clamps, glue and sandpaper, I was ready to start.
I removed the strings, separated the neck, sanded the old glue away, then applied a small amount of quick-set epoxy, and carefully replaced the neck and clamped it together. Two hours later it was as good as new (at least as far as I can see and feel when I play). It certainly plays beautifully, and the action and intonation are superb. Not a big cost, and not really a difficult job, even for a clumsy oaf like me. And I didn't have to return the instrument or send it off for repair.
That not only allowed me to enjoy the ukulele, it gave me a bit more confidence for tackling future repairs. And what might have been a crisis became an adventure in which I learned a bit about instrument construction and hone my own skills. (The seller generously offered to refund my money, and even to allow me to keep the uke and still give me a refund - an honourable offer, but I declined and decided to keep it and make the repairs myself; I'm glad I did).
First thing you see when you look at this instrument is the non-traditional ('boat-paddle') shape. then you notice the odd placement of the sound hole. Instead of being in the middle, under the strings, as on traditional instruments, it's on the shoulder (upper right in the photos). But a careful examination shows a second, much smaller sound hole just to the left of the neck (see photo). While the larger of the two is deliberate, the second strikes me as more a design artifact, created by the curve of the upper edge of the top board (it also exposes a bit of neck block). I'm not sure it really provides a function for sound, but think it is merely decorative. In any case, it's a bit odd and even unsettling - Susan really doesn't like it and says it looks like a flaw. I personally would have preferred that side of the neck be fully covered.
But wait, there's more! There is a third sound hole, this time located on the side of the uke, facing up towards the player when the uke is strummed. This one is very functional, and allows the player to hear the instrument in a way other traditional ukes don't. It's quite amazing what a difference a side hole can make to your own perception of the instrument you're playing. This is definitely a good and welcome feature!
This uke came strung low-G. I decided to keep it in low-G because it seems to suit that tuning better than high-G, although I may experiment when it's time to change strings. The design just seems to lend itself more to low-G (although the design also presents some challenges to finding a hard shell case!)
The BP has the largest top board/sound board in my collection. The top looks like a single, solid piece of cedar, but it's actually two - so well-matched that you have to look very closely to detect the seam. That large surface area gives this instrument a rich, warm sound and long sustain that make the BP almost guitar-like in tone. Plus the deep, large body allows more bass and added harmonics in the tone. It reminds me a bit of my old dreadnought Guild guitar, in that it brings a depth of sound my other instruments lacked.
The result is one of the best-sounding, richest-and-fullest-toned ukuleles I have. While it doesn't have the characteristic, chirpy brightness that many ukes have, this BP ukulele really stands out as different in a very positive way. This is a very nice addition to my collection, and one that will get a lot more play in the near future.
That sound, coupled with the low action, wide and comfortable neck, makes this uke a joy to play. Surprisingly, it is not as loud as many other ukes in the collection (the Mainland and Kala Cedar are much louder). But it as an under-saddle pickup, so I can play it through an amp for volume. That input jack is also a handy strap button. A brief experiment with it plugged in told me the pickup was good, but I needed to be more careful with the amp's volume controls - that large top encourages feedback easily. There are no volume or tone controls on the uke itself.
Another thing to notice is at the nut. BP puts small metal pegs (see picture to right) in the nut to separate the strings. This is a different approach - most manufacturers put groove in the nut to align and hold the strings. But this lets me use different string sets where grooved nuts sometimes require a little careful widening to properly accommodate heavier strings like Aquilas. And it means no sharp edges on the nut groove than can wear a string and possibly cause it to snap.
The uke is superbly well made: clean, smooth fret edges, nicely book-matched back pieces, a nice satin finish and no flaws anywhere I can see. There's even a little bit of design flourish on the saddle - an artistic cut rather than a mere block of wood. These touches add up to an aesthetic punch that makes the Boat paddle ukulele very appealing.
Sealed Gotoh geared tuners - thankfully not friction tuners. While the strings it came with are used, they still require tuning while the uke gets played and gets accustomed to the local heat and humidity. Geared tuners make it much easier.
A bit heavier than some, but not overly so (804g or 1.75 lb). The large body actually makes it easy to hold, even without a strap, because it provides a lot of surface for your forearm to grip. The top sound hole is a mixed blessing - I often pick the strings with my fingers anchored to the top around that location. I have to be careful to move them away from it, so as not to block the sound hole and muffle it. Perhaps that can be used to soften the sound when I'm playing at night and Susan's gone to bed.
Overall: I'm very pleased with this instrument. It's one I'll probably always keep. It has even impressed local music store staff who are not by nature ukulele aficionados.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes.
Most of us have seen those inexpensive ukuleles, sometimes decorated with sequins and sparkles, and painted in many "designer" colours. They hang in the uke-unaware music stores. Many of them bear the brand name "Mahalo."
In my experience they are Chinese-made, mediocre quality, with poor intonation, laminate tops, and sharp or ragged fret edges. Not to mention they're seldom in tune. That's because these stores don't treat ukuleles as "serious" instruments. These uke-unaware shops don't bother to stock anything better than the bottom-of-the-barrel instruments, so why do anything like tune them? At $30-$40, they're not on par even with the laminate models in lines like Kala, Ohana and Lanikai.
But for many players, Mahalo is the first uke they own. That's in part because of the paucity of models and brands available at local stores, but in part because a musical instrument under $50 isn't really a big investment. Just enough to get you hooked. Owning a Mahalo is almost a rite of passage in the ukiverse.
