Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ukulele Smackdown: Mainland vs. Collings round 2 - Appearance & Workmanship Part 1

Let's dive right in to the appearance and workmanship of the Mainland and Collings concert ukuleles. Starting from the headstock.

The Mainland slotted headstock mahogany concert features, as its name suggests, a slotted headstock. It's a pretty well executed slotted headstock with a nice conventional Martin-esque shape. It is formed with fairly sharp edges, which I personally prefer to the softer edges found on some imports. I think it could have benefited with a bound headstock with rope binding similar to the regular mahogany concert that Mainland offers. I'm not sure how easy it would have been for the binding to be added to the headstock, and perhaps the additional cost would have been prohibitive, but it would have really completed the look of the ukulele. As it stands, it's a good looking headstock that's perhaps a bit plain thanks to the lack of binding and the rather large space between the Mainland logo and the slots. I had some inlay stickers sitting around so I put one in that space as you can see in the picture below. I'm not sure it looks so good but maybe I'll leave it there for a little while.

Front of the slotted headstock (w/ghetto sticker)

Back of slotted headstock

As far as functionality goes, I feel the headstock contains perhaps the biggest weak point of the ukulele, which are the tuners. These slotted headstock tuners are really cheap. My daughter has one of those $30 Makala dolphin ukes and upon examining the tuners on her ukulele, I'm pretty sure they are from similar sources, if not the same source. These tuners do work, but they feel pretty rough in their operation, and each tuner has a different level of roughness to them. They also look pretty rough, as you can see the machining marks on the "stem" of the tuning buttons. I certainly don't expect Waverly or Gilbert tuners on these ukes, but I think it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect something of similar quality to Grover tuners that are found on plenty of inexpensive imports. On the plus side, these tuner sets appear to be specifically made for ukuleles as they have two tuners on each mounting plate. I guess the bottom line is that they work and hold the tuning, so that is probably all that should matter for this ukulele. But that doesn't change the fact that these tuners are of pretty low quality.

Here is the tuner on the pink Makala dolphin uke.

Notice the similarity between the Mainland tuner and the Makala tuner.

Mainland tuners on mounting plate made for 2 tuners.

Besides the tuners, the slots look good but all four strings touch the slot ramps on their way from the nut to the tuner posts. Some luthiers consider this a no-no since the strings are touching part of the headstock and could rub against the finish and either scrape the headstock or damage the strings prematurely. However, this condition exists on my two William King ukuleles that have slotted headstocks. I'm of the opinion that while it is not desirable to have the strings touch the headstock, and my King tenor does have some scrapes near the slot ramps, it isn't a big issue with nylon string instruments and a trade off for not having the slot ramps being too close to the nut, causing possible weakness in the neck. This is, of course, very debatable and not everyone will share this opinion, but it's something that does not bother me personally and I don't anticipate any problems arising from this on the Mainland concert.

The headstock of the Collings is fairly radical. My copy of the UC-1 has what's called a "haircut" headstock shape. The headstock is formed perfectly and has a rosewood veneer with the Collings logo inlaid with plastic. It also has sharply finished edges like the Mainland, but there's an air of perfection about the work on the edges of this headstock. It's hard to describe in words but it really is perfectly formed like it was made in a precision mold instead of hand carved at the Collings factory (I can't verify this, but as far as I know, Collings has a person that specifically does the haircut headstocks). I find the headstock to be very attractive and unique, and it was a big reason why I bought this uke at the time since future UC-1's after the initial production run has the traditional Martin headstock shape.

Front of Collings headstock

Back of Collings headstock

This headstock features PegHeds tuners that look like violin friction tuners but actually are 4:1 geared tuners. These are some of my favorite tuners because they offer the precision of geared tuners but because of the much closer gear ratio, it doesn't take as long to change strings as a few turns are all that's required to tune it up. PegHeds can look a bit plasticky up close, especially the buttons. But Collings did a nice job in removing the mold lines on those plastic buttons so they really don't appear that much like plastic (I know PegHeds have those mold lines because my Kepasa Gypsy Rose's PegHeds have them). Just be looking at this headstock you can tell how much attention to detail Collings puts into their instruments.

Note the lack of mold line on the plastic tuning button.

Moving down to fretboard, both ukes have a 1-3/8" nut, which is narrower than my preferred 1.5" nut width. However over time I've found that I can manage this nut width just fine. The Mainland has a rosewood fretboard with simulated pearl position dots (I'm guessing that it's not real mother of pearl at this price). The rosewood appears to be of good quality and doesn't seem to be much different than the rosewood used on the Collings. There are no side position dots, which is expected at this price point. However, I can't help but think that it wouldn't take much to have some side dots (the Collings appears to have silver painted-on side dots) and that would really make the Mainland appear more upscale. The fret wires ends are not exposed at the edge of the fretboard, making it something like a pseudo bound fretboard. However, the top edges of the fret wires are not quite finished perfectly, and I can feel a little bit of jaggedness when running my fingers up and down the fretboard. It's not bad, but it's there, and I definitely feel it.

Notice the fret ends are not exposed on the edge

The Collings feature a radiused fretboard. Collings did not advertise the actual radius of the fretboard as far as I know, but I think it's around 16"-18" since it looks about the same as my King concert's radiused fretboard. The radius is supposed to make it easier to fret bar chords by making the fretboard so that it curves with your fingers. I personally like radiused fretboards and believe that it does make a small difference in playability. However, I don't think it's a night and day difference and I can see some people not feeling the effects of the radiused fretboard at all. There are plastic position dots on the fretboard with the dots getting smaller as you go up the frets. There are side markers that appears to be painted silver. These markers are not fancy but are nicely done and do their job. The fretwires are exposed at the edge of the fretboard. However, unlike the Mainland, I do not feel any jaggedness or protrusions whatsoever. This is an exceedingly well finished fretboard.

You can see the side dots and the radius from this view

The neck of the Mainland joins the body at the 14th fret. This makes it a good ukulele for music that requires playing past the 12th fret. Since I enjoy playing a lot of tunes that go past the 12th fret, the Mainland offers better playability in this regard. The neck itself is a two piece construction, with the heel being a "stacked heel", which means it is made from two pieces of wood glued together and then shaped into the heel. The headstock is one piece, which is pretty rare in this price range. But since this ukulele has a slotted headstock, that pretty much prevents the normal two piece headstocks found in most production ukes. Structurally, I don't think there are any differences between a stacked heel and a one piece heel, but a one piece heel/neck is more high-end since the neck is made out of one piece of wood instead of gluing multiple pieces of wood together. The construction of the neck is decent. The neck has a somewhat flat "C" profile and feels pretty good in the hand but does not feel perfectly rounded. I can feel the contour of the neck where the curvature changes very slightly as I run my hand up and down the back of the neck. The heel is also not symmetrical on my uke, which probably can be attributed to lower workmanship standards. Despite the things mentioned above, I don't have any issues with the neck of this ukulele. It's very playable and more than sufficient for it's price.

You can see the seam of the stacked heel on the Mainland

The neck of the Collings joins the body at the 12th fret. I believe this is a nod toward the traditional ukulele such as vintage Martins and Kamakas, where they are also joined at the 12th fret, as well as Collings belief that the 12th fret neck-join places the bridge at the sweet spot of the soundboard. I don't have enough knowledge to say whether a 12-fret neck or a 14-fret neck makes a better sounding instrument, but in my experience, I think 14-fret neck joins can make very good sounding instruments. By having the neck join at the 12th fret, it makes the ukulele a little less friendly if you like playing around the 12th fret region as access is more limited compared to the 14-fret join of the Mainland. I would personally have liked the Collings to have a 14-fret neck, as it would make it easier to play some of Jake Shimabukuro's tunes, but I can also respect the belief that a 12-fret join results in a better sounding instrument. The neck itself is of a one piece construction. Given how relatively expensive this ukulele is, I would have expected nothing less. The heel has a fairly low profile, so it does help slightly with higher fret access. The neck is very well carved with a nice "C" profile. It's smooth up and down the neck and pretty much perfectly rounded. It is comfortable to hold and has a high quality look.

Collings' one piece heel

Well, this post is getting to be pretty monstrous, so I'll end it here and write about the rest of the ukulele's appearance and workmanship in the next post. I think one thing that is becoming clear is that the Collings clearly has the upper hand in terms of workmanship. I doubt this comes as any surprise to anyone, give the big price gap, but it is something to keep in mind as you continue to follow the Ukulele Smackdown.


Chuck Wilson said...

I received my Mainland slotted head concert last Thursday. To me, the tuning machines are nice. To find a 4 string machine set, they probably had to go to suppliers of cavaquinho parts, and the choices may be limited. The Mainland machines are nicer that the cavaquinho tuning machines I have seen.
I agree that binding on the headstock would have been a big plus. It looks rather plain. I have ordered an "inlay" sticker to help.
The strings touching the slot bevel is not a big deal. The same is evident on my classical guitar, cavaquinho, Ronroco and Charango.
The only thing that drives me crazy is when a uke comes with no side position dots on the neck. I put them in myself, but I should not have had to do that.
I think it is unfair to compare the Mainland against the Collings. They are at such different price points.
For the money, I would recommend the Mainland ukulele. I am very happy with the sound quality, projection and neck playability.

GX9901 said...

Hi Chuck,

I agree that it's perhaps unfair for the Mainland to be compared to the Collings, but that's precisely why I'm doing this comparison. I want to look into what are the differences between two instruments that are fundamentally the same but separated by a huge price gap.

And the word about those tuners. They are truly bottom of the barrel stuff (I'm sorry). But I did say that they work, which is all that matters for a great majority of people out there.

Anonymous said...

I think the comparison you are doing is really good. It's been said size doesn't matter and that probably applies to the amount of money spent too. It will be interesting to hear the differences. Also thanks for sharing how the Kings strings touch too. Ukester Brown

Which uke should I bring on my next trip to Oahu???

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If you could steal one of my ukes, which one would it be???

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Poll: How often do you play the ukulele???

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Poll: What's your favorite type of headstock???

Poll: The new basic Collings concert uke (UC-1) sells for about $1k, your reaction is: