Wednesday, November 28, 2007

'Ukulele finish

There was a large post at the FMM bulletin board recently regarding finishes used on the 'ukulele. It got quite heated as various luthiers weighed in with their opinions on the best type of finish for their particular situation. I found it kind of amusing and very informative. Between my limited personal experience and what I've learned from threads like this, I think I have a pretty decent idea about the pros and cons of each type of finish. Here is a summary of what I've learned:

French Polish: This yields the thinnest finish on the uke and takes the longest time and most skill to apply. The thin finish allows for the best sound possible and it looks gorgeous when done right. It is also the easiest finish to repair, assuming the luthier working on it is good at French Polishing. The problem is that it is also very fragile so great care needs to be taken on such an instrument. The Glyph Mezzo-soprano I have on order will have a French Polished finish. I am having a clear pick guard put on it as I know I tend to put scratches on the upper bout.

Lacquer: This yields a thin finish and can be done with a high gloss look. It is pretty durable but does show aging and supposedly lasts about 70-80 years or so before needing to be re-finished. I guess that's not a big concern for me as it should outlast me anyway and the re-finish would be the next owner's problem.:P It's supposed to be moderately easy to repair, although some thinks that it's hard to do an undetectable job on a repair for this finish. It does seem that lacquer finish isn't so good for the person doing the spraying as it is pretty toxic. My Kepasa Little Mac will have this type of finish. I'm not too worried about scratching it because it will have a cut-away, but it's supposed to be fairly durable against scratching anyway.

Poly: This appears to yield a thicker finish than lacquer although some luthiers say it can be applied just as thin as the lacquer type finishes. Most of the manufacturers use this type of finish as it is fast and more cost effective in a production setting. I think just about all of my ukes have a poly finish. On the KoAloha Pineapple Sunday and G-String soprano, the finish seem to be pretty thin and the instrument vibrates very freely as I strum. The Honu and Pono, with a glossy finish, seem to have a thicker finish. The Honu does vibrate very well. The Pono does seem a little more restricted but nonetheless it is loud. Poly finishes are very durable and supposed to last hundreds of years. Some believe the non-biodegradability makes poly finish not very environmental.

UV cured Poly: This is something that Kanile'a started using in 2006, which they learned from Taylor Guitars. It yields a very durable finish and makes the production process faster and more efficient. The UV chamber cures the finish much faster than normal poly finishes that has to cure in air. My Kanile'a super-soprano has a very high gloss mirror like finish which some likens to dipping the uke in plastic. I think it looks great but it does look thicker than other finishes and the uke doesn't seem to vibrate as freely as the other Hawaiian made ukes I have. Still, it sounds great and I have no problems with its sound.

So, that's what I gathered so far in my learning about uke finishes. There are also oil type finishes but I'm not real sure about their strength and weaknesses other than reading that they need to be re-done every year or something like that. I think for me personally, laquer and poly finishes probably work the best because I seem to make contact with the upper bout pretty regularly while playing. While I don't strive for perfect looking instruments, I do like to keep them looking nice instead of trashed, so a durable finish is fairly important to me. I'm hoping the clear pick guard will do the trick for that Glyph I have on order, as French Polish doesn't seem to suit my playing style too much. But I do understand the pros and cons of each finish and feel like I know enough to deal with each type of finish.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Playing with a 'ukulele club, StrumMN

I've been meaning to join the local 'ukulele playing group, StrumMN, since I discovered that there is such a group here in Minnesota. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, I have not been able to make it to their meetings. Today I finally was able to join them for some 'ukulele playing fun. They usually hold the meetings in a library, but this time, because there wasn't any rooms available at a library, it was held at a cafe by Como Park. There were 5 of us that made it this time. We spent some time chatting about ukes & music that we're working on, and played from song sheets that everyone brought. It was nice to finally play the 'ukulele with people other than myself. While I wasn't familiar with most of the songs we played (I really don't know too many songs to be honest), it was fun to strum the chords with other people for a change and I enjoy discovering good songs unfamiliar to me through the 'ukulele. There were even a couple of ladies that stopped by and thanked us for playing as they left the cafe. That was pretty nice.