Well, Mahalo actually makes better instruments, although you sometimes have to search around to find them. They make, for example, ukes with solid spruce and cedar tops. Good luck finding one! Or trying to convince a music store to bring one in for you to test. But
What you're more likely to come across are two Mahalo electric/acoustic ukes, one shaped like a mini-Les Paul (the ULP1/VS) or one shaped like a mini-Fender Telecaster (the UTL1/VWT). The Tele-clone has a Fender-style head, as well.
Both are, as far as I know, only soprano size. I seem to recall having seen tenor versions of them in the past, but perhaps these models were discontinued.
Both have active pickups, small battery-powered pre-amps built in, plus external tone and volume controls (see photo, at left). The pickup jacks exit off-centre, towards the bottom, and are not designed as strap holders, although you could change that yourself. The battery is inserted in a small plastic case on the bottom (see small extrusion in picture above.).
They provide a surprisingly clean signal and good sound when amplified. However, the small body doesn't provide a lot of depth or sustain, so you will need to use amp effects like reverb to improve the sound.
Both models are laminate, of course, with high-gloss finishes in a range of colours, including sunburst and tobacco.
Both have 18 frets (although anything above 12 has very little finger space and is mostly decorative). They are, like the originals, cutaway bodies. Saddles are Nubone, and the bridges are rosewood.
The bridges are a bit blocky, I suppose to attempt some sort of reasonable similitude, but they're a visual weak spot that could be improved, at least in design terms.
Strings are Aquila, which surprised me a little, because they aren't inexpensive strings. Action is good and the intonation is good up to the seventh or eighth fret - certainly much better than the $30 models, but not precise at the higher frets. But I personally don't play much above the seventh fret on a soprano, anyway.
Fret edges were reasonably smooth, too, although a little work with a small needle file would improve them. The ukes are not premium instruments, but are acceptably well made. There's certainly no frills on them.
The Canadian retail price is, I believe, around $140, but I've seen these ukes selling for around $100 and even less. At that price, they're a nice option for people who want to get started with ukuleles, want the electric option, but don't want to commit to a lot of money in order to discover what ukes are all about.
The best thing about these Mahalos is their shape. They're irresistibly cute. What uke player doesn't want to pick up a tiny Tele and wail away with some Hendrix or Santana riffs? I borrowed on from Blue Mountain Music for a weekend of doing just that. And I convinced the local library to add a couple of these Mahalos to their collection (members can borrow a uke, with tuner and chord book, for three weeks at a time).
I didn't buy one because all the store had to offer were sopranos.I'm really a tenor aficionado, and I'd buy a tenor model if they had one, just for the fun they offer.
Would I purchase another Mahalo? Possibly a tenor, but not a soprano.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, with caveats and qualifications.
When I first saw this design, I was intrigued. A non-traditional uke from a company known primarily for its guitars. Innovative, exciting and different. I had to try one. Thanks to Deach, a regular on the Ukulele Underground forum, I got my wish.
Deach had already posted a review on the UU forum before he sent me his Riptide, as well as a YouTube review. He wasn't overly impressed. A much more positive review was posted by Glorygrl1997. Musicguymic also posted a nice sound sample as well as a sneak preview.
The two big things you'll notice right away are the solid top with the very small front sound hole off-centre on the upper bout, then the much larger side sound hole, beside the electronics. Plus the headstock has a bit of a custom look to it.
But first some of the basic details: the model I received has solid spruce top, geared tuners, rosewood back and sides. There are also mahogany models, in the usual sizes. Mine came strung low-G with Aquilas.
Mine is a traditional figure-eight style body, but the company also offers several models with a cutaway design. personally, I think the cutaways area bit more stylish.
Looking inside the uke, there are only two braces under the top: one at the waist, and a smaller one right below the neck. Most ukuleles don't use a lot of bracing because they are small and the pressure on the top is much lower than a guitar's. But with the expanse of solid top, I had expected at least a third in the lower bout. Still, I see no rippling or deflection on the surface, so it seems to work.
Intonation and action are excellent, although the height of the strings at the 12th & higher frets is marginally taller than I prefer. That can be partially cured, I expect, by lowering the saddle a hair, but the distance at the first fret is so low I would worry about creating a buzz if it was sanded too enthusiastically.
Outside the finish is acceptable, but not stellar. As Deach points out, the finish around the larger sound hole is a little rough. The gloss finish may be a trifle too thick, too, but overall it's okay. No serious complaints on any component. I would prefer a satin finish and think it might add to the sound quality, but that's only available in the mahogany models.
The electronics are a combination of active pickup with bass-treble-volume controls and a built-in tuner. That tuner is a nice touch and judging by my other clip-on tuners, is very accurate. The battery is easy to find and replace.
The cord jack is off-centre, placed counter-clockwise towards the bottom of the lower bout. This might have been better placed on the heel block so a strap button could be added.
According to the Riptide catalogue, the binding around the edge and sound holes is abalone. I have to take that on faith, but in my experience, most of these are simulated abalone (i.e. plastic or a film). Still, it looks nice. The Riptide logo under the strings is also inlaid abalone - but is hard to read because there is little contrast between the spruce and the lettering (see image, below).
It plays well, looks good, and fits comfortably with other ukulele brands at that price point. But the big question is: how does it sound?
For me, the unamplified sound is flat, at least from the listener's perspective. Playing it you get a much richer sound because of the side port which transmits a lot of volume and tone. But the smaller hole in the front cannot transmit the deeper tones that the larger one can. Nor can it transmit the volume.
Plus it seems to have much less sustain that most of my other ukes. Certainly doesn't compare to the sustain-monster Mainland. I'm not sure if that's because of the small sound hole, or because the top is marginally thicker than some other ukes, so it doesn't resonate as much.
Deach says it's very bright. I don't think it's nearly as bright as, say, the Kala cedar or the Pono mango. But it's louder, and since the lower tones don't come forward as much, it might appear to be bright. But
I'm not a luthier, so I can't say for sure, but I suspect that the sizes of the sound holes should be reversed: with the larger one in front to project more of the lower end to the audience, and the smaller one on the side.
Amplified it's quite nice, and the electronics are excellent. I didn't find it excessively boomy when plugged in, and was quite loud, especially compared with passive pickup ukes. As I said before, the tuner is a great addition and means I don't need to hunt for my clip-ons.
I really wanted to love this uke, but came away feeling lukewarm. I like it, but wouldn't shed a tear if ew parted company. There's nothing bad about it - just nothing outstanding. For the price, that's appropriate, because you have to pay a lot more for outstanding. The different design might be the selling point for many, because it breaks free of the standard form enough to make it appealling.
Still, a satin-spruce model would warm the cockles of my heart more than the gloss finish. I intend to resting the uke to high-G and perhaps try a different set - Worth or D'Addario - to see if how changes the overall tonal result. I might even consider replacing the saddle (which appears to be plastic - perhaps NuBone) with Tusq or even real bone.
I like to think Boulder Creek will be watching the comments online, on forums and Youtube to see if there are areas they can improve or change. They should take a page from Kala's book and look for innovation in design and woods (and maybe look at the engineering of these sound holes). In the meantime, I'll keep watching to see how the ukiverse accepts the Riptide line.
Would I purchase another Riptide? Possibly a cutaway or a solid mahogany with satin finish.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, although there are several competitors in their price range.
Back in the 1970s, J. Chalmers Doane started a program in Canada called "Ukuleles in the Classroom." It sprang from his success as a teacher using ukes in his Halifax classrooms in the late 1960s, and it spread across Canada.
Ukes were affordable, small, non-intimidating, easy to handle - the perfect instrument for kids just starting to learn music. Kids loved them, Parents and teachers liked them because they were affordable.
Doane also started the "Ukuleles Yes!" organization and created several student-based ukulele orchestras (their music is available for a free download on his website).
He designed a special ukulele for his classroom program: the Northern JCD-2. It was a concert-size uke made in Japan, with an odd triangular body and an even more bizarre through-the-neck stringing system (see below).
He also had soprano size ukes made in this design (see photo, left) and, I've been told, a traditional figure-eight style concert uke (which I have never seen except in pictures online).
The ukes seem to have laminate tops, but may also be solid mahogany (if so, it's a trifle thicker than one would expect for a soundboard). There may be other variations, too (for example, the soprano I found had a plastic fretboard, but this may be a later addition).
Thousands of these ukes, I've been told, were sold to and played by students across Canada whiles his music program ran in schools. School boards, as is their parsimonious nature, cut the music programs, including Doane's, and ended this very successful method of teaching children music. No doubt the boards wanted to use the money for raises to superintendents and school board reps at the time.
Doane's Northern ukes now rest in attics and basements all over Canada. They occasionally pop up in hock shops and yard sales in varying condition from well-kept to greatly-abused. Prices are usually modest to low - that reflects the original "everyman's" nature of the model. Sometimes you may end up with a case too - I have collected two, one more padded than the other. Case seem to take even more beating than the bodies.
These don't seem to have caught the fancy of uke collectors like some other models of the same era have. In part it might be due to the number produced, but also to it being a predominantly Canadian instrument and most of the big collectors are in Japan or the USA. They pop up now and then on eBay and ukulele forums, but seldom sell for more than $50 US although some have been priced much higher (and don't seem to sell, either). Caveat emptor: you don't have to pay a lot for one of these.
That may change as collectors realize these instruments are worth paying attention to, but for now they're accessible to a wide range of neophyte collectors. But given that most of the original owners were young students, it may not be easy to find many in good condition. Most, I expect, will show some wear and tear.
I like it for its Canadian connection, hence my interest in collecting them. But I also like oddities and the Northern fits that bill.
The instrument has a rosewood fretboard and a rosewood saddle. There is no bridge - the string ends are secured with guitar pegs right in the body. There are three small sound holes in the centre, under the strings. Nut is also wood but may be plastic on some. The body is triangular, with an oblique cut that makes the uke lean the to left when stood on its end.
It uses friction tuners and has another oblique cut on its head. The triangular shape seems to make the body volume and topboard area smaller than the traditional design.
Soundwise, the Northern doesn't have great depth or sustain (in part because there is no single large sound hole), but has reasonable volume. It's not bad, given what it was designed for, but not in the same class as most of the ukes I've reviewed here. They play reasonably well too - intonation and action are beyond reproach.
It's a bit awkward to hold, but sure is easy to stand upright.
The Northern has generated some modern knock-offs, mostly made in China. The photo on the right, above, shows one commonly sold on eBay. It's a bit more ornate than the JCD-2, uses geared tuners, and has a traditional bridge rather than string pegs. The head also looks more traditional. It sells for around $55-$60 US, which in today's money is probably equivalent to what the Northern sold for in its day. It is a laminate top. Another brand, The Triumph (see picture at left, above). This is less ornate, and more visually similar to the Doane uke, but with a smaller bridge and saddle, as well as geared tuners. Neither of these wannabes have any great reputation for sound or quality in the ukiverse.
Would I purchase another Northern? Yes. I seem to have become a collector of sorts.
Would I recommend them to others? To collectors and Canadians, yes, but there are better, more modern ukes for newcomers.
This is a little gem I found at a yard sale, and my only foray into vintage ukes to date (likely my last, given the cost of most). It's a 30 to 40-year-old uke, made by a Japanese company that went out of business in the mid to late 1970s. It is a laminate mahogany soprano, with mahogany neck and possibly fretboard (may also be a lighter rosewood). It says Model 14 on the inside.
I decided I would sell or trade it to a collector who appreciates vintage instruments. I am not a collector per se, rather someone who simply likes to play, so vintage doesn't appeal to me as much as new instruments.
Overall, it wasn't a bad find, although hardly in the class of a vintage Martin or Gibson. Certainly a reasonable price. I sold it on eBay to a collector who I hope will appreciate it more than I. The best it did for me was convince me that I didn't want a soprano. The necks are small, tight and my hands feel big and clumsy on the fretboard. Tenor is the choice for me: the soprano is a bit small for my fingers.
I'm not a collector of old ukuleles, nor particularly moved to seek out vintage instruments. I like modern, and I like to play, not just collect, so the value of this instrument and its heritage was somewhat wasted on me. I was pleased to see that others were more sympathetic to its nature (it was bought by a fellow Canadian with 45 other ukes in his collection).
Would I purchase another Diastone? Unlikely, unless it was another yard-sale bargain.
Would I recommend them to others? Yes, for collectors more than players.
Ukuleles are small and easy to hold, and that means they're also easy to drop. The business of playing music means your hands and arms are always in motion. Me, I like straps because they allow my arms and hands more freedom.
Straps also provide another service: they allow for more sound from the back and sides of the ukulele. Without a strap, most players press the uke tightly against their body. This dampens the vibrations that the back produces, both as a secondary sound board and as a reflector. Try a simple experiment: play your ukulele on your lap, held away from your body. Then hold it close, pressing the back against your chest. You should hear the difference - so should listeners around you.
The traditional guitar strap is usually around 2" wide wide, and feels like using a Hummer just to drive to the corner store, a block away. It's big and hefty, designed for something much larger and heavier. I found a somewhat smaller strap made from a 3/4" wide strip of leather with a 10" long, 2" wide padded shoulder strap. It's a lot more practical for a uke than a 2" wide strap.
Ideally, a thin strap that tied to the head under the strings and to a pickup jack or strap knob would work the best, although something that went under the body to cradle it might also work (although it would be a bit precarious). I'm told that mandolin straps are workable for ukuleles, too. It should be fairly easy to get some decorative cord or leather to make one of your own. A friend gave me a piece of deer hide that I cut into a lightweight, homemade strap, but it's a bit plain.
Since the uke is light and small, a shoulder pad is really unnecessary. Traditional straps work well on the Eleuke and Applause since they come with two strap buttons, but many have one or even no buttons. So you need to have something different at the head (a shoelace tied around the neck, under the strings works).
It's pretty easy to rig up a cord or leather strap that hangs off the pickup jack, but what if your uke doesn't have a jack or a strap knob? I don't recommend anyone but an experienced luthier drill a hole to install a knob.
An alternative strap is the uke' thong' - a simple padded hook that goes into the sound hole, and a loop/strap that goes around your neck. There are guitar versions of this idea, too, but the uke version is smaller. Plus there are some alternate designs with less cloth. This is not the underwear sort of thong: do not attempt to wear it to the beach!
The thong has the advantage of being light and simple. However (and there's always a however. ) the hook creates a fulcrum point. Your uke can tilt to either side and fall down, or fall forward if you let it go. Dropping a musical instrument is never a good idea. The thong doesn't hold the uke up as much as it gives you a little more freedom of motion, especially your right strumming/picking hand, because your arm doesn't need to hold the uke as tightly. And of course that means fewer fingerprints or arm prints on the surface to clean later.
The downside is that the hook is held on at the soundboard. To get the fullest and loudest sound, the soundboard must not be restricted, and using the thong dampens the sound - noticeably so. So it's a good for practice, but may work against you in performance. I have one: I am not enthused with it, but I sometimes use it when I am playing around the house, just to give me a little more freedom of movement (and allow me to pick up a wine glass without putting the uke down). It isn't as good for Flukes either, because of the angled plastic shell, but it's still usable with them.
Like with guitars, there are dozens of resources to help you learn and improve your ukulele playing: books, DVDs, YouTube videos, song books and online tabs, teaching books, chord finders and more. Here are a few I've picked up, with some review notes. You can often simply take a guitar song book and play the chords on a ukulele, appreciating the increase in pitch and reduced number of strings. But often ukulele arrangements take into account the instrument's differences.
There are several different styles of music presentation. Some songs are just lyrics and chords. Others include the musical notation (requiring you to read music). Some include tablature (tab) - the string and fret being identified in an easy-to-read format. I personally prefer chords and tabs because I read music slowly.
The Complete Ukulele Course, by Ralph Shaw (DVD, 2003). You have to like Ralph: he's so bubbly and has so much fun playing and teaching, it's contagious. This is one of those basic packages that start from scratch - what is a ukulele? - and lead the viewer through tuning, simple chords, strumming and the most rudimentary level of playing. Calling it complete is misleading. It has nine chapters all aimed at non-musicians. If you have no background in musical theory, and have never played a guitar, and you're new to the uke, then this DVD is a great place to start. It's a pretty plain presentation, all business with no distractions. If you have experience with a guitar or mandolin, you might find this a little too elementary. Ralph has other DVDs that may interest you including Essential Strums (see links, below).
