Wednesday, March 23, 2011
The Magic Fluke (A Review?)
As most of you know, one of my more unusual projects this year has been learning how to play the ukulele. It all began with a gaping hole in our summer service plan (no pianist) and has since morphed into both a music ministry and an irrational obsession. In the picture above you can see two of my three ukes. The third is exactly like the one on the left. The barely seen instrument to the left of that is my son's old guitar.
I purchased the two Johnson Soprano (UK-100) ukes some time ago to hack around with the kids. That tale is well documented and can be found in the links at the bottom of this post. They have served me well. I have dragged them to nursing homes and to church services for the purpose of hymn-singing. They have a charm that is hard to deny and add a great deal to services (particularly congregational singing) when played in the traditional (or stereotypical) strumming manner. Soprano ukes are great "singer's instruments". Their smallness means there is little or no real barrier between the player and the hearer. Also, its...um...limitations are actually strengths, encouraging the singers to do more with their voices to compensate for the sparse instrumentation. After fixing the action on the Johnsons with my trusty jacknife I found them to be servicable, loud, charismatic instruments and I love them.
However...though I insist that I will always be a beginner, I did find that their small size made them difficult to play in the fingerpicking style that I was accustomed to with the much-less-fun guitar. This meant eventually getting another uke. This is where the Magic Fluke comes in. It is the black ("Lava") oddly shaped instrument on the right.
First, a brief note about size. There are four ukulele sizes. They are (from small to large) the soprano, the concert, the tenor, and the baritone. The first three are all tuned the same (gCEA, the "g" is to indicate that the string is higher than the C and E), though the largest of those (the tenor) sometimes is tuned with a low G instead of a high one. Some sellers will tell you that the soprano is the traditional one, the concert is for kids and women, and the tenor is for men with "big hands". Honestly I think that is just because they want folks to purchase the more expensive (and most popular) tenors. What guy doesn't think his hands are big? The Fluke is a concert-sized instrument and my hands are fine. The baritone is tuned like the high strings on the guitar but sounds somewhat different. I suspect it is the existence of the baritone that gives rise to the Burbanian "I want my child to play the guitar so I will buy them a uke" thoughtstream.
I checked out a variety of concert ukes and this is the one I came up with. The reasons are simple. I wanted an intrument that was still fun and still sounded like a ukulele. The longer strings on the bigger models give them more of a "guitary" (and, I think, less charismatic) sound. They are mellow insturments--very pretty sounding actually--but don't quite fit my usage requirements. The concert size does. Perhaps it is a slightly sleepy sound, but it jumps around like it should. The concert Fluke jumps around a bit more than most.
Here is the thing about the Fluke. It is shaped funny (charming) and is half-plastic. The neck and the front are wood. The fretboard and the rest of the body are synthetic. It has something of the feel and look of half-wooden toys I remember from the eighties...in a good way. Yes, this makes it sound different. I remember as a kid listening to one of my dad's favorite bands (Schooner Fare, they played sea-shanties about ships that sank and then were raised back up). In concert, they used guitars with plastic bodies that (at least to my ear) generated a more penetrating note and gave their sound a slightly steelier backbone than many of their folk contemporaries (thank God). On the Fluke--which has Aquila nylgut strings--what the body does is maintain some of that soprano joyfulness while also letting me pick, strum, and play individual notes with greater ease. The fretboard is slick--literally--which is also interesting and fun (sometimes)!
Of course, it is also more expensive. I got the standard garden-variety Fluke and all I can say is that it better last a looong time (and no jokes about the plastic back lasting 2,000 years, OK?). The sopranos were something like $40 each. Of course the Fluke soprano (called a "Flea") is quite a bit more than that. In spite of the expense I am satisfied and--honestly--think I got a good deal. Flukes are--thanks to the way they are built--less expensive to make than many comparable instruments. I am philosophically opposed to spending too much on a folk instrument. After all, folks should be able to afford them...right?
Anyway, I have already typed enough, considering that I said I was taking a blog-break. Here are the links...
Here is the original uke post
Here is an Amazon link to reviews of a soprano similar to mine. It should be noted that they don't seem to make the UK-100 anymore...
Here is the link to the folks who make the Fluke. Incidentally, they are based in West Hartford CT and the fluke shipped from Sheffield MA. Good, New England ukes....