Thursday, December 12, 2013

So You Want an Ukulele for XMas (Part II)

When last we left each other I had done my best to break down some of the "first things" of uke purchases.  We talked about where to buy, what to look for, and a few other details to help keep you informed.  Now I would like to take a look at some of the ukes I have either owned or played and why I chose them. 

I will still speak in generalities to a certain extent.  The reason, quite simply, is that you are somewhat stuck with whatever there is in the local area.  Also, any company I mention here will be one that I think is worth looking at.  I don't want any confusion. 

Finally, a disclaimer: I am not a professional.  I am--at best--an enthusiastic amateur of average gifts.  What I am saying here, then, is from that perspective.  If you want a pro, look somewhere else.

Concerns About Price (Not Really):
One of the great things about the ukulele is that it is small, simple, and--in its bones--a folk instrument.  Few people make their careers on the thing.  Playing one well does not give the kids a leg up getting into college.  It is for fun.  It is for expression of feeling.  It can be a window into your soul and an avenue toward a new language of personal expression and communication.  Fortunately, none of that is easy to monetize and you can buy a uke for much less than a comparable guitar.

This is my way of saying that you need not worry too much about cost and shouldn't look at price at the clearest indicator of quality.  You can purchase--and I have purchased--a good quality instrument for less than $100 and a serviceable one for half that.  For a little more money there are plenty of options to help you make the sound you want to make.

Here I am going to make a general rule about size, quality, and cost which has more than a few exceptions but is also true in many if not most cases:  the best "quality" for your dollar will be found in the smaller uke sizes.  Which is to say--hypothetically--a soprano ukulele that was as good in build and tone as a $200-$250 acoustic guitar may cost less than half that.  A concert may cost slightly more than half and a tenor slightly more than that.  A similar Baritone may be only $20-$50 less.  this is not to say that you shouldn't get a concert or a tenor (baritones are a special case which I discussed in Part I) because a) there are exceptions and b) that may be the size that looks, feels and sounds best to you.  Here I am really just talking about certain qualities.  Others may outweigh them. 

After all, even though this fact has been general knowledge for some time people still buy guitars.  We have a few in the parsonage, obviously, and a few other sorts of instruments as well.

A Brief Departure Into Makers:
This is the perfect place to mention a few makers.  Some of the big "name" guitar companies make ukuleles. I recently played a cute Gibson soprano with an internal pick-up.  Also, Martin has a long history with the uke.  High end luthiers like Collings make them too.  These are great.  However, some of these are very expensive and really for pros and collectors.  Others --like the Gibson--are probably a bit overpriced as you are buying a name.  It is best at this point to stick to outfits who make the ukulele as their primary product.

Now, there are some truly great ukulele makers.  Kamaka is probably the most famous.  However,  I am only going to talk about companies whose instruments I have played and that also make good starter and "second" or "third" ukuleles. Which is to say that they can all be acquired for less than, say, $300.  Some (obviously) can be had for much less...

When looking for a quality inexpensive ukulele of any size, it is worth gravitating toward two brands: Kala and Lanikai.  While they have slightly different approaches and products lines, they are in most respects similar.  The founder of Kala worked for Lanikai before moving on, for example, and they both produce good products in our budget range. Makala is just a cheaper Kala.  Mahalo is just a name on a toy uke.  I tend to play Kala's more than Lanikai.  The biggest reason is that my local music store carries Kalas, but I have to say that they have been pretty darn good.  I was over there today checking things out and found a great many factory seconds that sounded fantastic...

OK so, I am going to go vaguely based on size and the first category is...

Sopranos That Are Also Toys:
The fact is, there are many people who want to buy a ukulele for a child or adult who never really expect much playing to be done on it.  This isn't always a bad thing.  They can be used as souvenirs or decorations, or part of a Halloween Costume (though I ask you to keep the costumes appropriate and sensitive the culture that produced the uke).  The "toy" ukes (almost all sopranos or soprano-like) can be a bit embarrassing to actual players.  Their presence, after all, is why the instrument isn't taken seriously or respected.  They can, after all, be serious fun but there is no reason to buy garbage.

So I present you with the Mahalo soprano uke.  It is made basically out of actual plywood and many, many coats of shiny paint.  It is also sufficient for a starter uke for a child.  My seven year old has one and he knows how to play it, bringing it to lessons every week.  With these cheap instruments, though, it is important to check the action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) to make sure it isn't too high.  Kids need to build up their finger muscles and if we make it too hard to press down, they will stop playing.

Also in this category and even cuter is the Makala "Dolphin Uke".  This is also a soprano.  It is made of plastic and is the one I take with me if I have to go on an airplane.  I have a very detailed description of it as it won the coveted "Ukulele of the Year" award from Burbania Posts last year.  I will link to that review at the end.  In general, I would take the Makala over the Mahalo if you can find one.  their durability is excellent and (once you change the strings to new polycarbons as I recommended in Part I) the sound is surprisingly spritely!

An old man playing the Makala Dolphin Uke on a summer afternoon

Sopranos That Are Not Toys:

There are plenty of these.  Soprano ukuleles are prized for their traditional sound and the general sense of fun.  All ukes make people smile.  However, when you pull out a soprano they smile the widest.  I know, I have taken mine to nursing homes and there is a truly pastoral dimension to the instrument.  Also, they are good for beginners.  In fact, all ukulele players of any skill level should have access to one.  The example I have here is a Kala long-necked soprano.  Yes, it is mine.  My twelve-year-old likes to play it.  The action is good.  It has a sweet tone, and it has a wood-laminate body.  In fact, this one may very well have been getting the most use lately.  It can be purchased new for under $80.  They also have a slightly more expensive solid-wood version of this.  The sound is fantastic and if you want to worry about hydration (it needs a humidifier, which you can ask for at any music store) it may be worth a few extra bucks.  In fact a certain young man may be finding one (a second) under the tree so I can have this one back!

Kala Mahogany Long Neck Glossy (front).  This is the prettiest uke in our collection.

Both Kala and Lanikai have an abundance of these in different woods and finishes.  They range in price from about $120 to much, much more.  However, you can get a good one for under $200.  Some of these have electric pick-ups.  I do not have any that do (though I have played them).  Electronics is a matter of choice.  My personal feeling is that unless you need it for jamming with louder instruments (like a guitar, banjo, mandolin, etc) or if you plan on performing in a very large room, it might make sense to take that money and invest it in a an instrument that is better in other ways.  If you are going to do those things, however, then you are investing in a slightly better uke...for you!

Kala and Lanikai--while they are based in the US--do most of their manufacture overseas.  My sense (from some limited research but by no means exhaustive) is that they are responsible corporate citizens.  By moving construction offshore they are able to keep their costs down.  Most US-made instruments I have encountered are rather expensive and if I was able to afford them I would buy them exclusively...but I can't.  This brings us to another company that produces their ukes right here in New England.  Flea Market Music or The Magic Fluke Company produce quality instruments that sound much better than what you pay for.  However, they look a bit odd, which may upset your traditionalist gene.  I have played their soprano (the "Flea") and I own a basic model of their concert size (the "Fluke").  They have a rich tone all their own, which is thanks in part to their mostly-plastic bodies.  The neck is wood and the front is wood-laminate. 

An arty angle on the Fluke.  The top picture is of the same instrument.

I have reviewed the Fluke elsewhere in this blog and will post the review at the end.  I actually encourage you (contrary to what I have written before) to order this online and to customize it.  If you are comfortable with the non-traditional look, then you should be as non-traditional as you like!  The one I have is currently listed (new) at around $200.  I would buy it again.  I would, however, spent the extra $40 or so to upgrade the fretboard.  The one in the picture (mine) is plastic, which works fine for everyday use.  However, a wooden fretboard would enable one to occasionally use a wound string for the lowest note (wound strings would wear down the plastic frets).  Also, maybe a funkier color would be nice.  The one I have matches my boring clericals...

What I have written about the concert counts here as well.  In fact, Fluke (whose body is a bit large for a concert) does have a tenor-neck option.  The instrument I am most familiar with in this category, however, is my son's Kala.  It  is a factory second and cost us under $200.  This one does have an internal pick-up which enables him to play runs and such while working with the rest of the Ukestra...or just with his father as in this video here.  I, for the record, am playing the long-neck soprano.  Here we are rehearsing for a piece we did in church.  Try to concentrate on the separate sounds of the two ukes...

OK So...  That is it!  Good hunting.  I hope this helps.  Most of these web pages and brands can be found through the simple process of googling.  However, I am listing the two ukulele reviews below...

Makala Dolphin Uke  As I re-read it, this isn't much of a review, but there is some good advice  so I link anyway.  I should note, however, that anything I wrote in the Christmas Guide should supersede any conflict in the previous post.  I have learned a lot since then and my thinking on ukes has changed somewhat.

The Fluke

...and also Part I

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