Tuesday, October 27, 2009
In terms of ukuleles, one can certainly argue that I've had several grails already. At different times in the past couple of years, I coveted (I know, though shall not covet) the KoAloha Pineapple Sunday, William King customs, Kamaka tenor, and other ukes that I eventually acquired. There have also been grail ukes that I really wanted but for whatever reason never got to acquire. As of today, other than a Glyph that's been on order for over two years, I have not felt the urge or desire to get anymore serious ukes. But I thought it would be kind of fun to come up with a few ukes that I considered grails at one time or another.
-Earnest Instruments La-Paula:
The La-Paula is a concert sized ukulele that looks like a Les-Paul guitar. I can't remember if I saw this one first or the Kiwaya K-Wave Les-Paul uke, but I knew I really liked the looks. In fact, the K-Wave was one of the earlier ukes I bought during my UAS odyssey. The La-Paula, especially the sunburst curly maple version, really looked awesome to me. I've always liked the Les-Paul shape, and I loved the idea of playing a Les-Paul shaped ukulele. But at the time I could only justify spending the money on the K-Wave, as the La-Paula cost some serious cash. Had it been $600 like the Earnest Tululele, I probably would have owned one by now. But I eventually sold the K-Wave and kind of forgot about the La-Paula (had my fun with the LP uke). I was looking at the La-Paula last week and kind of thought "wouldn't it be cool to own one of these?" Maybe someday, but the urge isn't big enough right now.
-Moore Bettah custom:
Actually a Moore Bettah is a pretty recent grail uke. It seems to me in the last year or so, MB's reputation has grown by leaps and bounds. I had a chance to play a couple of MB concerts in Hawaii a couple of years ago and came away unimpressed because the ukes were setup super high (so the player can adjust to their liking) and I really could not play them. However, I do recognize the workmanship and beauty of MB ukes. Not too long ago I toyed with the idea of ordering an MB custom concert with a lot of bling. I had even drawn up a sketch of what my MB might possibly look like. But I realistically could not commit to buying such a uke because I already have way too many. What I had sketched would have cost quite a bit of money, and I think the price has gone up significantly in the last half a year or so, so this idea shall remain just that, an idea. Until maybe I win the lottery some day.
-KoAloha 6-string tenor:
A couple of years ago I briefly owned a 6-string Lanikai model O-6. I bought it from Musician's Friend because it was on sale and I was curious. While it had a cool slotted headstock, I wasn't all that enamored with its sound or playability so I sold it not too long after getting it. I have not given the 6-string ukulele any thought until my trip to Hawaii in 2008. While at the KoAloha factory, I played their 6-string model and thought it was absolutely awesome. It sounded great and played well. Since that time I have always had this ukulele on the back of my mind. I know I probably won't play it much even if I did get one, but the sound was truly pretty special and I can't imagine how much better a 6-string could sound. Maybe it's not as great as I remembered, but it would be fun to find out again down the road.
-G-String Sun concert:
My first serious ukulele was a G-String soprano with honu tattoos (I know, it doesn't sound all that serious). It was a great ukulele and I instantly became a fan of G-String ukuleles. Of the models they make, I was most intrigued by the Sun concert. It has that gorgeous abalone Sun inlaid on the fretboard and the uke was surely a great sounding uke (I sort of confirmed this during that 2008 Hawaii trip where I played a few G-String concerts that were outstanding). Back in 2007 musicguymic occasionally had one of these for sale, and I remember a couple of blowouts where he offered another very nice uke for free with the purchase of this one. But again, I could never justify the money at the time so all I could do was drool. I don't think I have seen one of these for sale in quite some time now. If one surfaces, even in my UAS-remission state, I would be pretty tempted by it.
-Another William King custom:
I know, I already have two, why would I want another? Well, one can't really desire too many King ukuleles. At least that's what I think. The reason I still put a King in the grail category is because I wouldn't mind a fully blinged out and feature laden King ukulele. My ebony/spruce long-scale concert is actually pretty close, but if money was no object, I'd have a few more things put onto this ukulele such as abalone purfling on the back and bound headstock & fretboard, not to mention a few more custom touches. Of course, I'm more than happy with my King ukes now, so this will probably just remain a dream.
Anyway, there are plenty of great ukes out there. I'd love to own one of each, but that's obviously not possible. It's always fun to look and think about them though.
(The Ukulele Smackdown will continue soon....)
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Continuing on with the Ukulele Smackdown between Mainland and Collings concerts, let's take a look at the body. The Mainland features a solid mahogany body with gloss finish. A matte finish is also available from mainland, but I opted for the glossy finish because in my experience, parts of the matte finish usually shine up when handled a lot. Since I knew this uke may be a candidate for future contraction of my collection, I went for the finish that would keep a better appearance. The mahogany used on this ukulele is relatively dark, similar to the Collings. The grain looks good on the front and sides, where it is pretty straight and does not really have the ribbon appearance common to many imports (a plus in my book), but kind of strange on the back, where it doesn't have a uniform straight appearance. I would have preferred that the front and back look a little more similar. Both the front and back are one-piece construction, which is considered a plus in that there is one less joint that can potentially fail. The Mainland's weight seems to be about average, maybe just a little bit on the heavy side.
Front of Mainland.
Back of Mainland. Notice the random grain pattern.
The body of the Collings features a dark mahogany with what I consider pretty attractive grain pattern. There is no ribbon effect to be found and the grain appearance is very uniform. The front and back are bookmatched, but because the grain pattern is so uniform, it's actually kind of hard to see the joint without looking very closely, especially on the front. My UC-1 has a matte finish. I did not have a choice on the finish as at the time of purchase, there are no UC-1's with glossy finish. I'm not sure if there are now, but I'm pretty sure it would cost more and I would still be getting the matte finish since it's already a very spendy ukulele. The matte finish looks really good but as with all matte finishes I've encountered, it shines up with use. The upper bout on my UC-1 has already acquired several shiny strum marks, and the neck appears to be a bit shinier than when I first bought it. This wouldn't be a problem if you do not have any plans to sell the ukulele later on. But if you do, the wear that shows on this finish will likely decrease the resale value, if that's of any importance to you. As of now I do believe I will be keeping the Collings for the long haul, but I'm certainly aware of the the hit it will take if it's ever put up for sale. The Collings is feather light and clearly lighter than the Mainland despite having a slightly thicker body. Collings probably tried to mimic old Martin ukes and built them as light as possible.
Front of Collings.
Back of Collings.
The Mainland features white plastic body bindings with a rope pattern purfling. I can't tell what kind of wood made up the two-color rope purfling, but it is a very light colored wood and a dark, almost black, wood. I suspect the black colored wood is dyed as some of the black color seems to have "bled" onto the surrounding wood a little bit. The rope purfling generally looks good, but I believe the rope binding found on various Pono models have a higher quality appearance. The rosette is the exact same rope design as the purfling.
The rope purfling & rosette of the Mainland.
The only decorations on the body of the Collings is the rosette. It is a simple b/w/b/w/b ring around the sound hole. It does not have any body bindings or purfling. The Rosette looks very well crafted. I think the ukulele would have looked just fine without the rosette, but it doesn't hurt the appearance.
The Collings rosette.
Looking around the inside of the Mainland's body reveal signs that it is a mass production instrument. The body is held together from the inside with solid kerfing as opposed to the more traditional individually cut kerfings. I don't believe there are any big structural differences in using the solid kerfings compared to individual kerfings, but I'm pretty sure it costs less to use the solid kerfings. I'm fairly certain of it because a Kelii tenor I had also had this type of Kerfing, and Kelii is able to offer their ukes at a lower price compared to the other Hawaii "K" brands. I suppose there is a possibility that there are more internal stress in those solid kerfings, but probably not enough to make much of a difference to the structural integrity of the instrument. The workmanship is fair. You can see some glue seeping from the joints in some areas. The bracing I can see does not appear to be sanded. Of course, one would not expect expert craftsmanship from this ukulele, and it doesn't really impact the player.
Inside the Mainland. Notice the solid kerfing and the small amount of glue seeping from the joint.
Mainland soundhole label.
The interior of the Collings is very nearly perfect. It is very clean, with no glue residue that I can see, and everything looks very well sanded and crafted. It uses the individual kerfings that's found in most ukes for gluing all the body pieces together from the inside. This is probably the cleanest interior of any ukulele I've owned with the possible exception of the Honu XXX concert I had. A clean and well executed interior may not mean all that much to the ukulele player, but it does convey a sense of high craftsmanship and I think it can be considered an indicator of the caliber of the instrument. I mean, if a builder is taking the time and effort to make sure something that most people don't even see is nearly flawless, it stands to reason that they are putting in the work to make sure it sounds good too.
The interior of the Collings. Looks almost perfect to me.
Collings sound hole label.
Moving back to the outside of the body, we have the bridge & saddle. The Mainland has a rosewood bridge with bone saddle, which is the same as the Collings. The Mainland bridge is a classical guitar style tie-bridge, where the Collings is a traditional ukulele style slitted bridge where you tie a knot on the string and insert the string into the slits. I don't really have a preference between the two types of bridges. Both work and look good. Neither bridge feature any wild KoAloha-style designs and are rectangular in shape. The Collings does feature a compensated saddle. The compensated saddle is a fairly fancy feature on ukuleles, but in my experience, I can't really tell much of a difference a compensated saddle makes. I do like them though.
Collings bridge. Notice the compensated saddle.
So I've gone through the exterior and interior appearance of the two ukuleles. While it's pretty clear that the Collings hold the workmanship advantage, I would like to point out that the Mainland isn't necessarily bad in that regard. It's pretty solid in most cases and if you're not closely scrutinizing it, it certainly looks very attractive. Below are a couple more side by side pictures of the two ukes.
Backs of the Collings (L) and Mainland (R).
Body thickness. Collings (R) is a little thicker than Mainland (L).
This concludes the appearance & workmanship portion of this Smackdown. To summarize, I think both ukuleles look very good from a distance, but the closer you look at them, the strength of the Collings workmanship becomes clearer. Based on this ukulele, I can see why Collings has earned the stellar reputation it has enjoyed in the guitar and mandolin world. The Mainland, being a budget instrument, does well for itself, especially the overall exterior appearance. Some of the small details that it is lacking such as better tuners and cleaner interior, isn't something that anyone who buys a Mainland is going to be overly concerned about. From my personal point of view, I'm happy with the workmanship of both ukes given their price bracket.
Up next will be some sound comparisons. Stay tuned!
About a year and a half ago, I mentioned on this blog that I wanted to learn Gypsy Ukulele by Acoustic Soul. I loved that song and thought it would be really cool to be playing it on my Gypsy Rose concert ukulele. I tried learning the song in anticipation of the ukulele (it arrived on October, 2008), but kind of gave up as I couldn't seem to get past the half way point of the song. Even with the arrival of the Gypsy Rose, I kind of lost my motivation to learn the song and moved on to other songs. Recently I saw a post from Mike Okouchi on Ukulele Underground and it rekindled my desire to learn the song. I busted out Dominator's tabs and to my surprise, was able to make it through the song after a couple of days. (...maybe I have improved a little in my ukulele playing....) I then recorded the backup chords, played on the Gypsy Rose, using Audacity and started my attempt to record a video of this song. It was easier thought than done! I must have gone through 20-30 takes before arriving at the video you see below. And it's not all that great either, but I don't think I'll be able to record a better video for the time being. To be perfectly honest, I don't think it's that hard to play anymore, but I keep screwing up various parts when trying to film this video. I guess when you try to get things perfect it just doesn't happen. So anyway, here is the long awaited (by me) video of Gypsy Ukulele on the Gypsy Rose!
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Front of the slotted headstock (w/ghetto sticker)
Back of slotted headstock
As far as functionality goes, I feel the headstock contains perhaps the biggest weak point of the ukulele, which are the tuners. These slotted headstock tuners are really cheap. My daughter has one of those $30 Makala dolphin ukes and upon examining the tuners on her ukulele, I'm pretty sure they are from similar sources, if not the same source. These tuners do work, but they feel pretty rough in their operation, and each tuner has a different level of roughness to them. They also look pretty rough, as you can see the machining marks on the "stem" of the tuning buttons. I certainly don't expect Waverly or Gilbert tuners on these ukes, but I think it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect something of similar quality to Grover tuners that are found on plenty of inexpensive imports. On the plus side, these tuner sets appear to be specifically made for ukuleles as they have two tuners on each mounting plate. I guess the bottom line is that they work and hold the tuning, so that is probably all that should matter for this ukulele. But that doesn't change the fact that these tuners are of pretty low quality.
Here is the tuner on the pink Makala dolphin uke.
Notice the similarity between the Mainland tuner and the Makala tuner.
Besides the tuners, the slots look good but all four strings touch the slot ramps on their way from the nut to the tuner posts. Some luthiers consider this a no-no since the strings are touching part of the headstock and could rub against the finish and either scrape the headstock or damage the strings prematurely. However, this condition exists on my two William King ukuleles that have slotted headstocks. I'm of the opinion that while it is not desirable to have the strings touch the headstock, and my King tenor does have some scrapes near the slot ramps, it isn't a big issue with nylon string instruments and a trade off for not having the slot ramps being too close to the nut, causing possible weakness in the neck. This is, of course, very debatable and not everyone will share this opinion, but it's something that does not bother me personally and I don't anticipate any problems arising from this on the Mainland concert.
The headstock of the Collings is fairly radical. My copy of the UC-1 has what's called a "haircut" headstock shape. The headstock is formed perfectly and has a rosewood veneer with the Collings logo inlaid with plastic. It also has sharply finished edges like the Mainland, but there's an air of perfection about the work on the edges of this headstock. It's hard to describe in words but it really is perfectly formed like it was made in a precision mold instead of hand carved at the Collings factory (I can't verify this, but as far as I know, Collings has a person that specifically does the haircut headstocks). I find the headstock to be very attractive and unique, and it was a big reason why I bought this uke at the time since future UC-1's after the initial production run has the traditional Martin headstock shape.
Front of Collings headstock
Back of Collings headstock
This headstock features PegHeds tuners that look like violin friction tuners but actually are 4:1 geared tuners. These are some of my favorite tuners because they offer the precision of geared tuners but because of the much closer gear ratio, it doesn't take as long to change strings as a few turns are all that's required to tune it up. PegHeds can look a bit plasticky up close, especially the buttons. But Collings did a nice job in removing the mold lines on those plastic buttons so they really don't appear that much like plastic (I know PegHeds have those mold lines because my Kepasa Gypsy Rose's PegHeds have them). Just be looking at this headstock you can tell how much attention to detail Collings puts into their instruments.
Note the lack of mold line on the plastic tuning button.
Moving down to fretboard, both ukes have a 1-3/8" nut, which is narrower than my preferred 1.5" nut width. However over time I've found that I can manage this nut width just fine. The Mainland has a rosewood fretboard with simulated pearl position dots (I'm guessing that it's not real mother of pearl at this price). The rosewood appears to be of good quality and doesn't seem to be much different than the rosewood used on the Collings. There are no side position dots, which is expected at this price point. However, I can't help but think that it wouldn't take much to have some side dots (the Collings appears to have silver painted-on side dots) and that would really make the Mainland appear more upscale. The fret wires ends are not exposed at the edge of the fretboard, making it something like a pseudo bound fretboard. However, the top edges of the fret wires are not quite finished perfectly, and I can feel a little bit of jaggedness when running my fingers up and down the fretboard. It's not bad, but it's there, and I definitely feel it.
Notice the fret ends are not exposed on the edge
The Collings feature a radiused fretboard. Collings did not advertise the actual radius of the fretboard as far as I know, but I think it's around 16"-18" since it looks about the same as my King concert's radiused fretboard. The radius is supposed to make it easier to fret bar chords by making the fretboard so that it curves with your fingers. I personally like radiused fretboards and believe that it does make a small difference in playability. However, I don't think it's a night and day difference and I can see some people not feeling the effects of the radiused fretboard at all. There are plastic position dots on the fretboard with the dots getting smaller as you go up the frets. There are side markers that appears to be painted silver. These markers are not fancy but are nicely done and do their job. The fretwires are exposed at the edge of the fretboard. However, unlike the Mainland, I do not feel any jaggedness or protrusions whatsoever. This is an exceedingly well finished fretboard.
You can see the side dots and the radius from this view
The neck of the Mainland joins the body at the 14th fret. This makes it a good ukulele for music that requires playing past the 12th fret. Since I enjoy playing a lot of tunes that go past the 12th fret, the Mainland offers better playability in this regard. The neck itself is a two piece construction, with the heel being a "stacked heel", which means it is made from two pieces of wood glued together and then shaped into the heel. The headstock is one piece, which is pretty rare in this price range. But since this ukulele has a slotted headstock, that pretty much prevents the normal two piece headstocks found in most production ukes. Structurally, I don't think there are any differences between a stacked heel and a one piece heel, but a one piece heel/neck is more high-end since the neck is made out of one piece of wood instead of gluing multiple pieces of wood together. The construction of the neck is decent. The neck has a somewhat flat "C" profile and feels pretty good in the hand but does not feel perfectly rounded. I can feel the contour of the neck where the curvature changes very slightly as I run my hand up and down the back of the neck. The heel is also not symmetrical on my uke, which probably can be attributed to lower workmanship standards. Despite the things mentioned above, I don't have any issues with the neck of this ukulele. It's very playable and more than sufficient for it's price.
You can see the seam of the stacked heel on the Mainland
The neck of the Collings joins the body at the 12th fret. I believe this is a nod toward the traditional ukulele such as vintage Martins and Kamakas, where they are also joined at the 12th fret, as well as Collings belief that the 12th fret neck-join places the bridge at the sweet spot of the soundboard. I don't have enough knowledge to say whether a 12-fret neck or a 14-fret neck makes a better sounding instrument, but in my experience, I think 14-fret neck joins can make very good sounding instruments. By having the neck join at the 12th fret, it makes the ukulele a little less friendly if you like playing around the 12th fret region as access is more limited compared to the 14-fret join of the Mainland. I would personally have liked the Collings to have a 14-fret neck, as it would make it easier to play some of Jake Shimabukuro's tunes, but I can also respect the belief that a 12-fret join results in a better sounding instrument. The neck itself is of a one piece construction. Given how relatively expensive this ukulele is, I would have expected nothing less. The heel has a fairly low profile, so it does help slightly with higher fret access. The neck is very well carved with a nice "C" profile. It's smooth up and down the neck and pretty much perfectly rounded. It is comfortable to hold and has a high quality look.
Collings' one piece heel
Well, this post is getting to be pretty monstrous, so I'll end it here and write about the rest of the ukulele's appearance and workmanship in the next post. I think one thing that is becoming clear is that the Collings clearly has the upper hand in terms of workmanship. I doubt this comes as any surprise to anyone, give the big price gap, but it is something to keep in mind as you continue to follow the Ukulele Smackdown.
The Collings UC-1 was introduced by Collings Guitars in April of 2009. I'm not sure why Collings all of a sudden decided to build ukuleles, but one guess is that given the poor economy toward the end of 2008, perhaps Collings was looking for ways to diversify their product lineup. Whatever the case it may be, Collings has a reputation of building very high quality guitars and mandolins. Their workmanship is considered some of the very best among factory guitar builders today. I became immediately intrigued by the new Collings ukuleles because of their sterling reputation and because I thought they could be the "vintage Martin ukes" of tomorrow. I paid pretty close attention to the developments of the Collings ukes and found out that they will be offering several varieties called UC-1, UC-2, UC-3. Each model is more expensive and features more decorations and exotic woods. Collings guitars and mandolins costs a pretty penny and the ukes are no different. The only model I was going to be able or willing to get would be the UC-1, which retails for right around $1000. I found out that the only UC-1's that will have the Collings "haircut" headstock were the first production prototypes, and jumped at one that was on sale at Gryphon Strings as I much preferred the haircut headstock than the Martin style headstock that normal UC-1's will have. I got the Collings in May, 2009 and have owned it for about 5 months as of this writing.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Mainland Slotted headstock gloss concert:
-Weight: 1.25 lbs.
-Scale length: 15"
-Nut width: 1-3/8"
-Body material: Solid Mahogany
-Fretboard/Bridge material: Rosewood
-Nut/Saddle material: Bone
-Headstock veneer: Mahogany
-Finish: Gloss (poly)
-Tuners: Generic slotted headstock tuners w/pearloid buttons
-Fretboard position markers: 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 (no side position markers)
-Fretboard radius: None
-Fretboard binding: Simulated
-Number of frets: 19
-Neck join: 14th fret
-Binding: Plastic w/rope purfling
-MSRP: $239.50 (no case included)
-Price paid including shipping: $$249.50
-Weight: 0.9 lbs.
-Scale length: 15"
-Nut width: 1-3/8"
-Body material: Solid Mahogany
-Fretboard/Bridge material: Rosewood
-Nut/Saddle material: Bone
-Headstock veneer: Rosewood
-Logo: Plastic inlay
-Fretboard position markers: 5, 7, 10, 12 (side markers at 3, 5, 7, 10, 12)
-Fretboard radius: 16"~18"
-Fretboard binding: None
-Number of frets: 18
-Neck join: 12th fret
-MSRP: $990 (mine is a prototype w/haircut headstock that cost $1050, Panther case included)
What I hope to do in this comparison is to compare these two ukes in as many categories as I can come up with. I'm not sure about the format I'll do the comparison in, but it'll at least cover the looks, build quality, and sound. I'll try to mix in a video comparison of these two ukes somewhere too.
So stayed tuned for the first installment of the Ukulele Smackdown between Mainland and Collings! I will start with appearance and build quality and should have something up within the next week.
Friday, October 9, 2009
-I like the mahogany grain and color. A lot of imports use mahogany/sapelle with ribbon appearance, which I dislike. This one does not have the ribbon appearance is of a nice dark color, similar to my Collings UC-1.
-The slotted headstock is well executed. It has nice sharp edges, which I prefer to rounded edges. The slots are nice and clean, and the overall shape looks good. The tuners are just OK, but I don't expect too much from this price range and they do work.
-Initially I thought it sounded similar to the Kala tenor neck soprano I had, but a little more stumming revealed a characteristic mahogany "pop" in the sound. Pretty good.
-My initial feeling is that this is a pretty good value for $250 shipped.
This uke will be going up against the Collings for some no-holds-barred comparison between mahogany concert ukuleles. I will switch out the strings to Worth CD's and probably do a few rounds between the two. I'm also thinking of putting this Mainland up against the William King LS-concert for some slot-head to slot-head comparison just for fun. So stay tuned to the ghetto!
**For whatever reason I got this picture at an angle where the back didn't reflect any light. The back is indeed glossy like the rest of the uke.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
So a couple of months ago I watched a few videos of this song on Youtube, including this fine cover, and decided that I would like to learn it. Since there are no tabs available to my knowledge, I thought I'd try to learn it from Youtube videos. Besides that cover, I found a few videos of Jake playing this song. Between watching the videos and listening to the notes, I think I was able to play a reasonable version of this song, and here is the result. This is a fairly easy song to play, but there are a couple of finger stretcher parts, including a note that reached the 18th fret. I discovered that both of my sopranos do not have an 18th fret while trying to play this on them. The ending passage was also a bit of a challenge, since it has to be played pretty fast. Otherwise I didn't find it overly difficult to learn. That's one thing about most of Jake's songs. They seem pretty hard to play but if you really give it a good shot, they are not too bad. Of course, 3rd Stream is still extremely difficult no matter how I slice it...
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Actually, it'll be interesting to compare the Mainland to the Collings. The Collings costs 4X as much as the Mainland, but I'm pretty sure the Collings won't be 4 times the ukes the Mainland is (this is not the same as saying the Collings isn't worth 4 times more). Should make for an interesting comparison.
To be perfectly honest, even with this purchase, I haven't really lusted after any ukes of late. I'm pretty sure this won't touch off a UAS frenzy for me. And with the addition of this uke, I'll be parting with my LoPrinzi mahogany tenor pretty soon. I can't believe I still have 15 ukes! My uke rotation is pretty much down to about 2-3 these days, so most ukes gets some token playing time if even that. But it only gets more difficult when trying to decide what to sell now because most of what I have now are really nice instruments and just about all of them bring something different to the table.
Anyway, stay tuned for the no-holds-barred smackdown between Collings and Mainland in a (ukulele) ghetto near you!