As most of you who read this blog knows, I've ordered a few custom ukuleles. The current count of custom ordered ukuleles in my stash of ukuleles is 5. While I've enjoyed each of these custom ukuleles very much, on every one there are probably things that can be improved upon or done differently based on what I know after the completion of each ukulele. I think ordering a custom ukulele is far from an exact science and a lot can be learned from one order to another. Of course, not everyone is insane like me and order multiple custom ukes. I know for many people a custom ukulele would be the end-all ukulele in their collection, so I think it might be of some help to some of you out there to learn about what I think I could have done differently with each of my custom ukulele orders.
I will present this in chronological order of ukulele received.
1. William King Long-scale Tenor
This was actually the 3rd custom ukulele I've ordered, but it was the first one completed and delivered to me. When I placed the order for this one, I had already ordered a Glyph mezzo soprano and a Kepasa Gypsy Rose, so while I had never received a custom built ukulele at that point, I had some experience with ordering one. For this ukulele, I wanted a tenor with a slotted headstock that resembled Jake Shimabukuro's Kamaka headstock. I wasn't going for an exact copy of the headstock so I just specified a flat top design with a custom inlay. Later on I learned that Jake's ukulele had Gilbert tuners that contributed to the chunky look that I loved so much about his ukulele's headstock. This would remain my biggest regret for this ukulele. I really wish I specified Gilbert tuners at the time. What I should have done was at least checked with William King on that possibility (turns out he was willing to go with Gilberts when I ordered my second King ukulele). As it stands, the uke has Waverly tuners, which are really nice but I found that I vastly prefer Gilbert tuners in both functionality and look. With Waverly tuners the headstock felt a bit thin and narrow.
Another lesser regret with this ukulele would be the lack of abalone purfling on the top. I guess this wouldn't have mattered because I would have likely ran out of funds to add that detail anyway. But I've found over the years that I really like abalone purflings. Other than the tuners and the purfling, I think this ukulele turned out very well. It's obviously a great instrument and really has everything else I want in a uke.
2. Kepasa Gypsy Rose
This was the second custom ukulele I ordered and also the second one to arrive. I ordered this one because I liked the Maccaferri style this ukulele offered. I decided to skip the extra cost on a slotted headstock and went with a custom design headstock. I basically drew a picture of the headstock shape and sent it to Kevin Crossett. The headstock turned out better than I could have hoped for, so that was very good. The only thing I kind of regret on this ukulele is that I didn't ask about the possibility of adding fretboard bindings. I'm not sure if Kevin actually build any ukes with that option, but this uke kind of needed it because the fret wires stick out ever so slightly. Since it doesn't have fretboard bindings, I ended up trying to file down the fret ends but to this day it still sticks out a little bit. It isn't terrible, but it's there. Other than that, the only other thing I might have done differently with this ukulele is perhaps pay a little more for more highly figured walnut. I'm not sure if it would have even been available, but some curly walnut would truly make this ukulele look special.
3. DaSilva Santos Replica
This ukulele is not truly a custom because Mike DaSilva builds many of these. One can specify a couple of different things here and there, such as headstock decoration and color of the pins, but they are all more or less the same. One thing I specified was a wide 1.5" nut because that's my preferred nut-width. The finished ukulele had a 1-3/8" nut despite Mike confirming at order placement that 1.5" nut is OK. I wasn't overly thrilled with that at the time, especially since this uke took about 6 more months to build than promised, but now that I think about it, a 1.5" nut on this uke probably would be a little too wide. So really, there isn't much regret for this uke. I think it looks fantastic, and it's really loud for such a puny ukulele. But maybe the regret with this one is that perhaps I shouldn't have ordered it. I think it's a really nice ukulele, but I really don't play sopranos too much so this one hasn't seen much playing time. Still, I think it's a keeper. It's simply very well made and very unique, even if it has several cousins sprinkled around the world.
4. William King LS-concert
This was the 4th custom ukulele I've ordered and by this time, I've had some experience in both ordering custom ukes and buying off the shelf ukes. So I had a pretty good idea on what I wanted. The finished ukulele was pretty much spot on except for two details. William had missed the bound fretboard and a wave shaped fretboard end I had specified. Initially I was pretty bummed about the lack of bound fretboard, because I really like them and feel that a custom ukulele really should have bound fretboards. I also am worried that the frets would stick out like the Kepasa Gypsy Rose. William did offer to build another one given the errors are not correctable by the time the uke was finished, but I thought I'd just live without them. The lack of fretboard bindings turned out to be a non-issue, because the ebony fretboard was well seasoned and never developed any shrinkage. The sides of the fretboard remain very smooth to this day, so functionally the fretboard bindings aren't missed. In fact, I think the uke might look more "together" without the koa bindings I had originally specified. Since I went with no position markers on this uke, an ebony fretboard without bindings might offer a better look.
As for the wave at the fretboard end, it wasn't a big deal to me since I wasn't sure how it would look anyway. Given the serious and somewhat classical appearance of this ukulele, I think it was probably good that the wave did not make it. Other than these two things, I don't think there are any regrets with this one. By the time I ordered this ukulele I had quite a bit of knowledge about ukuleles and pretty much specified it with everything I'd want in a custom uke. Perhaps if I had more funds I would add some abalone purfling to the back of the ukulele, but that's about it.
5. Glyph Mezzo Soprano
Well, this was actually the first ever custom ukulele I've ordered. Of course, at the time I ordered it, I knew it would be about a 3 year wait. The first sketch I sent to Dave Means is completely different from the ukulele pictured here, because halfway through the waiting time, I decided that I want a small uke that resembled Jake Shimabukuro's Kamaka. (I plan to dig out the sketches for this uke and do a post on it) After the design change, I made a couple of minor changes that included changing the tuners to Gilbert tuners from Waverly tuners and adding the wave-shaped fretboard end that my King concert was supposed to have to this ukulele. I also asked Dave about making a wave shaped bridge to match the fretboard end.
As you may have read from the last few posts I made, I really love this ukulele. However, there is one thing I wish I had added. That would be pinstripes on the sides of the bindings. I did get red pinstripes bordering the inside of the abalone top purfling and on both sides of the abalone rosette, but I should have also asked for pinstripes on the sides. It would have made the uke look more high end. Also, perhaps I could have asked about headstock bindings, as Jake's uke has them, but it was something that did not cross my mind at all. Other than these, the ukulele turned out great. Dave did miss a couple of minor things though. The "wrap-around" position markers was deleted by me at one point, but the finished uke have them. I was going for a cleaner look when I deleted them, but I guess I kind of like them now, so much like the items William King missed on my King concert, it may have turned out for the better. I had also at one point changed the fretboard binding from maple to koa, but the finished ukulele has maple bindings. When I made that change I figured that maple has a bit too much contrast to the ebony fretboard, but it turned out OK and did not stick out as much as I thought it might.
Even though there has been plenty of "regrets" in my custom ukulele ordering history, one thing that's certain is that each of these ukes have sounded great to me. And I think that's the main reason to get a custom, to get a great sounding uke made and tuned by a master builder.
One question you might ask me is that why don't I order fewer customs and put more features and details in to them? I'm not sure. Each of these custom orders occurred at a point where I had enough funds for them and had something fairly specific in mind (well maybe not when I ordered the Glyph), so I'm not sure if they could have been consolidated into fewer more decked out customs. But one thing is for sure, I've had a lot of fun ordering and designing these customs and even more fun playing them!
Anyway, if you're thinking about ordering a custom ukulele, perhaps you can learn a thing or two through my "regrets" above and order the most ideal custom possible. If nothing else, perhaps it would get you thinking about what you might have overlooked when putting together your specs. It usually takes quite a bit of patience when you order a custom ukulele (did I mention that the Glyph took 3.5 years?), but the satisfaction and joy of receiving a ukulele you've sketched so long ago really can't be described until you've experienced it.