"Jumpin'" Jim Beloff has a lot of books out, mostly song books. You can pretty much pick one that suits your tastes in music. Some of these are good, but others are questionable. I picked up Jumpin' Jim's 60s Uke-in: 25 Really Groovy Songs Arranged for the Ukulele (Hal Leonard, 1999) because the 60s was my time. But this collection disappointed me. It's not just the collection, which I think is a weak selection from a great era, but a lot of the chord arrangements just don't work for me. The songs are presented with uke chords, lyrics and musical notation. I would have preferred tablature or plus tablature. The whole thing feels like it was tossed together without a lot of thought about the time it is supposed to represent.
The book comes with a basic chord list and some notes on tuning, transposing and uke sizes, all of which are useful. Jim's books are generally good additions to your collection, but you may find other arrangements to these and other Sixties songs online that suit you better. Jim is also the man behind the Fluke (Flea Market Music), and publishes some great collections of arrangements by performers who are all considerably better than I will ever be. Don't judge his efforts by this book alone. He's got a lot to offer.
Ukulele Fretboard Maps, by Fred Sokolow and Jim Beloff (Hal Leonard, 2006). This is a step beyond the beginner level, and includes a CD with 59 tracks from simple tuning through strumming styles to play-along songs. It's a bit of a mixed bag of styles and songs, techniques, strumming style and music theory. It mixes musical notation with tabs, so you can use either according to your level. While the song collection is a bit meandering - folk, Hawaiian, blues, rock - overall, the book is a great learning package for people who have graduated beyond the beginner level and want to learn more.
Fingerstyle Solos for Ukulele, by Mark Kailana Nelson (Mel Bay, 2006). An intermediate level book mixing musical notation and tablature. Comes with 27 tracks on CD. It's a bit difficult to follow Mark's written notes on technique and style without listening to the CD at the same time. He comments on numerous measures in the notation, but assumes the reader can pick them out - I would have marked the annotated measures more clearly for novices. However, this a good package for moving up to the next step in technique. It assumes you have the basics down, but it's not advanced enough to scare away determined novices.
Treasury of Ukulele Chords, by Roy Sakuma (Roy Sakuma Productions, 1998). You should have a chord dictionary with your uke. This one is a fairly basic guide, aimed at the novice to intermediate player. It doesn't give as many alternate chord fingerings as a more advanced player might like. You can a download one and two-page chord charts online that give all the basics, but Sakuma's book will take you a step further until you're ready for something more comprehensive. One of the things that sets this chord dictionary apart is Roy's categorization of chords by emotional terms. Not necessarily accurate, but entertaining.
The Gig Bag Picture Chords for Ukulele offers photographs for 28 different chord formations in each key, plus two alternatives for each, for 1,008 chord layouts. It also has as traditional chord diagrams. It lacks any single-page collations showing, say, all the chords in a particular key or all the majors, minors, sevenths, and so on, however. It's good for novices who aren't sure how their fingers should be placed, and it's Cerlox-bound to lay flat. Very handy.
For another comprehensive reference guide, look to the Hal Leonard Ukulele Chord Finder (Hal Leonard, 2005) or similar Mel Bay books. Hal Leonard's little book shows more than 1,000 chords arranged by key, with three positions for each chord. It also includes a few introductory pages on musical theory and chord construction. It is also inexpensive, small and fits into a uke case with room to spare.
I personally keep a small, laminated, double-sided chord chart in my cases, just in case I forget how to make chords like Ebdim or C9+5 (which I do a lot. or I confuse guitar chords with uke chords). Search online and you can find this sort of chart in a printable PDF file on my music books page.
L.A. White's self-published Ukulele Players Guide (sic) is a 209-page work that left me ambivalent. It has rather a lot about the author's personal taste in music and I found it rather pedantic at best. Pages 38 to 89 are all about the type of music he likes to play and listen to - mostly music written and performed before the 1950s. While he obviously has a passion for that music, and for his ukuleles, neither translate through into his words. Then after a hiatus, he returns to more about his musical preferences, plus buying and recording old vinyl, from page 144 to 186, and again from 196 to 206 - half the book in total is only marginally uke related. In between these sections are chapters on buying, refinishing, repairing and playing the ukulele, music theory and some odds and ends. There are several low-res greyscale photographs, and many crude, hand-drawn chord diagrams. It's a meandering, unfocused work that could have greatly benefitted from the hand of a good editor and a graphic or layout designer. The missing apostrophe in the book's title is indicative of the editorial laxity. For updates, see his website: ukuleleguide.com
How to Play Blues Ukulele. This is one of several titles by Al Wood who runs the How to Play the Ukulele and Uke Hunt web sites. His other titles include instruction books on chord progressions, playing national anthems, Christmas music, ragtime and a basic instruction guide called Ukulele 101. The obviously talented Mr. Wood has turned out some essential works for your ukulele library, all available as PDF downloads, with MP3 samples and songs included in the package. Blues Uke costs a modest $15, although the price rose after October 08. Since most people don't think of the uke as a blues instrument, this book may strike some as an oddity, but anything you can play on guitar can be played on a ukulele, even blues. Wood walks you through it, from basic 12-bar progressions to bluesy riffs, turnarounds, scales and chord patterns. It's a practical manual that takes you forward in easy steps, all well laid out with diagrams, tablature and text descriptions. It's easy to follow and understand, with many short practice examples backed up by MP3 clips, so anyone, even novices, can benefit from this book. This is an excellent work that will help you move your ukulele playing forward in a new direction. Update: I had a chance to browse the Ragtime book a friend purchased, and would suggest it's aimed at a far more advanced player than I am. Something to aim for!
Ukulele Heaven is one of the many songbooks by prolific musician and writer, Ian Whitcomb. The subtitle is Songs from the Golden Age of the Ukulele. Whitcomb has become the archivist of ukulele music from the 1920s and 30s, both in performing and restoring them. His other works (also published by Mel Bay) include Treasures from Tin Pan Alley, The Best of Vintage Dance, The Titanic Songbook, Songs of the Ragtime Era and Songs of the Jazz Age, however most of these are scored for guitar and piano, not ukulele. Included here are 17 vintage songs, plus 8 of Whitcomb's own uke tunes. A CD has all 25 songs, most of them played by Whitcomb and his orchestra. George Formby and Cliff Edwards each have one tune on the CD. Most of these songs will be unknown to today's audience, except perhaps for Any Time (revived for an ad jingle), although you may also have heard Mexicali Rose and A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody. While the music is great to listen to, solo uke players may have some difficulty trying to learn the ukulele parts alone, often lost in the orchestration. No lead parts are presented in tablature, and no tips or tricks for learning provided. Whitcomb also scores his music for his voice (and orchestra), which means several songs in Bb, Ab, Eb and Db. For novices, this leads to some complex and difficult chord fingerings. Perhaps these are even the authentic, original keys, but I would have preferred he transposed the tunes into keys that were more familiar and easier to learn, like C and G. Whitcomb wrote an intro - really a mini autobiography, and included a memoir from a ukulele player of the 1920s, but there are no song notes, no performance notes and no explanations as to why he chose any of these songs. This is a book for relatively advanced players.
Another book for advanced players is Lyle Ritz Solos, a collection of 15 great songs laid out for playing chord solos. It's very challenging! There's a CD included with the songs all performed by Lyle, and that really helps when you are practicing. I found a lot of the chord changes difficult and awkward to make at any reasonable speed - not because of the way Lyle has presented them but my inexperience and clumsiness. However, I also found that his versions could be used for a simpler way to play the songs, by ignoring some of the chords and sticking to the main ones.
Three new uke books added to my collection recently: Lyle Lite (an unfortunate misspelling of "light" created by advertising and marketing illiterates) chord solos, Blues Ukulele, and Ukulele Chord Solos. The first two are Jumpin Jim (Flea Market Music) books, the third is Mel Bay. All come with a music CD. I also got a fourth book which, while not specifically a ukulele book, has several easily-converted guitar chord songs: Jazz Standards. I haven't had these quite long enough to give them a fair review, but more will come soon.
A lot of other uke books are available through online booksellers, ukulele sellers like Flea Market Music, and often through eBay sellers who specialize in ukuleles. Curt Scheller sells several very good e-books on his website, ranging in topic from beginner to advanced. I had the opportunity to examine several of them a local uke player had purchased and printed, and they are very well done. His books are also sold in printed version.
YouTube and Web sites are great sources for tutorials, song tabs, arrangements, chord diagrams, MP3s, and techniques. There are lessons in video format on the Ukulele Underground and other forums. I will cover some of these in more detail shortly. In the meantime: SEARCH. Use Google and YouTube to find what you want. Check the forums and the links below (Curt Sheller has a page of video links). There are a lot of free resources online you should explore. Check my vintage music books and sheet music page, too.
Strings are ornery topics for most uke players. You can start an argument (or to be civilized, a heated debate) among uke players by simply asking what strings they prefer. Uke players will also argue over the quality of various tonewoods, but not quite as readily. Strings are also very personal and affect a player's style and expression.
Strings used to be made from gut, but now are made out of nylon (i.e. GHS, Ko'olau), nylgut (i.e. Aquila) or fluorocarbon (i.e. Worth). The low-G strings are usually wound (nylon wrapped in a metal - aluminum or silver - sheath, although Kala Reds are apparently nylon wound). Some manufacturers are also using a wound C and there are sets with both the G and C wound.
These wound strings produce a more mellow, bass-oriented sound. However, wound strings can be harder on the fretboard and will wear down the plastic frets of some ukes (i.e. the Fluke).
Ukulele strings are not steel, like a guitar. Putting metal guitar, banjo or mandolin strings on your ukulele adds a lot more tension and stress on the bridge. It could rip the bridge right off!
In general, thicker strings have more tension, so they are louder, but can be a little more difficult to play and don't bend as easily as thinner strings (for new players, thicker strings can be more painful until the callouses grow in). Thinner strings are more flexible, but not as loud and sometimes prone to buzz on a uke with low action. Personally, I prefer a slightly heavier string for more projection. Long-necked ukes like the Ohana, above, need thinner strings for the lower tension.
For resonator ukes, you may want thicker strings with more tension to transmit the most sound to the cone. My Republic came with thin GHS strings, which are fine on a wooden uke but not the best choice for a reso. I changed them to heavier Aquilas and got a better sound. Overall, I prefer Aquilas.
Soprano and concert strings are usually the same diameter, concert strings sometimes being a bit longer to allow for the greater scale length. Tenor strings are a bit thicker to handle the greater tension on the strings, and baritone strings longer and thicker than the rest.
Diameters vary with manufacturers. For soprano and concert strings I have seen a ranges of: A: 0.020-0.024"; E: 0.026-0.033"; C: 0.036-0.041"; high G: 0.020-0.028". For tenors: A: 0.028-0.029" ; E: 0.033-0.036 ; C: 0.035-0.041; high G: 0.029-0.032. Low G (wound) will be around 0.035". Check the sizes on the packages your favourite strings. You can generally use those thicknesses as a rule of thumb for replacements, but keep in mind that nylon strings are generally a bit thicker than the same string in fluorocarbon.
You can use guitar strings for ukuleles, if you have the right string gauge. Some more inventive players even use fluorocarbon fishing line (check the forums for threads on this subject: here and here).
Picks are not generally used by ukulele players, but there's no reason you can't use one aside from tradition. There is a fat, soft felt pick sometimes sold as a ukulele pick (or properly: plectum), but I find it too muted, too chunky and too clumsy. I have used guitar picks, especially with the eight-sting Lanikai and when trying some slide uke on the resonator. Most players play and strum with their hands and fingers.
Picks make notes louder and brighter, but also sometimes harsher. I prefer thin, flexible picks to rigid/thick ones, but that's a matter of taste. Some people also grow their fingernails or use plastic fingerpicks when playing, but I don't find them necessary and can make the uke sound quite different from using just your fingertips. I prefer just my fingers.
The whole point of a ukulele is playing it. Hanging an instrument one on the wall rather than playing it strikes me as a waste of money. You want a wall hanging, there are plenty of velvet Elvis paintings available. (The picture shows just some of my guitars a few years back, and no, that's not a ukulele in the middle - it's a small six-string guitar! And yes, I played them all.)
Playing is one pleasure, but making the music your own is another. I like tinkering with songs, tweaking their structure, and finding alternate chord and picking patterns. It's even more fun to actually write and publish a piece of music, if you have that aptitude. However, it is also a lot of fun to take a guitar song and rework it for a ukulele, especially a standard (re-entrant) tuning.
Here's my advice for new ukuleles players: Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. And have a glass of wine or two (only if you're old enough!).
Here's my first song arrangement: When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along (PDF). Not an original song, but I made an arrangement that I liked. Here's an mp3 version of the song, performed by Al Jolson (public domain). My latest arrangement is Hoagy Carmichael's great song, Georgia. I'm posting a PDF of my work on it to date - it's got a few unnamed chords as of yet, and needs some tweaking, but I think it's okay. I started with an existing arrangement in F and simply tweaked it to sound more like the song that was in my own head. Comments appreciated.
And here's my version of Sweet Sue, Just You, but I don't show the fingering, just the chords.
May 2009: And my version of Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue, based on an original arrangement by May Singhi Breen. I have also posted scans of a few old songbooks I found in yard sales and used-book stores. I'm working on versions of Jeepers Creepers, Sunny Side of the Street, Side by Side and some others. Feel free to download and use these, and link to them, but don't take them and put them on your own site.
I'll post more song arrangements when I work them through. Please feel free to share them. As you can see, I like to play many 'vintage' songs, but I'm also working on a version of the Beatles It's Only Love right now.
And I also made a chord wheel that can be used for chord transposition, and has the circle of fifths/fourths for easy reference. Very handy for guitar players, too!
Tuning is critical. And thanks to modern technology, you can buy a simple, clip-on, battery powered uke-specific tuner for $10-$20. That sure beats trying to tune with a pitch pipe (how 20th century!) or even a tuning fork. You can buy a ukulele-specific tuner, or a chromatic tuner that can be used with several instruments. I found an inexpensive one that has both a clip-on (vibration) tuner and a microphone for tuning off the instrument. Kala also has a branded tuner they sell with their ukes, as does Lanikai.
There's no excuse not to be in perfect pitch with these instruments so easily available. Tuning with one of these little wonder devices is a snap. All digital, they are so accurate it's scary. The only drawback: they're battery powered and seldom (if ever) accept rechargeable batteries (and the batteries are often inconveniently located). But they're so inexpensive you can carry one in each of your cases.
A uke-specific tuner should have settings for C (GCEA) and D (ADF#B) tuning, but probably won't have a baritone setting (DGBE). General chromatic tuners can be used for any instrument - but try to avoid those designed for specific instruments like guitar, violin or banjo, since they have a limited range of tones and often won't work with ukes.
Nylon strings, especially new ones, stretch - even the ones sold as 'pre-stretched'. That means they go out of tune a lot until they're 'broken in'. A good tuner won't prevent that, but will help you keep the strings in tune while you're breaking them in. Expect to tune your uke several times each time you play it, for several days, until the strings settle. During this time, you're really appreciate geared tuners.
There are numerous sources of ukulele music, information, teaching, chord charts, advice, lessons and history online. The ukulele community is not as large as the guitar community yet, but it's loud, active and growing.
I recommend you look into join several of the ukulele forums (see list, below). They have some overlap in members and topics, but not all. If you have questions, comments or simply want to read about ukes, these are the places to go. There's an amazing amount of support to be had in these forums on everything from fingering chords to figuring out songs to luthiery and making videos.
Unfortunately, like in most online communities, there are wingnuts and angry people on the forums whose sole role seems to be to hurt others, criticize and start fights. A simple novice's question like "what does anyone think about this ukulele model?" on at least one ukulele forum will bring you pages of grief: insults, personal attacks and vituperation. It's not worth the grief when you're looking for help or support.
Lurk and read a while before you join a forum, to make sure you're not stepping into the virtual snake pit instead of a fun, friendly and supportive forum. I list a few of those more congenial forums, below (Ukulele Underground is my favourite).
Some forums are ukulele specific, others like Ezfolk mix other instruments: banjo, guitar, dulcimer, etc. (I'm not sure what Ez stands for - perhaps its founder was named Ezra? Ezekiel?). I've grouped the forums together in the links section, below. Please take some time to visit them and join those you believe will best suit your playing. Some also have regional interests that may appeal to you and help bring you together with other local ukulele players.
Look for old songbooks in yard or garage sales or used-book stores. I've found many songsheets and songbooks with ukulele chords in them. They offer you a chance to learn some great old songs, and many are rather challenging to play. Besides, it's fun to resurrect some of these old tunes. And look online for the old songs, too - there are several sites that have turned old 78 records into MP3 files you can download for listening and practice.
And if there's a ukulele club in your community, by all means check them out! In clubs you can practice together, learn new songs and techniques, jam, talk ukes, get help, and have a lot of fun. Ask at your local music stores if they know of such a club in your area. Toronto has a new uke club on Queen Street East. See the Corktown ukes site for more.
Update: The Collingwood Public Library has three ukes - tenor, soprano and baritone - as loaners, available in mid-March, 2009. During March Break, 2009, their front display case featured three of my own ukes!
You get what you pay for. That's an old saw, and it's generally still true: $30 won't get you much of an ukulele. However, that doesn't mean you have to spend $1,000 or more to get a good instrument, but you shouldn't buy anything simply because it's the lowest price. The lowest-priced instruments are generally laminates, and made on production lines where quantity is preferred to quality. Quality control is an expense that has to be passed along to the consumer.
I am a firm believer in the quality of solid wood versus laminates. However people may argue for laminates, the physics of the materials can't be ignored. Solid woods simply transmit sound better than laminates. However, while the top soundboard is critical, the sides and backs can be laminate because their role is more to reflect sound and create the overtones. Solid wood always sounds better, but is also more expensive.
Still, there are always bargains to be had, even some solid-wood-topped ukes at under $100 and several nice models between $100 and $200. Anything at that price range is probably made in China or elsewhere in Asia. That is not bad in itself, but it generally means assembly-line production and limited, if any, quality control.
Nice ukes seem to start at $200 to $300, and premium ukes begin around $500 and escalate into stratospheric heights. Custom ukuleles are about the price of a used car. Price alone won't identify the quality or sound you expect, although in general, higher-priced instruments point to better quality control, better woods and materials. Before you make a major investment, do some serious research into the builders, the tonewoods and the reputation of the company among other players.
You don't have to spend a large amount on an instrument to get something that's really quite good, and it's wise to start conservatively until you determine the size and style you like. You can always spend more later (and you probably will. there's that UAS thing again). There are some brands that make good instruments at a reasonable ($150-$400) price: Kala, Fluke, Lanikai, Samwill, Mainland and Ohana are just some examples of mid-range makers. For other opinions and advice, check the online forums and ask questions first.
Be prepared for challenges. There are those for whom nothing you ask about will be good enough, despite the price. I still get emails asking, "Why are you buying multi $500 range ukuleles?" and challenging me to spend hundreds, even thousands more for a single instrument.
In the 1980s, I bought a Martin guitar. Cost about $2,500 back then, as much as a used car, and a serious investment for me. Beautiful sound: pure, ringing tone. Lovely action, intonation, felt like a loving woman in my arms. But I hardly ever played it because I didn't want to get it scratched or bumped, didn't want to take it to jams where someone might splash some beer or wine on it, didn't want it to get too much sunlight if I played outside. I spent more time cleaning and polishing it than playing it. A lot like those Harley owners who have beautiful garage sculptures they never ride in the rain. It spent most of its time in its case. I took my Guild, my Gibson, my Yamaha, my Fender to jams where they got played a lot and sometimes bumped or scratched or splashed with beer or wine. But my Martin was too precious for such cavalier treatment. And in the end, I sold it because I wasn't enjoying it as much as any of my other guitars. Buy what you will be happy playing. Sure a $2,000 ukulele will be a lot better than a $300 one, but will you have as much fun with it, will you play it on the porch or become hysterical if you bump it? Would you rather have a few $300-$500 instruments you enjoy and take to jams or play on the porch, or one you protect like an infant?
Remember: the goal is to have fun, to learn and to play. Ukuleles are, first and foremost, musical instruments not status icons and having the most expensive one around won't make you a better player. Online there are many who are firm believers in buying only inexpensive ukes and they have some pretty impressive videos that prove you don't need to spend a fortune to have fun and sound good.
Canadians be forewarned. When the Canadian dollar is low (it's around 90% as I write this, up from 80% last fall), you'll pay a lot more. Shipping to Canada is $30-$60 USD (or more at Elderly Instruments). Canadian taxes (GST and PST) add another 13-15%. Plus there's a "processing fee" (and exorbitant brokerage fees if you use UPS, from $40 to $75). Credit card companies and banks also charge a fee to exchange your money (so does Paypal). Based on my experience, a ukulele bought from an American seller can cost you 30-50% more in Canadian dollars. Ouch!
As one writer put it, "People who play the ukulele seem to have a good sense of humor about themselves, their music and about life. The uke, in and of itself, is a contradiction. It is a serious instrument with a playful attitude. It's more than a tiny musical instrument…it's a state of mind."
This is merely a sampling of what's available online and any absence or omission is in no way a criticism of that site, merely an oversight on my part. Please email me with any suggested links to include for a future update.