Flight Uke Tip: Ukulele Sizes, Part 1
Ukulele sizes can be confusing for new players. We classify ukuleles by their scale length–the distance between the nut and the saddle of a ukulele. Ultimately, larger scale instruments offer more space between frets than smaller scale instruments. You can play any size of ukulele, but you may develop a preference for a particular size. Players with large hands may find larger scales easier to play; players smaller hands may find smaller scales easier to play. While there are other sizes, the four primary sizes of the ukulele are soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.
The smallest of these four sizes is the soprano, which was the original size of the ukulele. The scale length of a soprano is around thirteen inches. Sopranos are known to be punchy and bright, and are exceptionally good for providing harmonic and rhythmic support. Most sopranos are tuned GCEA, but there are many alternative tunings including ADF♯B. Some people think the soprano is too small to play and is a toy—but that is untrue. The soprano is a legitimate instrument, and it is the ukulele that started it all.
Increasing in size, the next ukulele is the concert ukulele. Some experts think that the Martin taropatch, created in the 1910s, was the inspiriation for the concert ukulele. A taropatch has eight strings, and is slightly larger than a soprano ukulele. If you remove four of the eight strings on a taropatch, you end up with a concert ukulele. Some sources suggest that “concert” is used because the instrument shares the same tuning and pitch range as a soprano ukulele. If it were named “alto,” it would indicate that it has a lower range than a soprano, which is not true. The scale length of a concert ukulele is around fifteen inches. Concert ukuleles are popular with beginning players as they offer more space on the fretboard and a have a slightly fuller sound than a soprano ukulele.
Flight Uke Tips: Straps
One of the most helpful ukulele accessories is the ukulele strap.
Straps have three benefits. First, they assure that you won’t accidentally drop your ukulele while you’re playing. Second, a strap frees up your playing. You can move your left hand as necessary, which is great for people who are learning barre chords. A strap makes it easier to stand and play, or to walk around with a ukulele. Finally, straps come in a variety of patterns that can show off your individual style.
Once you have a strap, if you want to play without it, all you need to do is to take it off. If you use a strap, avoid bumping your ukulele into things (doors, stands, etc.). If your strap has loose fitting ends, you can place a rubber washer over the end of the strap button to lock it into place. There are several kinds of ukulele straps. Neck lanyards go around your neck, under the ukulele, and clip into the sound hole. These straps stabilize the ukulele but do not hold the ukulele—if you let go, the ukulele will flip over and fall off the strap. There are several “drill-less” straps on the market.
The most common type of ukulele strap is a 1” to 1.5” strap with leather or synthetic leather ends. The ends have slots that slip over a strap button. You connect one end to a button on the bottom of the ukulele, but you get to decide how to connect the strap to the top: a strap button on the heel, or to the headstock with a string or a headstock connector. Strap pins can be installed on most ukuleles by the owner of the ukulele or by a music store/luthier. On a wood ukulele, make sure the ukulele has a tail block before adding a strap button.
If you weren’t aware, Flight offers stylish ukulele straps that can be used with any brand of ukulele, and every strap comes with a headstock connector. And best of all, Flight ukulele straps are priced affordably! As always, we encourage you to work with your local music store to order a strap—and if they don’t carry them, ask them to!
Lava U Review
The Lava U came shipped directly from Hong Kong, and while individual ukulele dealers are selling them (such as The Uke Republic), you can also buy them direct from Amazon. The Lava U comes in the most protective shipping packaging I have ever seen. The external box is heavy and large. The ukulele is shipped inside a case, inside styrofoam, inside that large box.
While the use of styrofoam may not be Apple-like, the rest of the process of opening the box is very much an Apple-like experience. If you take no joy out of brilliant packaging, then you can rip and tear and get on with things. If you appreciate the design, from the moment the ukulele arrives, it is clear that great thought has gone into every aspect of the ukulele—including how it is shipped.
The Space Case
The most visually striking element of the ukulele is the unique space case, a hard shelled case which protects the Lava U and also allows the ukulele to be seen through its window. I find myself of a split mind about the space case. It is undoubtedly cool, and my wife—who tolerates my love the ukulele—was very quick to notice the case and inspect it. So it definitely is going to catch the attention of players and non-players alike.
The space case will also keep your Lava U safe at home. Many valuable ukuleles would be served by such a protective case.
Where I am not convinced are the areas of practability of the space case as well as the added cost of the case. The space case does have a handle, but it lacks a carrying strap. I cannot imagine walking around a ukulele festival for a full day, dragging the space case with me…I think my hand would start to hurt with the metal handles. I also don’t trust that the case will stay closed if dropped (e.g. locking mechanism) and I’m also not convinced about the durability of the case. While I am getting a bit ahead of myself, I consider the ukulele to be more rugged than the case.
I don’t want to go as far as to say that the Lava U shouldn’t include the case. I’ve considered this point of view, but I cannot commit to it. The space case is definitely part of the appeal of this ukulele and an “Apple-like” experience (I think of my Apple Pencil, or my AirPods). I do wish that a Lava-U shaped gig bag (nicely padded) was also included at the price point.
The Included Accessories
Upon opening the box, you find a set of items, which include a Flow Ideal Pick, a small user’s manual, a cleaning cloth, and a card thanking you for your purchase. You also get a USB charging cable, which is tucked away separately in the styrofoam.
I’m not sure what to make of the Flow Ideal Pick, which is small, sturdy, and made of hard plastic. I suppose you don’t have to worry about damaging a wood ukulele when playing the Lava U, but I fall into the camp of players who do not care if someone uses a pick as long as it is leather or felt (with the exception of a thumb pick). While I know the Flow Ideal Pick is a Lava Music product and was designed alongside the Lava ME guitar, I’d prefer to see a leather, synthetic leather, or felt ukulele pick included in the package insread.
The USB charging cord is brilliant, angled on one side to easily fit inside the Lava U to make charging easier. When you charge the Lava U, the ukulele-side seems to require a bit more force to make sure the plug is nestled securely into the charging port. Don’t lose the cord.
What isn’t included with the ukulele is a ukulele strap; the strap is an additional purchase (as of 5/2020 I do not believe it is available). The ukulele only works with Lava Music’s propietary strap, and this is one case where I wish they would have made the instrument accomodate traditional straps.
The ukulele looks futuristic without a complete departure as to what a ukulele looks like. The body is more dreadnought in shape than anything else, which I think is an attempt to maximize the surface are of the sound board. The whole ukulele looks cool and smooth and is very comfortable to hold. The finish of the ukulele, which has a little sparkle to it, is tactile. The shaping of the neck is also very comfortable in the hand.
The closer you look at the ukulele, the more details you see…and there are many of them! There are ”screwless tuners,” the FreeBoost pickup system, and a chrome bumper around the soundhole. There is a unique bridge which seems to mix the concepts of a tie bar bridge, slotted bridge, and a pull through bridge—all in one. The ukulele has the Lava Music logo in chrome on the soundboard under the soundhole (and this looks great). The ukulele has a compensated saddle, a flush mounted output jack, and a custom strap mount. There are no front position markers, but side position markers are included. You also cannot ignore the metal frets, something not seen on any other polycarbonate ukulele.
Ultimately, you walk away from this ukulele knowing that it is the result of some experience in the field as well as a lot of careful planning.
The ukulele is well balanced, but it feels heavy. The headstock is VERY small, and features “LAVA U” printed on the headstock. My biggest disappointment with the appearance of the ukulele is the printing on the headstock. It just doesn’t match with the rest of the ukulele and almost appears to be an afterthought. I also miss the front fretboard markers—it turns out that I look at those more than I probably ought to!
I have been struggling to define the sound of the ukulele. While all the notes are clear, the instrument really brings out the middle and lower frequencies of the instrument. I have a difficult time hearing the ukulele for itself, because I keep comparing it to other polycarbonate ukuleles that I own. And then, due to the price, I cannot help but compare it to wood ukuleles in the same price range. This is a review, not a comparison—so I have done my best to not compare. But know, as a reader, that it is really hard NOT to compare it to other ukuleles.
In an oversimplified summary, the sound is perfectly acceptable. My ear likes ukuleles that carry a lot of higher overtones…something that isn’t true of the Lava U. But I have watched and read many reviews of this ukulele, and there are a lot of players that prefer a ukulele that brings out the middle and lower range. So while I wouldn’t buy this ukulele solely for its sound, there are people who would.
Again, when it comes to comparison, the ultimate ukulele I have ever heard is the Blackbird Clara, made of eKoa, and starting at $1300 (yes, I think they sound better than any wood ukulele, including my beloved KoAloha ukuleles). When it comes to the Lava U I think I am wanting $1300 sound from a $400 ukulele…and that’s simply ridiculous.
While you can buy the Lava U without the FreeBoost Pickup System, I don’t know why you would want to. The small premium you pay for the electronics is worth the expense; you cannot retrofit this ukulele. Several companies are selling similar systems, some even in collaboration with the same partner (Double). The idea is that you can add reverb and chorus or delay (note how that is written) while playing acoustically or amplified. And this all works, but I find that I could use more volume for acoustic effects. You cannot run chorus and delay at the same time—you have to choose between the two with a toggle swtich inside the ukulele. I’m not exactly sure why this had to be. I don’t know why another dial couldn’t have been added to the outside of the ukulele. It wouldn’t have been that much larger of a panel. And I’d also like to see the delay button have a sense of “clicking.” It would be very hard to gig in a live setting and add the right amout of delay without a sense of where the levels are.
All that said, the effects are cool to have, and work even better when the ukulele is amplified. I would personally consider the acoustic effects to be used for practice purposes (you’re not going to hear them around a campfire) and the amplified effects for performance.
I have already covered playability to some extent in this review. The ukulele is comfortable to hold, the finish is grippy, and there is a very slight radius to the fretboard. The neck is narrow, but playable. There have been some concerns over the durability of frets with other polycarbonate and plastic ukuleles (even Magic Fluke ukuleles), but the Lava U’s metal frets should allieviate any concerns about the durability of the fretboad—and allow players to use wound strings without much concern.
The thing you cannot escape with this ukulele is the topic of price. The nearest polycarbonate/carbon fiber competitor costs $195 (including shipping) with no accessories. The least expensive Lava U, at the time of writing, is $299 without the FreeBoost pickup, and I cannot find one available on the market! The tenor model with the FreeBoost pickup system is $399.
Most people will buy the concert ($379) or tenor ($399) with the FreeBoost system.
While ukuleles can cost much more, $400 is a serious amount for an instrument made out of a polycarbonate and carbon fiber blend. To put that into perspective, that’s seven Flight TUSL-35 travel ukuleles. A Leolani with the Double system sells for $449. The Flight Diana with the Double system is about $420 (if you can find one!). The Nova U with the AcousticPlus system is $180. A full carbon fiber Klos ukulele is $1000. There are a ton of ukuleles below the $400 price point, and some solid top ukuleles with an acoustic effects system are within reach of the price of the Lava U tenor.
One of the things I’ve learned in my life is that some things are worth paying more for, if they will last longer and work better. Lava Music has certainly invested in the complete design of this ukulele, from internal BreatheNet bracing to the shipping box. As I’ve said many times in this article, the ukulele appeals to a buyer who is willing to pay a premium for a particular experience, much like an Apple product.
I’m not going to say the Lava U isn’t worth it; but it certainly rides at the high end of comparable ukuleles. Keep in mind, I’m not the person placing capital at risk to create and sell these ukuleles. They know their market. In fact, they did market research and determined that a large percentage of their buyers will be female. As a result, the ukulele comes in a number of colors that appealed to female buyers. So, I trust that Lava Music knows how much they need to charge to cover their operations and make a profit—so who am I to tell them otherwise?
As for you, whether or not you think the Lava U is worth the investment of your hard earned income depends on how you will use the ukulele.
The Purpose of the Ukulele
As I consider the Lava U, I’m faced with a really important question: what is the purpose of this ukulele?
It certainly isn’t designed for true outdoor use. The space case isn’t designed for rough conditions, the ukulele’s finish could be easily scratched. On top of that, the electronics should not get wet.
It isn’t a travel ukulele. It is not light, nor thin, and the space case wasn’t really created for travel.
And it isn’t a traditional wood ukulele…laminate, solid top, or solid wood.
Ultmately, the Lava U is for all other scenarios, which represents the majority of my playing, and probably the majority of yours, too. Yes, the Lava U will require a modicum of care, so you can’t throw it around like a travel ukulele. But it can be used in various weather conditions without worry (-4ºF to 140ºF, huimidity from 10%-90%). Your strings will have issues but the ukulele will be fine. The ukulele has the FreeBoost system, which is okay acoustically but outstanding amplified. The Lava U has metal frets which won’t wear down, unlike any other polycarbonate ukulele on the market (in other words, wound strings should be okay). The ukulele will get a lot of attention, both in and out of the space case. So, if the Lava U is your only ukulele, it can serve in a vareity of uses…as long as you care for it at least a little bit.
I really like the Lava U. I’m a recovering Windows user (and recently bought my son a Windows laptop to use for gaming) who bought into the Apple ecosystem. I can’t imagine doing what I do—as an educator and as a creator of content for the ukulele—without my Apple devices. I pay a premium for those devices, but then I can produce premium content.
In a previous post, I stated that the Lava U it is a ukulele unicorn. It really is…a polycarbonate and carbon fiber (called AirSonic) ukulele with an acoustic and amplified sound system, futuristic styling, and a crazy case. It is a well-rounded ukulele, both in shape and what it can do.
As with all ukuleles, there are some negatives for me. I would love to see a custom fit gig bag included at this price for when you can’t (or shouldn’t) travel with the space case. I’d love to see an adapter that would allow any strap to work with the ukulele. I’ve love to see all of the FreeBoost buttons on the outside of the ukulele (the charging port can stay on the inside). And for me, the sound is more on the mid/low frequencies of the ukulele instead of the higher frequencies I like to hear.
So…should you buy one?
If the aesthetics of the ukulele (and the space case) are pleasing to you, and you like what you hear in recordings (both acoustic and with effects), absolutely. Go for it. Yes, $400 is a lot for a molded instrument. But in the big scheme of things, it is a very small amount to pay for a high quality instrument. In comparison, the Lava ME guitar is $1400. If you think of the Lava U as an investment in a hobby, and as an instrument that can take the place of several other instruments—it’s not so bad. And while I haven’t done so very often, I have spent more on a ukulele that was not a good instrument. You don’t have to worry that in this case.
If you are the person who is looking for a ukulele on Amazon with a maximum expenditure of $75, this is not the ukulele for you. And if you are a traditionalist, looking to by a solid Koa Kamaka ($1300), this is also not the ukulele for you. But, to that middle ground that is open to a ukulele from $250 to $800, this is definitely an instrument worth consideration for all that it brings to the table.
Again, I think the biggest thing for you to consider is tone. If you like the low/mid range, I think you’ll be very, very happy with the Lava U. So…is this ukulele unicorn going to join your stable?
You can find the Lava U at Amazon.com, as well as at The Uke Republic.
The Story of the Lava U
At the 2020 NAMM Winter Convention, a new ukulele captured the attention of the ukulele word—the Lava U. The Lava U is a modern-looking ukulele, closest in shape to a pineapple ukulele or like a small dreadnought ukulele. It is injection molded, made of a mixture of polycarbonate and carbon fiber, and formed with a unique system of honeycombed internal bracing. The design of and materials used in the ukulele are intended to lighten it, as well as to increase the physical strength and tonal qualities of the instrument. The Lava U also includes metal frets, unlike other injection molded instruments on the market.
In addition to its physical construction, the Lava U is offered with an acoustic effects system designed with another company (Double), which Lava Music calls “FreeBoost”. This system allows a a player to add reverb, chorus, and delay to the ukulele’s sound with or without amplification. Several companies are offering similar systems—some also created in collaboration with Double.
In addition to these high tech features, the ukulele has a thin, rounded, player friendly design in sparkling (literally) colors, and comes in what many are calling a “space case,” a white plastic case with a clear front panel, which really draws attention to the ukulele. Simply put, no other ukulele shares all of these features, and there is nothing else quite like it on the market. It is a ukulele unicorn that actually exisits.
So, who brought this unicorn of a ukulele to the market? Lava Music.
Lava Music was started in 2013 by Louis Luk, who wanted to see more people introduced to the world of music. The idea for the company was started in Los Angeles at the Musicians Institute, but the company itself is located Guangzhou, China (in the Southeast part of China, relatively close to Hong Kong). The company originally built wood guitars in a traditional style, but Mr. Luk wanted to develop a unibody guitar with the goals of making it consistently responsive to the player and more comfortable to hold. Original efforts by the company were focused on making a guitar out of a single block of wood, routed by a CNC machine. It took over forty hours to rout the body of the guitar alone, and the final product was heavy and did not sound good.
Learning from the process, Lava Music began to question the use of wood as a material for a unibody guitar and decided to explore the use of new materials. The design team eventually decided to use a combination of carbon fiber and polycarbonate, which was later named “AirSonic.” At the time that Lava Music developed “AirSonic,” the materials were only used by the automotive industry, and it took time for the company to find partners who were willing to work with a music company. Lava Music believes the mixture of carbon fiber and polycarbonate is a good substitute for wood, and with continued development, may even be better than wood. At the very least, the use of these new materials will spare the use of a lot of trees.
In 2016, over a twelve week period of time, a six ton mold was created to form Lava’s first unibody guitar. Research helped to decide how the instrument was braced, resulting in a honeycomb pattern, called BreatheNet. BreatheNet is used in all of the instruments made by Lava Music. The Lava ME guitar was well-received. Since 2017, Lava has already produced two versions of the Lava ME guitar, and is now shipping the Lava U ukulele.
Development of the Lava U began in 2017, shortly after Lava Music began production of the Lava ME guitar. Mr. Luk recognized that some people struggle to learn guitar, and the ukulele represents an easier path for beginners—and it is a fun and happy instrument. While guitars are generally large instruments, ukuleles are small enough that they can be easily transported and used in many settings. Furthermore, after developing the Lava ME guitar, Lava Music believed that the technology used in creating the Lava ME could be applied to a ukulele. In the process of designing the Lava U, the design team learned that building a ukulele was not the same as building a guitar—and they had to make adjustments to their design to best suit the smaller instrument. The design of the Lava U was completed by the end of 2018, refined throughout 2019, and brought to the attention of the world at Winter NAMM 2020.
Two of the most striking features of the Lava U are the colors it comes in, as well as the “Space Case.” Lava Music made sure that the ukuleles were offered in colors that would appeal to a wide range of buyers—with an particualr emphasis on their female customers. Market research showed that up to 80% of the potential buyers of the Lava U would be female buyers. The “Space Case,” which looks like a prop from a Star Wars movie, was a challenge for the company to create. It required careful design choices and the creation of a special mold, as no one else has created such a case. Great care was given to the choice of that materials that were used as well as the final color of the case. The case allows the owner of a Lava U to protect their investment and to show it off to the world, rather than hiding it in a bag or hard case.
As of May 2020, Lava Music is offering the Lava U in two sizes (Concert and Tenor) with or without the FreeBoost acoustic effects package, in six sparkle colors (black, blue, red, purple, pink, and gold), with the Space Case included. The acoustic version is currently selling from $299 (concert) and ukuleles with the FreeBoost effects system sell for up to $399 (Tenor).
Lava Music can be found at https://lavamusic.com, and the Lava U can be purchased in the United States from The Uke Republic. A One Minute Review, a UkeGuide Review, and a written review of this ukulele will be available from ukestuff.info in the near future.
Note: I received a Lava U for review purposes, but was not paid to review the instrument. I was asked to write about the company—which I was happy to do with a focus on the development of the ukulele. I was also asked to write a written review in addition to my usual video reviews. There have been no other conditions placed on what I can write, and I feel I can objectively review the ukulele under these terms. The information in this article has been provided by Lava Music, as have the promotional photos used in this article (used with permission from Lava Music).
Flight Uke Tip – Strings (Part 3) Low G
If you play ukulele, you are familiar with its special sound which is due to its traditional tuning, GCEA. When the G is tuned above the C, this is called “reentrant tuning.”
Why is the ukulele tuned this way? The ukulele was developed in the late 1870s by immigrant wood workers who moved to Hawaii from Maderia (an autonomous region of Portugal). The ukulele was the result of a combination of two instruments from Madeira: the machete and the rajão. The machete had four metal strings (tuned CGAD), and the five-string rajão was tuned DGCEA with G to C being “reentrant.” As a new instrument, the soprano ukulele used four non-metal strings (what was available locally) and GCEA reentrant tuning.
Over the years, there have been many other tunings for the ukulele, as well as ukuleles with different scale sizes and number of strings.
One popular modification of the ukulele is the use of a Low G string, tuned below the C, which is called “linear tuning.” IZ used this type of tuning on his famous, “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” Low G gives the ukulele four additional half steps below middle C and creates a “darker, fuller” sound. Think of it this way: reentrant tuning places the ukulele in the range of the soprano singing voice; linear tuning places the ukulele in the range of the alto singing voice.
While no Flight ukulele comes with Low G (yet!), if you want to try Low G, you can! Many players own ukuleles in both reentrant (Low G) and linear (High G) tuning. You will have to buy a Low G string or a set of strings including a Low G, and make sure that the Low G string can fit into the nut slot for the G string. If not, you will need to modify the nut, or bring it to a luthier. If you haven’t noticed, strings get thicker as they represent lower notes, and as a result many Low G strings are metal wound, keeping the string from being thicker than necessary. There are also non-wound Low G strings on the market. Just don’t put a metal wound string on a ukulele with a plastic fretboard.
Happy Birthday (Maybe)?
I’m using Noteflight to arrange some music (just for fun) and they have an embed option. I wanted to see if I can get that to work in WordPress. If so, you’ll see it below. If not…I’ll provide a link (click for score in Noteflight).
Excellent Video: Cost, Scales, Where to Buy
My friend, Rachel Webley (in Wales), published a lovely video today discussing the issues of cost, scales, and where to buy your first ukulele. I’m in total agreement with everything that she tells you in this video.
Flight Uke Tip – Strings, Part II
Last month we discussed the strings that come with Flight ukuleles. This month, we will talk about different strings that you might want to try on your ukulele.
You should try different strings on your ukulele only if one of two things are true. First, if you don’t like the sound or feel of your ukulele, switching to different strings can change how your instrument plays. Second, if you are curious about how different strings might impact the sound your ukulele, strings are (relatively) inexpensive and it can be fun to experiment. If you change the type of strings that you use, give the new strings time to “settle” at least a month on your ukulele before you try another set of strings. If things don’t work out, you can always go back to the the brand of strings that you were previously using.
String choice is highly subjective—some players even mix strings from different sets!
If your ukulele has white Aquila Super Nylgut Strings, try a clear string, such as Aquila Sugar Strings or a clear fluorocarbon string set. There are many clear fluorocarbon strings available, such as Martin, Worth, Oasis, D’Addario Pro-Arté, and Living Waters. Flight is developing their own fluorocarbon strings which will be released later this year.
If you have clear strings, you may want to try Worth Browns, Aquila Reds, or Fremont Blacks.
If your ukulele has brown, red, or black strings, you may want to try Aquila Super Nylgut strings, or you could try any of the clear strings listed above.
Nylon strings had a bad reputation in the past, but string makers continue to improve their products. If you want to try nylon strings, check out Ernie Ball or D’Addario. D’Addario also sells Titanium strings which are clear with a purple hue, and Martin sells “Polygut” Premium strings that are gray.
Not all strings may be available at your local dealer. If your local dealer cannot order strings for you, check with the large internet ukulele dealers or with a string specialty store.
Thanks for reading this month’s Flight Uke Tip! Next month we will discuss the topic of Low G.
The Hug Strap
Melissa, owner of The Hug Strap, just released a video talking about her product.
Early in my playing days, I didn’t want to drill into my ukuleles. I think that’s a phase that many of us go through…and eventually, if you use straps, you start drilling.
One of the things I loved about the Hug Strap, was its comfort. While I play with straps just about all the time, none of them has been as comfortable as the Hug Strap.
A couple of years ago, Melissa started making the “All in One” Hug Strap, which can be used in any configuration.
If you’re looking for a strap that is good for now and in the future…I highly recommend it.
And finally, just so you know…I don’t get any kickback for mentioning these straps. It’s just a great product from a small business owner and a ukulele aficionado…and mom and wife. I will say that I had some questions and requests when I bought my Hug Straps (not the “All in One”) and Melissa’s customer service was top-notch.