Thursday, September 26, 2013

Let's Go Shopping - for a ukulele

A beginner ukulele player will probably wonder: what kind of uke should I buy? There is no perfect answer to the question, but to make it a bit easier I'll explore a few options to consider various perspectives.

The price-range for ukuleles goes from $20 for the cheapest models to hundreds or even thousands for the high end ones. First and foremost I'd like to talk you out of buying the $20 models, unless you are just looking for another knickknack to collect dust in your home. These super cheap, poorly constructed ukuleles are built from the cheapest materials. You really do get what you pay for: they are difficult to tune, they hardly hold a tune, and even the most careful tuning will result in false chords, flat notes, and unpleasant timbre. A less than desirable instrument like this could put you off learning to play the ukulele forever. Here is a picture of such a ukulele (without naming brand, model, or price):

I don't believe in starting off with a low end, cheap beginner's instrument, and waiting to upgrade later. It's worth it to pay a little extra right off the bat for a better quality starter instrument if you truly want to learn to play the ukulele. The small financial sacrifice will pay off immediately: you can spend your time learning and practicing chords, instead of tuning and retuning to get something more than discordant sounds out of your new instrument. For example, this middle of the price-range, well-built, great quality beauty would serve you well throughout your musical adventures:

Of course it is difficult to decide what kind of ukulele to purchase based solely on pictures. Just like with everything else, price will tell a lot about the quality of instruments: a cheap instrument will probably be a lemon, a total waste of money. In addition, I highly recommend investing in at least a soft shell for your ukulele. I personally prefer hard cases as they provide total protection. Finally, pick up a tuner to complete your setup. A basic, decent quality ukulele starter set (including a case and a tuner) will cost about $150-200. Using a free on-line tuner or downloading a free tuner app could save a few bucks.

It's a good idea to do thorough research on the web before buying a ukulele. If all goes well I'll be posting about my own ukulele testing experiences here in the near future. Until then, here is a short list of some of the many ukulele brands available: Abbott, Ana'ole, Antoniotsai/ Hanworks, aNueNue, Applause (Ovation), Aria, Ashbury, Ashton, BeBop, Beltona, Brownsville, BugsGear EleUke, Bushman, Clearwater, Cole Clark, Collings, Earnest Instruments, Cordoba, Favilla, Fender, Flea, Fluke, Gibson, Greg Bennett (Samick), Gretsch, Hamano, Harmony, Hawaiian Ukulele Company, Hilo, Honu, Ibanez, Johnson, Kala, Kamaka, Kanile'a, Kau'wela, Keli'i, Kiwaya, Fender, Keech, Ko'olau, Koa Pili, Koko, Keli'i, KoAlana, KoAloha, Kumalae, Laka, Lanikai, Lazy, Le Domino, Lehua, Leolani, LoPrinzi, Luna, Lyon and Healy, Maccaferri, Mahalo, Makai, Makala, Martin, Mele, Mid, Mitchell, Morelli/Santini, National, Ohana, Ookook, Ortega, Oscar Schmidt, Pahu Kani, Pono, Regal, Republic, Riptide, Rogue, Road Toad, Savannah, Slingerland, Stagg, Swagerty, T's Guitars, Tangi, Tanglewood, Universal Worldwide Trading, Vineyard, Uluru, Weissenborn, Yamaha

When buying a uke, you get to choose your size. As I explained in the first blog entry, there are four main sizes of ukulele. From smallest to biggest they are: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. It's up to individual tastes which size you decide on. If you are completely unfamiliar with the sizing of ukes, I strongly advise to go to a music store and check them all out. Sopranos play melodies beautifully. They produce sound that is sharp and bright, not very orotund, and the chords sound bubbly. I think the soprano is too small for men, making it difficult to hold chords for the average hand-size. For large, manly hands I recommend concert, tenor, and baritone size ukes. In my opinion the chords sound better on larger size ukes as well. Ladies, with generally smaller hands, can take advantage of the soprano's smaller size. It's worth noting that while hand and finger size is important for forming chords, the whole length of the arm is important for holding the instrument during play, especially when there is no shoulder strap. For a man with long arms it might be uncomfortable to hold the body of the small soprano uke. Comfort with any size of uke depends on practice and habit. When choosing the size of the ukulele, beginners should aim to match it to their own capabilities.
If you can afford the $200-250 price range, an electric-acoustic ukulele might be a good option. The great thing about electric-acoustic instruments is that it can be used even without all the electrical bits. Unplugged, an electric-acoustic uke will still have a great sound, because the full body transmits and enhances the traveling sound. An even greater thing about these instruments is that hooking up to an amp can transform them into full fledged band instruments, adding amazing sounds to round out the musical effect. I suspect that most beginners will not pick an electric-acoustic uke as their first instrument. In later posts I'll talk more about electric-acoustic ukuleles. Until then, here is a picture of the output jack on the bottom of the body:

As seen, there are plenty of aspects to consider when choosing your perfect ukulele: price, brand, model, size. There is no simple answer. Finally, I'd like to suggest that you only order online if you are 100% sure about what you're going to get. If you're buying from a musical instrument retailer and you want a special order, wait until you can actually hold it in your hands before you commit to anything. Don't buy something that doesn't suit your needs just because it's on hand at the store.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

So why should you learn to play the ukulele?

The answer to this interesting question is not tied solely to the ukulele. Musical instruments are among humanity's greatest contributions. Instrumental play accompanies and completes the human voice, often enhancing it with intricate, artistic compositions. The international language of music connects people of various cultures, nations and backgrounds. Afterall, making music and listening to it are an essential part of what makes us human.

Now let's get back to the ukulele! As I described in my first post, ukes are simple, four-stringed instruments. Their simplicity allows even musically untrained folks to get quick results when starting to learn to play. This is very important, because most people will quit or simply won't even start learning an instrument due to the typically steep initial learning curve. Mistakes and difficulties discourage new players, generate a feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness, and many people will just give up practicing. Learning any new skill takes time. There is virtually no one who will, for example, sit down at the piano for the first time in their lives and play a palatable tune. Learning to play an instrument at an enjoyable level depends on time and work invested. Of course, there is also a variation in talent, which will also greatly affect the learning speed. I can honestly say that a beginner with a minimal 15-20 minute daily practice routine will get pretty fast results. Within a month or two you'll be able to play a few tunes with confidence and know the major chords by heart.

This is why I encourage you, and everyone else (regardless of age), to reach for a ukulele and start strumming. Follow this blog to get tips, advice, and reviews to help you along your journey!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Uke 'n' Play

This blog aims to introduce the ukulele to a wider audience and encourage everyone to play. I will post about all kinds of topics (including accords, songs, brands, instrument repair and my own experience with these) in a way that both beginners and advanced players will find interesting and relevant content.

I'll try  my best to keep the posts simple and readable, so that even people new to the world of music will be able to understand basic theory and concepts. To begin, let's get acquainted with the nature and history of the ukulele. According to Wikipedia:

"The ukulele - sometimes abbreviated to uke -, is a member of the guitar family of instruments; it generally employs four nylon or gut strings or four courses of strings.

The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of the machete, a small guitar-like instrument related to the cavaquinho, braguinha and the rajao, taken to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century, and from there spread internationally.

Ukuleles are commonly associated with music from Hawaii where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea", perhaps because of the movement of the player's fingers. Legend attributes it to the nickname of the Englishman Edward William Purvis, one of King Kalākaua's officers, because of his small size, fidgety manner, and playing expertise. According to Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means "the gift that came here," from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).

The singer and comedian George Formby was perhaps the UK's most famous ukulele player, though he often played a banjolele, a hybrid instrument consisting of an extended ukulele neck with a banjo resonator body. Demand surged in the new century because of its relative simplicity and portability. Today the ukulele's popularity in Great Britain continues to grow with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain touring globally and Paul McCartney's 2002 tribute tour to George Harrison, a huge fan of the instrument.

The tone and volume of the instrument varies with size and construction. Ukuleles commonly come in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone."

Unfortunately, a lot of websites refer to ukuleles as "toy guitars". As you can see from the Wikipedia entry, ukuleles are closely related to guitars. However, their small size doesn't make them toys!

If you haven't seen a ukulele with your own eyes, watching a music video can help you grasp the proportions and the beauty of the instrument. Here is a picture of a concert size uke to give you a better idea of its dimensions:

It is also worth browsing YouTube for ukulele music. Later on I'll analyze some of the more unique and inspiring videos. There are many of them, including this little inspirational piece from the world's greatest ukulele player:

Jake's awe-inspiring level of skill is probably out of our reach, but it is beautiful nonetheless. This music video proves, that regardless the common misconception, the ukulele is not a toy. It is a serious musical instrument that can yield amazing results with lots of practice.