I’ve owned (or at least had in my possession) 11 ukuleles since September 2013. He–eee—eee–re they are!
Kala KA-8 8-string tenor. I had mentioned to my colleague Mitch Kokai, who had taken up the mandolin, about my interest in playing something, and I settled on the uke. He saw this one listed for $150 (including hardshell case and shipping) on the classified section of the mandolincafe.com website, and after a little consideration, I bought it. The case itself would sell for about $75 new. The uke was in great shape, but I snapped the low G string on day one, and had to get a new string. I could shape a few basic chords, and the instrument sounded wonderful, but after a few weeks it became clear that my hands weren’t really large enough to make the stretches comfortably or hit the frets squarely. Hence …
Mahalo mahogany soprano. This little laminate was part of a Black Friday sale at Guitar Center. $25. It was more comfortable to play than the Kala, but the Kala still sounded better. I could handle the reaches, though the frets hadn’t been filed, so the fingerboard was a bit rough. (Initial lesson learned about buying a new uke from a big-box retailer.) Even so, we were getting somewhere. Which led to my briefest affair with the …
Oscar Schmidt concert with gig bag, tuner, and songbook. My dear, delightful, wonderful wife ordered this package as a Christmas present. The laminate mahogany uke was beautiful out of the box, and appeared to be just what I needed to really let my playing take off. But … but … one of the tuners was loose, causing the g string to buzz. I couldn’t tighten it, suggesting that the headstock may have been cracked, or the tuner wasn’t installed correctly. The result: an immediate return to the Amazon seller. By this time, I had it bad: Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome. The desire to get just one more (though I could have stopped whenever I wanted … . Right.) The day after Christmas we went right back to the Guitar Center and purchased a …
Mitchell spruce top concert. This is one of GC’s proprietary brands in the U.S. This one — all laminate — had shiny chrome tuner pegs and a glossy finish (like the Kala). Very pretty. It also had a thick neck and wasn’t that comfortable to play. Still, I stuck with it. For awhile. (Had it been flawless, that Oscar Schmidt might still be with me to this day.)
Sometime over the course of the fall, I discovered the North Carolina Ukulele Academy in Wilmington. Kent, who runs the academy and the attached music shop, is a very cool guy and fine teacher. The academy hosts a monthly jam (open to the public), teaches seminars, and has the occasional performance by a pro player (it sponsored Jake Shimabukaro more than once.) I pored over the website of the online store, and saw a few all-solid ukes. We visited Kent one Sunday and I came home with the Kanaloa sapele concert. This beauty had a thinner neck than the Mitchell, a great finish, a wonderfully light touch … and it still didn’t feel right. (This was no fault of Kent’s. He did a stellar setup/fret dressing, etc. It makes a difference.) Before giving up on the Kanaloa, though, I sold the Mitchell on eBay at a very fair price. Spring was on the way. As April and our (mostly) annual trip to Merlefest approached, I started lurking on the website and online store for Mims Ukes, a well-regarded dealer who had a brick-and-mortar store in Charlotte for several years but had just moved to the Danville, Va., area. I phoned Mim to see if she would be at her store on the Sunday of Merlefest so we could take a roundabout way home and drop by. She was. I decided to buy another tenor, thinking I had been snakebitten by concerts. And after spending more than an hour with her demoing a dozen or so instruments, we arrived at this beauty:
Ohana TK-70G, solid spruce top, laminate maple back and sides. Oh, baby, did this feel and sound sweet. Mim noted that it looks a bit like something a televangelist would play, but no matter. It was the one for me. And, as it turns out, it’s been my only keeper. (More on that later.) Fretting wasn’t as much of an issue as it is on the KA-8, and the spruce top projects like crazy. Plus, I bought a second hard shell case.
Summer got here. I began going to the twice-monthly meetings of the North Raleigh Uke Jam (and now I help out with the Facebook page). Highly recommended. It has improved my playing and singing significantly and hooked me up with some wonderful people. I’ll probably write about it often.
With summer, came UAS. I subscribed to Ukulele Magazine (naturally), and in it read a positive review of the Eddy Finn line of ukes, designed in Michigan and manufactured in Asia. (Note the shark fin-shaped sound hole.) I found a concert-scale laminate mahogany model on eBay that I bought for $50, including shipping. It’s a pretty instrument, and it played OK. It was worth the gamble. So that became part of the stable.
And it was time, as they say, to start thinning the herd. On eBay, I sold the Mitchell and the Kanaloa, leaving me with the Kala, Mahalo, Ohana, and Eddy Finn.
Then on Facebook, I learned that a music shop had opened at the weekly Flea Market situated at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. Charles, the owner, posted that he sold ukes, including Ohanas and products from The Magic Fluke Company in Massachusetts. Learn more here. I had read a lot about the Flukes and Fleas, and when he told me he would give NR Uke Jammers a discount, I left happily with a soprano-scale Flea and a Flea bag. Terrific purchase. This puppy winds up being played almost daily.
The hits just keep on coming. In early October, I broke down and made another purchase from Mim, this time an Ohana solid mahogany soprano with a gloss finish. This guy gets played as much as the Flea. It has the classic uke sound, with more sustain and depth than most. Friction tuners, beautiful binding and purfling, for the money I don’t think you can do better.
But wait. There’s more. December was a veritable acquisition spree. I had read about the Vita ukuleles made by Ohana (and others) modeled after the Vita instruments designed for uke wizard Roy Smeck in the 1920s. The Vitas have f-holes like mandolins and project like crazy. As I learned more about the Ohanas and the price point (less than $200), I started looking for used ones online. I found one listed at the UU Marketplace, made an offer, and had me a new-ish Ohana Vita. This, by far, is the loudest uke I own. It’s also one of the more playable ones.
Then, what with Christmas coming and all, I decided to include the lovely and talented Cara in the ensemble. I gave her a Cordoba Guilele (6-string instrument that’s the size of a parlor guitar or a tenor uke tuned like a guitar) for Christmas. It’s actually a pretty cool instrument that she picks up every now and then (when she’s not knitting, which she prefers to do). We’ll perform together sometime. The guilele is a fun instrument to have around.
January 2015 rolled around, and several ukes weren’t getting a lot of love: The KA-8, the Mahalo, and the Eddy Finn. The KA-8 was too difficult to play crisply, and I wasn’t picking up the others very often. So it was time to thin again. I donated the Mahalo and the Eddy Finn to Goodwill (selling on eBay and paying for shipping wasn’t worth the trouble). I was about to list the KA-8 on eBay or UU, when, out of the blue, Facebook friend Bill Kalles asked me about it. We worked out a deal, and he’s been delighted. (Me, too. It’s a fine uke and I’m happy to see it in loving hands.)
Also in January, for my birthday, Cara gave me a beginner’s harmonica set and a very sturdy rack. I don’t practice nearly often enough and need to do more.
Now thinned, it was time to restock the herd.
In February, I went back to Mim, this time for a concert scale Ohana. Solid cedar top, laminate willow back and sides. It’s a genuine looker and a wonderful player as well. Ab-so-freakin-lutely gorgeous. She also had a very slightly dinged hard shell case at a good price, so I got both. This one could not be replaced for the money invested in it. I really love taking Willow to the jams.
At that point, I thought I was done. No more acquisitions. But it hit me again after hearing one of the UU players (at the Seasons of the Ukulele) play a wonderful rendition of The Band’s Stage Fright on a Fluke. the bug bit again, but I swore only to buy a used Fluke. This natural concert Fluke popped up almost immediately on eBay for $190, a significant discount from the list price, primarily because the original purchaser had modified the bridge/saddle to lower the action. (He said it was to make it easier to fingerpick. Frankly, I have no idea why you’d want to mess with success.) I bought it, caveat emptor, and after a few weeks, I hated the low action. I tried to raise it by using string spacers in the slots on the bridge, but that didn’t work. (The Fluke shown here alongside the Flea.)
So I sent it back to Magic Fluke for repair. I told them I wasn’t the original owner, the bridge had been altered, and I was happy to pay for a repair/replacement. They told me they usually charge only return shipping charges for repairs. Wow. So I sent it to Massachusetts with a check for the shipping, and within two weeks, it was back to me with a brand new bridge/saddle and a new set of strings. The folks who run Magic Fluke defy description. They’re the best. Buy something from them and tell your friends.
For now, UAS is in remission. (Don’t talk to me about String Acquisition Syndrome, a real issue when you’re using something other than steel strings.) It may hold on for awhile. But having four Ohanas (mahogany soprano, Vita, cedar/willow concert, spruce/maple tenor) and two Flukes (soprano Flea, concert Fluke) works very well.
Sound clips of each to follow. Thanks for your patience.