ukestuff

Ukulele in secondary music education

Baritone Ukulele Video!

The ukulele world seems to have an odd relationship with Baritone Ukulele. Most ukuleles are tuned GCEA (C6) or ADF#B (D6)–these are soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles. There are exceptions and other tunings, and the D6 tuning is more prevalent in Canada and Europe. I only have one ukulele tuned to D6…my sopranino Caramel ukulele. The baritone ukulele generally is tuned DGBE (G6).

I have one, and only one Baritone ukulele (I cannot say that for any other scale of ukulele). The baritone ukulele was on a special “gambler’s” eBay offer, as a company bought a carton full of rejected Lanikai LU-21B ukuleles and sold them at a “make an offer” price. I bought one ($35 shipped), and in addition to a string change, it needed some work on frets and the saddle…but it plays O.K. If I were to play baritone full time, I’d want another instrument. I also put on Ken Middleton’s Living Waters all-fluorocarbon strings on my ukulele so that I wouldn’t have to deal with metal strings (many baritone ukuleles have one or two metal-wound strings).

Most ukulele resources, at least here in the USA, are written for GCEA ukulele. That said, there are a growing number of baritone ukuleles on the market. A lot of people like baritone because of the deeper sound (most baritones are linear instruments) and the baritone’s similarity to the guitar. The four strings of a baritone ukulele are tuned like the top four strings of the guitar. As a result, many guitar players like the familiarity of chord shapes–at least in part–to the baritone ukulele.

There are baritone ukulele resources out there, including Jim Beloff’s “Daily 365” and the Leap Year Edition. Still, the large majority of ukulele resources are GCEA resources–reflecting the overall popularity of GCEA tuned ukuleles.

Most schools in the United States are using GCEA tuned ukuleles (Many Canadian schools use ADF#B tuning) and as my occupational interest lies in GCEA ukulele resources, I haven’t made resources for baritone ukulele. I do know of some schools in the US that introduce baritone ukulele in 8th grade and guitar in 9th grade.

I have even heard people in ukulele clubs (leaders, even) make jokes about baritone ukulele players–meant in jest (I think). But I also watch the reaction of those players who don’t really think the jokes are funny. Have you ever been irritated by someone seeing a ukulele and asking, “Can you play Tiptoe Through the Tulips?” That’s how many baritone ukulele players feel in ukulele groups…as a “novelty instrument.” Let’s just take a stand at this point and say that baritone ukulele is every bit as of legitimate instrument as any other instrument.

Yesterday afternoon I participated in a Facebook play along with Pete McCarty, and I decided to use my baritone ukulele. As you would expect, I did fine (Pete’s song book lists chords but then shows chords on the side for GCEA or DGBE), but I did find it the most difficult to remember the F chord.

On that same note (or chord), one of the challenges with baritone ukulele for new players, particularly when playing with GCEA ukuleles, is that they Key of C isn’t friendly on a baritone ukulele…it requires F, which is the same as Bb on a GCEA ukulele. If you have beginners, you will want to start them in the key of G versus C.

At any rate, that play along was the longest continuous time I have played my baritone ukulele. As I have mentioned before, my “happy place” seems to be concert ukulele. Just for reference, sopranos have a scale length (nut to saddle) of 13″ or so, concerts 15″, tenors 17″ and baritones 19-21″. While I find it harder to stretch to reach chords on a baritone ukulele, I certainly understand why people like baritone.

As I prepared my latest play along, Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride, I decided to go back and convert the font from GCEA to DGBE, which wasn’t easy…the Chordette for Education font does not align with Chordette for baritone. I had to change all of the fonts AND change the size of every “follow-the-chord” box. I may ask the creator of the Chordette for Education font if he would be willing to make an educational font for baritone (showing fingering with numbers). I’ll see what the view count is for this video, and will likely make DGBE versions in the future, particularly when no “custom” chords are needed for a song.

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My 2004 KoAloha Concert Ukulele

I cannot remember if I have told the story of my 2004 KoAloha Concert Ukulele. I just sent it in for repairs, and will not see it for at least a month (shipping included), and I wanted to post some photos, as my ukulele will never look the same again.

In February, I stopped by a local second hand music store because they were offering a Kamaka Tenor for $800. That’s a great price, and while the Concert size of ukulele has become most comfortable for me, I still own and play plenty of tenor ukuleles. In fact, most of the ukuleles we are buying for our new school are tenor ukuleles, as Outdoor Ukulele does not make a Concert size instrument!

I played the Kamaka and it clearly had some damage to it on the bottom (it had been dropped as happens to all ukuleles). I played it and just wasn’t moved by it…and then looked around the room. There were some other very nice ukuleles..it turns out that a very good customer of the shop had died, and they had purchased all of the ukuleles he owned from the estate. Handing on the wall, looking rather plain was a KoAloha, marked for $399. It was labeled, “Mahogany KoAloha.” The neck stamp (where all KoAlohas are dated) read “January 2004.”

The date on the 2004 KoAloha. Current date stamps are a little more nicely done

I played the instrument, and it was lovely. It had some bumps and bruises on it, too (the person that owned these instruments was clearly a player). But I wasn’t sure about a mahogany KoAloha, as I knew some of their earlier instruments were in a line called KoAlana made of Sapele (then later laminate…a new series of KoAlana instruments are due soon).

I contacted KoAloha and asked if they had made mahogany models in this time period, and they did not…and indicated that instruments from this era of KoAloha’s history would likely have a Koa fretboard and a Koa neck, too.

This instrument has an orangish glow, making it pretty clear why the store would have thought it was Mahogany.

I’m not sure what a solid Koa KoAloha from 2004 is worth, but new models (with non-Koa necks and fretboards) are selling for more than $1000 these days; and well over $750 used.

I went back to the store the next day after hearing from KoAloha, asked if I could get a teacher discount, and walked out with the ukulele in a hard case for under $400 (including tax). It also had upgraded Gotoh UPT tuners (About $65). That was a steal. I don’t feel bad, because I know the store paid less than that for the instrument to the family.

Upon closer inspection after buying it, I noticed that the bridge is lifted up. It hasn’t gotten worse, but KoAloha has the best warranty in the business. If something happens to the ukulele due to construction issues, they will always fix it. And if you do something to your ukulele, they will do their best to fix the problem (although you may have to pay for your error–which makes sense). KoAloha calls this their, “Better than the weather warranty.”

Bridge lifting up.

So I reached out to KoAloha last week, and they told me to send the ukulele in, as this was a problem with some of the older models with a slotted bridge. New models have a tie bar bridge (My Concert KoAloha Opio actually says, “KoAloha”). They will repair the ukulele and refinish it and send it back.

The new tie bar type bridge currently used on KoAlohas

My 2004 KoAloha is going to be all shiny and new when it comes back. It cost quite a bit to send it…$35 for the lowest cost I could find; UPS quoted more than $120! I don’t know how companies work out deals to send ukuleles for under $15. However, my KoAloha will never look the same…both the bridge and the finish will be different–and I doubt it will be orangish any longer! Also, this one has a black nut and saddle…KoAloha doesn’t use these any more, either! I had dropped the ukulele this Spring (a strap slipped loose from the strap button), so there is a little extra damage than when I bought it…but it is still in sound overall shape.

So that is the story of my “real” KoAloha (I have a tenor and concert Opio, but they are made of sapele and acacia, respectfully). I’ll make sure to post photos when it comes back.

Ukulele Humidifiers

A newly made cheap DIY humidifier, two existing humidifiers, and some water beads expanding just for fun in a dish

I thought I had blogged about this, but apparently I only made a video.

My friend Paul Marchese, who runs ukuleleforteachers.com, made a video showing how he created his own humidifiers for his Mainland Ukuleles (solid wood ukuleles).

I followed his example, originally ordering plastic coin tubes with twist on caps, made for quarters. I just ordered some plastic test tubes today.

Here’s what you do to make your own humidifier:

  1. Order water beads. 20,000 were less than $7.
  2. Order some kind of plastic tube with twist on cap. The quarter coin holders worked well, we’ll see how these test tubes go. Ten test tubes were less than $2.
  3. You’ll need a power drill. I used a 1/16″ bit. That seemed to work well.
  4. You’ll need a container to put water in, where you can submerge the humidifiers while they “charge” or absorb water. I suggest using distilled water in your humidifiers. You can buy a gallon of distilled water for less than a dollar.
  5. Drill a hole in the cap, in the event that you want to tie a string on the humidifier (string: fishing line or old ukulele string)
  6. On the coin holders, I drilled a series of holes on the bottom (at least eight) and then a series of holes in the sides, puncturing two sides as I drill right through…at least 12 holes. I might go with more on a longer test tube
  7. Put the water beads in the tube. I filled up the bottom at least 1/4″, sometimes as much as 1/2.” This is probably too many beads, but they are super cheap.
  8. Put the cap on. If you want to make sure the cap doesn’t come off, use some super glue. I haven’t done this yet. If you are going to run a string through the cap, do that before gluing.
  9. Place the plastic container in a container with distilled water and let the beads expand. They will only expand as far as they have room to grow.
  10. Take the plastic tubes out and dry the exterior off. The beads do not leak water, and the surface of the bead is contained in the plastic.
  11. You can put the plastic tube in a case or gig bag, or you can put them in a ukulele (use the string method if this is your plan)

I wanted to show my drill pattern on the bottom and sides of the DIY humidifier

An Oasis humidifier–the Rolls Royce of humidifiers–is about $20 (sometimes more). It uses gel packs. You have to replace those gel packs after a few years…I might replace them with water beads! This method requires some assembly (actually, you have to fill the Oasis humidifiers the first time. too, if memory serves…and certainly for replacing the crystals).

I have come to the realization that any ukulele with wood on it (laminates usually have solid wood fretboards and bridges–not to mention glued bridges) should be stored in low humidity situations with a humidifier. Leave your Outdoor, Blackbird, Waterman, and Bugsgear ukuleles out in low humidity situations (for us, it is the winter)—but consider helping any ukulele with wood bu keeping it in an enclosed environment with at least one humidifier. This approach is a very inexpensive way to make that happen.

And here is the video I made earlier this year:

Gorilla Grip or Monster Grip

Do you suffer from Gorilla Grip or Monster Grip? This is what happens when you press too hard with your left hand while you are playing.

If your ukulele is set up correctly, it should take very little pressure to play a note with the left hand. If you press too lightly, you might hear a “buzz.” Nothing good comes out of playing with too strong of grip.

Some things to check:

  1. Have your fingers as close to the fret wire as you can without your fingers muting the strings or causing buzzing.
  2. Press no harder than you need to press to play a chord.
  3. Try an easy song…such as “You Are My Sunshine.” Instead of worrying about the chords you are playing (which shouldn’t be a problem) focus on playing close to the fret wires and not pressing very hard.

If you find that you cannot play without pressing very hard, your ukulele may need to be adjusted to have lower action at the nut and/or at the saddle!

Avoid Gorilla Grip or Monster Grip! Your hand will thank you later.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Tuning Heads

Last fall, I won a prototype ukulele. It is a rugged ukulele that is meant for outdoor use, and it has not yet come to market–nor has there been any updates on the product from the company. Another company has recently put a very similar instrument into the market place, successfully crowd funded the ukulele, and they start shipping in August.

The prototype ukulele has basically been unplayable because of its tuners. It had low cost friction tuners on it, and regardless of how much I tightened the screws, it simply went out of tune. The strings were not the issue–it was the tuners. I think back to Shelbi Busche whose presentations about ukulele programs always included a warning about friction tuners on cheap ukuleles. Most ukuleles come with geared tuners (see more about my recent Sawtooth Pineapple Ukulele below) these days, and while geared tuners made out of plastic will break, most die cast metal geared tuners with “ears” work fine–even if they grind a little. I have had geared tuners break, from having the “ear” slip out of the channel or the main gear screw fall out…but this is certainly the exception and not the norm.

On the prototype ukulele, there was no hope for a geared tuner, as the ukulele has an ABS plastic back, and the screws would likely rip right out. What did seem as if it could work would be Gotoh’s UPT…the Ukulele Planetary Tuner. These tuners are the Rolls Royce of ukulele tuners, in an attractive design (all kinds of colors) with gears inside the tuner, coming straight out of the back of the ukulele headstock like a friction tuner. The prototype ukulele has a REALLY thick headstock (nearly 15.5mm) and I ordered LONG UPTs for the application (another person I have talked to since recommends UTPLs on all applications).

Some time ago, I knew that I would be changing some ukulele tuners, and I knew that I would need a hole reamer. These devices allow you to slowly and cleanly expand a hole by hand–so I bought one from eBay and had it waiting for the chance to use it.

Now was the time. We have a camping trip coming up, and in addition to bringing my Outdoor Ukuleles, I wanted to bring the hearty prototype with me…but to do so, it needed to be playable. So I ordered Gotoh UPTS from The Ukulele Site last week.

The UPTLs arrived from The Ukulele Site on Friday. I opened the package, dismantled the old friction tuners on the prototype, and started to ream out the first hole…going very slowly so as to not make a mistake. When the front (smaller) and back (wider) of the hole was large enough, I put in the UPTL…to find out that the UPTLs were not long enough to handle a 15.5mm headstock.

Not kidding about the 15.5mm thickness of the prototype

I contacted the Ukulele Site, to verify that I had received the “L” version of the UPT (I did…they have a groove on the shaft and the nut), and also asked for any other recommendations.

Meanwhile, I knew the UPTs wouldn’t work on the prototype, so I took the Grover friction tuners off my Martin and very quickly installed the UPTS on my Martin S1 Soprano. The Grovers were fine…these UPTs are like heaven. Seriously. If you have an expensive ukulele with friction tuners , you might want to consider UPTs…they simply make tuning (and changing strings) so much easier.

Meanwhile, I had a prototype ukulele with one bored out hole and three other holes and needed to figure out what to do. I decided to see what was available for Banjo planetary tuners, and found a set of Banjo tuners, with a mediocre rating, for $20. I ordered them. They arrived today, and they aren’t fantastic. They are not butter smooth like the Gotoh UPTs. And they are huge (Banjo strings are metal and a tuning head needs to be able to deal with that tension). But I installed them, and they work. And while they are not the best, they work much better than the friction tuners that came with the prototype.

The offending tuners that had to go

Meanwhile, my Sawtooth Pineapple Ukulele had one tuning head that didn’t turn well. I asked members on Ukulele Underground if anyone had an old set of Grover geared tuners that they would be willing to sell me (most people take off hardware to install UPTs and hold on to the old stuff). A member contacted me, and those arrived today as well. Meanwhile, I looked at the Sawtooth, and one of the main gear screws had fallen out of the tuner (I cannot remember if that was the same tuner that was hard to turn). I removed the old tuners (clearly lower quality) and installed the Grovers. The tuning problem is fixed. A new set of Grovers costs around $17…so you can add that to the cost of buying a Sawtooth Ukulele…it doesn’t take long before you are simply better off buying a better starter ukulele than buying a cheap ukulele.

So…all is well tonight. My Martin S1 is a better instrument tonight. The prototype ukulele, which was at risk of being unusable, is actually playable now, although it has HUGE tuners on it, and the Sawtooth Pineapple is also a much better instrument.

It doesn’t take a lot of gear to change tuners…you will need a wood reamer, a small crescent wrench (to tighten nuts if tuners have them; the Grovers I installed did not), some smaller screwdrivers (Phillips head for sure); and UPTs have a “stake” on the back side that require an additional hole. I have a small handheld hobby drill that does the job…as the “stake” is not very thick. I did have to use a larger drill bit (by hand) for the prototype ukulele.

While I do not suggest the installation of Banjo tuners on a ukulele, I wholeheartedly recommend UPTs. You aren’t going to install them on your school instruments–but on instruments that you love…you might be surprised. On instruments that had geared tuning heads installed, there will be little holes on the back of your headstock. But truthfully, that’s a low price to pay for such an improvement on your instrument.

At the current time, the best place to buy Gotoh UPTs is The Ukulele Site, and you’ll pay about $63-$80 for a set depending on where you buy them (shipping included). If you have a $80 Makala as an instrument (my first ukulele was and is a Makala MK-CE), you probably are not going to put UPTs on the instrument. But if you have a $300 Mainland or similar quality instrument (or even a more expensive ukulele), UPTs can be a nice addition. Collectors won’t like UPTs on their instruments…but I don’t buy instruments to show in a museum…I buy them to not only appreciate, but to play!

Top 50 Ukulele Blog

A couple of weeks ago, Abuja Agarwal e-mailed from Feedspot to let me know that ukestuff.info is one of the “Top 50 Ukulele Blogs.”

We were asked to mention the Top 50 Ukulele Blogs list in a post.

While I’d like to see my YouTube Channel eventually hit 100,000 subscribers (currently just over 10,000 subscribers), the real goal behind all of this work is to share information with others. If any part of this can funnel some income back to support the work, that would be nice–but again, it isn’t the point (at least not at this point).

Thank you to those that subscribe to this blog or visit it; thank you to those that subscribe to my YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/ukuleletenor), and thank you to those that visit my other blog, techinmusiced.com.

And thanks to Feedspot for listing this blog as a Top 50 ukulele blog.

Sawtooth STUKEMPS Mahogany Pineapple Soprano Ukulele Review

The Sawtooth STUKEMPS Mahogany Pineapple Soprano Ukulele

I have had the pleasure to get to know a number of ukulele players in the Twin Cities area (Minnesota), and one of my ukulele friends contacted me on Ukulele Underground to let me know that there was a ukulele at Walmart.com that I might be interested in buying.

Don’t get me wrong–I love my handful of expensive ukuleles, which I would grab if the house was on fire. That said, I love bargain ukuleles. I like having them because I don’t have to worry about them, and when I find them, I like being able to recommend them to others who would buy one as a first instrument. Not all budget ukuleles are worth it for a first purchase. Admittedly, reviews by others do impact my opinion. I still like the Caramel brand, but since Barry Maz of gotukulele.com reviewed a Caramel and hated it, I have shied away from recommending it to others.

Rosette, interior label, and dry fretboard (I had already been working on the fret ends)

One of the cheapest ways to get into ukulele is to buy online…Amazon, eBay, and yes, even Wal-Mart. There is a danger in doing so, as none of these budget retailers are going to sell a ukulele that has been set up for you. There is a strong chance that there will be problems on a budget ukulele–problems that will have to be fixed at a later time if you keep playing the instrument. What are those challenges?

      • High action at the nut and/or saddle, resulting in having to press harder to make chords, and to cause the strings to bend down so much that the instrument is not able to be played in tune
      • A dry instrument, particularly the fretboard and bridge, which causes the fretboard to shrink, resulting in fret ends being exposed to the player
      • Buzzing of the instrument
      • Low quality imitation strings (some identifying themselves as something they are not)

If you buy a ukulele from one of the proven online retailers, set-up is included that makes sure that you are buying a quality instrument that has been set-up properly for you. A professional player may have additional requirements for set-up, but most of us aren’t pro players, are we?

The unique headstock of the Sawtooth Pineapple Soprano Ukulele

The Sawtooth ukulele is found by searching for “Sawtooth Ukulele” and then choosing “pineapple” in the options. The instrument is normally $40, but was on rollback for $17.08. At the moment, there are only three left in inventory, so if the $17.08 price is no longer available when you read this post, please do not get mad at me.

https://www.walmart.com/ip/Sawtooth-Mahogany-Tenor-Ukulele/54499491

I chose to have to the instrument to my closest Wal-Mart to avoid shipping costs, and the final bill with Minnesota tax was $18.08. The instrument took about a week to arrive at my Wal-Mart, and came well packed as a box within a box.

Unlike many of the budget ukuleles on Amazon, all that comes with the Sawtooth Mahogany Pineapple Soprano Ukulele is the ukulele (with strings, of course). There is no gig bag, so if you want a gig bag for the instrument, you’ll have to buy that separately.

Some basics about the ukulele:

        • Soprano Scale (13.5″)
        • 21″ long, 7″ wide, 2.75″ deep (including saddle)
        • Laminate mahogany pineapple-style body
        • A unique headstock (Not your Martin crown clone)
        • 15 frets
        • Front markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, and 15th frets
        • No side marker dots
        • Plastic saddle and nut
        • 34mm nut (34.72mm)
        • Spacing of strings is 8.65mm at the first fret
        • Rosewood fretboard and bridge (shows old stock, as new ukuleles do not use Rosewood due to CITIES restrictions)
        • The bridge is glued and screwed to the body (common practice on inexpensive ukuleles)
        • The bridge is a standard tie-bar bridge
        • Large button, geared tuners
        • Aquila Super Nylgut strings
        • Notched perfling inside the ukulele
        • A rough satin finish
        • A unique headstock shape
        • A neck made of 3 pieces (Mahogany? Okumue?)
        • A laser engraved logo around the soundhole

Pineapple ukuleles are an interesting body shape. I believe that Kamaka began the idea of a pineapple ukulele. The pineapple supposedly offers more surface area, which should result in more tone than a traditional ukulele of a similar size.

The build, overall, seems very nice-with notched perfling inside and standard bracing, as well as top and bottom blocks.

The sound of the ukulele is acceptable. I think Aquila Super Nylgut strings are a mismatch on many laminate ukuleles. Laminate ukuleles tend to have a tone that emphasizes lower parts of the harmonic overtone series–and Super Nylgut Strings tend to bring out those qualities. I would suggest immediately switching to Aquila Sugar Strings or fluorocarbon strings (such as the Martin 600 strings), as those strings help bring out the higher overtones of the ukulele…creating a bright sound.

As you take off the strings, you will need to address the two biggest problems with this ukulele: the fretboard was bone dry, and as a result, the fret ends were exposed. I didn’t hurt myself playing the Sawtooth Pineapple, but it wasn’t comfortable, either. I invested in a fret end file, as exposed frets are a issue with any wood-based ukulele (laminate or solid wood, as fretboards are still wood) and I have a number of ukuleles that need some fretboard work. Having to work on fretboard ends is not an unusual thing–but you shouldn’t have to file fret ends on a ukulele when it is new.

A very dry fretboard with sharp fret edges

I also don’t know why the manufacturers of these instruments don’t ship the ukuleles with a healthy dose of lemon oil on the fretboard in the first place.

I checked the action on the ukulele—which arrived almost in tune (someone might have bought it and sent it back), and the action was excellent (2.5mm) at the 12th fret, and possibly a touch high at the nut. I did not do anything to the action of the ukulele and left it as I bought it.

Action is acceptable at the 12th fret

I replaced the strings (Martin 600), filed the fret ends, and oiled the fretboard (and the rest of the instrument). I’d recommend StewMac’s lemon oil or Dunlop 65 lemon oil. I also added strap buttons. The strings are about $6, the fret end file is $25, and lemon oil is $8. You don’t need to buy strap buttons, but if you do, they are relatively inexpensive on eBay (you just have to wait for a long time). If you buy this ukulele, you’ll want to invest in the same accessories (maybe not the strap). Add in the time factor to do this work, and you will at least match the cost of the ukulele–making the purchase of a entry level ukulele from an online dealer such as Mim’s Ukes or The Uke Republic (who deal with entry level ukuleles) a better economic purchase, as the ukulele will arrive ready to be tuned and play (suggestion: if you are buying a laminate from these stores, ask for fluorocarbon strings like Martin 600).

Ugly “knot” on the bottom of the ukulele. Why would you sell an instrument like this?

The mahogany laminate is thin, but unremarkable in pattern (My Makala MK-CE has a much prettier pattern). The only negative about the pattern is on the bottom of the ukulele where an “eye” appears in the wood. Thankfully it is on the bottom, but there is no need for such a bad piece of laminate to be used. The tuners also leave something to be desired–and one of them has already become harder to turn than the others. I may eventually replace the tuners, but doing so will match or exceed the cost of the ukulele–so what is the point?

Overly large buttons on passable open geared tuners.

Ultimately, if you are looking for a cheap ukulele of a decent build quality, and there are still some of these left at $17.08, consider buying one. Know that there will be some work to do when it arrives. At its non-rollback $40 cost, it is less of a bargain, as you can buy a better ukulele that is set-up from a reputable online dealer with set-up included. And if you have to buy online, I’d suggest looking at some Enya laminates (not the HPL compared in the video) or the Aklot solid top ukuleles, which come in a kit (although you’ll want to change the strings on those ukuleles, too, particularly the Enya). As for me, this won’t be my last cheap ukulele…and it is a good enough of instrument that I won’t be looking to burn it any time soon.

Need New Ukuleles for Next Year?

A friend of mine recently found out that their school moved them from a high school position to an elementary position (quite a shock!) and has decided to incorporate ukulele into their elementary instruction. I have been asked what ukuleles to recommend…and I wanted to share my thoughts on the blog.

I am now over two years into this ukulele journey, having made hundreds of resources and presenting sessions on ukulele. We originally bought Mahalo MK1 ukuleles (above) for our school; and while they were the cheapest playable ukuleles we could buy–I would recommend other ukuleles today. I have a pretty good grasp on what is on the market in terms of affordable, quality ukuleles, and what the issues are that face beginning players (and beginning teachers). So, let’s look at instruments and accessories that I would suggest that you consider as of the summer of 2018.

Instruments:

You work in a school, and chances are that winter exists in your area. Ukuleles are impacted by humidity (or more accurately, the lackthereof), and as such, you should probably be looking at laminate or a polycarbonate ukulele for your school. These instruments will be less expensive than solid wood ukuleles, and will withstand a lack of humidity better than a solid ukulele. There are hundreds of laminate ukuleles on the market, and the quality of most brands/manufacturers continues to improve. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Kala KA-S: Kala calls this “The most popular ukulele in the world,” and they are probably right. Kala imports these (from China, I believe), and they are a laminate mahogany instrument. You can contact Kala about their educational promotions, where they sell these at a significant discount to schools. That said, the instruments are not set up (I’ll talk about this later and in other posts), which makes them play easier at the first fret, which is a common location for beginning players. If you buy them directly from Kala, you will either need to find someone to set them up, or learn how to do so yourself. If you want to order them set up, contact Mim’s Ukes and The Uke Republic, which are online sellers that set up every ukulele before shipment.
  2. Ohana SK-10: Ohana’s entry level soprano. A purchase with included set up is encouraged.
  3. Makala Dolphin (Soprano or Concert): A “hybrid” ukulele with a wood neck, wood fretboard, laminate soundboard, and a plastic body. Pretty rugged. A bit heavier than the Kala KA-S or Ohana SK-10. A purchase with included set up is encouraged.
  4. Outdoor Ukulele (Soprano or Tenor): A polycarbonate ukulele that is meant for outdoor use. They sell at a significant discount to schools (contact them directly). These come set up perfectly, and will never be impacted by the relative humidity of a location. We open a new school in the fall, and I ordered Outdoor Ukuleles for that school.
  5. Mainland Ukuleles (Soprano or Concert): Mainland sells solid wood, imported ukuleles, and the owner has sold sets to schools at an incredibly affordable price (often “seconds” that are impossible to discern as “seconds”). The owner supports all kinds of ukulele events and is one of the good guys in the business. The ukuleles will come set up, but you do need to have a plan to keep them humidified. If you don’t, there is a chance they will crack–and being solid wood, they will not respond well to accidents (being dropped, etc.). Your students would have a top notch ukulele experience, however.
  6. Caramel Ukuleles (Soprano, Concert, or Tenor): Caramel is a budget ukulele company, directly ordered from China, with Zebrawood laminate as the entry option. We had Caramels for my school (they are being donated to the elementary school that is taking over our location) and they were very serviceable, but did need annual attention to sharp fret ends due to lack of humidity and shrinking fretboards. Be warned that Barry Maz from gotaukulele reviews gave Caramel a dreadful rating–but the instruments were tanks and survived a LOT of (intentional) abuse from my students. You will be hard pressed to find a cheaper entry point into a ukulele for your school. Expect to wait 2-4 weeks to receive your ukuleles.
  7. Enya Ukulele: Available through Amazon, Enya has surprised me with their HPL ukuleles (High Pressure Laminates) and their entry level laminate ukuleles, all that come with a gig bag (and a pretty nice one at that) and a bunch of accessories. If you price the ukulele, accessories, and the bag, you almost get the ukulele for free.

What Size Ukulele Should We Buy?

I’m biased in this matter, but the scale that is most comfortable for me to play is Concert. Concert is the “Alto” ukulele. Soprano is the traditional size, and Tenor is the largest size in standard GCEA tuning (and yes, you can have all kinds of variations in tuning–low G, high G, D6 tuning, etc.). I don’t mind soprano (thus the recommendations of the KA-S and the SK-10), but we ordered mainly Tenor scale ukuleles for our middle school. Schools used to offer guitar classes at the middle school level (some still do), and even a 3/4 or parlor guitar is much larger than a tenor ukulele. We did order 10 sopranos as well. For all but the smallest elementary students, concert is a safe place to start–but in truth, almost anyone can play almost every size.

What About Lefties?

This is up to you as a teacher. I let my lefties choose whether to play right or left handed. I do not let them learn “upside down” (see Autumn Best who plays a traditionally strung ukulele like a lefty, as she is missing the fingers from her left hand). If a lefty learns how to play a right handed ukulele, they will be able to play 99% of all ukuleles at a music store, or at a ukulele festival. I recently asked adults at a festival how many lefties played a left handed instrument–the answer? None! But I let students choose, and if they buy an instrument, I help them swap strings around. I do not create special left-handed resources for them–but the color coded KIDS strings (see the accessories list below) makes it easier for them to decode chord diagrams, too.

A Word About Set Ups:

I have already talked a little about this, but in a “Set up,” a person makes sure that the string height (“action”) is good at the first fret and at the 12th fret by adjusting the height of the saddle and the depth of the channels in the nut. This also includes making sure that fret ends are not sharp, and that frets are level, and there are no buzzes. You CAN learn how to do these things yourself–but chances are that your time will be filled simply tuning the ukuleles to pitch rather than messing with each ukulele. Sadly, very few local music stores include set-up, and as such, I recommend ordering from one of the internet vendors who will sell introductory instruments with set-up included. You may not get the lowest price (prices will usually match other internet prices), but a large order will include 15 minutes of set up (at least) on each ukulele and perhaps shipping as well.

Please, for the sake of your students, make sure that the instruments are set up before they start learning to play–otherwise the challenges occur very quickly (F Chord).

Accessories:

I will include some Amazon referral links with these items…but if you are starting with ukulele, consider these!

  1. Aquila KIDS Ukulele Strings: You won’t want to teach without them. Contact Aquila directly to order packs of 20 sets of strings at a major discount.
  2. Ukefarm’s Chordette for Education Font Set: You’ll want these fonts to make your own resources–and if you have a Mac, the colored font to match the Aquila KIDS Ukulele Strings.
  3. A String Action Gauge: These things are just worth having so you can check the action on a ukulele.
  4. A String Winder With a Clipper: Useful.
  5. An Ernie Ball String Winder: When you install a set of ukuleles, you’ll be thankful.
  6. A Roadie 2 Tuner: When you tune a set of ukuleles many times a day, you’ll be thankful.
  7. Dunlop 65 Lemon Oil: (If you buy a wood ukulele of any kind…laminate or solid, you’ll want to treat the fretboard and bridge)

Conclusion:

This list isn’t exhaustive, and there are plenty of quality ukuleles to go with beyond those I mentioned. My heart, in education, is settled on the worry-free Outdoor Ukulele (I cannot recommend Waterman or Bugsgear Ukuleles). If you have a brand you are considering, send me an e-mail and I’ll be happy to share an opinion of the brand (usually based on playing them in person).

You Know You Have Been Making Too Many Videos When…

I have had the privilege to get to know some wonderful people through my efforts in music education and technology, as well as through ukulele.  One of those people is Andy Ramos, a teacher in Houston, who attended TMEA this year.  It’s a good thing Andy is 1300 miles away, just like it is a good thing my music technology friend Paul Shimmons lives in Michigan, or I would be hanging out with them all the time.  I share so much in common with these fellows that they become instant close friends!

Andy has taken my approach to Video Play Alongs and has continued the work and improved the work.  He is the only person out there whose output exceeds my own!  I love that he not only brings a wide variety of songs (pop, Latin, Christian), but that he often does so in multiple keys.  If you don’t subscribe to Andy’s YouTube channel—do so today.  https://www.youtube.com/user/andyramos69

Andy wrote a note yesterday, and it made me laugh out loud…and I had to share his thought with you.

You know you’ve been working on too many uke songs when you look up at the TV and wonder why they are putting up uke chord diagrams.

The photo?

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That would be a C7+5 by the way (I had to look it up…www.ukebuddy.com is incredibly useful).


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