As I did last year, I am heading out on Saturday to attend the Los Angeles Ukulele Festival. I fly out early morning and come back late at night, making for a long day, but not missing any school. The flight, via Spirit Airlines, is very affordable-and it will be a joy to attend various sessions by ukulele “superstars.”
If you are coming to the festival, look for me…I’ll be wearing a ukestuff.info t-shirt!
Last Spring, I went to a local used music store to check out a Kamaka Tenor Ukulele that was selling for $800. I went to play it, because you generally don’t see Kamaka Ukuleles in our area (there is one vendor), and certainly not at an $800 price point.
It was interesting to play the Kamaka, but I didn’t fall in love with it…but on the wall was a KoAloha concert ukulele from 2004, marked as “Mahogany,” and it was selling for $385. While there have been KoAlana models made from Mahogany, and KoAloha Opio models made from Sapele (a related variety of Mahogany), and very recent (2018) KoAloha models in Mahogany, I couldn’t recall any early KoAloha ukuleles made of Mahogany–so I contacted the company and asked if they had made Mahogany ukuleles in 2004. They replied that they had not–and that not only would the ukulele itself be made of Koa, the neck and fretboard likely would, too.
So I went back the next day, with approval from my wife, asked if I could have an educator discount, and walked out the door with a Koa “vintage” KoAloha concert for $385. It was a bargain of a lifetime.
While it looked fine and played well, the 2004 had a slotted bridge which appeared to be pulling away from the body. KoAloha has a “better than the weather” warranty, so I contacted the company and asked if that was covered. Griz (in charge of warranty repairs) got back to me and said that some early models suffered from this problem, which is why they moved to a tie bar bridge, and invited me to send in my ukulele whenever I wanted.
So I sent it as cheaply as I could…$35 via USPS. While companies can get decent shipping rates, the average person cannot. UPS would have been over $120! That was in July, and I was in no hurry…and my ukulele came back to me today. I love the new tie bar (it says “KoAloha” like the new ones), and the finish is beautiful. The ukulele used to have an “orange” appearance with the old finish–the new finish is lighter, and the wood looks more like the Koa that it is. The only disappointment (MINOR!) is that the bridge is now white instead of black. No worries…I’ll take it!
I’m thrilled, and I’m very happy to report that KoAloha stands behind its products 100%. This won’t be my last KoAloha (I have 3 others). I had a mishap with a strap last spring, where the ukulele dropped and there was a small crack. KoAloha fixed that–and the ukulele looks like new.
The communication was awesome from the company–and I continually insisted that they take their time as I was in no hurry…and they sent it back to me (free of charge) better than when I bought it.
A great ukulele is an investment…and while I am pretty sure that the other K brands stand behind their instruments, I know that KoAloha does. I love the sound of a KoAloha, I love the spirit of the company, and I love the customer service. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
This summer, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Ukester Brown, a local ukulele teacher/performer/enthusiast. He loves the the songs of the 1920s, and has an extensive collection of Maccaferri ukuleles (the styrene ukuleles that were everywhere in the 1950s). I had a chance to see his collection this summer (probably one of the best on the planet) and to see his two cigar box ukulele builds. This encouraged me to try building one myself.
I took some time off from making ukulele play alongs, and decided to build my own cigar box ukulele. My wife and I took a trip to Memphis this summer, partly as a vacation, but partly to visit the Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob. One day, we traveled from the Civil Rights Museum towards the center of the city, and came across a cigar shop along the route—which had a lot of boxes in the windows for sale. I went through the boxes, and my wife encouraged me to buy one box (I was going to buy a few), so I picked out a big mahogany box (laminate), and then dragged it along with me the rest of the day.
We went back to the hotel room and I ordered parts…and there was a neck/fretboard/tuner/bridge/nut/saddle combination that was for sale (concert scale), so I ordered it from eBay. Sadly, the company contacted me 24 hours later and let me know they no longer had the item, so they refunded my money and I had to order everything separately.
I did so, and when we got back from Memphis, I ordered parts and started working on the ukulele. I made a video of every step in the process, and that video appears below. I share my thoughts—having no experience building a ukulele—along the way. I made a lot of mistakes with the ukulele. Examples?
- The sound holes cut with a dremel tool faster than I thought, and I made mistakes. I did my best to make the sound holes look okay…but close inspection shows the flaws.
- I glued the bridge in the wrong space originally, even though I took a long time to measure and remeasure. I think I measured at the top of the 12th fret (i.e. the 11th fret) originally, rather than at the bottom of the 12th fret…but I caught the mistake before the glue had completely set. As a result, there is a sanded patch above the bridge that is visible…right now I am thinking of it as part of the charm rather than a major flaw. I might stain it later…but probably not.
- I cut the fretboard as it didn’t measure the same as other fretboards that I have. That was a mistake, and I was able to glue it back together.
I knew—as soon as I saw the box—how I wanted to cut sound holes (f-holes), and many other details worked out as I built the ukulele.
If you are curious about parts, here is what I bought for this project…just under $90:
- Box: $3.00
- Concert Neck & Fretboard: $15.00
- Bridge, Nut, and Saddle: $2.50
- Box Corners: $7.00
- Martin M600 Strings: $7.00
- Interior Bracing: $5.00
- Stain: $8.00
- Tuners: $13.00
- Music Nomad Octopus: $15
- Small wood planer: $10
- Titebond: $2.50
If you are going to buy tuners from China (eBay), be sure to buy 2 sets. I would have been short tuners (there are left/right tuners) had I bought one set. Some of these are tools that will be used for other projects, but I still bought them for this build.
The greatest surprise of all was how good the ukulele sounds, even though it is made of really thick laminate. I was sure it would be a dead sounding box—as many cigar box ukuleles are. I was okay with just hanging the ukulele on the wall as a conversation piece. I think the giant box has a lot to do with its nice sound—I’m not sure a smaller build would sound better. Cigar box ukuleles and guitars come from the depression, in a time period where many people couldn’t afford a real instrument—even an instrument as cheap as a ukulele—but they could fashion them out of other items.
I don’t consider myself an expert in the construction of cigar box ukuleles. If I were to do this again, I might want to try using a CNC to create a neck/headstock and bridge. I do want to look at starting a club at our school where students will paint and build their own ukulele (looking at Ohana kits), but that’s a different focus altogher (MUCH easier). I would simply say that if you are interested in building your own cigar box ukulele, you can.
The next episode is out today!
Today I went through the process of updating all of the play along lists…something I haven’t done since the end of June. You can find the lists in the “Video Play Along” category of this blog.
Some interesting items…we are over 650 songs in the main list, and I have contributed over 300 songs myself to the project. I also added a new category for Baritone Play Alongs–19 of those so far.
I will also let the owner of ukeability.org know that the database has been updated, and hopefully ukeability will soon reflect the added songs as well.
Don’t forget that I am offering a curriculum/organization of these videos as a Patreon reward. The first five chords include more than ninety songs!
Last year, my friend Paul Marchese (find his awesome work at ukuleleforteachers.com) introduced me to the Roadie 2 automatic guitar/ukulele tuner. While many players have no need for such a device, if you start acquiring a large number of ukuleles, or if you work with a group (classroom or adult group), it might be very much to your advantage to have a smart tuner on hand. These devices act like a string winder that bring your ukulele to the correct pitch. This is brilliant, as you can tune without worrying about what you are doing–and chances are that the device will do a better job of fine tuning than you will. Truly–you can tune and hold a conversation, start class, or wander the room with an in-tune ukulele, swapping as you tune ukuleles for students during class. This is all pretty wonderful.
Please note that there are a number of purists that believe you should only tune by ear using a tuning fork. These are people that have not had to tune a classroom set of ukuleles or have had to try to tune in the middle of a ukulele jam session. They can have their tuning forks–I prefer my smart phone, clip on tuners, and smart tuners.
A couple of months ago, Daniel Hulbert (circuitsandstrings.wordpress.com) did a review of the Jowoom Smart Tuner, and I had recently purchased two of the Roadie 2 models for our school. What was interesting to me was the price point–the Jowoom device was significantly cheaper, so I reached out to the company to try to acquire a device for review. We played e-mail tag for a few months, and they recently sent me two devices (one will be at school, the other at home as my personal device) at a reduced price. With this review, I need you to know that I did not pay full retail for the device, but that I did personally pay something ($79) for the tuners. The Roadie 2 tuners were bought for full price from Amazon by my school’s choir booster account.
As there is only one other smart tuner on the market (to my knowledge), the Roadie 2, I have to compare the two devices. Both are small devices that are meant to travel with you. Both are black, and both have LCD displays to let you know what is going on. From that point, they differ.
The Jowoom is shaped a bit more like a gun, and is a heavier piece of equipment, which I actually prefer. The Roadie 2 was 3.1oz, the Smart Tuner 7.5 oz. Neither is heavy, but the Jowoom feels more like a power tool. The Roadie 2 interacts with you using a single button and a dial, whereas the Jowoom interacts using a collection of 5 buttons. The Jowoom tuns traditional GCEA ukuleles (with the option for low G) as well as DGBE ukulele through the guitar setting, with customizable tunings on guitar. The Roadie 2 can be customized for any number of tunings through its companion app (Android or iOS). Simply put, I cannot create a tuning model for my 8 string tenor on the Jowoom, although I can do so with the Roadie 2.
In use, the Jowoom tunes in smaller increments, causing a bit of a “jerk” with each consecutive adjustment, whereas the Roadie 2 spins more rapidly and smoothly to pitch. Both get the job done. When the Roadie 2 reaches pitch, it flashes (both an LED in the front, and an LED that flashes green on the back), vibrates, and emits a beep. The Jowoom has a countdown to pitch (it shows the percent off-pitch) and beeps when it reaches pitch. The Roadie 2 jumps to the next pitch once reaching pitch (the main LED turning blue), whereas the Jowoom has two settings–an automatic setting that has worked consistently for me, tuning any string in the proximity to the right pitch. You can put the Jowoom on any closely mistuned string, and it automatically tunes to the right pitch. In such a case on the Roadie 2, you have to select a tuning, then select a string.
While the Jowoom may tune in a “jerky” motion, it seems to disern “pitch” faster than the Roadie 2…there is often a pause between the Roadie 2 indicating “in tune,” whereas the Jowoom beeps instantly upon reaching pitch; it just seems to read the pitch faster.
In the tuning process, each device has some challenges. As previously mentioned, the Roadie 2 requires you to select the instrument (the company, in e-mail, has suggested a separate profile for every instrument you own–not a reality in a school setting) and then tune or select a string for tuning. There have been a number of situations with the Roadie 2 where it begins to tune and then just keeps winding (this happens in the video), and I have to take the winder off before it breaks a string. I am sure that the company knows about the problem, and I do not know what they can do about it. The Jowoom has not exhibited this behavior, and other than the “jerky” nature of the tuning, I have used the tuner and missed the beep that says it is in tune. The vibration of the Roadie 2 really helps in that regard. There are LEDs on the side of the Jowoom, but these don’t face you at least half of the time.
In terms of construction, the Roadie 2 is dependent on that back button, and I have had 2 fail, and of our two Roadie 2 models, a third one is failing, too. I do not think there is a way to replace the button, and they were very accommodating to send two new units to me (again, one of them has a failing button, too). So that does concern me. I haven’t had the Jowoom long enough nor put it through its paces tuning at school (that’s coming…I have 71 ukuleles to string up with KIDS ukulele strings this week) .
The Roadie 2 has a “tune up” only feature that I have not enabled, as string players are generally taught to “only tune up, never down.” When you are tuning 60 ukuleles at a time, this convention can be saved for ideal situations. One of the things that I really like about the Jowoom is that it has two buttons that allow it to be used as a traditional string winder. I currently have an Eddie Ball String Winder, which I would recommend for any school setting–however, if the Jowoom replaces that, and the cost of the separate string winder can be deducted from the cost of the smart tuner–that’s even a better reason to buy one. The Roadie 2 can be set up to help wind or unwind strings–but requires a number of clicks to do so. When I’m stringing a ukulele, speed is a consideration.
The Jowoom generally has a more informative display, showing the amount that your string is out of tune! That said, the Jowoom only shows the amount of charge while charging, while the Roadie 2 shows the amount of charge as an icon at all times. The Jowoom has the opportunity to tune in a semi-automatic mode as well, forcing you to hit a button (“S”) to switch to the next string. This is the same button you hold to switch to low-G tuning. The Roadie 2 can use the “dial” to select the string you want to tune.
One negative of the Roadie 2 is that it requires a special charger (USB to Roadie 2), whereas the Jowoom simply uses a standard micro-USB charger.
The most significant aspect between the tuners, particularly if customized tunings are not important, is the price point. The Jowoom sells for just under $80, whereas the Roadie 2 sells for $120 (as I write this post, they are offering a $20 end-of-summer discount). I have also seen the Roadie 2 sell for $95 on Father’s Day. The price point alone might be the most important aspect.
I should note that neither device is made to tune bass ukuleles, nor can they be used to tune ukuleles with friction tuners. These are for geared tuners only.
Believe it or not, I like both units, and there might be benefits for a school to own both. The Jowoom is easier to use, feels more solid, hasn’t had failing buttons (so far), and can easily replace a string winder. The Roadie 2 is more compact, gives better feedback to you when a string is in tune, spins more freely while tuning, and offers customized tunings through the related app (again, Android or iOS). I’m happy recommending either device. At school, I think I’ll be more inclined to grab the Jowoom, as speed is an issue.
In the video below, I compare the two tuners.
Jowoom Smart Tuner T2 (https://www.jowoom.com/smart-tuner-t2)
- $80 (as of 8/20/18), although occasionally on sale
- 7.5 oz solid construction
- Large LCD panel and five button interface
- “Jerky” tuning
- Very good “auto” mode
- Recognized “pitch” very quickly
- Standard micro USB charger
- Can be used to easily replace a standard powered string winder
- Tunes high or low G GCEA ukuleles; DGBE ukuleles via guitar
- Customizable tunings for guitar only
- Battery display only shows while charging
- “Beeps” when in tune; side display often not visible for visual cues
- My biggest concern: can’t customize tuning for an 8-string ukulele
Roadie 2 (https://www.roadietuner.com/roadie2)
- $129, although occasionally on sale
- 3.1 oz (light)
- Single button functionality plus a “dial”
- Tuning requires two button presses (power on, spin of dial to selected tuning, selected tuning)
- Customizable for various tunings
- Links with an Android/iOS app to create tunings and do firmware updates (Bluetooth)
- Proprietary USB charger
- Button indicates state: blue=ready to tune or not in tune, green=in tune, red=error
- Smooth operation (spins quickly to find tuning)
- Can be set for “tune-up only” tuning.
- I have experienced button issues on 3 of four units
- Tuner occasionally spin out of control and need to be taken off before breaking a string
- The LED colors, beep, and vibration are helpful to know when your ukulele is in tune (hard to miss)
- My biggest concern: failing button issues, particularly when you have to press the button at least once to tune any instrument
Note: while I was sold two Jowoom tuners at a discounted price, there are no referral links to these products in this post.
I have been intrigued by ukulele basses for quite some time. Before I began playing ukulele, my wife and I attended a wedding of one of her friends, and the band featured a ukulele bass. I had never seen such an instrument, and I remember being fascinated by an instrument that sounded like an upright/double bass but was smaller than a standard guitar (my wife wasn’t as amazed as I was). A couple of years later, as I introduced ukulele to my students and fell in love with the instrument myself, I realized what that instrument was–a ukulele bass. From what I’ve read, there was a company making these bass instruments which was found by Mike Upton, the owner/CEO of Kala, who is a bass player. I believe that I read that he bought out the company and started producing the U-Bass (Kala’s sub brand of basses), and other companies have copied the model since that time.
I’m not sure why we don’t say “bass ukulele.”
As a classically trained musician, I gravitate towards instruments with f-holes, such as the Kala Jazz Archtop Tenor Ukulele, or my own Bruce Wei Acacia Concert (link to my post about the instrument). This last January, Kala introduced a journeyman U-Bass with f-holes, and while it is affordable (if you can find one) at $300, I didn’t know if I wanted to put that much into playing bass. You can find other brands of ukuleles basses, including inexpensive models by Donner ($150) and Rondo Music’s Hadean brand ($120-$179).
There was a thread on Ukulele Underground (web forums, not Facebook) discussing entry level basses, and someone posted about a great deal from Sam Ash–a Carlo Robelli ukulele bass for $99…and then someone else posted about a coupon from Sam Ash bringing the price down to $81. When you register with Sam Ash, they send you a coupon for 20% off a purchase of $100 or more. So you add something–I added a bottle of Dunlop 65 lemon oil–and get the ukulele for cheap, cheap, cheap. As shipped, my complete order was $83.98.
It took about three business days for my ukulele to arrive-which was well packed as a box within a box. I’m 100% certain that no one had unboxed the ukulele between the factory’s boxing of the instrument and my unboxing–but that’s okay. The ukulele is a laminate bass ukulele with Aquila Thundergut strings (think “surgical tubes,” and I recently heard Daniel Ward describe them as “Licorice Strings.”). The ukulele is cleanly built, has a arched back, and has incredibly low action, which could probably be raised a touch (I’m not going to bother with that at this time).
The only negative of this ukulele–like some of the Donner and Rondo/Hadean ukuleles–is that there is no “trap door” in the back to facilitate the changing of ukulele strings as there is on all modern Kala U-Bass ukuleles. This isn’t a deal killer.
I have a friend who plays a lot of bass ukulele, and he checked out my instrument in comparison to his own Kala ukuleles, and hooked it up to his bass amp (something that I need to buy–and will likely pay several times the value of the bass itself). It sounded good, and intonation on the Robelli was not much different than the intonation on his Kala. I have already mentioned that other companies copied the general idea of a Ukulele Bass (even Kala did this, although they did so by buying a company) so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see other companies matching not only the style of an instrument, but its flaws, too. And in truth, the only type of string instrument capable of playing every note in tune is a fretless instrument–and you can buy a fretless ukulele bass–but then you need to know where to put your fingers on the strings to make that happen (most causal players will be better off with the minimally out-of-tune frets).
We know that there are a number of companies in China that produce ukuleles for multiple suppliers, sometimes just putting on a different logo. While my Carlo Robelli is sold as a UKB 325, the label inside defines the instrument model as UB-20, which is almost the same number as the Rondo/Hadean brand UKB-20. I think they are made at the same factory, but the Robelli simply gets a logo on the headstock and a sticker on the inside.
Some other details about the ukulele…
It comes with seventeen frets, twelve to the body, large “key” tuners (pretty typical), Aquila Thundergut strings, a tuner/EQ, notched kerfings, a screened rosette, walnut fretboard and bridge, and operated with 2 CR2032 batteries. The back is nicely curved, and the back, sides, and fronts are all made with well-matched mahogany laminate material with a satin finish. To call it “acoustic-electric” is a bit of a joke. While you can play it without an amplifier, you can hardly hear it–you will need an amplifier, and I will say that when I heard it plugged into a decent amplifier, I was impressed (I only have a small portable guitar amp that does not do the instrument justice–even at the $81 price point). I added strap buttons to the ukulele myself, as it did not come with any. It also comes with a very basic gig bag.
All I can say is that I am extremely pleased with this ukulele at its price point. There are certainly better ukulele basses on the market. Daniel Ward recently suggested that one of the Ohana ukulele basses can be heard without amplification–and that might be a future purchase for me. Otherwise, I need to simply work on obtaining a decent portable (rechargeable) bass amp, as well as an input and preamp to do some recording to my iPad. I don’t know how long Sam Ash will be offering this ukulele at $99 and then offering a 20% discount for signing up/registering with them. If the instrument goes up in price, I’m pretty sure you get the same basic instrument from Rondo/Hadean for $129, which still doesn’t break the bank. If you are a professional bass player, these models probably are below you. If you’re a beginner and you just want to mess around with a ukulele bass–I’m not sure there is better option. Even used Kala U-Bass models sell for much of their original value.
One other note: I paid for this ukulele myself–so this review was not sponsored by Sam Ash or Carlo Robelli–nor are there any referral codes in this blog post.
Late last night I returned home from a short trip up to the Two Harbors area for the annual Silver Creek International Ukulele Carnival (SCIUC). It is a three day event (I generally have participated in just Saturday or Friday/Saturday) a short distance North of Duluth, Minnesota. The Two Harbors area has a pretty active ukulele group, and back in 2011, they decided to host an annual event in August (the weather is generally pretty nice, although it can be cool and rainy). They have always held it at the Silver Creek Town Hall (which is a small building), but a few years ago, they converted the town’s storage shed into a performance venue, swapping doors for screens, adding a stage, and lighting. I believe they are adding more features to the site every year.
The SCIUC offers a different format, where “lessons” are actually songs, and the instructors teach technique through a song. The festival features Pete McCarty every year, along with my friend Ukester Brown, members of THUG, and solo/group performances throughout the two days. The main goal is to prepare music for a performance on Saturday afternoon. Over the last two years, the Two Harbors High School Football Team has sold lunch and/or dinner as a fundrasier, and there is a traditional turkey dinner after the evening concert. There are also some give-aways as well as silent auctions for ukuleles. This year, ukuleles were donated by Mainland Ukuleles, Outdoor Ukuleles, and Kala Brand Music.
Best of all, the Two Harbors Ukulele Group (THUG) offers this for free (food, of course, is extra, but modestly priced). You can try to find lodging in town, camp in the area, or dry camp on site. I like to go for the ukulele playing (this year I brought my Outdoor Ukulele, my baritone, and my new bass), but it is also a great time to visit with the friends I have made in the Minnesota ukulele world over the past (almost) three years.
The event has a vendor area, which could use more vendors (people would have to be willing to drive up to Two Harbors, but for the three years I have attended, Pete and Shelley Mai, the owners/creators of Bonanza Ukulele have been there to present their instruments. I have bought two Bonanza Ukuleles, a custom engraved traditional wood ukulele (made of cherry) for my school, and a aspen/black walnut tenor amoeba for myself.
Pete is a wood worker who has made kitchens most of his life and his wife Shelley took up ukulele playing. He intended to build her a custom ukulele-shaped amplifier for her ukulele, and when she saw it, she asked him to build an actual ukulele instead. So he did, and they are nearing 300 ukuleles. That may not seem like a lot compared to a brand like Kala, but each ukulele is crafted by Pete and tested and approved by Shelley. The original models were made of a wood frame, wrapped in HPL countertop material–in different shapes and colors. Pete determined his build process, and then moved to creating solid wood ukuleles. Later he introduced the amoeba shape (which I love) and in the past months introduced the “oreo” models (I get to claim the responsibility for that name). They offer show specials, but even their regular prices are hundreds of dollars less than any other custom ukulele company–and they are using renewable woods. Fretboards are now rosewood (US only) or walnut. And if there is custom engraving you are looking for, Pete can do that, too.
The SCIUC was my first chance to play Bonanza’s new flatline and oreo models–and I was really impressed by the instruments. I have a Kala travel tenor (very thin) which is brighter and louder than the Bonanza thinline, but the Bonanza is no slouch in sound, and the oreos I played had a better lower presence than the Kala travel tenor I own.
In the video below, I play a few Bonzana ukuleles, and in particular, the baritone oreo that I play first in the recording is incredible (it is Shelley’s own, but Pete can make more just like it).
I really, really like the look of the oreo ukuleles–if you are looking for a gorgeous ukulele that will really set you apart from the crowd, check out Bonzana Ukuleles!
A couple of weeks ago, Katie DeNure (One Music School YouTube Channel) demonstrated how she changed strings on ukuleles, and in the process, she used a Music Nomad Octopus 8-in-1 tool on her ukulele to tighten the nuts on her tuning heads.
I ordered one right away.
I have been doing a lot of work with tuning heads lately…swapping some tuning heads for Gotoh UPT tuners, and installing tuning heads on my cigar box ukulele. I had been struggling to find a way to tighten the nut on those heads with traditional wrenches.
One thing I have learned is that there is always a right tool for the job–often a custom tool. And if you are going to do that job more than once, you might as well buy the tool (particularly if it is not that expensive). If you own a ukulele or a guitar, I think the Octopus is a good investment.
The Octopus has 8 tools…both types of screwdrivers (Phillips and flat head), five different “sockets” made of ballistic nylon (10mm…for your tuning head nuts, 12mm, 1/2″, 7/16″, 14mm, and a 1/2″ socket where the screwdriver attaches, too. I can see some wear in the nylon after using it a few times–but at the same time, this might keep you from over-tightening a nut on your instrument.
I think this is a brilliant purchase…and they can be bought in the range of $13. I’ll include an Amazon referral link below: