Buyers Guide

With the new resurgence of ‘ukulele popularity, we often receive phone calls or emails from customers requesting advice and suggestions as to which ‘ukulele to buy, what size, what woods are best, methods of construction, what finish, and should I buy one with a pickup (amplification)? All of which are good questions, especially if you are new to ‘ukuleles.
Most ‘ukulele music store dealers and their staff are able and willing to answer such questions, but the following information is just a little “heads up” … a consumer report, you might say, to enable you, the buyer, to successfully find exactly what is good for you, and also to find an ‘ukulele that is within your budget.

Selling ‘ukuleles is now the hot new item. It’s not only the fun instrument these days, but from the store owners end, ‘ukuleles are popular, easy to sell, and they make people happy. But a word of caution. You may have limited access to music stores in the area where you live. But you still can find a store that is dedicated to the ‘ukulele. First of all, what does it mean to have a store that is “dedicated” to the ‘ukulele? It means that they consider the ‘ukulele to be a real, professional instrument. And because of that, they will have a neat and orderly display of ‘ukuleles. They will be clean, dusted off, and tuned up. And they will have an adequate variety of different makes, models, and sizes for you to choose.

Now, let’s address the issue of living in an area with no such store. In this case you can still find the right ‘ukulele. But you will need to do an internet web search. By simply typing in “ukuleles” you will find several reputable “on-line” music stores, some of which specialize in ‘ukuleles. Not being able to physically visit their store you will need to do the above investigation by asking questions as to stock inventory, and even personal information about who they are, and their years of experience with ‘ukuleles. Whether on line, or in an actual store, besides the display, a dedicated … or in other words devoted ‘ukulele store (or part of a music store) will have sales staff that are knowledgeable about every instrument in the store. They will know who made it, what it’s made of, how it was made, the difference in sizes, tonal differences of various woods, bracing, lining, finishes, tuners, strings, and amplification. If they either don’t know, or don’t seem very interested, look elsewhere.

Now, let’s move on to the buying. Aside from who you buy your ‘ukulele from, here is more information that will help you to make the right choice. As with the purchase of anything it’s good to do a little research. Let’s now discuss sizes and woods.

Construction: In other words, craftsmanship. On the market today, as with every manufactured product, there is a wide selection of quality. And as you have noticed, you get what you pay for. So if you still mentally live in the day when the accepted price for an ‘ukulele was $59 to $99, and now you’re willing to “stretch” your budget, to say $199, your purchase will be… ok, but nothing great. But maybe ok is good for a starter. Different cultures have different viewpoints on quality and what they are willing to pay (or make). In many lands people have become a “throw away” society, and thus will say “good enough” whereas another type of people will say “I want quality that will last, something that I can pass on to my children.” It’s not a mystery why one brand of automobile falls apart in 10 years and another lasts over 20. But one good thing is that the overall quality of ‘ukuleles has continually improved. After 50 years of producing inferior quality guitars, and toy ‘ukuleles, the Asian manufacturers have now been taught correct stringed instrument techniques. So an ‘ukulele in the $300 to $500 market will be much higher quality today than 10 or even 5 years ago!

 Look:  Examine the overall joinery, in other words, how was the instrument is put together. Tops and backs to sides. Is it cleanly joined and properly glued together? Are binding and the decorative purfling strips next to the binding neatly inlayed and glued. Is the neck attached correctly, or is it crooked, with gaps between the neck heel and body, sometimes caulked with putty. Look inside the instrument. Braces should be cut smooth and tucked into the lining. The lining is the strips along the edges, inside the instrument. These are necessary because they are a glue ledge for the top or back to stay together to the sides. Linings need to be wide enough to provide an adequate surface for tops, backs, and sides to remain glued together for many years. And linings should be also sanded smooth. Lining strips are usually thin pieces of either mahogany, spruce, or some other light weight wood, with slots uniformly cut along the entire surface. The cuts, called kerf cuts (a cheap instrument will have a very thin lining with no cuts) are done for several reasons. For one, it lightens the weight of the strip, but a more important reason is to allow the strip to easily be bent around the entire shape of the body, both top and back. And a sign of professional craftsmanship is when you see the kerf cuts on the outside (exposed side), not the side facing in and glued to the sides. Most builders have finally figured this out, installing the flat, uncut, unkerfed side next to the sides of the instrument, not the other way around.

Let’s go back to the outside of the instrument. Check the fingerboard. Frets will be crowned, or rounded evenly, and the edges will have a somewhat rounded beveled angle. And as you run your fingers along the frets they will be smooth, really smooth. However, keep in mind that although the instrument may have been fretted correctly, with fret ends smooth, after being in a very dry environment, the fingerboard, usually made of ebony or rosewood will shrink, however the fretwire, being metal, will not, and so now fret ends will protrude and feel sharp again. If this is the case it can easily be corrected. In most music stores the air conditioning is cranked up so high that every instrument suffers from dehydration, and thus fret ends, which may not have been sharp when the instrument was built, are now rough. High end music stores are sensitive to these problems and have a small repair shop in the back where these issues are cared for on a continual basis.

Finally, with reference to fingerboards, sight down the board to check the level, the evenness. If it appears like a railroad track in the mountains then assume that it was not dressed, or leveled. This will cause buzzing. Even when dressed or leveled properly there is sometimes buzzing, again, easily corrected by any qualified music store.

A few other things to look for in craftsmanship is nuts and saddles. The nut holds the strings up near the headstock, and the saddle holds the strings in the bridge, on the body. Most nuts and saddles are plastic, even on supposedly high end instruments, but a better choice is bone, a harder material for better conductance of tone, or transmission of vibration.

Tuners: which are the tuning devices on the headstock should be both good quality and also installed even and in line.

Action: that is the height of the strings off the fingerboard should be comfortable. But remember, your ‘ukulele is like a little classical nylon string guitar. Nylon strings vibrate in a wider circle of movement than steel strings, so if your action is too low you will lose tone and volume. But if too high, it not only becomes difficult to play, but due to excessive stretching of a string, when “fretted” then the intonation (in tune up the fingerboard) will become too sharp.

Another issue to look for is the quality of finishes, which will be covered later in this discussion. But first, a brief review of the different sizes of ‘ukuleles.

Size: ‘Ukuleles are made in four different sizes. Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritone. No one size is better than another, just different. The Soprano was the original ‘ukulele, and still preferred by many. (Actually, the first ‘ukuleles were a similar instrument, but called a braguinha, and made in Portugal). But they all had a light, sweet, bouncy sound, the traditional bright ‘ukulele sound. The Concert size came a few years later, in the early 1900’s as an upgrade, not so much in quality, but due to a slightly larger body, it produced a bigger tone and more volume. But the Concert size is still considered one of the “little” ‘ukuleles.

Next up the line is the Tenor size ‘ukulele. The tenor certainly broke away from tradition, but considering that the ‘ukulele has been around approximately 125 years, and the tenor for about 80, it’s not really a new invention. And nowdays the Tenor and Concert size are the most popular. When you play a tenor for the first time you will know why it has become so popular. Again, it’s not better, just different. In this case, a Tenor ‘ukulele has a much bigger tone and volume. A good quality tenor ‘ukulele will almost begin to sound like a miniature classical guitar. Some like it, some still prefer “little” ‘ukuleles.

Finally, in sizing, is the Baritone ‘ukulele. This one is a miniature classical guitar, minus two strings. The tuning is exactly the same as the top four strings of a guitar. In most cases a Baritone ‘ukulele is preferred and played by guitar players who love the sound of an ‘ukulele. Although big, with a deep tone and loud volume, the Baritone is still an ‘ukulele. And the Baritone too has been around for many years.

Woods: As with guitar making, there are hundreds of different woods available to make ‘ukuleles. And the majority of woods sound good, not better than one another, just different. One problem, if you want to consider it a problem, is that, although the ‘ukulele originated in Portugal, it became popular in Hawaii. And Hawaii has a very unique and beautiful wood called Koa. Koa became the most common wood for ‘ukulele making. This does not mean that Koa is the best wood for ‘ukuleles, but it did become, and still is, the most popular.

For Hawaii manufacturers, Koa is still the most accepted and requested wood used for ‘ukuleles, and guitar and ‘ukulele manufacturers throughout the world are buying all of Koa they can find, at premium prices. It’s interesting to note that the largest volume production of good quality ‘ukuleles were made by the Martin Company, the majority of which were made of Mahogany. In the early 1900’s they soon realized the difficulty and cost of acquiring Koa wood, and so used Mahogany for 99% of all their future production. And this was not a bad thing, because amongst luthiers, the name given to stringed instrument builders, the many species of Mahogany is the woodworkers dream wood. Workability, weight, flexibility, and thus tone and volume make Mahogany a nearly perfect stringed instrument wood. So, the point is, although Koa is considered the “authentic” and “traditional” ‘ukulele wood, if you are looking for good tone and volume, Koa is not the only choice of woods. And if being “green” and environmentally conscious is important, including the use of sustainable and replenishable woods, then remember that Koa is becoming scarce. So, besides it’s availability, the cost of Koa will continue to rise.

It’s good to do a little research on instrument tone woods. At any good ‘ukulele music store you will find a variety of woods being used for the ‘ukuleles they have on display. Besides Mahogany, you will see rosewoods, ebony, maple, myrtle, and other strange and unusual woods like primavera (kula), toona (‘ula), spruces, and cedars. Spruce or Cedar may be combined with any other hardwood, which then produces a different tone. Because spruce and cedar have a different cell structure, and different tensile flexibility, they vibrate more freely. Bass notes will be deeper and clearer, and treble notes will be brighter and clearer (though if not cut correctly, bass notes can become “barrel like” and treble notes can sound thin and “tinny”).

Now a note about the use of solid woods verses laminates (plywood). The majority of mass produced ‘ukuleles (and guitars) are made of plywood laminates. And this is what you find in abundance in most music stores. They are  less expensive  and if made right, they sound ok.   And if you have a very low budget, this may be the option for you. One benefit is that they are less fragile than solid wood instruments. Because of cross lamination of several pieces of wood there is less chance of cracks and separations.

One drawback is both flexibility and the natural aging of woods, both of which do not occur as well in laminates. Because of the layering of very thin veneers, with glue between each veneer, natural flexibility is minimal. Natural and open cell structure, as found in solid woods is greatly restricted, again with many layers of thin woods and lots of glue. However, for the customer who is not sure if their new found ‘ukulele enthusiasm will florish or fade, a laminate ‘ukulele may be the best choice.

A few production made ‘ukuleles are now solid woods, and the majority of these are made in a very limited quantity, by very high quality luthiers. However, just because it’s made in a small shop, one at a time does not always insure high quality. Again, a qualified music store salesperson will know and be able to steer you in the right direction.

Finishes: The term “finish” refers to the coating, either brushed on, or more often sprayed on the instrument when complete. A sprayed on finish is composed of various chemical compounds, designed for strength and durability. It can be formulated to produce either a high sheen (gloss) or low sheen (satin). Some prefer gloss and some prefer satin. A gloss finish will enhance color and grain patterns, however if applied too thick, can also hinder tone and volume. Important also to note is the method of application.

Most ‘ukuleles on the market today have a simple and quick inexpensive method of coating, which consists of two to three coats of a sprayed finish, leaving the surface glossy but somewhat dimply due to open grain pores. Also, the finish will appear “cratered” or as they say, “orange peeled” due to the appearance of an orange peel. For this type of finishing, the instrument is complete, and for many buyers, they are satisfied. On higher end instruments wood grain pores are filled flat, and after each series of coats there is a leveling process, then a series of coatings again, and then a final wet sanding to a perfect glass like level and final buffing with rubbing compounds which result in a beautiful mirror like finish.

Some prefer a satin or matte finish. Sometimes chosen because of affordability, and sometimes for the soft, natural “vintage” patina look. In either case, if applied professionally, it will be flat and level, clean and neat.

Another finish that is occasionally used is termed “varnish” finish. It will be sold as “hand rubbed” or “french polished.” This is usually a shellac resin based finish, with a variety of different compounds. In most cases the application methods are very labor intensive. A varnish finish is very very thin, and thus the least inhibiting of tone and volume of your instrument, i.e. produces the best sound. But also, due to the fragile nature of a thin finish, it will be more fragile and easily damaged. This is the finish of violins in the past. If applied correctly this finish will be beautiful, not as perfect and blemish free as a sprayed on lacquer, however it should still be clean and neat. Be aware though that the extensive labor involved will result in a much higher cost for your ‘ukulele.

Pickups: A brief overview of amplification can be helpful. Simply put, if you will never need to amplify your ‘ukulele, don’t waste the money on a pickup. However, if you think you might possibly someday want a pickup, and you have an option of buying an ‘ukulele in the store with or without the pickup already installed, it’s usually much cheaper to buy one with the pickup, rather than paying to have it installed later.

If you have decided to buy an ‘ukulele with a pickup you will have several choices available. An instrument pickup is either considered “passive” or “active” which simply means that it either receives a direct vibration signal to the amplifier, or indirectly passes through a “boosting” device called a pre-amp which is powered by a battery. The “active” system normally produces a stronger, more powerful signal than a “passive” system. However, if the “active” system is poor quality then the signal is strong, but may sound inferior to a passive system. A “passive” pickup system is able to produce a very clean sound, depending again on the quality of the pickup. And for a more powerful “active” signal you can similate, the same high quality of an installed “active” system by plugging into a small outboard preamp, thus converting passive to active, without having to put a preamp inside the instrument.

This may all sound complicated, probably because it is, and continues to become more complex each year with more options. But it seems that nearly everyone wants the ability to play amplified. Again, a good music store sales person should be very knowledgeable about pickups.

As to pricing, unless you plan to buy a toy for child, who will eventually throw it away, stay away from ‘ukuleles under $100. Laminate plywood ‘ukuleles normally run between $150 to $500. And solid wood ‘ukuleles are usually $300 up to many thousands of dollars. If you want a high quality ‘ukulele remember that, aside from professional craftsmanship, you may be paying for cosmetic adornment. Which is ok, but if fancy stuff is not important to you, remember that most manufacturers make less adorned models, yet retain high quality. 

Well, now you are prepared to shop. In today’s ‘ukulele market your choices are greater than ever before. We here at Ko’olau made the Pono line to be the highest quality affordable solid wood ‘ukulele. We hand make the Ko’olau line and put our love an devotion into all that we do and give. We truly appreciate our customers and hope that one day we can give you a lifetime Hawaiian instrument!

Aloha from the Ko’olau and Pono Ohana!