Saturday, March 02, 2013

'Ukulele Review - Part One


Okay, it's only been a week and some since I got this critter, but as with any new toy, the enthusiasm is high and it is ever so much more fun to write about things when you are still grinning at 'em, so ...

The item under discussion here is an 'ukulele, (pronounced "ooh-koo-lay-lay"), that's how they say it in the Sandwich Islands, and how the word gets written in Hawaiian, with that apostrophe up front. 

A bit of b.g. for those who like etymology–the term comes from two Hawaiian words, "uku" and–surprise, surprise!–"lele," which together mean "jumping flea."

Why this name was applied to the four-stringed instrument is unclear. One explanation allows as how the player's hand hops all over the little fretboard and strings, kinda like a flea, but according to the history I'm reading, that's just a guess.  

In the yet-more-information-than-you-wanted category, the ukulele is not native to Hawaii as I  mistakenly thought, but an import in the late 19th Century from the Portuguese territory of Madeira, an island in the North Atlantic several hundred kilometers off the coast of Morocco. The forerunner of the ukulele was known as the machete, for reasons also unclear, since that term generally means a chopping implement halfway between a long knife and a short sword.  (Comes from the term "macho," which in turn comes from "mace ...")

Focus, Steve, focus!

No, no, wait, not yet! I have to tell you this part! There was a famine on Madeira, and Hawaii was looking for cheap workers, since the indigenous population was in decline, in the way smaller cultures beset by larger ones usually do, so a fair number of Portuguese folks sailed halfway around the world to harvest sugarcane and pineapples, and once their contracts ran out, they stuck around. 

These included some who could make musical instruments and who set up shop to do so.

In only a few years, the machete morphed into the 'ukulele. There is also some conflation with the "taro-patch fiddle," which was used interchangeably with "ukulele" for a time before it seemed to sort out into a somewhat larger, five-string instrument.

The uke became wildly popular, first in Hawaii, then the West Coast of the U.S., then worldwide. It was easy to learn how to play, cheap, and part of the Hawaiian music boom of the early 1900's.

So, enough history and background already. On to the review.

This one is from Mainland Ukes, and is a made-in-China import that is finished and strung in Nashville, Indiana. It is made from solid mahogany, with a bone nut and bridge, and a rosewood fretboard. The headstock is slotted, like a classical guitar's, and the strings are by Aquila. The fit and finish are passing good, given that it is an entry-level uke. The front, back, and sides are each made from a single piece of wood, which is a good thing.

Like guitars, you can spend as little or as much as you can afford. The cheapest ukes run forty or fifty bucks; on the other end, you can plunk down ten grand for a handmade one of exotic woods and inlays and then wait two years for it. If somebody offers to give you a uke and you have a choice? Take the expensive one.

This model has no frills, no inlay, no rosette, no rope-style purfling. But it has a great tone for an instrument costing less than three hundred dollars. Mahogany, a reddish-brown wood that is endangered in many places apparently isn't scarce in China, and there are several species that are marketed under the name. Solid mahogany ukes tend to have a warm, woody tone, and the Aquila strings have a reputation of making cheaper instruments sound better.

I can help myself here, I have to wander off again: Acoustic guitarists know about woods, and how they affect tone. Solid woods are generally better than plywoods, which is what a lot of the cheapest instruments are made from, i.e. a veneer of expensive wood over something else, which, especially on the top, tends to deaden the sound. 

The really expensive ukes tend to be made from Koa, a Hawaiian wood that is now scarce. If you were playing one  and making money at it, you'd probably be looking in the $600-$1000 range for a a decent axe. (Actually machete would be more appropriate.)

I spoke to the sizes of these things earlier, I won't repeat that, but it is bigger than the smallest ones with which most people are familiar. Those have the gCEA my-dog-has-fleas tuning, aka re-entrant tuning, with the fourth-string G being higher pitched than the C-string next to it. Most fretted instruments keep the notes in ascending or descending order.

You can get a G-string that is an octave lower, which is what I did, so the tuning is GCEA. Which if you capo up your guitar four frets, is the same as the first four strings of that instrument. In theory, you can count up or down four notes and transcribe the chords; a D-shaped chord in first position on a uke is the same as playing a G-shape on a guitar, but good luck with doing that on the fly.

Having had this thing less than two weeks, I have no skill playing it, still don't know where a lot of the minor and seventh chords are. And there is some stuff about the tone ...

Part Two: Louisiana Perry and the Quest for the Magic Strings is next time ...

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