So it was my first experience jamming with other people and I enjoyed it very much. It was great to talk to other uke enthusiasts in person. I hope to make it to more of these meetings in the future to learn and share the joy of the 'ukulele.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Changing Tastes? New Uke Rankings.

Last month I ranked my 10 ukes in order of preference. I have since sold off the Applause soprano and KoAlana concert while acquiring a BugsGear concert Eleuke. It now appears that the order of preference has changed a little bit. I'll just re-arrange the top 5 since that's where the changes happened anyway:

1. Honu super deluxe concert: This uke seem to get better and better. It sounded better when I put Worth BM's on it over the stock Aquilas. Then I tried some Worth CD's and it sounded even better. Maybe the wood has opened up or something, but I simply couldn't keep my hands off it over the last few weeks. It's hard to believe but I would have to say it is my favorite at the moment even over the mighty Pineapple Sunday. It just sounds so absolutely crystal clear. And the volume issue I had with it when I first got it has totally disappeared. Of course, it already looked great, so it now has the total package. I hope my upcoming custom ukes can sound better than this. That would be phenomenal.

2. KoAloha Pineapple Sunday: It still sounds sublime and loud. I still dig it's unique shape very much. And it still has the most Ummph! up and down the fretboard. It's just that right now I'm favoring clarity in my uke sound so the Honu gets a slight edge. So the Pineapple Sunday sits here in 2nd place.

3. G-String soprano: I just put some Worth BL's on this uke and I think it sounds a little better than the Aquila strings it had. Of course, it already sounded awesome with the Aquilas so this just makes it even better. It's sound quality is on par with the top 2 ukes I have but I have not been focused on sopranos of late so this is where I would rank it.

4. Kanile'a "Custom SS": It fell from 2nd to 4th due to my shifting preference for the sound. Compared to the crystal clear Honu, this uke sounds deeper and a little muddier. Still a high quality sounding instrument, and I like how it does sound very different from the other ukes.

5. Pono Cedar Top tenor: Still got the nice deep tenor sound and still look great.

So there you have it. The Honu is my current favorite. It took me a while to admit to myself that I actually like an import better than the Hawaiian made ukes, but it's true as of now. Of course, my tastes could change down the road, and the custom ukes could knock my socks off. That will probably be a good time to do another one of these mindless ukulele rankings!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

UAS and me

'Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome, or UAS for short, is something that seem to affect quite a few 'ukulele players. As you can see from the picture to the left of this blog, I am a major sufferer of UAS. While you "only" see 10 ukes in that picture, I have actually purchased 15 ukes total since this past January when I picked up my first 'ukulele during a trip to Hawaii. I have set a limit of 10 ukes in my possession for myself in an effort to keep UAS under control (one might reasonably say that having 10 ukes constitutes "out of control", but whatever). In order to do this, I had to sell or give away some ukes. Here's a run down of the ukes that are no longer in my possession:
  • Leolani super-soprano: I kind of gave this to a guy who's more or less a friend of a friend. I'm not sure if he's actually interested in it but I was just glad to get rid of it somehow.
  • Tiki Flea soprano: Good little uke. I stopped playing it after getting the so I decided I might as well sell it. I actually made money selling this, which is a testament to the popularity of Fleas.
  • Harmony soprano: I got it for like $30 shipped out of curiosity. It had some super high action but sounded decent. I was trying to gather some funds to go toward a Martin so I sold it. I also got more money than I paid for it. I guess ebay has been good to me.
  • K-Wave Les Paul: When I decided to go for the Honu concert, this became expendable. I also wasn't playing it much at all. At the time it was my only acoustic/electric uke, so I got a Dean Markley under saddle pickup and installed it onto my Pono Cedar top tenor. I didn't get more money than I bought it for, but it sold for about $210 and was a little better than I expected.
  • Applause soprano: I just sold this one because I never played it and I really did not like the feel of the neck. This one also sold for more than I bought it for.

I have 2 more ukes slated for sale, a KoAlana concert and a Risa uke solid. The replacement for the uke solid has already arrived today, which is a BugsGear concert. I'll post my impressions on it soon.

I think 'ukuleles lend themselves to something such as UAS because they are relatively inexpensive (compared with other instrument such as guitars & violins), they are small and portable, and also because there are 4 general sizes. Having 10 ukes really doesn't take up all that much room, and if you want them out of sight (so your spouse doesn't get pissed), just put them in a closet. Try doing that with 10 guitars. Given that there are 4 sizes of ukes, just having one of each size and you end up with 4 ukes. Add different types of woods, pickup options, and different sounds, and you easily end up with 2-3 of each and your uke count shoots right past double digits! As for the cost, while a $500 Hawaiian made soprano seem like a lot, you couldn't even get a good starter guitar for that money, and some violin players pay 5 figures for their violin! Heck, I know a phD violin player who bought a violin for well over $50,000. While she is on an entirely different level musically from me, I couldn't find a $50,000 uke if I tried.

So, what are some reasons for getting so many ukes? Let me run down all the ukes I have bought as a case study:

  1. Leolani super-soprano: 1st uke.
  2. Tiki Flea soprano: Everyone says they're great.
  3. Pono Cedar top tenor: Needed a tenor.
  4. Harmony soprano: Interested in checking out a vintage instrument.
  5. K-Wave Les Paul: Love the Les Paul shape. Needed a uke with pickup.
  6. G-String soprano: Don't have a koa or Hawaiian made uke yet.
  7. Risa uke solid: Needed a night time practice uke.
  8. Martin style 1: Needed a Martin to experience "Martin sound".
  9. KoAloha Pineapple Sunday: REALLY loved the shape. It gets glowing reviews.
  10. Maccaferri Islander: Curious about all plastic ukes.
  11. Honu super deluxe concert: Always loved the honu motif.
  12. KoAlana concert: Wanted to check out a Chinese made uke.
  13. Applause soprano: Needed a travel uke. (never mind that I got rid of a Flea and has a Risa)
  14. Kanile'a super-soprano: Needed a uke with curly koa. Needed a super-soprano.
  15. BugsGear concert eleuke: Risa uke solid doesn't have enough frets. Needed uke with active pickup.

As you can see, all of these are legit reasons for buying ukes. Or not. I guess the point is, when you have UAS, you come up with all kinds of reasons to acquire new ukes. An overriding "reason" for me is that I live in MN and doesn't have access to any ukes other than Flukes & Fleas and some crappy Lanikai stuff. So I must buy them in order to try them. As mentioned before, I do try to sell off ukes before getting new ones, so I guess I'm doing good in that regard.

My UAS has so far taken me from medium priced ukes to some high end production ukes. The next logical step would be getting some custom made ukes. As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I have 2 such ukes on order. Since then, I have added a William King tenor to the list. I really think those customs will stop my UAS as they should be good enough to squash my desire to acquire more ukes. I guess only time will tell.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Preferred 'Ukulele Size

Since starting to learn the 'ukulele this past January, I have acquired many difference sized C-tuning ukes (which means no Baritones). My preferred size seem to have changed between then and now. I started out preferring the soprano size. It seemed to be the easiest to play and handle. I could stand and cradle it better than the bigger ukes. The small scale length made it easier to reach all types of chords. It helps that my first high end uke was a G-String soprano, which is very enjoyable to play. After I acquired a few more ukes, I basically gave about equal playing time between the 3 sizes. However, after I started taking on the Jake Shimabukuro songs, I have gravitated toward tenors and concerts. Jake's songs obviously are more suited to the longer scale lengths and I become more into the sounds produced by tenor and concert 'ukuleles. I still play my soprano ukes but not nearly as often as the tenor and concert models. Maybe in time I will gravitate back toward sopranos, but right now the other 2 sized seem to fit me a little better. If I had to choose one size only, I'd probably take a tenor due to the sound. But I would have to say the concert scale fits me the best. It's a good thing I don't have to make that choice.

Which uke should I bring on my next trip to Oahu???

What's the maximum you'd spend on a ukulele case for your best uke?

If you could steal one of my ukes, which one would it be???

How curly do you like your koa? (preferably on a uke)

What's the maximum number of ukes a perfectly sane person should have???

Poll: How often do you play the ukulele???

Poll: Which guitar company's approach to ukes do you prefer???

Poll: What's your favorite type of headstock???

Poll: The new basic Collings concert uke (UC-1) sells for about $1k, your reaction is: