Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's almost like I'm cheating...

That's how I'd describe playing the William King long scale concert ukulele that I received 3 months ago. Why would I say that? Read on!

It was around November of 2008 when I received an email from William King informing me that he is opening his 2009 build list. At the time I had no intention of ordering another custom ukulele as I had been enjoying my King long scale tenor and I also had a DaSilva soprano in the works. However, that email kind of got me thinking about what I'd order if I had commissioned another ukulele from William. Since I already had a LS-tenor from him, I thought it would be good to have a LS-concert. At roughly 16" scale, it would slot in nicely between a standard concert (15") and tenor (17"). I would want it to have a slotted headstock with Gilbert tuners, 16" radiused ebony fretboard, and a Mi-Si pickup. For the body wood material, I wanted something other than koa since the LS-tenor was already made from koa. It didn't take long for me to make a sketch of the ukulele and send it to William for a quote and some suggestions on body wood. I was interested in an Macassar ebony body since I've seen some pretty sweet ebony ukes from William and KoAloha and William responded that he does have a concert Macassar ebony set left. For top wood, he suggested either redwood or Adirondack spruce. I've read a lot about different species of spruce and liked the idea of having a uke with an Adirondack spruce top, so it was decided that the uke will be made from Macassar ebony and Adirondack spruce. I quickly reserved a build slot and started waiting for the completion of the uke.

The ukulele arrived around mid-April and I was thrilled with its looks (pictures here). The Gilbert tuners required a thicker headstock, which I absolutely loved. The headstock of the LS-tenor always seemed a bit thin for some reason, and now I know why. The Macassar ebony looked very classy, with nice chocolate stripes running evenly throughout the body. The Adirondack spruce top looked great too, with nice silking that makes it look almost like curly spruce from some angles. The rosette looked marvelous as well. I had specified an abalone rosette, but William added a thick Macassar abalone border and some b/w/b lines around it to make it look just outstanding to my eyes. It was built with the Nunes style body shape and looked wonderful. I was extremely satisfied with the appearance of this ukulele. Because the uke was built out of Macassar ebony, a very dense wood, it is significantly heavier than similar sized ukes built out of more traditional wood such as koa or mahogany. Of course, that's all relative and even with its added weight, this is still a pretty small instrument we're talking about and I have no issues at all holding it while playing.

When it came time to play it, I have to admit I was initially a little bit disappointed in the sound. Prior to receiving this ukulele, I had been playing the King LS-tenor almost exclusively. While waiting for the LS-concert to arrive, I imagined a ukulele that sounded a lot like the LS-tenor but in a smaller package. I've read that guitars made from Macassar ebony and Adirondack spruce produces a very powerful sound, so I figured that I could expect it to be similar to the LS-tenor, which offered some seriously powerful sound from its koa and Swiss spruce combination. That was decidedly not the case when I first started playing this uke. The sound was very clear and pleasant, but it was very very different from the LS-tenor. It did not have the punchy percussive quality that the LS-tenor had, and it didn't sound especially loud. Instead of a punchy sounding instrument, it had a more complex tone and crystalline feel that was more similar to the KoAloha Pineapple Sunday. I thought it sounded great. The notes feel like they spring right off the fretboard whether its picked or strummed. I feel that the notes have real depth and the sustain is excellent up and down the fretboard. It just feels alive when being played. Basically, the only thing I wished for was a little more volume, and being a spruce top, I figure it would open up from frequent playing, which is something I planned on doing.

Speaking of playing, I don't think ukuleles could be much easier to play than this one. For me personally, I've always found the concert scale to be the easiest of the standard ukulele scales to play. Adding an inch to the standard concert scale proved to have no effects on playability at all, as far as I'm concerned. William had set it up with very nice and low action, and combined with the 16" radiused fretboard, every song I know just felt so easy to play on this ukulele. To wit, I learned Jake Shimabukuro's Piano Forte, which required some serious finger stretches, earlier this year. Of all the ukes that I own, it was far and away the easiest to pull off on this ukulele. Whether I played it on tenors, standard concerts, or sopranos, I couldn't pull off the song as cleanly as I can on this uke. Perhaps it was a combination of the factors above, but I just know that this ukulele makes every song play with less effort on my part. It is truly a great player.

So now I've been playing it almost daily for 3 months, I appreciate its qualities more and more each time. I'm not sure if it has increased in volume or not (and if I've made it sound like it's a quiet uke, it's not), but I've come to realize that's not what this uke is about anyway. It is all about sublime sound quality and great playability. Since I got this uke, even the mighty King LS-tenor has taken a back seat. This is simply the uke I reach for the most when I want to play. Why do I say that it feels like I'm cheating when playing this ukulele? Because it lowers the level of difficulty of playing songs, and it makes my playing sound better than it is. I'm actually kind of afraid that I won't be able to handle playing other ukuleles if I'm too used to this one and have consciously tried to rotate my other ukes more. So I think this is the highest compliment I can give to this ukulele: I almost feel like I'm cheating playing this uke...

For sound files, check out some videos I've posted with it: Stars & Stripes Forever, Piano Forte, Dragon, ghetto Gently Weeps performance.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The King's throne

Ok, so it's just the Ameritage case. Well it finally arrived today to house the King ebony/spruce LS-concert. I decided to order a custom Ameritage case because the LS-concert is just a little too long to fit comfortably in the Oahu case that it came with. The order was placed with Finecases on April 17th, so it took 3 full months to arrive from order placement. I had to specify more headstock room for the LS-concert and decided to change the exterior color to make it more of a custom case. The standard Ameritage case has a burgundy handle and trim with a grey body and brass hardware. I thought I'd make this one all black so the trim and body color were changed to black. The hardware was kept brass because I like the gold color against the black case. Most of the black cases I have has silver hardware, so this would be a little more unique. The interior is the standard burgundy color because it cost too much to change the interior color too and I thought the color worked very well with the black exterior.

Even though I had sent in the measurements of the King LS-concert, I was still a little worried that the uke might not fit well. But I thought the worst case scenario would be that the case has the same dimension as the standard Ameritage case. I had test fitted the King LS-concert in the Ameritage concert case I house the Pineapple Sunday in, and the uke fits, with the headstock right up against the case. Fortunately, the dimensions I sent in was right on and the custom case has room to spare in the headstock area (see picture below).

These Ameritage cases really cost quite a bit of money, as much as some decent solid wood ukes. However, with its humidity control system, it gives me the peace of mind of knowing that my custom ukes can make it through the harsh Minnesota winter and its very sturdy construction ensures that the uke will be well protected against just about anything. So for me, this is money well spent.

Case exterior

Case interior

The King fits nicely in the case

Plenty of headstock room

Mahogany, mahogany, mahogany...

Besides the Hawaiian koa, mahogany is considered the traditional ukulele wood. This probably stemmed from the fact that Martin Guitars built most of their ukes from mahogany in the old days. It also doesn't hurt that mahogany does offer a nice sound and good durability to an instrument such as the ukulele. By most accounts, mahogany isn't really all that abundant anymore. However, most people still consider it the cheaper alternative to koa ukuleles and you will usually find them costing a lot less than comparable koa models.

I love koa as much as the next guy and most of my ukuleles are made from koa. However, right now I do have a trio of very nice mahogany ukuleles, one in each of the 3 GCEA sizes. While they don't compare to nicely grained or curly koa in terms of looks in my opinion, I do find some of the darker colored mahogany ukes to look very classy and beautiful. The three mahogany ukes I have are the Kiwaya KTS-7 soprano, the Collings UC-1 concert, and the LoPrinzi model A tenor. Each of these ukes offer great sound and good playability. To me, a good mahogany ukulele offers a good balanced tone with nice "pop". This is most evident in the Collings among the three I have, but all three offer excellent volume and great tone. Of the three, I'd rate the Collings for having the best sound followed by the Kiwaya then the LoPrinzi. You might notice that they happens to be ranked in order of their retail price (Collings = $990, Kiwaya = $975, LoPrinzi = $550), but I assure you that's purely coincidental. If anything, I think they are priced correctly in relation to each other. And of course, you could argue that the Kiwaya is more expensive given that it is a smaller uke for only $15 less. In my opinion, the Collings and Kiwaya ranks with the best of the factory made ukuleles I've played, while the LoPrinzi is a step above a good import solid wood ukulele but a slight step below a good Hawaiian made solid ukulele.

In terms of looks, mahogany is pretty much a no-nonsense looking wood. While curly mahogany is available, a great majority of mahogany ukuleles have uniform straight grain that doesn't have a lot of variance like koa does. A lot of Asian made mahogany ukes have a ribbon pattern and are fairly light colored. From the picture above you can see that the LoPrinzi is of a lighter color with a bit of the ribbon pattern while the Collings and Kiwaya has a darker appearance and uniform grain. I personally prefer the darker colored mahogany so I prefer the looks of the Collings and Kiwaya over the light and slightly ribboned look of the the LoPrinzi.

Mahogany is very light and has great strength to weight ratio. The Collings in particular feels extremely light compared to its size. I don't quite get that sensation with the LoPrinzi but that may be because it is a larger uke so even if it's light for its size, it still has a little weight to it. The Kiwaya feels about as light as it looks. I also at one time owned a 1930's Martin style 1 soprano that felt light as a feather. It was definitely lighter than the Kiwaya, but the Kiwaya is just as loud and has a more refined and complex sound. To me the Kiwaya sounds a lot like what I expect a concert to sound like.

Koa will always be THE ukulele wood of choice, but mahogany definitely doesn't give up anything to koa in terms of sound. I think every ukulele collection could use a mahogany uke because of its sound qualities and to give a nod to tradition. The three ukes presented here are on the spendy side, but there are plenty of good quality import mahogany ukuleles offered by the likes of Mainland, Ohana, Kala, and Pono.

To see and hear a couple of mahogany ukes, here are videos of the Collings and Kiwaya.

Some "studio shots" of the mahogany ukes:

Kiwaya KTS-7

Collings UC-1

LoPrinzi model A

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


The third member of KoAloha's Masterpiece collection, dubbed the "Juke-alele", was recently unveiled on the internet forums by musicguymic. Having owned the Pineapple Sunday (Masterpiece #1) and played a few examples of the Sceptre (Masterpiece #2), I knew the next one would be a great sounding and playing ukulele. However, the Juke-alele really took me by surprise in terms of appearance. I have no doubt that it's a great sounding and playing uke, but the design is really over the top. Too much so for me, I think. It is literally a jukebox shaped ukulele and for me no matter how great it plays and sounds, it's more or less a novelty item due to the appearance. I don't know the story behind it, and I'm sure there's a wonderful story behind it, but right now the jukebox shape and decorations on this uke doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. What's next? The Speaka-lele (speaker shaped)? How about the Ipod-lele? I guess the possibilities are endless. Don't get me wrong, I love KoAloha and I like their spirit of innovation, but I'm not seeing the point of ukuleles made to look like other non-abstract objects (the Sceptre to me is barely an abstract object).

Who knows, maybe one day I get one of these in my hands and it blows me away and I want one, but I guess based on the pictures I've seen, I have not been moved to desire one. And that's a good thing because in addition to it not feeding my UAS, it's hefty (reportedly $4000) pricetag would definitely take a big bite out of the o'l wallet!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Guava Jammin' on Collings

I wrote about the Collings ukulele so much a while back I almost felt like a Collings salesman. But despite those posts, I had never put up any sound samples. Until now! Yes, I finally got around to making a video with the Collings UC-1. Since I'm running out of songs I know how to play, I had to dig into my "repertoire" for a song that I had learned a while ago. It is Guava Jam by Ka'au Crater Boys as transcribed by Dominator. It's a song that requires a lot of picking and I had never really tried to get it down totally. Since I wanted to post a respectable sound sample for the Collings uke, I've been practicing this one over the last few weeks on and off and I think I can now play it decently. This is a weird song for me because it feels like it should be very difficult, but I can play most of it passably without looking at the fretboard. I guess that's what they call muscle memory or something.

Regarding the Collings UC-1, despite not having played it all that much lately (spending most of my playing time on the King LS-concert), I still feel that this is a top notch uke. It certainly plays well and has that nice mahogany "pop" (for lack of a better way to describe it). I'm very happy that this one is in my collection.

Anyway, here's the video:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sneak peak of a custom case

Shortly after I received my William King ebony/spruce LS-concert, I decided to get an Ameritage case for it. The uke had come with a pretty nice Oahu concert case, but it was an extremely tight fit and the headstock was solidly against the wall of the case. The reason for the tight fit is because the neck is slightly longer than a normal concert with its 16" scale. When ordered through Fine Cases, it is possible to make custom specifications for the case and I took the opportunity to specify the dimensions of the uke for a custom fitting case. Since this is a custom case, I decided to alter the colors slightly as well. The upcharge for exterior and interior color changes from the default color is quite steep at $44 each, so I opted for just an exterior color change to an all black exterior. It may seem pretty boring to specify an all black case, but I have not seen an all black Ameritage ukulele case yet and I wanted to keep with the "ebony" theme of the ukulele itself.

The case was ordered on April 17th and having ordered a custom Ameritage in the past, I knew it would take a while for the case to be completed. I had almost forgot about it but today I was pleasantly surprised by an email from Fine Cases with a few pictures taken by Ameritage of my case. It looks great and I'm looking forward to putting the King concert in its proper throne. I just hope I didn't screw up the dimensions!

Now the pictures:

Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy 4th of July!

It's a day early, but I may not get a chance to post tomorrow, so here's an early happy 4th of July to all of you ukulele lovers out there.

I had learned Stars & Stripes Forever from Dominator's tabs for quite a while now, but never really tried to get it down. I thought this Independence day is finally the time to post a video of this arrangement. I also just got a Dominator T-Shirt so what better shirt to wear playing the ukulele for this video?

Dominator has been a huge influence in my sustained interest in ukuleles. Without his tabs and guidance on how to play some songs, I'm sure I would not have been as interested in the ukulele today as I am now. So I'm forever grateful to Dom for his contributions to the ukulele world. Thanks Dom!

Anyway, here's another imperfect video brought to you by the Ukulele Ghetto! Enjoy.

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: