Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Fine Senorita...

Yes, we're still taking about ukes here.  Introducing the newest acquisition into the stash o' ukes to the Ukulele Ghetto, the Martin C1K!

As previously mentioned, the ukulele I brought home from my most recent trip to Hawaii was the Mexican made (hence Senorita) Martin C1K concert ukulele.  I had brought my Glyph on this trip and really didn't plan on buying a ukulele this time (really?  A trip to Hawaii without buying a uke???), and even in my wildest dreams I would not have thought that I'd buy a non-Hawaiian made ukulele while I'm in Hawaii.  So how come this was the uke I bought instead of the scores of KoAlohas, Kanile'as, Kamakas, and a host of other high-end production ukes I saw while I was in Hawaii?  Because this Martin is shockingly good, at least to me.  And maybe I also was just a little bit enamored by the Martin name on the headstock.

When I was checking out ukes in Ukulele Pua Pua, I asked to try the Martin C1K that was hanging behind the cashier's desk only out of curiosity, because it was a Martin and it had a pretty nice piece of semi-curly koa top.  It wasn't a uke that was on my radar at all.  I knew it was made in Mexico so I wasn't particularly interested in it (after all, when in Hawaii, it makes sense to buy a Hawaiian made uke).  Before the uke was handed to me, I was maybe expecting a Pono level ukulele or maybe worse.  I was underwhelmed by a Martin S-0 before, and most reviews of Mexican made Martin ukes (mostly the S-0) had been lukewarm at best.  So I was genuinely surprised after a couple of strums on the C1K.  It had a lot of power and I thought the sound was very firm and powerful.  The notes sounded very clear too.  Whatever I was expecting before I started playing it, the sound that came out of it was completely different (for the better) than my expectations.  It was right then I thought I just might have to get this uke.

Being at a uke shop, there were no shortage of ukes to try out, and the guys at Ukulele Pua Pua were happy to let me try whatever I wanted.  After noodling a bit on the Martin, I played a KoAloha concert at the store.  Sometimes a uke can sound great in isolation but when compared back to back to another truly great uke, it begins to pale.  The particular KoAloha concert I tried had a pretty standard KoAloha concert sound, which is to say it was great.  I switched between the KoAloha and the C1K for a bit and decided that the Martin is definitely in the same class.  For me, this was quite mind blowing to say the least.  I guess if I did a blind test on these two ukes, I may have chosen the KoAloha, by a very slim margin.  But the Martin has a significantly more interesting looking piece of koa top, and it is also a one-piece top, which is rather rare these days. (KoAloha used to try to make one-piece tops when they can, but the koa boards are getting narrower, making it necessary for them to make book-matched tops most of the time)

There was also another Martin concert, the mahogany style 2, that was hung next to the C1K.  The style 2 is made in the USA at Martin's Nazareth, PA factory.  As far as I could tell, it look to have the exact same dimensions and design as the C1K, with the only difference being the wood and binding.  They even use the same tuners and compensated saddle.  The Ukulele Pua Pua guys asked me if I'd like to try the style 2 and I said yes.  The style 2 is double the price of the C1K, but I actually preferred the C1K's sound.  So by this time I was thinking I want to buy the C1K.  I asked if this was the only one they have, and Gavin told me they may have another one at their other location down the street.  He called to confirm and said maybe I should check that one out too.  I was going to walk down that way anyway, so off I went.

The other C1K they had at the other store was significantly darker than the first one.  I immediately noted that the first one is better looking.  After playing the second one for a bit, it also appears that the first one is better sounding too.  The second one wasn't bad or anything, but it wasn't special like the first one.  At this juncture, I wasn't quite ready to buy a ukulele yet, so I thought if I end up deciding to bring a ukulele home, it would most likely be the first Martin C1K if it's still at the shop on the last day of our trip.

Back at the resort we stayed in, I did some research on the Martin C1K.  There really weren't any reviews of it out there.  There seemed to be a lot of big box musical instrument sites such as Musician's Friend and Sam Ash that carried it though, with a street price of $469 (MSRP is $629).  This is quite a bit less than the $599 Ukulele Pua Pua is charging for the uke and made me wonder if I would really buy the first C1K at Ukulele Pua Pua.  After sitting on it for a couple of days, I decided that the one at Pua Pua is good enough to justify the higher price.  If I bought one from one of those online sites, I can't be guaranteed the same great sound or the curly koa or the one-piece front and back, so to me that justified the upcharge.

So the last day of our trip rolled around and I went back to Ukulele Pua Pua when we were in Waikiki to kill some time before the evening flight.  The first Martin C1K was still hanging in the shop and I told Gavin I was either going to get that uke or another one that day.  Just to be sure I asked to play the KoAloha long-neck pineapple too, as I thought it was really awesome sounding the other day and could be option number 2.  Playing it back to back with the Martin, it reaffirmed that the Martin is a great sounding uke that doesn't really take a backseat to the KoAloha, and I felt good about buying it, even at the premium price.  So that's how I ended up buying the Martin C1K.

I still can't believe I picked up a Mexican made Martin over a number of nice Hawaiian ukes, but I think the combination of shock over how great it sounded compared to my expectations, and the Martin name on the headstock pushed me to make the purchase.  Since then I have returned home and played it back to back with my Collings concert and Mya-Moe concert.  It flat out beats the Mya-Moe in terms of sound and is neck and neck with the Colling, while equaling both in terms of workmanship.  I'm really happy with this purchase so far, overpriced and all.

I guess the takeaway from this experience is that there really is no substitute to trying out ukes in person, at least if you want to unearth an unlikely star.  Without the opportunity to try these ukes in person, I would go with one of the KoAlohas every time and be very happy with its quality.  But only by playing them in person, could I have come across the great looking and sounding Martin C1K.

Here are some more pics of the C1K:

Back of the C1K, also one piece.

The C1K and its gig-bag.

Closer view of the gig-bag.

Martin headstock.  It's got some slight curls.

Body shot.  You can see the curls in the koa and the one-piece soundboard.

Another angle of the body.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Oahu, again...

It's been a couple of years since I've visited Hawaii.  This year is again my family's turn to go, so off we went last week.  During my last visit, I brought my William King concert with me.  It is always great to be able to play the ukulele while looking over the ocean, so naturally I brought a uke with me on the trip.  This time, I took the Glyph mezzo-soprano.  This uke had already caught some Jake Shimabukuro mojo earlier this month, so I wanted to also give it a little Hawaiian mana (or whatever).  The koa is from the state of Hawaii, so I guess it's kind of a homecoming for this ukulele.

As far as ukulele related happenings go, I knew there wasn't going to be much time for me to look at them since we went with some friends who have never been to Hawaii and between us there there 5 kids (sadly there was no time for the kids to go to any ukulele lessons).  But I still managed to check out a couple of shops and caught a cool little live music performance that included a guy playing lead-ukulele while eating at Pier 38.

The first shop I was able to stop by was a ukulele kiosk at the Polynesian Cultural Center.  I've been there like 3 times already, and I knew they sold some tourist level ukes there at what's called a "Mission Settlement" building.  I was actually looking forward to this because I had seen on the Kanile'a Islander website that they carry Islander ukes.  These ukes have a great reputation as being perhaps the best entry level laminate ukes around, and I wanted to see for myself.  They indeed had Islanders there and after trying a couple of them, I was not disappointed.  In fact, I thought they are pretty awesome.  For a street price of $100~150, depending on size, there are probably the nicest laminate ukes I've ever played.  These would make a great beginner/intermediate instrument or beach beater.  I mean, a set of Gilbert or Waverly tuners cost more than one of these bad boys!  These would definitely be my default recommended beginner/beater ukes from now on, and maybe I just might grab one to keep at say my parents' house or something.

The second shop I managed to get to was Ukulele Pua Pua.  They have two shops along the Waikiki shopping area, one in the Sheraton and the other at the Moana Surfrider, and I went into both to play some ukes.  At the Sheraton shop, I played a few ukes they have hanging around the shop before asking to check out some ukes that were behind the cashier's desk.  There were some ukes there of interest, including a Martin C1K and style 2 concert.  The C1K is the uke I ended up buying during this trip, so I will make a separate post about it.  The style 2 was decent but didn't especially impress me.  Maybe its $1200 price tag raised my expectations too much, but I didn't think it was better than a Collings UC-1.  There was a KoAloha long-neck pineapple soprano there that sounded outstanding.  I was really impressed with it as one of the best ukes I played on the trip.  Another great one was a Ko'olau series 100 tenor.  I thought it was one of the best sounding Ko'olau's I've had a chance to play.

The Moana Surfrider shop had a few more interesting ukes.  They had a KoAloha Jukalele there and I got to play it.  A couple of years ago I wrote a post saying what a stupid idea the Jukalele was.  Well, now that I've played one, I must eat my words.  This ukulele is incredible.  It sounded really great and is very loud.  I can't even imagine how Papa KoAloha got this kind of sound out of such a small soundboard.  I still can't say I want one, but only because I can't swing $3999 for a ukulele.  I'd get one if I had that type of cash sitting around.  Another uke I got to try was a Blackbird carbon fiber tenor.  It was strung in low-G and to be honest, I was kind of underwhelmed.  I don't think it's the low-G that underwhelmed me, because the other 3 strings didn't produce a particularly memorable sound.  Considering the price of these things, I think I'll cross it off my imaginary want list.  I think I tried a couple of other ukes there, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The final shop I visited on the trip was Hawaii Music Supply.  They used to be located in Wahiawa, where I've visited twice before.  They have since moved to the historic town of Haleiwa.  Shortly after I went into the shop, I saw the famous Musicguymic (a.k.a. MGM) walk in the door.  I chatted with him a little bit and told him I've bought like 6~7 ukes from him during his ebay days.  He noted that he had better health back then, but he seemed to be doing pretty good now as far as I could tell.  He told me they moved to Haleiwa because most tourists do not stop by Wahiawa, but do visit Haleiwa, so they moved to capture more business.  They had a lot of ukes there but actually nothing I was particularly interested in.  I was a little disapointed to see no Ko'olau ukes there.  When they were in Wahiawa, they had a lot of Ko'olaus and it was cool to play them.  Nonetheless, I tried out a bunch of ukes there, including a pretty good looking Kamaka concert HF-2 that had some decently curly koa on the soundboard.  MGM offered me a pretty decent deal on the Kamaka that had me temporarily tempted.  But I remembered a couple of years ago I got a HF-3 for basically the same price (Kamaka had a big price hike in the last year), so I was able to resist.  In the end, I bought 4 packs of strings and a Kala "Stand Out" uke stand from the shop.  No ukes, but it was pretty cool to finally meet MGM and to check out the new shop.

So that was basically it as far as ukuleles went on this most recent trip to Oahu.  I did go back to Ukulele Pua Pua on the last day to pickup the Martin C1K.  While I was there to buy the uke, they were just about to start one of their free ukulele lessons for anyone who wanted to learn.  I decided to stick around to take the lesson as I could probably teach my kids in the same way if they ever wanted to learn the ukulele.  The small shop was packed and the people there seemed to enjoy the half hour lesson.  After the lesson, the guy who was teaching it, Paul, asked me if I was the guy on Youtube that played a Jay Chou cover.  I thought he looked familiar and realized that it was his video I learned the song from.  It was pretty cool to meet someone you've seen only on Youtube before.  It turns out we sort of inspired each other a little in our ukulele playing, but of course he's much more talented than me. (he can play Third Stream!)

Anyway, it's always good to be back to the home of the ukulele.  I hope there are many more trips to the various islands of Hawaii in my future and of course, more ukuleles!

Some random pics from the trip:

Glyph overlooking the beach.

Chilling on the balcony with my boy.

In front of the "Pineapple Express" station at the Dole plantation.  This is where I first encountered the ukulele and became interested in it.

At the Dole plantation.

My son doesn't seem to be enjoying this...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jake Meets Mini-Jake

Jake Shimabukuro visited the Twin Cities for what I believe is his fifth concert here tonight at The Cedar.  I've been to the first three, and this time, I decided to go to his concert with a specific mission:  to introduce him to Mini-Jake!

Perhaps it's a bit lame, but I thought since I designed my Glyph mezzo-soprano after Jake's ukulele, it would be pretty cool to show it to him and to get some of his mojo on this uke.  As you can see from the picture here, the mission has been accomplished.

As per his usual routine at his concerts, he greeted fans at a table afterwards to sign autographs, take pictures, and just chat a little bit.  I've always thought this is such a cool thing for him to do and it's good to see that he is still doing it after what must have been countless performances.  I got in line after the concert to try to get an autograph on my "Peace Love Ukulele" tab book and to get a picture of him holding Mini-Jake.  He graciously signed my tab book and when I showed him my Glyph, he said "cool", and started playing it a bit.  He commented that it was a nice uke and noted that the fretboard is pretty wide.  I had always assumed that his uke had a wide fretboard since he's plays a lot of fingerstyle, but he said my 1.5" nut feels wider than his.  That was actually pretty interesting to know, and I guess I should practice more on my ukes with 1-3/8" nuts to be more like Jake.  LOL!  He also noted that the Glyph had the same Gilbert tuners as his and asked me who built it.  I told him it was a guy named Dave Means from Maryland and that it was on the waitlist for 3 years.  He seemed surprised at that wait time.

Anyway, after taking a couple of pictures with me while holding the Glyph, he thanked me for coming to the show and I was on my way.  Having met him 3 times (the last time I didn't have time to stop by his greeting table), I still get the feeling that he's a genuinely nice guy and I just wish him continued success in his ukulele playing career.

Oh yeah, there was a concert in there somewhere too.  LOL!  This time he seems to play more different songs than the last three times I went to his concert.  Some of the songs I've never heard in person are Hawaii 5-O, Less Cowbell-More Ukulele, and a couple of covers of Adele and Journey songs.  It was enjoyable as usual and I always enjoy checking out his ukulele playing technique.

So now my Mini-Jake (I forgot to tell him that's what I named it! Doh!) has been touched by the master, I shall soon become a ukulele hero myself!...or not....

Jake signing my tab book.

Picture with Jake after the concert.

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: