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.

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