Asked And Answered: Ukuleles

Mark Jacobi asks via Twitter:

What size of ukulele do you play? Is the a particular manufacturer that I should look for when I go to Hawaii in a few weeks?

I play a concert-size uke. I have the thick hands of one who makes his living through manual labor. So when I bought my first ukulele — which was also my first stringed instrument — I thought I might have trouble getting my big fingers to work with a traditional (soprano) sized one.

Last year I could not, could not, could not execute a tricky chord in a song I wanted to learn. I just couldn’t stretch my fingers around to do what the chord chart needed them to do and after weeks of frustration, I started to wonder if the troublesome extra dots in the chord were a printing error instead of the composer’s artistic intention.

I solved the problem by buying a soprano uke, whose smaller fretboard wouldn’t make me try to “reach” quite so far. After a few weeks of practice with it, I was able to transfer that chord to my usual instrument, too.

So it was a successful experiment. Mostly the soprano helped me break through the psychological barrier. It happens time and time again as I push myself to learn songs with trickier chords and fingerings: I’m absolutely convinced that this chord is simply unplayable. Until I somehow figure out how to play it. And then months later I can’t understand why I thought it was so complicated. That, and simple, dumb programming of muscle memory, is how you learn a song.

I’ve been to Hawaii exactly once so I’m certainly no expert on what ukulele maker you should check out while you’ve over there. I suspect there’s plenty to choose from. But that trip sparked my initial interest in the uke. If I ever get a chance to go back, I’ll certainly take the Kamaka Ukulele factory tour. The Honolulu-based, family-owned company has been making ukes for close to a hundred years and the instruments have a good reputation.

I’d love to own one of their instruments some day. I suspect that if I do return to Hawaii I won’t be able to resist the urge to sample a few models and pick one to take back to the mainland.

I think I’d also take an opportunity to get my first formal ukulele lesson. I’ve just been working it out as I go. It’d be…interesting…to show my technique to someone who knows what he or she’s doing and see how they react. (“Why on earth did you think you were supposed to blow through the soundboard?”)

That said, I don’t actually own what you might call a “good” uke. My first was a secondhand Fluke and I’ve picked up two Chinese-made instruments in the years since. The third was the soprano; the second was another concert one that I acquired because I wanted something with an integrated pickup for Garageband recording.

I’m holding off on investing serious scratch on a good uke until I achieve the lofty state of ability known as “adequacy.” I worry about becoming one of those dopes who can’t figure out what’s going wrong with their photography or their putting and blames it all on inadequate equipment.

I mean, I’m certain that a $2800 Nikon d800 can focus faster and get cleaner photos at high ISOs than my little Panasonic GX1. But on the whole, taking five seconds to think about a shot before clicking the shutter is a lot cheaper and yields better results.