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A Ukulele Shopping List for Schools, 2019

I follow a number of ukulele forums or groups, and every few weeks there is a question from someone that says something to this effect:

“I am writing a grant for ukuleles and I need to know what to ask for.”

Or, “I have been given permission to buy ukuleles. What do I do?”

Then what happens is that people post answers based on their personal experience, whether as a solo player, or whatever their school bought.

And I find myself opposed to the answers that are being given, and I’m not going to say so in the thread, and plus any feedback I offer is going to get lost in the mix of other responses.

I see a lot of suggestions that people buy Makala, Kala, Luna, Lanikai, Ohana, Flight, or Diamond Head ukuleles for schools. This is a course of action I cannot fully endorse–let me explain why.

Issue #1: Set up

The ukuleles from these companies, which are generally going to be laminate ukuleles, are Chinese import ukuleles. I have nothing against the fact that they are laminate or Chinese–I own quite a few of them. I need the potential buyer to be aware of two things. First, the action, or the string height, of these ukuleles is almost always high. They are set up that way at the factory, and shipped to the US, where they are then shipped to dealers.

When the action on a ukulele is high, it makes it harder to press down on the strings to play a chord, and can cause the ukulele to play out of tune (you end up stretching the string further than necessary to play the note). There are a couple of dealers who DO include ukulele set-up, where action is adjusted, as part of the purchase (Mim’s Ukes and The Uke Republic for entry level Kala and Ohana models). But most dealers DO NOT set up the ukuleles.

So as a public service announcement, if you’re going to buy ukuleles, there’s a pretty good chance they are coming with high action. For the sake of your students and their experience with the instrument, you will either need to learn how to adjust the action on each ukulele yourself, or take them to a luthier…and a luthier will likely charge between $25 to $50 to set up each ukulele (and some luthiers don’t know how to properly set up ukuleles).

I have NOTHING against Kala (Makala), Ohana, Flight, or Luna (I won’t buy a Diamond Head…sorry) and I own at least one of each of them, but I have either bought them from a dealer who set them up, or I have set them up myself. I also bought a classroom set of Caramel Ukuleles for my school several years ago, and I had to set them up myself. And that adds a lot of time to the process.

There are a couple of brands which I have found that ship from China with the instruments actually set up correctly, which makes me wonder why the “big boys” can’t do it. And I wish the big companies would offer education “packages” of ukuleles that also included setup. I will list those companies at the end of this post, without a referral link.

Issue #2 Humidity

Solid wood ukuleles are usually not recommended for schools–they cost more and our schools tend to be very dry places–resulting in cracked instruments.

Most schools are buying laminate instruments…basically plywood with a veneer on the top. I have NOTHING AGAINST laminates, and I own a bunch of them. Laminates aren’t going to crack with low humidity, and they’ll handle drops better (but will still potentially break with misuse and poor care).

That said, laminates still have a solid wood neck, and a fretboard made of solid wood. As humidity increased and decreases with interior heating and air conditioning, the fretboard in particular expands and contracts, resulting in the metal frets–which do not expand or contract–sticking out at the ends. Playing on ukuleles with exposed fret ends hurts and can cause bleeding.

As a teacher, you either need to learn how to repair “fret creep” or you have to take the instruments to a luthier to have it done (another expensive repair). And it isn’t an issue of “will it happen,” but more an issue of “when will it happen.” Unless you teach in a school with a controlled humidity between 40%-60%, if you have ukuleles, you have to plan for this. That includes Makala, Luna, Kala, Ohana, Diamond Head, and any other ukulele with a wooden fretboard.

There are ukuleles that are made out of plastic (ABS or Polycarbonate), and there are a couple brands I can recommend. I do have to offer a warning on the Kala Waterman brand, as many ukulele players have mentioned that the string action can be very, very high, and that action is not adjustable on the Waterman ukuleles. If you buy Waterman ukuleles, check them with a string action ruler when you receive them. Action at the 1st fret should be at (or under) .5mm, and action at the 12th fret should be at (or under) 2.75mm. If you get Waterman with action above those levels, send them back, for the sake of your students.

Ukulele Size

When it comes to school, what size ukulele can depend on the age of the students you are teaching. I still suggest concert ukuleles to most players (schools, too) as they aren’t much larger than a soprano or that much smaller than a tenor.

A Shopping List

So, what do I recommend for low cost ukuleles for schools? Here’s a list, with a few reasons attached.

Ukuleles

  • Enya KUC-20 (~$50). Amazon. Laminate ukuleles that come with a great set-up, and a package including a gig bag, tuner, strap, and more. Concert size. Risk: fret creep with wood (rosewood) fretboard.
  • Enya X1M (~$50). Amazon. An HPL laminate (different material) ukulele with a great set-up and full package. Concert size. Fretboard is made of richlite and should not experience fret creep.
  • Aklot AKC-23 (~$60). Solid top mahogany ukulele package. You will need to plan for humidification for the solid top. Concert size. Risk: fret creep, humidity issues with sound board.
  • Flight TUS-35 (~$50). ABS body, neck, and fretboard with a solid wood (linden wood) sound board. Very thin gig bag included. Soprano size. Risk: None.
  • Enya Nova (~$90). Polycarbonate (30% carbon fiber) ukulele in a package (strings, case, strap). Concert size. Risk: accidental drops could chip paint.
  • Outdoor Ukulele Soprano ($115), Tenor ($155). A polycarbonate ukulele (versions with carbon fiber available for more) with a great neck design and low action. Roughly a 40% discount available to schools if buying in sets of 15 or more, contact Outdoor Ukulele for more information. Risk: no concert size available.
  • Any ukulele purchased from Mim’s Ukes or The Uke Republic. Set-up is included in their price. Be aware, fret creep will still occur with a wooden fretboard.

Accessories

  • Jowoom Smart Tuner ($80) or Roadie 2 Tuner ($130). You’re going to be tuning these ukuleles a lot. This makes it easier, and you can do other things while you’re tuning. Highly recommended. My preference is for the Jowoom, but both items are good products.
  • KIDS ukulele strings by Aquilla. The strings are colored (Green, Red, Yellow, and Blue) which makes teaching MUCH easier. It takes away a grid mentality, and you can say, “First fret/box, blue string, third finger.” Removing that one number changes everything. You can buy these in bulk in sets of 20 right from the Aquila website. After shipping, it ends up being less than $3.00 per set of strings–a better deal than you’ll find anywhere else.
  • Manual string winder/string clipper combo. If you have a Jowoom Smart Tuner, you won’t be using it for winding strings, but it still comes in handy–and it helps to have the clipper function.
  • Felt Picks. I believe in removing obstacles for students when it comes to ukulele…so I had both custom leather picks custom made with our school logo (see Stones Music) and felt picks made of a stiff synthetic felt (Contact Aetna Felt and inquire about it…they made a mold which should be available for others to use). Some students are going to complain about strumming with their fingers…so give them an option.
  • Ukulele storage. There are lots of options. My room uses 2’x4’s with “U Tool Hangers” from Menard’s (a super sized hardware store like the Home Depot and Lowe’s). If you don’t have wall space, do some research.
  • Ukefarm Fonts. You’ll want to create resources. Go to Ukefarm.com and buy the fonts for ukulele!
  • A ukulele curriculum. I personally believe in teaching ukulele the way that people want to play it–to accompany themselves playing the songs they love, rather than as a “traditional” classical instrument. I know some people will disagree with me, but I think we teach enough on a “classical” approach that it’s okay to pursue a more casual approach to learning music. I create ukulele play alongs, and I’ve created a method introducing chords in the order they are most used in play along videos…along with tutorials for each chord AND skill drills. I’m currently working on the “next” set of videos entitled, “The Final Five Chords” (they aren’t really, but after these chords, students will have the ability to play anything). I also strongly believe in introducing the barre chord from the first day of playing…something I will post about later.

    I’ve put all the videos in order as embedded YouTube videos on a Google Slides presentation. Many of the videos have been made by me, some have been made by others, and the actual content belongs to copyright holders. I’m simply arranging existing materials into an organized method. But that takes time and effort, too–and is something I don’t want to simply give away for free when I’m already giving all the other resources away for free.

    I’m still trying to figure out how to package all of this. I’d love for users to send in an amount each year ($5 to $10) to get access to the materials. When I figure it out, I’ll be sure to post about it.
  • Learn more. Subscribe to some of the Ukulele Groups (Facebook, Ukulele Underground), and some great channels on YouTube, such as my own (youtube.com/ukeplayalongs and youtube.com/ukestuff) as well as the other channels linked on my channel. You can also find a lot of great links here on this blog.

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