Sunday, April 27, 2008

Watching the Master.

Tonight was the night Jake Shimabukuro visited the Twin Cities for the first time. The weather didn't quite cooperate as we greeted him with some light snow and temperature in the low 40's. (It's almost MAY! This is NUTS!) I found out about this concert 4-5 days ago and immediately went and got a couple of tickets for it. Being pretty late to the party, only the "cheap seats" were left. However, I was very excited at the prospects of witnessing the true superstar of ukulele in person.

When I arrived with my wife at the Dakota Restaurant & Jazz Club, I was a little surprised by how far back the seats I got were. I almost couldn't see the small stage. I was also surprised by the number of people who occupied the place. From what I could tell, it was sold out. We were there about 45 minutes early so we settled in and ordered some expensive dinner (I had some "Hawaiian Blue Marlin" for $24).

The show started around 7:10 or so and Jake started off playing an extended version of Let's Dance. Other songs he played included Me & Shirley T, Misty, Spain, Orange World, Dragon, In My Life, Time after Time, and of course, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. He only played a couple of songs that I have not heard or watched on Youtube before, but it was such an experience for me to be watching it live. Some of the sounds coming out of his ukulele are really incredible. I have no idea how he does some of the stuff that he does.

After the show, Jake and one of his assistants (or manager) stood just outside the restaurant meeting with the fans and selling some T-shirts and the In My Life CD. I got in line and when I made it to him, he immediately noticed my Ukulele Underground T-shirt. I was SO star-struck at that point I think I was shaking. I don't remember ever being this star-struck before. Anyway, I chatted briefly with him and told him I hope he comes back sometime. I got a picture taken with him and asked him to sign my cigar box uke. I'm not sure if he's seen a cigar box uke before, but he thought it was interesting. He is such a nice guy too. From talking to him and observing his interaction with other people, I feel that he's genuinely appreciative of the support from his fans.

So that's my first Jake Shimabukuro experience. I really felt very happy to be able to meet with him after the show. I mean, how often do you get to meet with your musical hero after watching the concert? I think Jake is able to do this because he's not a house hold name in the mainland United States. I wish him nothing but success in the future, but I also hope that his fans can continue to have that up close experience with him as long as possible.

A couple more pictures:

With Jake after the concert.

Jake signing my cigar box uke.

Jake's signature on the cigar box uke.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jake Shimabukuro in Minneapolis!

Woohoo! I just found out today that Jake is going to play at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in Minneaplis on April 27th! I found out about him shortly after taking up the ukulele 15 months ago and if you saw any of the videos I posted on Youtube, you know I'm a Jake Shimabukuro nut. So once I found out that he's actually going to be here on 4/27, I immediately went over to the website and booked a couple of tickets. I really thought Jake would never appear in Minnesota so I always figured that if I was ever going to attend one of his shows it would have to be at Chicago or some other city outside Minnesota. Needless to say I'm really excited to finally see him perform live in a few days! I don't even know what kind of seats I bought but it'll be cool. I hope he will have some time to sign my cigar box ukulele.

If you're from the Twin Cities and want to attend, I think there are still tickets left for the 9:30PM show. Don't miss it!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lineup Update

It's been a while since I updated the collection picture. Compared with the last update, the G-String soprano and the BugsGear Eleuke are gone. In their place, I've acquired an Oscar Schmidt Bell uke, a Pete Howlett Uklectic (used), and a B-Stock Bushman Cedartone baritone. So the total uke count has been upped by one. I guess my policy of one-in-one-out isn't working so hot.

Why did I get the 3 new ukes? The Oscar Schmidt was an impulse buy at a great deal. The Bushman baritone was to satisfy my curiosity about baritones (and it was really cheap). The Uklectic was something I've been interested in and I jumped at the chance to get a used one at a great price.

The departed G-String was not getting played much and I've decided that I'm not really into sopranos (this could change at any time though). The departed BugsGear wasn't getting played much either and when I bought the Uklectic, it had to go.

There are two custom ukes that are scheduled to arrive pretty soon, so I guess I'm going to have to think about which ones needs to go next. Of the ukes pictured, the Pono, Oscar Schmidt, Martin, and Maccaferri doesn't get played much. The Maccaferri was cracked when I used it to film a video for the Ukulele Underground April Contest, so I guess I can write it off from the uke count. That leaves the Pono, Oscar, and Martin. I think I'll keep the Martin, so I guess I'll try to find the other two a new home sometime down the road.

You know, UAS is a difficult disease to fight off. Even though I couldn't be more satisfied with the Koa Works tenor and have two pretty sweet customs coming soon, I'm still constantly looking at other ukes online. I'd be very interested in a National reso-uke, a Kiwaya KTS-7 (Martin style 3 copy), and a Compass Rose tenor just to name three. I sure hope those custom ukes kill off UAS for a while. Wish me luck...:p

Monday, April 14, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Curiosity is probably UAS's best friend. And for the person with a serious case of UAS, it's not good news. My curiosity got the best of me about two months ago when I hunted down an Oscar Schmidt Bell shaped concert 'ukulele. I had seen pictures of some vintage Washburn bell ukes and also a couple of bell ukes made by Duane Heilman of Black Bear Ukuleles. It is certainly an interesting looking 'ukulele and when I saw that the Oscar Schmidt version is made of solid wood, I pretty much decided that I would like to try one.

When I searched the net a couple of months ago, it appeared that the street price for one of these is around $280 or so. Some further digging landed me at Elevation Music, where at the time I ordered, it had a price of $210 plus free shipping. At such a deal I thought it was a no brainer and went ahead and ordered it. Pretty much right after I ordered it, the price on their website changed to $269. Perhaps they realized that they priced it wrong after I bought it?

When I ordered it, I knew it wasn't going to blow me away simply because I already own some pretty high end 'ukuleles. But I thought maybe it will bring something different to the table. So how does it fare? Let's go into some details. First the specs:

  • Solid Trembesi top, side, and back.
  • Plastic bound rosewood fingerboard with 21 frets.
  • Rosewood bridge.
  • Bone nut & saddle.
  • Off-white plastic binding.
  • Abalone (not sure if it's real) headstock logo, position dots, and rosette.
  • Multi-color "rope" purfling on soundboard.
  • Grover sealed gear tuners with ebony buttons.
  • Satin finish.
  • Custom bell shaped case.

I think this 'ukulele looks quite good. I have no clue what trembesi is but to me it looks kind of similar to koa. The only information I found about trembesi online is that they use it for furniture wood in Indonesia. Since this uke is made in Indonesia, that makes sense. The bell shaped body looks interesting and the decorations are pretty nice. I think the multi-colored "rope" purfling look very cool. I'm not sure about the abalone used on this uke though. It does appear to be real abalone, but I'm just not sure. It looks decent for the rosette, but the Oscar Schmidt logo on the headstock looks kind of like an abalone decal. The shape of the headstock, body, and bridge are all pretty faithful to the original bell uke, as far as I could tell. The only part that doesn't look faithful to the original are the tuners. But frankly I much prefer geared tuners to friction tuners so this isn't a problem for me. Those "ears" probably would keep a few purists from considering this uke though.

This is a concert scaled 'ukulele. The nut is 1-3/8", which is a little narrow for my tastes (I prefer 1-1/2"). It has a fairly round neck profile, almost a slight "V" shape, that I don't particularly care for either. So right off the bat it doesn't quite fit my preferences. Holding the 'ukulele is also a different experience. If you hold it by cradling the bottom of the uke in your right arm, like how you might hold it standing, it feels normal enough. But when holding it while sitting down, I find that if I rest the uke on my right leg, the pointy part of the bell kind of digs into my right arm sometimes, depending on the arm position. I've concluded that this isn't the most ergonomic shape for an 'ukulele. In fact, I think the cigar box uke I have feels more ergonomic. The action was slightly high when I got the uke, so I sanded down the saddle and now it's fine. Overall it certainly doesn't fit my preferences all that well, and the bell shape is kind of awkward, but none of the issues I have with it has to do with quality, and for the right person, it can feel really good.

I suspect that this 'ukulele is made at the same factory as Pono ukes. I based that suspicion mostly on the fact that this is made in Java (Indonesia) and has the exact same Grover geared tuners as my Pono cedar top tenor. But the workmanship of the bell uke also seem to be Pono-esque. I would say it's definitely on par with Pono ukes. The insides look clean. All parts fit together well. No sharp fret ends. Those quality Grover tuners. In short, the workmanship is great, especially when you consider the price.

This is a pretty difficult category for me to rate because to be honest just about all the other ukes I own are of much higher sound quality. They also cost a lot more, so there's not reason to expect this bell uke to sound as good as say the Kanile'a super-soprano. Judging it on its own, I think it's a fine sounding 'ukulele. It came strung with Aquila strings, which sounded just OK. I installed some Worth CD's on it and to my ears it represented some improvement. The sound is clearer and it rings better at the higher frets. The volume is pretty good, about the same as the previously mentioned Kanile'a super-soprano. It's sound is what I would describe as a bit artificial. I don't exactly know what that means, but that's the word that comes to mind when I listen to its sound. The intonation is good. Overall I would say that for the money this is a fine sounding 'ukulele. I think it's on par with Ponos I've played and at least as good or better than most Lanikai or Kala laminated ukes.

This is where this 'ukulele shines a little bit. For the street price of $280, you get a good sounding, nicely decorated and uniquely shaped solid wood uke plus a very nice custom bell shaped case (reviewed in this post). The case quality is at least on par with the Ko'olau hard cases, so it would be reasonable to say that it's worth $50-60. That means you're spending about $210 or so on the uke itself, which is very reasonable, I think. It compares favorably on the value front against Pono ukes.

If you've read this far, you're probably thinking that this 'ukulele isn't that great. While I would say it's not a great uke, it's certainly a good 'ukulele. It's not going to make you forget your KoAloha or Kanile'a concert, but it's a fraction of the cost. If the bell shape appeals to you, and you do not own ukes of higher sound quality than Ponos, I would have no problem recommending this ukulele. If you own one or more Hawaiian factory made ukes or custom ukes, this one probably does best serving as a good sounding novelty uke in your collection. Hey, playing Christmas songs on this uke should be a lot of fun right?

Here is a sound clip of me playing this 'ukulele.

Some pictures:


Soundhole & rosette.

Bound fretboard and soundboard purfling.

These tuners are exactly the same as the ones on a Pono cedar top tenor.

With custom case.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Gypsy Master

I recently saw a video on Youtube that really caught my eyes. It's a video of Mike Okouchi playing "Gypsy Ukulele". So of all the new ukulele videos that pops up on Youtube all the time (including my ghetto videos), why did this one make a special impression? That's because I have a "Gypsy Rose" ukulele being built by Kevin Crossett of Kepasa Ukuleles!

Mike Okouchi is, of course, awesome in this video, but when I saw it, I just thought "how awesome would it be to play this song on a Gypsy Rose!" So, I'm determined now to learn how to play this song using Dominator's tabs for it. It's going to be difficult though, as the song's difficulty seems to be above my skill level. It will probably be a month or two before the Gypsy Rose will arrive, so I've got some time to do it. If I'm successful, I'll be sure to post some results here.

Meanwhile, here is the kick butt video of Mike Okouchi playing Gypsy Ukulele:

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Kanile'a Video Review

Recently there seemed to have been a Kanile'a reviewing frenzy on Youtube. OK, so there's only like three videos, but what the heck. I thought I'd join in on the fun by reviewing my Kanile'a super soprano. I thought it would be a quick review, but by the time I was done it's a 10 minute video. I guess if you've read this blog you know that I'm fairly long-winded, so it only makes sense that the video review got long-winded too. :p

Anyway, hopefully it's useful and/or entertaining for someone out there. Here it is:

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Cigar Box In My Life

Dominator had published tabs for the Beatles' In My Life a while back and of course I was all over it. It wasn't a difficult arrangement to learn but it took me quite some time to feel like I have it down. For some reason, the cigar box uke I have worked really well for this song. Perhaps because sliding notes is very loud and clear on this particular uke. Anyway, I've been meaning to post a video of this song using the cigar box, and now I've finally gotten around to doing it. This video only took 2 takes too, which is much less than the dozens of takes it normally takes me to record a passable video. It's not perfect, but I was satisfied with it.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Updated Uke Rankings

It's been a couple of months since I ranked my ukes. So I thought I'd do a quick one before a couple of customs I ordered are due to arrive in about a month. Again, the reason for doing these rankings is because sometimes it takes a while to come to appreciate a uke and also some might fall out of favor a little bit after a while. This helps me keep track of how my personal tastes in 'ukuleles change.

I'll just rate the top 5 this time:

1. Koa Works tenor: This doesn't come as a surprise as this is by far the best sounding, playing, and feeling 'ukulele I currently own. I simply love the "feedback" it gives me while I play it. None of my other ukes has this quality. It has held up well since I got it back from Hawaii a month ago for bridge re-glue. It's just so nice to play and sounds so good that I seem to be playing this about 90% of the time now compared to the other ukes. I really hope the two customs will be at this level. If so, I'm going to have to think hard about purging many ukes in my collection because many of them probably won't get touched then.

2. Honu DLX concert: This is a great sounding uke. The sound is so clear, with such good sustain, that it continues to be a standout in my collection. I think if it had the "feedback" quality that the Koa Works has, it could possibly be considered in almost the same class. It jumps ahead of the Pineapple Sunday because I have been picking it up to play more frequently of late.

3. KoAloha Pineapple Sunday: A great and unique sounding 'ukulele. Not to mention uniquely styled. It drops down a spot because I have been playing it less. It probably has a lot to do with my infatuation with the Koa Works as that's the tenor I always reach for.

4. Kanile'a Custom Super-soprano: This uke made a big jump up my personal ranking. I had previously rated it at #7, citing that it sounds a bit muffled compared to some others ukes I have. Well, I now think that it has a fine deep sound. Funny how your perceptions can change huh? Another thing I've come to appreciate more is the super-soprano size. I like the small body coupled with a concert neck, which is very suitable for playing in front of a computer desk in a small corner while learning from a Youtube lesson or something. And of course, it looks gorgeous, especially since I installed new koa bridge pins on it. I think this will probably act as my "soprano" uke for a while.

5. Bluegrass Ukuleles Cigar Box tenor: I haven't been spending a lot of time with this uke lately, so it drops down a couple of spots. However, it's always had fine sound and that cigar box mojo is still there. I find that it works really well for sliding notes, such as in "In My Life", where there's a note that you slide from the 2nd fret up to the 11th fret. I sometimes bust out this uke just to play that song. In fact, I've been planning to post a video of that song played on this uke, but so far I haven't been able to nail the song quite yet. :P

You may have noticed the absence of any soprano ukes on this list. That's because I've come to realize that I hardly ever play them any more. I think my G-String soprano is an outstanding uke, but the soprano scale keeps me from playing it much. I'll probably be parting with the G-String soprano soon and just keep the Martin as kind of a player/collectible. Some day I'll probably love the soprano scale again, but for now, I would have to say I'm a tenor/concert guy.

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: