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

KoAloha Opio Concert Spruce and Acacia Ukulele

Good things come to those who wait. Or at least they do every now and then. In 2017, Barry Maz did a review of the KoAloha Opio Tenor Spruce Ukulele. It has a distinctive look with the standard KoAloha build, but a very pale face made of Spruce. I have wanted on ever since.

I already own four KoAloha products, and I wouldn’t buy another of the same size or wood configuration that I currently own, but I’m not opposed to adding more KoAloha instruments to my collection. I love the sound of a KoAloha, and I love the company. They stand behind their products with a legitimate warranty–my 2004 Koa Concert was completely refinished last summer for free (other than shipping to Hawaii)–and they treat people very nicely. I’ve seen the company simply ship a ukulele to vloggers who they want to encourage (no need to send one here, KoAloha…go bless someone else). I like KoAloha so much that my own photo of my Opio Sapele Tenor is used as part of (or the inspiration of) the UkeStuff logo, particularly on the video introductions that I use–and on the background header of both YouTube channels.

But I’m also a bargain shopper. I wait for a good price on a model, and if I trip on a good deal, I usually can afford to buy it. I was visiting some of the ukulele forums that I check on a regular basis, and a person was offering a KoAloha Opio Concert with the Spruce top and Acacia back and sides for $230. This has always been a $500 instrument, and a new one, at the time of writing, is $561 from a very trusted vendor.

I jumped at the chance to buy it, and the seller sent it quickly, paying another $34 to ship it (ukulele retailers seem to have shipping deals, but individuals have to pay A LOT to ship a ukulele). The seller brought in less than $200 for this instrument–but that was their asking price.

As for the instrument itself, it is traditional KoAloha, though built in Thailand. It has a spruce sound board, musibi sound hole, traditional KoAloha bracing (including the unibrace), acacia back and sides, a rosewood fretboard (with the inverse crown on the bottom…something the full koa models no longer have), a mahogany neck, and the headstock bears the KoAloha logo with “Opio” underneath. The 2019 models no longer show “Opio,” as the company believes that all the instruments are KoAloha…the sticker inside designates what line of KoAloha you purchase (we’re still waiting for the return of the inexpensive KoAlana series, which apparently all burned up in a factory fire last year). The fretboard also has maple dots (could be mango), and standard KoAloha tuners, with fretboard markers on the side of the instrument.

My model has clearly seen some use, which is fine to me, as it has no cracks, but I also don’t need to be afraid of scratching the instrument accidentally.

The sound is what you would expect from Spruce: bright and loud, with less depth than my Opio Acacia model. I can’t completely compare because my Acacia is strung with a Low G, and the Spruce has Worth Brown strings with High G. My Koa Concert has a completely different sound…it is certainly aged more (even though refinished) being built in 2004 (my two concert Opio models were made in 2016), but there is a balance and clarity with the Koa that isn’t achieved with the Opio models. Don’t get me wrong–we’d be all be lucky if the Opio series were the only ukuleles available on the planet. They’re wonderful–but my Koa Model is sublime. It’s hard to describe–but there’s a reason why you would want to drop more than $1000 on a new KoAloha Koa model. The Spruce is loud and clear–but the Koa model has a tenderness and depth–even while loud–that the Spruce does not. I’ll change the strings eventually to something else, partly out of curiosity–and I’d be interested to hear what a switch to clear fluorocarbons would bring to the Spruce and if that would have any impact on the comparison to the Koa.

I think the top on this Spruce model has begun to yellow with age, which is a good thing. A yellowish tone will look better with the Acacia back and sides (and Mahogany neck) in time.

I’m a lucky man, owning five KoAloha instruments:

  • Opio Sapele Tenor
  • Koa Concert
  • Opio Acacia Concert
  • Opio Spruce & Acacia Concert
  • KoAlana Mahogany Soprano

The funny part is that if you total what I paid for all of them, I’m not that much over the cost of a single new Koa Tenor. Like I said, I’m a bargain shopper when it comes to ukuleles. And all of my ukuleles together are worth far less than my tuba, which I have owned for over 20 years, so while it isn’t a cheap hobby, most hobbies cost far more than this one.

What do I want to add? I’d like to add a KoAloha Soprano or a KoAloha SuperSoprano (full Koa), and if I ever see a used Opio Sapele Concert model (which they stopped making a few years ago) for a good price, I’ll buy it immediately. I love the sound of my Sapele Tenor, and think it is neck-and-neck with my Koa Concert. If my house was burning down and I could only grab two ukuleles, the Sapele and the Koa models would probably by what I would save.

Would I recommend an Opio Spruce model to you? Absolutely–but I’d recommend any KoAloha model to you. If money is tight, but you want a new ukulele (some people don’t like buying used things), then the value of the Opio Acacia model is hard to beat. If you want a brighter instrument, look at the Opio Spruce models. And if you are looking for the full KoAloha sound–which is a real thing–with a crazy blend of depth, brightness, volume, and tenderness, and you can afford it, look at the Koa models. All of them come with KoAloha’s warranty. And if you can’t afford one, watch Craigslist, visit second-hand music stores, and watch the ukulele sales forums. While the price of Koa instruments (any make) is sky high, there are deals to be found.

And if you are a fan of any of the other K models–I am not against those. One of the ukuleles on my long term “shopping list” is a Kamaka Concert; and if I ever see a deal on a Kanil’ea, I would also be interested. Each of these companies have their own sound, and I’m not opposed to owning those, either–but they would either have to come as part of a purchase on a trip to Hawaii as a living souvenir, or as part of great deal that I can’t pass up. Remember…good things come to those who wait.

It is probably good to mention that I am NOT a sponsored artist by KoAloha, nor have I been given any financial support from KoAloha. I just love their instruments and their company, and I’m a fan.


TAB for “Señorita”

Here is the TAB for the introduction of “Señorita” for both GCEA (Soprano, Concert, and Tenor) and DGBE (Baritone):

UkeStuff Merchandise!

Now that my YouTube migration is complete, I can start looking at other projects. Some time ago, I revamped the UkeStuff logos, and made a new t-shirt (TeeSpring) that looks great. It advertises UkeStuff, yes, but it features a big “U” with a ukulele in it. So I think it might appeal to others as well.

That shirt is now available on TeeSpring for order, whenever, in men’s and women’s t-shirts, long sleeve t-shirts, and sweatshirts. I’ll be buying a few more over time.

TeeSpring allows you to determine prices, so I set the prices as low as I could while still making a small profit. So as prices go, I feel pretty good about things.

So…if you like the blog, or the YouTube channels, buy some merchandise!

I have a new hat coming from Queensboro soon, featuring the U logo. I’m hoping it will also look good, and Queensboro offers a similar marketplace.

Here’s the link:

Freight Train for Four Ukuleles

Our local ukulele group has an advanced group that meets every other Wednesday to work on things other than strumming and singing. They have been working on some four part “ukulele orchestra” arrangements, and while Freight Train, by Elizabeth Cotton, is a pretty accessible song, the version they were using had some chords that the group wasn’t used to, so I took it home and re-arranged it.

Tonight I recorded all four parts…I recorded the chords first as a “foundation” track, then copied that to my iPad and listened to that recording as I recorded the other three tracks, later merging all the tracks in Luma Fusion. Luma Fusion now allows for up to six tracks of audio. I would have liked to have used Acappella (the app) but I was recording on my iPhone, and it does not have a headphone jack…so I couldn’t use my Shure MV88 and my headphones at the same time, and Acappella doesn’t seem to like AirPods!

Ukuleles used:

  • Part 4: Romero Creations XS Soprano
  • Part 3: Lanikai LU-21 Soprano
  • Part 2: Lanikai LU-21CE/BK Concert
  • Part 1: Kala SSTU-T Thinline Travel Tenor

And the PDFs if you wish to play these parts yourself (Created in Notion)…

News Flash: The Ukulele World Isn’t “Happy” All The Time

One of the reasons the ukulele is such an appealing instrument is that people that play it seem to be happy all of the time. I generally find that to be true, but as in all walks of life, unhappy people find their way to ukulele, too. Of course, no one is going to be happy all the time.

What I wanted to write about is that there are a number of YouTube personalities who are building communities through the service–and ukulele companies are noticing them. I’ve been watching some of these channels “grow up” over the last couple of years.

And I see certain people in the ukulele world that are bothered by the success of these YouTube personalities. Some of it is concern that followers of these personalities may make informed decisions when it comes to buying a ukulele, some of it is frustration with the channel’s content and/or teaching style, and some of it, undoubtedly, is based on jealousy.

I am personally in the process of trying to create content so that I can generate some income off of my ukulele work. I’m frustrated that YouTube’s policies made it impossible for me to do so on my original channel–but I hold no ill will towards them or any channel that has successfully monetized their content, or those that work out brand deals with ukulele brands.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve watched these other channels grow–and certainly, when they started, they offered misinformation offered from time to time–but the YouTube personalities learned, grew, and kept building a real community.

One of the complaints I have seen lately is that these channels offer unboxing videos, and spend time reviewing things like the gig bags instead of reviewing the tone of an instrument. I have to admit that I kind of like watching unboxing videos, and that on the majority of ukuleles reviewed by these channels, the tone is generally a generic laminate tone. They review ukuleles in the $50 to $250 range, and you don’t often see a big shift in how ukuleles sound until you get much further up the price point. Are there exceptions? Sure. And for beginners, there is real concern about how well a gig bag will protect an instrument. So I have no issue talking about gig bags, either. I’d rather see a focus on set-up on everyone’s part–but some channels expect you to buy a ukulele from a ukulele-specific vendor (ideal, but not the reality for many players), and others don’t look at set-up at all.

On a personal note, I was able to buy ten ukuleles due to a teacher’s union grant (the ukuleles came with me as I left my school), and I chose Enya KUC-20 ukuleles. I had no qualms about what I chose, but I later saw a review for the Enya X1M, which is made of HPL (not just “regular” laminate) and was priced about the same. When I saw the gig bag that came with the X1M, I was relieved that we had bought the KUC-20 instead. The KUC-20’s gig bag is just a little more practical and traditional in build, with a loop for hanging on the back of the case.

All I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t make much sense to complain about others that are experiencing success on YouTube, and if you think there is misinformation occurring, it makes sense to try to educate that person. Ironically, one of the voices complaining about those YouTube personalities was a key player in the development of that YouTube personality–early on, they referred to their work all the time.

Some questions to ask yourself, if you find yourself in that unhappy place:

  • Why am I unhappy about this?
  • Is there any misinformation or harm being done?
  • If there is, how can I help that person to provide correct information or to stop the harm?
  • If I don’t like their content, such as unboxing videos, does my opinion really matter? Should I really say anything? Should I be trying to take the joy away from another person?
  • Is that person cultivating a community of people on YouTube?
  • How much of my dissatisfaction is due to my own jealousy?

As for me, I’ll keep following everyone that writes and makes videos about ukulele. I’ll keep leaving comments when I feel a comment needs to be made. And I’ll keep making my own content.

I do understand that I come at the ukulele with a different mindset than many people; When it comes to music, I’m not afraid to try and fail–and I’m not afraid to sing and play. I have a Ph.D. in Music, so while I am NOT the greatest player in the world, I’m not intimidated by the greatest player, either. I respect their work, and I can talk with anyone about their musical craft. But I don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, I don’t need special treatment, and I’m going to try to treat each person as if they matter. And each of us matters–immensely.

Fret Zealot for Ukulele

The creators of Fret Zealot contacted a number of ukulele blogs today, letting them know that they just started a KickStarter for their latest product, Fret Zealot for the Ukulele.

Simply stated, the Fret Zealot is a series of LED strips that you put on a ukulele (it is adhesive), and then link with a phone to learn chords and songs.

The only other device that I know of that is similar is the Populele (another crowd funded device, but on Indiegogo), which used single color LEDs embedded in a fretboard to give the user a similar experience. I have two Populeles that I use mainly for instructional videos these days.

The Fret Zealot will originally come just for concert and tenor ukuleles, and KickStarters can order the device to install on their own ukulele, or choose a reward level with the Fret Zealot installed on a Makala Concert or a Makala Tenor.

I can’t speak to the form or function of the Fret Zealot, as I haven’t used a guitar or ukulele with the device installed on it, and I have let the company know that I’d be interested in using a device for a week (demo unit) simply for the sake of reviewing it, as technology, education, and ukuleles are all interests of mine.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Fret Zealot, or in becoming a sponsor, visit Fret Zealot’s KickStarter.

YouTube Channel News

I have been working on a second logo for my ukulele work (see above), and decided to upload it to teespring to purchase a t-shirt of it. I decided that I would try to put the shirt on my YouTube page, as I have been seeing others do so. To my surprise, you have to have a monetized channel to do so.

Because of the video play alongs, I am not able to monetize the channel. While YouTube is able to tell you what content you can or cannot monetize, it labels my entire channel as “duplication” because of the play alongs. As a result, I cannot monetize any of my own content, which has increased in recent months as I am making more and more resources for ukulele and the play alongs.

The inability to list merchandise on my channel was the final straw, and I decided to split my content from the play alongs. I have started a new channel.

If you use any of my work, and would be willing to help out, I am trying to reach 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 views as soon as possible so that I can monetize my channel.

Just in case you were wondering…none of the videos that I have made have generated a penny; and very few people are willing to support you on Patreon. People are willing to deal with ads, and the ads run whether my channel is monetized or not.

So…if you’re willing, will you click on this YouTube link, watch my introductory video, and subscribe to the new channel? Thank you in advance!

Enya KUC-20 Review

If you want to buy a ukulele, where do you start? Most buyers will just go to Amazon, look up “ukulele” and buy the cheapest option they can find. They might read the reviews on Amazon–which may not be accurate.

I’ll be honest–my first ukulele was purchased in much the same way. I had done a little bit of research, so I knew that I wanted to stay away from friction tuners on inexpensive ukuleles…but that was about it. My first ukulele was a Mahalo MK1 series ukulele, and I eventually bought these for our school as our first set of ukuleles. Several years later (and wiser), I wouldn’t recommend this approach.

While price may seem to be the biggest factor in the purchase of a ukulele, what I have learned is that the playing experience is more important than anything else. As a result, I recommend a phone call or e-mail to Mim’s Ukes or The Use Republic (and no, I don’t get any kickback for referring them) to see what they would recommend as a first ukulele. These companies will set up the ukulele they sell you, regardless of price point, so that it is easier to play. On many ukuleles, string action (the height of the strings from the fretboard) is very high, making it more difficult to play notes at the first fret, and also forcing the ukulele out of tune (the amount you have to press results in enough force to make the string bend more than it should to stay in tune). You can get into an entry level Ohana or Kala from Mim’s Ukes or the Uke Republic in the $60 range (not including shipping)…which results in a $30 to $40 difference from the cheapest ukuleles you can find on Amazon. That $30 may seem a like a lot of money, but when it comes to an instrument, it really isn’t.

But what about the person that is going to buy from Amazon because of the issue of price? The ukulele I currently recommend for this purchase, more than any other, is the Enya KUC-20, which is their Sapele laminate concert ukulele kit. Concert is my favorite scale, personally, but I also like it because it isn’t as small as a soprano, nor as big as a tenor (“big” is relative, compared to a guitar). The kit comes with closed Enya tuners, Enya’s fluorocarbon strings (which seem improved to me), an extra set of strings, a tuner, a neck strap (more about that later), and a really nice gig bag. As I have suggested this ukulele, it has shifted up and down between $45 and $55 in price.

The teacher’s union in our district recently offered $500 mini-grants to members who drew up a proposal for a grant. I wanted to add ukuleles to our collection of ukuleles that I allow students to take home. I chose the Enya KUC-model. I don’t know how many mini-grants were applied for, but I received one, and the union treasure immediately ordered the ukuleles and they showed up yesterday!

You know you are a ukulele fanatic when you travel with a string action gauge…and each one of the Enya KUC-20 ukuleles came with action below .50mm at the 1st fret and 2.00mm at the 12th fret (really low action) and no buzzing. The quality standards of these Enya ukuleles–as well as the others I have bought and seen, are outstanding.*

The KUC-20 is concert scale, and comes with a manufactured ebony (I think it is really Richlite) fingerboard and bridge, with a Nu-Bone saddle. The strings are through-bridge, just as in the previous EUR-X1s that we bought two years ago during a ridiculous Amazon sale–$29 each at the time. There are no side markers on this generation of Enya ukuleles. The manufactured ebony is attractive, and I don’t know how it will react to severe temperatures and low humidity. I’m hoping our students take good enough care of them that things don’t go wrong, and we don’t have to charge them to replace them.

As it comes to the Enya gig bag, you aren’t going to find many gig bags that are as nice as Enya gig bags, particularly when included with the instrument. Sure, if you buy a $1200 Kamaka, it comes in a lovely case. Buy a $50 ukulele, and you usually have to buy a gig bag, and if you try to get a cheap gig bag ($20 or less), it is going to be a thin dust cover with a zipper. The Enya material is thick, with a single strap (you really don’t need two) and best of all, a hook on the back, which is ideal for storage…or to put on a wall hook or even a bathroom hook. There is also a small pocket. You would easily pay $25 to $35 for gig bag with similar features, such as the Kaces Concert Ukulele Bag (referral link on Amazon), effectively making the ukulele $25 or less by itself, not counting the tuner or extra strings.

I won’t say much about the Enya tuner…it is a clip-on tuner that works, and it comes with a battery.

I only have a few nitpicks about the KUC-20, and I’ll share them. All of them are meaningless as it comes to the instrument itself. First, I am not a fan of the rosette. It is a floral pattern, which in and of itself would be fine. That said, it has a place where there is a larger engraving as part of the design. I would prefer that the rosette be the same all the way around. Second, the ukulele comes with two strap buttons, but the included strap is the variety that goes under the instrument and clips into the sound hole. I love that a strap is included, but wouldn’t a two-hole strap (even made of the same material) be cheaper to make, and better with the instrument? And finally–and this is REALLY minor–the KUC box ships with yellow-discolored packaging tape, as if the instruments were stored with a chain smoker (no, the instrument doesn’t smell like smoke). The packaging tape should be clear.

Those are REALLY minor issues. I don’t think you can find a better starter ukulele package on the market at this time, unless you order a ukulele from Mim’s Ukes or The Uke Republic.** And the best part is that this is a ukulele you can keep around even after you have bought your second (and third, and fourth…) ukulele, or it could be a ukulele that you could later gift to another beginner.

Strap buttons are included, but you’ll have to buy a different strap to use them.

In a recent article that I wrote for Bonanza Magazine, I indicated that I like to suggest ukuleles without wooden fretboards for schools. I stand behind that logic because of the challenges of dealing with a wooden fretboard. These instruments are more susceptible to damage, being wood (while laminate) and severe heat (e.g. locked in a car in summer) could hurt the instrument. I’m not sure if a lack of humidity will cause the fingerboard to shrink. As a result, I don’t recommend these 100% for classroom use like I would an Outdoor Ukulele. But for an instrument that a student could take come, knowing they were responsible for its care, or for a personal purchase–the KUC-20 is an incredible purchase. You can find it at Amazon here, which is a referral link (a small percentage of the purchase price would come back to my work here and on YouTube).

Barry Maz on Got a Ukulele just reviewed the Enya EUC-X1M, which is in the same price point, and it may also be worth considering. Check out that review (link). While the potential durability of the HPL is tempting (and I do like the looks of the X1M better than the KUC-20), the missing hanging loop on the back of the case might be a deal breaker for our use, as our storage solution for our rental ukuleles (in gig bags) is a hanging rack!

*I have now heard of two EUT-X1 (tenor model X1s) that experienced a warped neck…in fact, one of those two is in my possession. With 22 Enya ukuleles at school, one that I bought at home, and two others that I gave as gifts, I have not seen any issues like this. I’m guessing there was a bad batch of necks (or green) that went on a few X1 tenors.

**You might wonder why I don’t recommend buying from your local music store or even Guitar Center, Sam Ash, or whatever. Ultimately, if your local music store will sell you a ukulele with set-up at the same price or a competitive price, then by all means, do so. Unfortunately, the ukulele is a high volume item for many dealers (at least in the terms of music stores) and most local dealers unbox ukuleles and put them on the sales floor to sell…sometimes not even tuning them. Many stores will offer set-up as an additional charge, and then you have to hope they know what they are doing. It is not uncommon for a set-up to cost an additional $25 to $50, and people will skip the set-up, and try to play a ukulele that isn’t easy to play. As a result, many people stop playing–which could have been avoided by buying a well set-up ukulele in the first place. A set-up should be for a general player–advanced players will have specific requests. Therefore, support your local music store for strings, books, and accessories–but if set-up isn’t included or is really expensive, look at Mim’s Ukes and The Uke Republic. I have also heard that Elderly Music is good and The Ukulele Site is great, but they now only deal with mid-level and higher ukuleles with internet sales.

New Video Types

I recently published my visit with Dr. Jill Reese, who started the Ukulele Video Play Along format. In that discussion, we talked about the “next steps” for play along videos. I have listened to that podcast, and will do so again in the future–there’s a lot of good content in that discussion.

One of the things I started thinking about was how to provide the “next level” of play along for people. What I have produced is something I am calling a “Lyric Based Play Along.” It simply shows chord letters with the music, and no “timing” boxes or “bouncing balls.” It can then be used by nearly any chord-playing instrument (ukulele, baritone ukulele, guitar, piano) to play along.

A member of the Ukulele Video Play Along Group on Facebook asked if someone could re-do the “Clouds” video which I had made on May 31, 2017. This was still early in my video-making process, and I was not yet using my iPad or Luma Fusion to make play along videos.

Not only was I wrong about what key the video was in, I do not like the appearance of my videos that uses an existing lyric video and placed chords underneath. I like to be able to control all the aspects of the video myself, which is what Luma Fusion makes possible.

I re-created the video with moving cloud footage (you’ll see more moving backgrounds in the future) in the new key, simplifying the Am7 chord to an Am chord. Sometimes it is an Am7, and sometimes it sounds as if it is just an Am…and the Am works in both cases and is easy to play in C.

Then I created the video in its original key…and then made it for baritone, which is all font work. I used the alternative D chord (213) as the move from D to F#m works much better than traditional D (123) to F#m.

Finally, I made two versions of the new Lyric Based Play Along, in both keys.

And in other news, I have opened up new videos to comments, as an instrument manufacturer suggested that I try to allow for more “community” on my channel. As a teacher of a percentage of students who don’t actually “choose” my class, I have to be cautious about comments, so at this time, all comments require approval.

I have only deleted one comment so far, which was left for “Lost Boy.” That comment read, “The instrument used is a piano, not a ukulele.”

I know what a piano sounds like; the point is to be able to play a ukulele along with the song–but I didn’t want to open that comment up to what could be some potentially harsh responses from other users–so I decided to delete that comment.

If you have any comments about the new formats, please feel free to send an e-mail or or leave a comment on the YouTube page!