ukestuff

Ukulele "Stuff": Education, Technology, Play Alongs, Reviews, Accessories, and More!

Interviewed by Kalani Das

At the end of last year, Kalani Das interviewed me for his new Ukulele Club resource, both on YouTube and Patreon. We had a number of technical difficulties with the recording, so we recorded again earlier this summer.

I forgot to post about the interview, so I thought I would post about it now…we recorded a few sessions, and you can see the first one below. If you haven’t subscribed to Kalani’s channel, do so today!

Steven Universe Ukulele

I watch Keepa.com for ukuleles to review, and a “build your own” ukulele kit from Bninteenteam (?) showed up in early June for less than $12 a kit. My son (age 9) had been asking to make a Steven Universe Ukulele, so I bought two of them. The kit came with everything you need to build the ukulele.

We started the process of putting them together last week. The bridge and tuners are different than the photo, and the body and neck required sanding. There were rough edges, and we probably could have used wood filler in some places. The fretboard is plastic, and there are no instructions included with the kit.

The first step was to research Steven’s ukulele. My son found images of Steven playing his ukulele, but thankfully, the internet came through:

I was able to take a photo of the actual ukulele in the kit, and then import the above that photo in my image editor on my iPad. I stretched out each graphic to fit over the actual ukulele, and only had to modify the rosette around the sound hole, which went out of round with the stretching. Measuring the real ukulele, I made the images that size, blacked out what I needed to cover (the orange color and circle on the front, the orange and bottom yellow duck tail on the back), and asked a friend to cut those out on a Cricut machine.

My son and I then took a trip to Menard’s (think Home Depot or Lowe’s) where we bought interior eggshell paint samples. I had asked my friend Pete Mai, who runs Bonanza Ukuleles, what paint to use, and he suggested this kind of paint, plus a spray clear coat. So we also bought that. How did we color match? Pittsburgh Paints has a web tool that allows you to upload an image, and we simply took the colors from the ukulele.

Incidentally, the ukulele only has three colors. The sides, neck, and some of the body are orange. Then there’s the pale yellow and the off-color red. It was about $4 per sample of paint. I also used this opportunity to buy some more sanding sponges and masking tape.

Then my son and I came home and prepped the ukuleles and glued them together. The neck is connected with glue (I use TiteBond) and a short dowel. We could have sanded more, but I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out (it could have been a colossal waste of time and money).

The next step was painting. The whole ukulele was painted orange, with a couple of coats. I chose to use a small roller to make sure the spread of the paint was even all around. Each layer dried over our kitchen island, using a improvised hanging system from IKEA hangers!

Then the vinyl was applied with lots of masking tape, and then I used an old store loyalty card (like a credit card) to make sure the vinyl and tape was on firmly, everywhere.

The next layer was yellow, at the top and bottom of the body, on both the front and the back.

The next step was to apply the duck tail on the back, as well as the rosette on the front of the ukulele.

After the red layer dried (each with at least two coats), I removed the tape and vinyl and tried to clean up where the paint still “leaked” through. Then it was time for three light applications of a clear coat.

The next step was hardware, screwing and gluing on the bridge, and adding the tuners.

After the tuners and bridge were on, I added the fretboard. Thankfully, my Kala Ukeadelic had a fretboard that was exactly the same (all the frets were the same spacing), so I knew how far away to put the top of the fretboard (exactly 13.5”). This really should have been included in the directions.

The next day, I had to address the action, as the nut and saddle on both ukuleles were much too high. I sanded each down significantly with a power sander until the action was tolerable. Anyone assembling this kit that doesn’t adjust the action is going to have an instrument that plays very much out of tune.

The final step was attaching strings. I have put strings on hundreds of ukuleles (that isn’t an exaggeration), and I have never struggled to string up a ukulele like this one. I chose to use Martin M600 fluorocarbon strings instead of the included strings (they were questionable) and I kept having G and A strings pull through the bridge! The bridge is a mixture between a pull-through bridge and a slotted bridge. It was difficult to get the strings through the bridge in the first place. Eventually, I had to tie a four-loop knot on the G and A strings, and then a three loop knot on C and E. I also had some issues with strings pulling through the tuning peg posts…so I had to loop those around, too. By the time was all said and done, I had to use three packages of M600 strings to finish the stringing…that is extremely unusual for me!

As a final touch, I found the Steven Universe Logo and made a sound hole label to put in the ukuleles. This also covered up some of the paint drops that found their way inside the ukuleles.

And these are our completed Steven Universe ukuleles! They look good, especially from a short distance, and they certainly honor the original. The kit was very much complete, sounds okay, but there are certainly better “Build Your Own” kits out there, such as those by Ohana. But for less than $12, my son and I had a chance to build some memories together this summer, and that makes these priceless ukuleles.

Here is the video, for those that are interested!

“The Best”

I saw a YouTube video the other day, and it featured the “Best Ukulele under $___.” I’ve seen many such videos over the last few years–and I just can’t find myself committed to a “best” ukulele.

I have brands that I like, and brands that I prefer. I also have brands that I avoid, either because of bad reviews or bad experiences with those brands.

But I stay away from the category of “best” most of the time. I prefer “One of the Best.”

In my ukulele reviews, I do give ratings, and have a number of instruments that get the highest rating (5 out of 5 ukuleles). What that means is that they are wonderful instruments that I would recommend without hesitation. And in my reviews–very clear on my One Minute Ukulele Reviews–is that there are negatives (or things to improve) on every ukulele. I absorb a lot of ukulele material–and I am always impressed by Joe Souza from Kanile’a Ukulele. In addition to his efforts to make outstanding ukuleles while guaranteeing the future of Koa as a sustainable wood, he also talks a lot about experimenting and continuing to approve. If I remember correctly, he was interviewed by Ukulele Abe (on Abe’s Podcast) and said something to the effect of, “We don’t think the perfect ukulele has ever been built.”

That’s refreshing–because it doesn’t dishonor any ukulele that has been built–but it shows that a company continues to strive to make the best products it can.

I know that “The Best” generates views and interests. But in every case, “One of the Best” could often be substituted and add truthfulness to any video or article.

The Danger of a Disgruntled Customer

I just read a post on a social media platform, in a pretty large “community,” where a disgruntled customer has posted several very angry comments about a recent purchase (or lack thereof) of a ukulele.

The person bought a ukulele during Amazon Prime Day, apparently within a half hour of the end of the timed deal, and found out today that the order has been cancelled.

In one post, they complained how Amazon and the ukulele company stole their money (ultimately, the order was cancelled, so nothing was charged). And in another, they conceded that they were taken care of in a number of ways (including credit card protection), but they were livid that the ukulele company and Amazon would not honor the order.

To make matters worse, BOTH posts are filling with comments, with plenty of additional complaints about the company (unsubstantiated), or with others promising to never buy a ukulele from that company again.

And it is a company that I like very much, as well as a company that makes ukuleles under its own brand, as well as FOR other companies. They have a great reputation, and have taken care of their customers well.

I know for a fact that the company RAN OUT of available stock for their Prime Day deals…and much like Black Friday, when stock is gone, it is gone.

Ultimately, Amazon could care less. I know of many ukulele players who try to avoid Amazon like the plague. We find Amazon (and Walmart) to be very useful options for many things; I wouldn’t buy a ukulele over $100 from Amazon…but I would certainly use Amazon if I were a parent looking for a first ukulele for my child. And there are A LOT of good options to be found on Amazon.

If I’m buying an expensive ukulele, it is coming from one of the established ukulele specialty shops, or I am ordering used from a seller on one of the established ukulele sites.

But back to topic–Amazon could care less about you. If you don’t buy from them, all of your neighbors will.

The ukulele company, on the other hand, has to be concerned. If that person continues to rant–perhaps on several media platforms, it won’t be long until prospective buyers search for the company, and all that comes up in the search engines is the negative rant.

I’ve watched Andrew Kitakis from the Ukulele Site deal with various angry customers over the years. He is so “chill” and kind, but even gets to the point that he accepts a used instrument from a buyer and refunds their money, and encourages them to try another store. You cannot make everyone happy. And some people are just happy to be miserable.

I don’t know what the solution is. Send the angry person a ukulele for free? Offer them an alternative at a similar discount? And how do you keep the reputation of your company without “rewarding” horrific behavior?

October 2020 – What’s Blocked?

Every now and then, I look through my videos to see which videos are blocked.

Most publishers allow us to use their music for the play alongs, but then take all the monetization (the play along channels cannot be monetized anyway), and of course, YouTube gets their share of the ads as well.

Generally, few artists or copyright holders block their music under these arrangements…if we’re treating the music in a tasteful way (we are), they are earning free additional income from each additional play of the song. It’s a win-win. Even so…some artists have everything blocked. The two names that stick out in my mind are the Beatles and Adele.

For a lot of these songs, you can see trends in who owns the copyright. I don’t know why they wouldn’t want views of these songs ($$) and people playing along with them…I can tell you that I wouldn’t want to be the employee chasing down all of these songs and their use in videos, etc! I know that YouTube has matching algorithms that do a lot of the work…but someone has to go online and file the requests to block songs, etc.

So, as of October 2020, what is blocked? I have 873 videos, and of those, only two songs are fully blocked (3 total videos) and nine other songs (some have multiple versions, so up to 20 videos). So about 97% of the videos on the ukeplayalongs channel are available for anyone in the world…well over 500 different songs for GCEA ukulele.

Fully blocked:

  • Yellow Submarine (Beatles) – UMG
  • Barbara Ann (Beach Boys) – UMG On behalf of: EMI

Partially Blocked

  • Rock Around the Clock (Bill Haley and the Comets) – WMG, Demon Music, UMGOn behalf of: ACROBAT (Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia, Czechia, United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, Austria, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Ireland, Greece, France, Bulgaria, Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Denmark, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Hungary, Italy)
  • I Have a Little Dreidel (Barenaked Ladies) – WMG, UMG On behalf of: BNL P&D (Questar/Mission) (United States, Canada, U.S. Outlying Islands, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam)
  • Build Me Up Buttercup (The Foundations) – WMG On behalf of: Castle Communications (Blocked in all territories)
  • Let Her Go (Passenger) – WMG, SME, Embassy of Music GmbH, PIAS On behalf of: Nettwerk Records (Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Brunei, Benin, Bahrain, Burundi, British Indian Ocean Territory, India, Ireland, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Antarctica, French Polynesia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Pakistan, Pitcairn Islands, Palestine, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Palau, Angola, Laos, Lebanon, Tuvalu, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, Tunisia, Tonga, Thailand, Liberia, Lesotho, Chad, Togo, Libya, Djibouti, Algeria, Syria, Eswatini, Kenya, Kiribati, Cambodia, South Sudan, Suriname, Comoros, Qatar, São Tomé & Príncipe, North Korea, South Korea, Sierra Leone, Kuwait, Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Sudan, Singapore, Côte d’Ivoire, Cook Islands, Réunion, Cameroon, China, Zimbabwe, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Congo – Kinshasa, Congo – Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Christmas Island, Zambia, Cape Verde, Somalia, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Tanzania, Nauru, Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), Nepal, Niue, New Caledonia, Namibia, Norfolk Island, Nigeria, Niger, Madagascar, Morocco, Macao, Myanmar (Burma), Mali, Marshall Islands, Malawi, Maldives, Mauritius, Mauritania, Uganda, Mozambique, Malaysia, Western Sahara, Egypt, Yemen, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Hong Kong, Heard & McDonald Islands, Tokelau, Rwanda, Samoa, Fiji, St. Helena, Wallis & Futuna, French Guiana, Gabon, United Kingdom, Gambia, Guinea, Ghana, Oman, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands, South Africa, Guyana)
  • The Scientist (Coldplay) – WMG On behalf of: PLG UK Frontline (Luxembourg, Belgium)
  • I Can See Clearly Now (Jimmy Cliff) – WMG, SME On behalf of: Non-Wea/Other (New Caledonia, Andorra, France, Wallis & Futuna, Mayotte, Monaco, French Polynesia, Réunion)
  • New Song (Yael Naim) – Believe Music, WMG On behalf of: Tôt Ou Tard (Israel)
  • Why Can’t We Be Friends (War) – SME On behalf of: BMG Rights Management (Guam, U.S. Outlying Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands)
  • What I Like About You (The Romantics) – SME On behalf of: Epic (New Caledonia, Namibia, Nigeria, Niger, Norway, Netherlands, Palestine, Azerbaijan, Portugal, Åland Islands, Austria, Angola, Albania, Armenia, French Polynesia, Afghanistan, Andorra, United Arab Emirates, Poland, Italy, Iran, Iceland, Iraq, Mayotte, Qatar, Ireland, British Indian Ocean Territory, Israel, Isle of Man, Rwanda, Liechtenstein, Russia, Algeria, Libya, Lithuania, Latvia, Denmark, Djibouti, Chad, Togo, French Southern Territories, Turkmenistan, Tunisia, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe, Turkey, Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greenland, Gambia, Guinea, Gabon, United Kingdom, Georgia, Guernsey, Réunion, Wallis & Futuna, Oman, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Benin, Burundi, Bahrain, Botswana, Bouvet Island, Belarus, Jordan, Jersey, Eritrea, North Macedonia, Mongolia, Ethiopia, Monaco, Morocco, Madagascar, Moldova, Montenegro, Mozambique, Egypt, Estonia, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Lebanon, Malawi, Malta, Mauritius, Ukraine, Uganda, Uzbekistan, São Tomé & Príncipe, Spain, Syria, Eswatini, Sudan, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, San Marino, Senegal, Somalia, St. Helena, Slovenia, Svalbard & Jan Mayen, Slovakia, Mali, Croatia, Hungary, Lesotho, Liberia, Congo – Kinshasa, Central African Republic, Congo – Brazzaville, Serbia, Canada, Cameroon, China, Switzerland, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, Cape Verde, Romania, Cyprus, Czechia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Comoros, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan)

Billie Eilish Ukulele from Fender

This isn’t a review of the new Billie Eilish ukulele from Fender: this is simply a reaction to the ukulele. I’m always open to review one, but I’m probably not going to spend $299 to review one.

Here’s the new ukulele:

I totally agree with Billie’s take on the ukulele, and I’m happy that her fans have a way to show their love of her work and to start playing their own instrument. That’s all good. It looks different (cool) and that appeals to me. And from the recordings, it sounds fine (more about that later).

That all said: $299 is a lot for a laminate sapele ukulele. It does appear to be a limited production model (for now), and comes with a Fishman Kula pickup. It features a walnut fretboard and small slotted bridge. The ukulele has a bone nut and (uncompensated) saddle. It has a bound fretboard, but it is unclear from any of the photos if it has side position markers.

The big question is: why would you buy this?

  • You love Billie Eilish
  • You love the print (“blohsh”)
  • You love the Fender telecaster headstock

I cannot speak for the quality, tone, or action; I would need to hold one in my hands. Barry Maz at Got a Ukulele has not been overly impressed by Fender ukuleles. I’m inclined to like Fender ukuleles, as I own a 60th Anniversary Telecaster–if the new models had a sunburst like my 60th Anniversary model, I’d have one already.

All in all, Fender ukuleles are overpriced and this one does not even come with a case or a gig bag. For me, it would be a “pass” until I could buy one used at a 60% discount. That said, I don’t have a Billie Eilish collection with a ukulele-sized hole in it, and I’m not in any hurry to own a Fender ukulele. I have reached out to review one, but never heard back (Fender is a big company…why would they even want to respond to an independent reviewer?).

I do wonder what the kickback is for a sponsored artist like Billie Eilish. I’m sure it is more than what Grace Vanderwaal receives per ukulele. $10? $20? $50?

I simply had to buy a Fender, I would opt for the Grace Vanderwall Signature Ukulele ($199) or the newer Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele ($199).

But realistically, I’d go elsewhere. Perhaps a Flight Gemstone ($139 or less), or an Enya, Aklot, or Donner model with a pickup. There are others, but that’s just a first thought.

I guess what I’m saying is that I wish Fender’s ukuleles were less expensive overall, and that this particular model would be less expensive for Billie’s fans–and I don’t think that is an unjustified opinion.

Not a fan…

This notice from Kala came into my inbox the other day. It’s part of Kala’s new rewards structure from buying directly from them rather than through a store.

It doesn’t sit quite right with me, as Kala “made it” in the ukulele world through its connections with local dealers. There was a point that I couldn’t go to a music store and not see a Kala ukulele.

I get it–it is 2020, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. People were not able to go to stores for a long time. And there are companies that sell directly over the internet without any “brick and mortar” presence. Those companies can have an advantage as they don’t really have to deal with a distributor (Amazon becomes the distributor) or local store.

But here’s the problem…Kala is still in the business of selling through local stores, while encouraging people to buy direct at the same time.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”

If we were talking about Kala’s Elite models directly, I’m fine with that, and I’ve seen how those instruments did not sell at one of our local music stores. The elite models are great instruments, but people walking into a local music store are not looking for a $800 or more ukulele. So our local music store ended up selling all their Elites, three years old, below their own cost, and they don’t carry them any more. People want to come in and just buy a ukulele for $50 to $200. And if they can save money by ordering direct from Kala, many people will.

And I have also seen how Mim’s Ukes is leaving Kala (She is clearing out her remaining Kalas on Reverb) partially because of the Kala Rewards system shown above.

Now, if Kala was in the process of moving away from brick and mortar sales to only online sales, fine. But I don’t think this is a good development for any music store.

Kala makes nice ukuleles. They might be the largest brand on the planet. But that doesn’t mean that they do everything correctly, either.

Keep in mind, however, that I’m a music educator and not a business major. Maybe this is the right thing to do, financially. But it sure doesn’t feel like it is the right thing to do when you’re talking about relationships with music stores all over the world.

I’d rather see them let people gain those Kala Coins to redeem at their local music store. I know that’s a nightmare in terms of management of a program…but it would spur additional purchases, customer loyalty, and add support of local music stores.

In my mind, for a lasting business:

  • Make good products
  • Make a fair profit
  • Have good prices
  • Be honest about your products
  • Treat your employees right
  • Treat your business relationships right
  • Treat your customers right

It will be interesting to see where Kala goes with this in the next years.

Flight Uke Tip: Ukulele Sizes, Part 2

In this Flight Uke Tip, we will discuss tenor and baritone ukuleles.⁠

The tenor ukulele was a natural progression for the instrument—if you’re going to make a concert ukulele, why not make it a little larger? The first tenor ukuleles were introduced in the mid 1920s. While the tenor ukulele is larger than soprano and concert ukuleles, it is tuned the same and shares the same range. The tenor body creates a sound that tends to be louder and more complex than smaller ukuleles. The scale length of a tenor ukulele is around seventeen inches, and string tension will be noticeably higher on a tenor than on a concert or a soprano. There is a myth that professionals only play tenor ukuleles—but many professionals do play tenor because of its sound quality and volume, and because the highest frets are easier to play.⁠

Baritone ukuleles were introduced in the 1940s, much later than any of the other scale lengths. The baritone, due to its size, has a much deeper and fuller tone than other scales of the ukulele. In general, baritones have a scale length of nineteen to twenty inches. The baritone also uses different tuning than other ukuleles—DGBE—exactly like the top four strings of a guitar. This makes the baritone easier for guitarists to play, but the different tuning can be a real challenge for ukulele players who are used to ukuleles that are tuned GCEA. With its different tuning and larger size, the baritone ukulele has had a mixed reception in the ukulele world. There are fewer overall resources for the baritone, but on the bright side, baritones have become increasingly popular and there are more models available than ever before!⁠

In the long run, it doesn’t matter what scale you play, as long as you are happy playing it. 

Wear on the Enya Nova

Someone posted this image of an Enya Nova today. I love the Enya Nova–I think it is a great product. At the same time, I have seen a few pictures like the one above, where there is significant wear on the polycarbonate frets.

The ukulele world often reacts to images like this with panic and fear–which I think is unwarranted.

First, Enya is aware of the issue and has discussed changes for future models–including upcoming soprano and tenor models. Second, Enya has taken care of every customer that has had issues. And third and finally, there is customer error involved here.

Look closely…these are Aquila Red strings with a low G. Aquila Reds have metallic particles in them to give them the red color; and you should notice that the G string is a metal wound string.

Think about that for a moment…would you put a metal string on a plastic ukulele? What’s going to last longer? Metal or plastic?

To be fair, people make mistakes. It happens. We don’t think things all the way through.

Every case of worn frets that I have heard about have involved people that have changed the strings to other types of strings. I guess you can make the case that you should be able to run any kind of strings that you want on your own ukulele; but I do think that when you’re dealing with non-metal frets, a little more discernment is necessary.

And you know what? You’ll get the same results on a Flight TUS or TUSL travel ukulele, Magic Fluke or Flea, or Outdoor Ukulele.

In fact, Outdoor Ukulele states:

Our composite polycarbonate ukuleles are not designed to be used with wound strings; if used, they are not covered by warranty. Strings with fillers, such as copper powder may also wear the frets over time. 

Magic Fluke states:

Nylon strings should not wear the molded polycarbonate fingerboard however if it shows wear at any time, it may be returned for replacement. If wound strings are used, such as ‘low G’ sets, a hardwood fingerboard is highly recommended.

In other words, don’t use a metal or a string with metal fillers on a plastic ukulele without metal frets.