Friday, January 30, 2009

UAS Forecast

As you can see from the last post, I currently have 16 ukes in the collection. Even I didn't know I had that many! But just because there are too many ukes in the collection, plus 2 on the way in the next few months, it doesn't mean there aren't more ukes in my future. Thus is the powerful grip UAS can have on someone. :p

So, let's take a look at what I could still possibly want even with too many ukes already in my collection:

1. Custom Moore Bettah: I've been surfing Chuck Moore's website quite a bit lately and would really like to have one of his ukes with some nice inlays on it. Probably a concert size with all koa body. I had tried a couple at Ukulele Friend last year but back then Chuck didn't setup his ukes (he left it up to the players) so those had almost unplayably high action. By all accounts his ukes sound great and he certainly has artistic skills to spare when it comes to custom inlays. I don't know if I'll ever be able to justify getting one, but it will certainly be in the back of my mind.

2. Kamaka tenor: I already have 4 koa tenors, 5 if you count the Pineapple Sunday, so this would be totally redundant. Also, I've tried one in Hawaii last year and was only mildly impressed. But the Jake Shimabukuro nut in me has kept me looking for one at a decent price for a while now. I guess sooner or later I will probably end up with a Kamaka, but I've already passed on several of these at fairly attractive prices. The recent Kanile'a and Kelii tenors I bought, both of which I'm thrilled with, makes it even tougher to pull the trigger on a Kamaka tenor. I guess that's a good thing. It's like I'm exercising some self control or something.

3. MP concert ukulele (Myrtle wood): Another concert ukulele I've been thinking about is one made with myrtle. It appears to be a great and very underrated tonewood. MP prices are very low for a custom built instrument, so I've been thinking about it. Not sure if I'll ever actually order one, but it's another one that's in the back of my mind.

4. Mainland mahogany concert: Yes, even with a bunch of high end and custom ukes in the collection, I actually find myself wanting to try one of these babies. Thus is the power of UAS. While these are just Bushman ukes with rope binding, I find that they look a lot better (and cost less too). Hey, I don't have a solid wood mahogany uke right now, so I could justify this one right???

5. G-String "Sun" concert: I've been interested in one of these for a long time now. Haven't seen one for sale for quite a while. I think G-String concerts are great and this one looks awesome with the Sun inlay. It could be very tempting if one comes up for sale at a reasonable price down the road.

Anyway, there are other ukes I'd love to try. Maui Music, Ko'olau, Risa acoustic, to name three. But the above are ones that I've thought about most frequently. Do I need any of them? Of course not. But I do want them. Which is not good. Better get rid of some ukes before looking at those (how many times have I mentioned about selling ukes? I really should downsize the collection soon...).

While we're on the subject of downsizing (so that I can upsize again), earmarked for sale in the future are: National mahogany, Kiwaya KTS-7, Martin style 1, Kala LN soprano, Honu concert, & Uklectic. I may or may not put these up for sale at various times down the road, but right now these are the ones I think I can live without.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lineup Update

Since I just ranked the ukuleles in my collection, I guess it's time to post a lineup update. Since the last update, the count has grown from 13 to 16 (gasp!). New from that time are a Kepasa Gypsy Rose, Sonny D purpleheart tenor, Kala tenor-neck soprano, Kanile'a super tenor, and a Kelii tenor. Gone are the Pono Ebony deluxe tenor, and the Compass Rose Walnut tenor.

Of the new blood, the Kepasa and Kanile'a super tenor are outstanding, while the Kelii tenor is very nice as well. The Kala is nice for the price and a good knock around uke. The Sonny D, however, is a disappointment. While it's a good uke in its own right, it probably sounds a tick better than a typical Pono but costs almost as much as a Kanile'a. It also has some of the worst workmanship I've seen whether it's a Chinese import or USA/Hawaiian made ukulele. I guess the only reason I got the Sonny D was because it's a purple uke (I bleed Vikings purple), so I can't really complain. Still, given how much it cost ($700+), I don't think it could ever get rid of it because no one will pay close to that amount for it. I guess it'll be my "Vikings Uke" or whatever that means.

As you can see, the couch is barely big enough to accompany the madness. With 2 custom ukes that are in the works for the not too distant future, I'd better get my butt going on moving a few more of these.

Anyway, here are some more pictures (all pictures taken using a Nikon D300 with 17-55mm, 1:2.8 DX lens):

Frontal shot of the entire lineup:

Tenors (L-R): Bluegrass cigar box, Kelii, Kanile'a super tenor, William King LS, Koa Works, KoAloha Pineapple Sunday, Kala tenor-neck soprano, Sonny D

Another shot of the tenors:

Concerts (L-R): Uklectic, Honu XXX, Kepasa Gypsy Rose, Kanile'a super soprano, National Mahogany

Baritone & sopranos (L-R): Bushman Cedartone Bari, Kiwaya KTS-7, Martin style 1

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Updated lineup rankings

I've had the Kelii and Kanile'a tenors that I impulsively bought for a couple of months now, so it's a good time to rank the lineup again, I think.

Beyond number one, which is still the King tenor, the next 3 spots are really a toss up. I lowered the action on the Kanile'a super tenor and slapped on a set of Worth CTs recently and have been really impressed with it. In terms of sound and feel, it is in the category of the 3 custom ukuleles I have, which is saying a lot. Kanile'a has built a truly outstanding instrument here. Between the Kanile'a super tenor, Koa Works tenor, and Kepasa Gypsy Rose, I could probably rank then in any order. Lately I have been playing the Kanile'a a little more than the other two, if only because I've "discovered" the awesomeness of the super tenor.

Gone from the collection since the last ranking is the Compass Rose tenor. It's a great sounding uke, but it wasn't getting played much due to the narrow nut width (well, that and I have too many other ukes). Plus, I figure it was more "marketable" than some other ones I might try to sell. Sure enough, it sold pretty quickly. Hopefully the new owner enjoys it. I might retroactively do a review on the Compass Rose if I feel up for it as I have pictures and sound files for it.

OK, so let's do a top 10 again:

1. William King long scale tenor: Not a surprise that this one is number one. I think the only threat to it is the King long scale concert I have on order. This ukulele looks, plays, and sounds great. And the emotional attachment one has on a custom specified instrument cannot be understated. If I could only keep one ukulele from my current collection (which would suck, by the way), this would, without question, be the one.

2. Kanile'a super tenor: It's a surprise to me that this ukulele could possibly be rated this high on my list. It arrived to me with action that was a bit high and I felt something was missing with the stock Aquila strings. A change to Worth CTs and lowering the action to a more comfortable height transformed this into an elite sounding instrument. I put this ahead of the Koa Works now because it has a bit more punch (or "bass", or whatever you call it), although the Koa Works has slightly more clarity in its sound. It also feels as good to play as the custom tenors, with a nice feedback that makes the top feel like a trampoline. And as for looks, other than the ugly-fat-kid "super tenor" shape, the wood has some medium curls and looks very nice. Consider that after the Microsoft cashback, this only cost me $580 shipped, this is a killer bargain.

3. Kepasa Gypsy Rose: This ukulele continues to impress me with great sound. It's so clear sounding and oh-so-easy to play. The action might have been setup too low though, as I think I still detect a smidge of string buzz sometimes. I also wish I asked about bound fretboard (not sure if Kevin Crossett does it) as the fret ends are protruding slightly. So this uke does have a bit of a "home made" vibe, but it is still a great player. It seems to be easier to get it to sound good plugged into an amp compared to the King tenor too, even though both has the same Mi-Si pickup.

4. Koa Works tenor: Well, I never thought an "off the shelf" Kanile'a could be ranked ahead of this great ukulele, but that's the case for now. From the sound quality perspective, I think the two ukes are equal. The Koa Works has more clarity while the Kanile'a has more punch, and both excels at their respective end of the spectrum. The Koa Works also looks better, with a lot more bling, although the Kanile'a's wood looks just as nice. The main difference is that the Koa Works is almost 4 times more expensive than the Kanile'a. Even at MSRP, the Kanile'a is still only half the price. So that has to factor in somewhere. I would say the Koa Works is the slightly superior uke if price is not considered, but I happen to prefer the type of sound from the Kanile'a a little more, so this is how I rank them today.

5. Kelii tenor: Yeah, I know, it looks like the new ukes are getting more love than the old ones. While it's possible that the "newness" will wear off sometime, I think this Kelii tenor is a real player. It features a different type of sound from the tenors listed above, as you might be able to hear from the comparison I did last week. I think it has a nice "Island" type of sound that makes it pretty unique. Also unique is its beefy neck and slightly long scale. I can definitely feel that the neck is thicker than other ukes I own, yet the whole ukulele is very light and balanced. It sounds like the uke IZ would use to play Over the Rainbow, at least to me. It also has pretty good sustain and now that I've lowered its action, it's a very easy player. I did score this one at a very good post-Microsoft-cashback price of $350, so it's another nice bargin.

6. Bluegrass Ukes tenor cigar box: With Jake's signature on this ukulele, it will always have a spot in my lineup. It still sounds very good and I'm trying a set of D'Addario J71s on it after having strung it with some old style Ko'olau Golds for almost a year. It's still got the mojo and nice tone. Excellent ukulele. (Edit: Initial impression of the J71 on this is excellent. It gives a bigger and fuller sound over the old Ko'olau Golds.)

7. KoAloha Pineapple Sunday: You know the competition is stiff when the Pineapple Sunday can do no better than number 7. It's a great sounding uke with a bit of mandolin and resonator uke in it. I do find that I like a more booming sound that's found on the King and Kanile'a super tenor, so I don't play this one as much. It is also by far the most neck heavy ukulele I have. It's not a problem for me, but it is very noticeable and might bother some people. I still love the pineapple styling though, and the sound is definitely first class.

8. Kanile'a Custom SS: This super soprano has a uniquely deep sound and gorgeous koa. It might be the best looking koa I have other than the koa found on the King tenor. I love the Kanile'a soprano shape and the gold hardware too. A very classy instrument.

9. Honu super deluxe concert: I don't play this uke much anymore, but when I do take it out, I still marvel at the great sound clarity and long sustain it has. It is not as loud as say a KoAloha concert, but it has great tone and outstanding workmanship, possible the cleanest interior I've seen in an ukulele. I believe this is built in Viet Nam, but it rivals the best of the Hawaiian factory made ukuleles.

10. Kiwaya KTS-7: This is a very nice soprano that's styled after one of my favorite ukulele styles, the Martin style 3. It looks great and has outstanding workmanship. It sounds more like a concert ukulele to me than a typical soprano, as it doesn't have the sound that's usually described as "bark". It has nice volume and a clear sound with decent sustain. I'm not much into sopranos right now, but I think this is an excellent soprano.

So that's it for the top 10. For reference, not on the list are a Sonny D tenor, a National concert, a Martin style 1 soprano, a Kala tenor neck soprano, a Uklectic, and a Bushman Cedartone baritone.

Until UAS bites again (which might be very soon...:p), thanks for reading the latest edition of my lineup rankings.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

God Is Love (神是愛)

I asked my 3 and a half year old daughter if she wanted to sing while I played the ukulele tonight and she said yes, so I took a few videos of her singing the Mandarin hymn "God Is Love" (神是愛) while I played the ukulele. She had learned this song a while ago at church and can sing it from memory. In the first video she's holding a Maccaferri Islander that is broken. She seemed to have fun playing it anyway and ended up swinging it around by the end of the take. In the second take video, she's holding the Martin style 1. As you can see she started swinging it around right away. Kind of scary!

Anyway, I hope you enjoy these. Having fun with the ukulele!

Take 1

Take 2

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Me and 4 tenors

I had an idea of doing a demonstration of 4 of the koa tenor ukuleles I have by playing all 4 through a song, and today I took a quick video doing it. I think it turned out decent so I'm posting it tonight.

The 4 tenor ukuleles in this demo are Kelii, Kanilea (super tenor), Koa Works, and William King (long scale tenor). I think each of these ukes are very nice and have its own unique flavor. The King and Kanile'a have a more boomy/punchy sound. The Koa Works has a really sweet and crisp trebly sound. And the Kelii has a woody "island style" sound (whatever that means :p). The King tenor is strung with Worth BTs while the other three are strung with Worth CTs.

By the way, the Kanile'a super tenor is really impressing me lately. I lowered its action to a more comfortable height and switched to some Worth CTs. It now has a sound and feel that is in the category of the custom tenor ukuleles I own. I feel that it occupies a "sonic space" somewhere between the Koa Works and King, sounding more similar to the King due to the punchy/percussive sound it has. I got it for the bargain price of $580 (it was discounted at $779 another 30% off from Microsoft cashback) so I'm obviously very happy with it.

From this video, it's probably the easiest to tell the Kelii apart from the rest. See if you can hear the differences between these tenors.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fit for a King!

I've mentioned a few times on this blog and elsewhere about doing some sort of a commentary on the William King long scale tenor I received in late May, 2008. I guess it's finally time to write something about it. I've already documented the order process of this custom ukulele, so here I will share my thoughts about this instrument now that I've had it for over half a year.

This tenor has a neck joined to the body at the 14th fret. William King builds 14-fret tenor with a longer 18" scale (compared to the standard 17" tenor scale) so the bridge falls at a better spot on the soundboard for optimum energy transfer. This philosophy is shared by other luthiers such as Dave Means of Glyph Ukuleles (Dominator has a long scale Glyph tenor). The neck is reinforced with a carbon fiber insert for strength and stability. His tenor body is also rather large. It is definitely larger than most other tenors I've seen, and I'm sure it contributes to the sound that this instrument produces. The full specs on this tenor can be found on William King's journal.

This ukulele certainly looks great. The main attraction is, of course, the extreme curly koa on the back and sides. It also features a slotted headstock with Waverly tuners and custom inlay. The headstock shape was specified by me and I was very pleased with how it turned out. This is my first experience with Waverly tuners and they are certainly top class tuning machines. There is no slack when turning the tuning key and each tuner just look very high class and well made. The body is finished in gloss lacquer and the overall workmanship is superb. It definitely looks the part as a high end custom instrument. I'll let the pictures on William's journal as well as ones found on this blog do the talking.

As good as this ukulele looks to me, the most important thing is the sound and playability. In both regards, this ukulele is extraordinary. The Swiss spruce top really gives it a very punchy and percussive sound that is extremely crystal clear and powerful whether picked or strummed. It is also very loud, but the sound doesn't get muddy as you strum harder. It has good sustain up and down the fretboard. When playing this ukulele, I can feel the type of vibration feedback that I've only experienced in custom level ukuleles, where you can almost feel the top bouncing like a trampoline. That feedback combined with the great sound really makes playing this ukulele a great experience.

Playability is excellent even though the longer 18" scale is supposed to increase the string tension. The saddle is compensated and the playing action at the 12th fret is very low, approximately 0.10" in height. The neck has a "D" shaped profile with about a medium thickness. I find it very comfortable to hold and feels just right to me. Combine these things with a gentle 18" radius on the fretboard, playing this ukulele is fairly effortless, especially compared to other tenor ukes. For the type of music I enjoy playing, this ukulele certainly provides the sound I'm looking for.

So how does this ukulele compare with other ukes I've played? For me personally, it is the best sounding uke I've ever played. Before receiving this ukulele, that distinction belonged to my Koa Works tenor. Comparing the King with the Koa Works, I would say the sound quality is in the same league, but the King tenor is more powerful, with a punchier sound and more percussive qualities. The difference could be the spruce top as I believe spruce top produces punch and a lot of headroom for volume. For sound demonstrations of the two ukes, here are some videos of the Koa Works and King tenors:

Koa Works: Something, Gently Weeps

King: Desperado, Gently Weeps

Since getting the King tenor, I have bought a Kanile'a super tenor that produces a sound that actually comes fairly close to the King tenor. The Kanile'a is slightly thinner sounding and the clarity is a smidge lower than the King, but is very impressive and does sound similar. This could be attributed the oversized tenor body both ukuleles share and is a tribute to the quality of Kanile'a ukuleles. Playing both back to back, however, it is still obvious which one is the luthier made instrument as the King wins out in sound and feel.

Before ordering and receiving this ukulele, I've heard nothing but the highest praise for William King's instruments. Now that I've had personal experience with it, I can safely say that William is indeed a master at his craft. I've gone ahead and ordered a long scale concert from him confident that I'll be getting another special ukulele when it is completed. If you are in the market for a custom ukulele, I think William King should be near the top of your list of considerations. I don't think I could be any happier with mine.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cecilia cover

Here's a video of me playing Aldrine Guerrero's Cecilia using the Kepasa Gypsy Rose. The tabs are available at Dominator's website.

This song has got this 8 fret pinkie stretch that I can only pull off using a concert sized ukulele. Dominator also tabbed out a tenor friendly version that eschews the 8 fret pinkie stretch, but isn't exactly how Aldrine plays it.

Anyway, here it is:


Several weeks ago a video of Jake Shimabukuro playing a version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" surfaced on Youtube. Upon viewing it the first time I instantly fell in love with it. I'm not a Michael Jackson fan and didn't even know what "Thriller" sounded like, but this almost had the same effect as "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" had on me.

So I really wanted to learn this song. Problem is, there is no tabs for it yet, and I do not have the skills to learn it by ear. The video didn't have a straight on view of Jake's fretboard, so I was able to only learn a few of the first notes from that. Last week fellow Youtube uker clevacheva posted a video of this arrangement that had a decent view of the fretboard, so I tried to learn it from watching this video. After 3 days of practice, the result is what you see below. There are some parts that still doesn't sound right to me, but I'm really excited to be able to "play" this song! I will likely post an updated video of it in the future once I get more proficient at it, but I'm pretty happy to be able to play even at this level after a few days of learning it.

I hope you enjoy, or at least get a laugh out of it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fender ukes? Bring it on!

It was recently revealed that Fender, famous for their Telecaster & Stratocaster electric guitars, will be making ukuleles. The will be offering 3 tenor sized ukuleles, the Pa'ina (solid mahogany w/pickup, MSRP $400), the Koa Nohea (laminated koa, MSRP $300), and the Hau'oli (laminated mahogany, MSRP $200). These ukes appear to be the same tenor ukes currently being cranked out of Indonesian factories except it has the Fender one side tuner headstock. Elderly Instruments have these listed at $300, $200, and $150 respectively, which makes them about the same price as equivalent Pono (PTO-E) and Kala (laminated koa and mahogany) ukes.

These are mostly met with skepticism on various ukulele forums. However, I like the idea of having these Fender ukes possibly being available at local music stores. I mean, if these are indeed of similar quality to Pono and/or Kala ukes, they should be pretty decent. It also could mean a few more ukes to try in person in cities such as Minneapolis, which qualifies as a good thing in my books. Sure, they are just Ponos and/or Kalas with the Fender headstock, but at least the headstock is unique right? It would be easier for them if they just applied the Fender logo on the same headstock as the other Asian made ukes would it?

So, while these definitely will not make you forget your KoAloha or even Pono, at least they should be halfway decent and available to try in person. I certainly hope to see a few of them locally in the near future.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The custom order process - William King tenor

Custom built ukuleles could be considered the ultimate in fine instruments for the ukulele enthusiast. Having ordered five custom built ukes with two having been delivered, I would like to share a little bit about the process of ordering a custom uke. In this case, I will describe the process of ordering the William King long scale tenor ukulele.

I learned about William King's ukuleles mainly from the Flea Market Music bulletin board. It seemed that just about everyone who has played one of William's ukes had nothing but superlatives for them. I also frequently visited his website, where he keeps a journal of his builds and shares many insights into instrument building. It's a fascinating place to visit and I found myself reading the journal entries and anticipating new entries quite often. When I finally decided to order a custom ukulele from him, I came up with a list of specs that I wanted and made a sketch with all the details and sent it to William. The sketch looks like this.

I wanted a tenor uke with the fretboard joined at the 14th fret, which William makes with a longer 18" scale so that the saddle falls at a better spot on the soundboard. I specified a slotted headstock with a custom inlay on it and shaped similar to Jake Shimabukuro's Kamaka headstock. For the body, I wanted a spruce top with curly koa back and sides. Coming up with the specifications for a custom uke is a lot of fun and I really enjoyed coming up with all the details I wanted on this ukulele.

Once William received my list of specifications and the sketch, he sent me a quote for such an ukulele and an estimated completion date. I inquired about this ukulele in November of 2007, and William quoted a completion time about 4-5 months after order placement, putting the completion date around April, 2008. He said he would contact me for any changes I may want to make before starting build in early 2008.

The uke was started in February, 2008 with no changes from the original sketch I sent to William. I did send another sketch to detail the headstock inlay in early February to confirm the headstock shape and custom inlay I wanted. William was hoping to complete my uke in March or April, but the final completion date was toward the end of May. To me this was quite acceptable as the originally quoted time of 4-5 months seemed pretty fast to me anyway, and I've dealt with much longer leadtimes for custom ukulele orders.

During the build process, there wasn't a lot of communication going on between William and I other than emailing him a few questions I had for him such as the neck profile shape (I wanted to make sure it's a "C" or "U" shape and not a "V" shape) and setting up the uke to be high-G. William was always very prompt in his responses and I appreciated that.

Everything was pretty smooth except for a little hiccup on the body binding. I had specified maple fretboard binding and ebony body binding. William had mistakenly bound the entire uke in maple and asked me if that was OK. I reviewed various ukes on his website and decided that for the combination of wood I had, I really preferred ebony binding. So I told him that was my preference and he said it was no problem to switch the body binding to ebony. I can say that on the finished uke, there is no evidence, at least to me, that the binding had been changed, so William did a great job correcting that mistake.

When the uke was completed, William shipped it via Express mail and sent me a tracking number. I received the uke on May 31st and I was definitely extremely happy with the finished ukulele. It was more or less as I've envisioned, and the rosette actually looked better than what I thought it might look like. Of course, the uke played and sounded awesome as well. All in all, it was a great experience. So much so, I've placed an order for a concert sized ukulele from Mr. King. Stay tuned for news on that William King concert ukulele!

Oh yeah, I have been meaning to do a commentary on the King long scale tenor for some time now, perhaps it will happen soon. Stay tuned for that as well. Thanks for the read!

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: