We all have our own stories… A customer asked me today how I can be so confident recommending a particular Uke, I have been around the block a few times and I figure a rainy September evening is the perfect time to tell you all what Ukes I use and have used.
Forgive the self indulgence but just recently, more and more customers I speak to on the phone or in the shop ask me what I play, which Ukuleles I have chosen myself in the past and what equipment I use when I am out and about playing the Ukulele.
Those that know me or have read some of the earlier blogs we have done here at SUS (ukulele.co.uk) know that I get quite carried away with my equipment. Before my son was born I was constantly chopping and changing what I performed or recorded with so my own experiences may not relate fully to everybody. For example; I play a lot of restaurants and weddings as a solo performer so I never have to worry about other Ukuleles in a large group overshadowing me. Handling hundreds of different Ukuleles every year at work has also improved my knowledge to the point that I can accept that there isn’t really one instrument that does everything but there is definitely instruments that fit certain requirements perfectly.
I am a little ashamed to admit that being left handed, on several occasions I have purchased Ukuleles or Guitars largely to help me get better at my job only to end up selling them 3-6 months down the line because they aren’t getting used as much as I would like. I fell in love with a second hand Kamaka last year – I came to work early for days just to play it – but ego has a funny way of placing a little devil on your shoulder and the reason I eventually chose to buy it was so that when a customer asked me what Ukes I have had I could give an honest opinion and say that I have had KoAloha’s, Kanile’a and Kamaka ukes and I know what worked best for me in certain situations.
So what have I played?
So, I use Ukuleles plugged in to an amp and accompany myself vocally 95% of the time. I tend to play low G so that I have a nice deeper note to root my voice with and find Concerts to be the most comfortable but for some reason have owned more Tenor’s. I think on the whole, the Tenor is a better soloist instrument because a good fingerpicked Tenor through a decent amp can sound as thick as a classical Guitar whereas the Concert is at its best when you strum it but can sometimes feel a little bit underpowered when you have to finger pick one on stage.
Cursley Tenor Vodka-lele
My first Ukulele was a Darryl Cursley Solid English Yew Tenor Uke. I loved how it looked and sounded but after breaking strings on it every other gig I decided to part with it. The problem wasn’t string breaks as such but the Uke had a slotted headstock and that can be quite fiddly when you are trying to change strings in a mad panic whilst your audience waits or even worse begin to lose interest watching you scramble around tightening a machine head 1000 times!
Why was the Ukulele called the Vodka-lele? This Uke was made at the same time as Darryl’s first Ukulele for Paul (Luap Rekcut of Mother Ukers) and my Uke would be experimented on before he attempted things on its nicer sister Uke the next day when he was sober.
Beltona Songster Tenor Resonator
I went in a different direction with the next Ukulele. Having met Steve Evans at Cheltenham (UFOGB), I got swept up in the idea of a resonator and within a week of our interaction I purchased the most gorgeous Sonic Blue Reso. For a time this Ukulele completely reinvigorated my love of the Ukulele and I experimented with different techniques and alternate tunings, genre styles and several different pickup choices but couldn’t find anything that didn’t sound shrill through my amps and PA’s. If you play in a group and need to be heard or perhaps you play in front of a microphone at folk clubs then I think the Beltona is just the ultimate resonator. National Resophonic have the history for sure but are more than twice the price of a Beltona, quieter and twice as heavy. Equally, cheaper resonators can give the instrument a bad rep because they don’t ring out or project at all. If you are buying a resonator then get one of these!
Why did I sell it? I fell madly in love with a Kanile’a Guitalele. For me, the Guitalele felt like the perfect final solution as I also gig the majority of the time with a Guitar and this would enable me to bring just one instrument with me to the gig. The Beltona was traded back and quickly purchased by a longtime customer that I assume must secretly hope owning my old instrument will make him as handsome as me (Kidding, hes a handsome devil).
Kanile GL6 Guitalele
The Kanile’a I fell in love with wasn’t the instrument I ended up with. After handing over my Beltona and a hefty deposit; somebody rang up the shop and enquired about this wonderful instrument they had seen on the website.. Can you imagine how I felt? I just didn’t have it in me to be that selfish so I let it go and waited nearly 6 months for another GL6 to be delivered by Kanile’a. It was a great instrument but never felt quite the same as the first one I’d tried in hindsight.
I spent months trying different strings that would acheieve E to E tuning and seemingly struck a nerve as the blog I wrote about it has been read 8000 times. Who knew that so many people needed advice on Guitalele strings?!?
The highlight of my time with the Guitalele was recording a live album with my old band where I used it for a large chunk of the gig. I wasn’t in a great financial position at the time and had some weddings coming up where I had been booked specifically to play Uke so I traded in my GL6 and made a logical sideways step to a K-1T.
Kanile’a K-1T Tenor Gloss
Now on-to a Uke I had for a couple of years. A Kanile’a K-1 is everything you would expect it to be – I loved how it looked, I loved how it felt and I loved how it sounded. I had a Fishman pickup in it originally which was good but felt a little bit limiting through my AER. The lessons I learnt with this Ukulele is just how much of a difference different types of strings and high quality pickups can make. When I switched the Aquilas on this instrument for some Martins and a Fremont Low G, it felt miles ahead of all other Kanile’a Ukes I had tried. When I think back, my favourite part of owning this Ukulele was keeping it by my desk at the shop to play amp demos or pedal demos for customers with. It really had some instant appeal when I got it out the case that had nothing to do with fancy binding or ornate appointments.
My advice for anybody looking for a high end Uke is to consider how the Uke will mature. The Kanile’a Ukes that customers have owned and traded back and my own have opened up immensley after about a year of regular playing. The general consesus is that modern plastic gloss finishes tend to stifle the sound a tiny bit at first. Once you play them in, they really do open up and you have the added protection that modern finishes offer. This Uke stayed with me for a long time. I should have kept it but for reasons that have nothing to do with my indulgent instrument buying hobby and everything to do with a lack of space by my desk and in my cupboard at home – I recently sold it to a lovely chap in Sweden.
KoAloha KCM-10 Pikake Satin Concert
After playing the Kanile’a for about a year on stage, I found that the U shaped neck would rub against the bone on my thumb when I changed between Guitar and Ukulele on stage. The Kanile’a wider nut never bothered me but increasingly, I favoured Concert instruments instore because I could play the more fiddly chords without contorting at funny angles. In my old band Fearne my Kanile’a always sounded a bit boomy and muddy next to my bandmates guitar and the slightly brighter sound of the Concert began to feel like the right move for me. I had always loved KoAloha and I remember the first delivery of them arriving from Hawaii 9-10 years ago vividly because the waxy gloss finish and crown headstock to me just looked a cut above any other instruments I have ever seen. I still feel that way about them a decade on.
The KoAlohas are loud, bright, bubbly, boistrous and generally bad-ass. This was the first Ukulele I had owned that I played more for fun than because I needed it for work. I took it with me on my honeymoon and for a while I kept it in my guitar gigbag and played it in the car when I had long waits between set up and the gig. I never liked the friction tuners and despite feeling like it ruined the tradional look I switched them out for some Grover geared tuners.
KoAloha KTM-00 Tenor Koa Ukulele
I loved my Concert KoAloha so much that when the opportunity to buy a well looked after used KoAloha tenor with a pickup came up it seemed like a no brainer. I had a funny love hate relationship with this Uke – I am a bit of a tart and like instruments that have pretty wood and this older KoAloha (serial 2009) had almost a faded tan leather brown colour like Mahogany by the time it found its way into my hands which looked nice and vintage but aesthetically did nothing for me. I like the much rounder C neck on this Uke and it did eventually replace my Kanile’a on-stage for a time. The last time I used it in a restaurant in Bournemouth I ended up chasing down a tourist that tried to steal it from me!
I should have let him have it as eventually, I moved back to the KoAloha concert as I was strumming a lot more and needed to free up some funds and space for my next purchase.
Kamaka HF-2 Concert Ukulele
Kamaka’s have the history and the ultimate brand association. It also has a very particular kind of sleepy sound that is often immitated by other companies but never bettered. I spent several months with this Ukulele and found plenty I loved about it but its mellow nature and the slippery gloss body seemed to do my playing and confidence on stage no favours at all.
I think I have come to the conclusion that a Kamaka is best enjoyed at home in a relaxed atmosphere. They sound stunning unplugged and don’t distort or sound muffled plugged in but the KoAloha’s and Kanile’as I have owned had just a bit more punch when I played them and when you are playing largely in front of people eating dinner or listening intently; this particular Ukulele just didn’t suit me. I sold this Ukulele to a lovely German guy that already had several Kamaka’s and he had no problems making it sing.. Some instruments just don’t fit the performer I guess? Jake Shimabukuro seems to be doing alright with his..
The things that stuck out as overwhelming positives to me about the Kamaka was its flawless build quality, the machine heads were the best I have ever used, it never needed tuning and the hard case they come with is built like a tank.
Other Ukes I have dabbled with extensively –
Gibson 1950’s Soprano
I purchased this Uke on holiday in California, it wasn’t a particularly valuable Ukulele having had a bridge taken off and re glued at some point. Sounded great but I just didn’t feel comfortable putting a pickup in a 65 year old instrument.
Martin 1950’s Soprano
I had this Uke for a short while when going through a stage of listening to Herb Ohta. It was nice but its terrible condition didn’t suit being restrung left handed so I moved it on after a few weeks.
Mele Cedar/Koa Soprano
This Ukulele had been repaired in every which way you could imagine. I like the Mele’s but always preferred the Tenor and Baritone sizes. I dontated this Uke to a school my friend works at in the days before the Ukulele Kids Club existed.
Collings Dog Hair Concert Ukulele
A customer purchased this Uke from us and asked me to play it in for them as they would be out of the UK for quite a long time and we had quite an ongoing friendly raport. I spent approximately two months with this Uke and by the time I said goodbye to it, I really felt like it was my own. I can highly recommend Collings
if money is no object, the Uke to me justified its 2000GBP+ price tag even if I couldn’t ever afford it myself.
The other equipment I perform with has remained largely unchanged for several years. I use a Headway EDB-2 Preamp which has two channels so I could independantly run my Guitar and Ukulele from my mic stand without having to mess around with my settings mid gig unnecessarily.
Amp wise – I use an AER compact 60 which is hands down the best Acoustic guitar amp money can buy. It weighs nothing, its loud but crystal clear and I use it in every band I work in. For those on a budget I recommend the Roland AC33 which I had for a couple of years before I got my AER. My main instrument has always been Acoustic Guitar, I won’t go into my guitar collection in a Ukulele blog but if anybody ever needs that kind of advice – feel free to contact me instore on 01202 430820.
What am I going to buy next?
Recently, I have been most impressed by the KoAloha Opio range with Spruce tops. I think they are every bit as good as the Hawaiian made KoAloha equivilant but just that bit cheaper. I love Kiwaya and Takumi Ukuleles and have lost count of the times I have nearly chosen a Kiwaya KTS7 or a Takumi TS-3K over a Hawaiian K brand. The love for Hawaiian Ukes is so strong in me I just can’t help but get a bit caught up in the romance of it all when we get a new delivery. I imagine my next purchase will be an Imua Concert but with a 1 year old little boy at home hell bent on destruction, that won’t be for a while. If any Ukulele companies out there want to send me something for an independent review please do get in touch…
UPDATE: I recently purchased an Imua Concert Spruce top/Koa back and sides Uke. After I have roadtested it a few months I will let you know my thoughts.
I hope that my experiences can go some way towards helping you with your next Ukulele purchase. Every player comes to different conclusions but I feel like my time with my old Ukuleles really shaped me as a player. I feel like Kanile’a make the best Tenors, KoAloha make the best Concerts and Kiwaya make the best Sopranos. Although, that opinion could be easily swayed when the right Uke comes along!
Until next time
Alex Beds (Man of the people)