Monday, March 8, 2010

Hands on uke testing in Hawaii

Over the past week, while I was in Oahu, I was able to check out some ukes at a couple of shops. However, I didn't really spend much time trying out any particular instrument, and the little time I did spend were between the two Ukulele Puapua shops and Hawaii Music Supply. Having said that, I did check out a fair number of instruments and I'm just going to put my thoughts on what I tried here.

@ Puapua Waikiki:

-KoAloha concert: I think every KoAloha concert I've ever tried were pretty awesome, and the one I picked up to strum here was no exception. Basically if you want a really good concert sized ukulele, it's difficult to miss with one of these.

-G-String concert: I couldn't say the same about a couple of G-String concert scaled ukes I tried here. Maybe it was the Hilo strings they come with, but they didn't impress me too much with the sound. G-Strings are very well made instruments, but I think you probably needs to try one in person to be sure that you are getting a really good one.

-I'iwi Gold Series concert: This is one expensive ukulele at $2030, but it sounded very impressive. It has a one piece koa top and nice headstock and soundhole inlays. It seems to be well built and had great sound. Excellent volume and punch. I'm not sure I'd drop this kind of money on this uke (there are better values out there), but it's definitely a top level instrument.

-Japanese transparent plastic ukes: There were a couple of Chinese made, Japanese brand transparent Maccaferri copies hanging at the back of the store. I tried them out of curiosity. I had thought their $125 asking price was ridiculous, but I must admit I was kind of surprised by these babies. They are heftier and more solid than I thought they would be. And they didn't sound too bad either. They are at least as good as the Maccaferri Islander I had, and seem more durable. $125 is a lot to pay for made in China plastic, but I think they are actually worth the price for what you're getting.

-Kala travel ukes in soprano & tenor: I tried a couple of these flat ukes. They sounded decent and looked pretty funky from the side. I don't really think they are that much more portable than standard thickness ukes though. I mean, if I can carry my ebony King concert from MN to Hawaii and back in a Kiwaya concert rectangular foam case while dealing with a couple of heavy suitcases and carry-ons without any issues, a thinner body doesn't really add that much portability in my opinion.

-KoAloha 6-string Imaikalani: I've wanted one since visiting KoAloha 2 years ago and trying one they had on the wall. The one here sounded nice but not magical like that one. I guess it could be that I'm harder to impress now, but this uke probably dropped off my want list for now.

-Ko'olau model 1 sopranos: There were a few Ko'olau model 1 sopranos and pineapples there. I tried them very briefly as I'm not that interested in sopranos these days. They seem to be good but nothing special. Perhaps they would sound better if I spend more time on them, but I didn't. The workmanship on all Ko'olaus are first rate though.

-Ko'olau CE-1 koa: I tried this one unplugged and plugged in. It's a very nice semi-hollow body ukulele and sounded great plugged in. There is also decent volume unplugged. I became very interested in this model after trying it here.

-Ko'olau contemporary series tenor: I think this one was made with koa and spruce. I didn't try it for too long, and it didn't make a big impression on me. I'm not sure why. It looks great and I thought it sounded nice enough, but it didn't sound special. Certainly not superior than several tenors I have at home.

@ Puapua Pacific Beach Hotel:

-KoAloha concert Sceptre: The Sceptre is a model I've been interested in, but I was a little disappointed in this particular example. The sound just didn't seem as good as I remember (I last played on about 2 years ago). I think the volume is there but the tone didn't cause me to want one. I guess that's good because I don't think I'll be looking to get one anytime soon now.

-Puapua brand cutaway concert: This is an interesting uke. It is built in Vietnam for Ukulele Puapua. I thought it looked like it was built by the same place as Honu ukes, as it had that general Honu vibe and also had koa tuner buttons like Honus. The guy at the shop told me they were actually built for them by Ayers. I don't know anything about Ayers other than having head the name before. I guess they are more common in Japan. My guess would be that Honu & Ayers are built at the same factory in Vietnam. Anyway this was a pretty good uke. It looked nice and sounded pretty good. There aren't many concert sized cutaways available now, so this is a good option if you favor the concert size but would like a cutaway body.

-LoPrinzi sunburst tenor: I think it was a model A, but I didn't look. The sunburst looked nice enough, but it sounded nothing special to me, so I put it back on the rack pretty quick.

@ Hawaii Music Supply:

-Kala Acacia tenor: I had wanted to get one of these since it had a slotted headstock and Taiwanese acacia wood. But by the time it came out my UAS was more or less in remission and had come to prefer concert sized ukes. So I decided against getting it. I think it's a nice looking instrument and sounded pretty good. Definitely worth the street price these go for ($300 or so).

-Ko'olau model 1 tenor: I thought it was made out of koa, but it could have been another wood. This one sounded OK. I was actually kind of disappointed by it. I thought the T-1 would be a great sounding but affordable Ko'olau, but this one just didn't impress me.

-Ko'olau series 100 concert: This one had some nice koa grain, but again the sound was just OK. The KoAloha I played a Puapua was definitely better sounding. I'm not sure what to think of the lower end Ko'olau models at this point.

-Pono ebony deluxe concert: I was surprised to find one of these here. The price is killer too, at $399. I've been wanting to try this model because on paper it's very similar to my William King ebony LS-concert (Macassar ebony back/sides, spruce top). I wondered if the Pono could actually sound close to the King. After playing it for a bit I was relieved that this uke will never be mistaken for the King. However, that doesn't mean that it's no good. I thought it sounded fine and for its great looks (I love macassar ebony), the price was a steal. If someone (YOU) doesn't get it, I just might have to figure out a way to bring it in. It's a nice little uke.

-Ko'olau Deluxe series Hawaiian mahogany tenor: This is more like it. A slotted headstock deluxe model, this one sounded great. I played it for a while and was very impressed with it. Great mahogany sound and typical Ko'olau workmanship. The only thing is I don't like the looks of the mahogany on this one. It looks similar to the mahogany found on most Pono models, with some striping that I dislike. The only mahogany I find attractive is the ones used by Martin & Collings, with the darker color and no striping. Still, I would say this uke is worth the $2k or so asking price.

-Ko'olau CE-1 Myrtle: This was fresh off the production line and features an awesome looking piece of Myrtle. It also has upgraded gold hardware and ebony fretboard and saddle. It played and sounded as nice as the CE-1 koa I tried at Puapua and is much nicer looking. It was also much cheaper and I ended up buying it.

-Ko'olau Contemporary series macassar ebony/spruce tenor: This is a great uke. It was also hot off the production line and I had the pleasure of being the first to try it out. I was immediately surprised by how light it felt. Previous macassar ebony ukes I've handled are all very heavy, including Pono models and my King concert. I confirmed that lightness by holding the CS in one hand and a Pono ebony deluxe tenor they had on the wall. This CS tenor sounded and looked great. Definitely on par with the best tenors I've played. If I didn't already have too many tenors, I'd seriously consider getting this one. I think someday I might need to get a macassar ebony/spruce tenor from Ko'olau. This one is definitely high on the want list now.

Anyway, that's what I remember from this trip to Oahu. I think my Myrtle CE-1 will probably arrive this Friday, so look for pics and more impressions this weekend.

Aloha!

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

So the G-Strings were meh, and the Koaloha (concert models of both) were great if that's the sound you're after.

I remember the last time it was the opposite. :)

And sure it could be your preferences, but being that you have a GString and a Koaloha, I don't think that's it.

I've played an outstanding GString concert. It was the very definition of what a concert uke should be. It was out of the custom shop and the bling was in the sound.

And then I've played one that was.. meh. Not bad, but ..meh.

The same with Koalohas, although I tend to root for them more. There's one on ebay that I wish I could get. I hope they build more cedar-topped concert ukes at some point.

I've been worried about Koaloha lately. Some of the ukes I see online have some sad looking koa IMHO (maybe the koa sources are drying up). But they're a great company and I'm always rooting for them. My first uke was a Koaloha and I hope one reaches me again someday.

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: