BY SARAH MAISEL | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Of course, the very first thing you will think of when you hear the word “gear” is all the electronics available out there. Though that part of being a musician is fun, I’m talking about something much more personal: your instrument.
I cannot stress how important it is to choose your instrument. Once you’ve decided that you are ready to dedicate yourself to becoming a musician, you want to ensure you have the best instrument you can afford. I’m not saying that you need to buy a $2,000 ukulele, but you want to find the best one for you because this instrument will be your best friend, helping you through good times and bad.
Depending on where you live, this can be quite difficult. However, if you can take the time to diligently search, it will be worth it.
In my ukulele journey, the first uke I bought was a Magic Fluke Flea. I adored that uke and it was perfect for getting me started (and for taking to the beach). Once I began to really get in deep with lessons, I realized that the instrument had limitations. I wanted to be able to play amplified and I found that the smaller size was a bit more difficult when trying to play jazzy chords. This led me to really think about what I wanted in my next instrument, and more importantly, the bigger issues that anyone can use when looking for a good match.
TRY THEM ALL OUT
Do not limit yourself on price when searching. This is a mistake most people make when they first start shopping because they are either too scared to try the more expensive models or they don’t feel they are “worthy” of such an instrument. Trying out all ukes, free from shopping by price, will give you an idea of what specs are ideal on your instrument. You will learn things that you like and things that you don’t like; then you can begin to narrow your choices down to an instrument that is closest to your ideal specs and price. Why is this so important? If you have a nice instrument, you’ll want to play.
Take the time to really examine each instrument’s neck and fretboard with your eyes and your hands. You’ll notice some brands have wider fretboards, while others have thicker necks. These variables could be important to you. For example, in my search, I found that I prefer ukuleles with a wider neck because it gives my fingers a bit more room on the fretboard. Once I discovered this, it helped me narrow my search, since not all brands make ukes with a wider fretboard.
LOOKS AREN’T EVERYTHING
You may see a uke on the wall that you think is ugly, or just doesn’t seem special. However, once you play it, you might discover that its voice is amazing. Take a chance to play all the instruments that you can, even if you don’t think that any of the available ukes will be the one. If possible, bring a friend (who plays) with you on this search. I like to narrow down the uke choices to my top three or five favorites, and then have someone play each for me while I close my eyes and listen. Once you take your eyes out of the equation, you’re judging the uke on its sound, not by its looks. If I don’t have a friend to help me, I may just pick up each instrument, close my eyes, and play so I can focus on the feel of the instrument and its sound.
Don’t get hung up on the wood. Yes, koa is a beautiful wood and it’s traditional, but that doesn’t mean it’s “the best” wood for ukuleles. I know this sounds blasphemous, but have an open mind. I’m always surprised by what sounds great—and here’s the kicker—what I think sounds great might not be what you think sounds great. And, this brings me to my next point: strings.
Once you’ve chosen your instrument, you may eventually find yourself going on a quest for strings. Strings are incredibly tactile and subjective. Every person prefers a different feel and sound, which is why there are so many different string types and brands available. Not only do you have to take tone, feel, and playability into account, you also need to consider what materials make up your instrument. Certain strings may sound better on one uke, but not on another, so sometimes there’s no single answer, even for one player. This seems like it could be a long and arduous task, which is why I called it a quest. On the bright side, you’ll be a pro at changing your strings!
When searching for strings, you should ask yourself a few questions about the sound, feel, and texture of the strings you’d most like to play. Ask yourself: Do I prefer a bright and crisp sound or a mellow and warm sound? Do I like my strings to feel looser (low tension) or more taught (high tension)? Would I prefer the strings to be smooth or have a slight texture? Knowing the answer to these questions can sometimes help to narrow your search.
Many times, strings that have a brighter sound also tend to have a higher tension. So, if you answered that you prefer a brighter sound, chances are that you will end up with strings with a slightly higher tension. You’ll probably end up with fluorocarbon strings, which are made with a material that was originally used for fishing line. Many brands out there sell strings of this material, and fluorocarbon strings also tend to have a very smooth texture, which can be desirable for some players.
If you said you’d prefer a sound that is more mellow and warm, you will most likely end up with a slightly lower-tension string. In this case, I’d recommend taking a look at nylon strings. This Pandora’s Box will enter you into the world of nylon polymers. Basically, all this means is that another material has been mixed with the nylon to create the string. You will also encounter ground-nylon strings, which gives them a slight texture.
You’ll also come across other materials for strings, like titanium, wound-metal strings, steel strings, and more. If the set sounds interesting, give it try! The worst case scenario is, you don’t like how the strings sound or feel and you remove them. Luckily, uke strings aren’t super expensive, so it’s not too stressful to experiment.
With all of this said, don’t think too hard about it, and just try them out. And, once you’ve found the sound you are looking for, stock up! You want to change your strings regularly, to ensure your uke always sounds its best.
Sarah Maisel is an in-demand ukulele teacher and performer who, along with her partner Craig Chee, recently launched an online lesson series on artistworks.com. cheemaisel.com
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