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  MAGAZINE 

Contents.

1.    Starting uke club (with a bit of emphasis on the UK) by Ray Shakeshaft.

2.    Vive le Difference... A brief look at the British Uke past and present by Rufus Yells.

3.    So you fancy building a uke.  John Colter's experience's with a Pete Howlett kit.

4.    The Glyph Ukulele Service.  A blow by blow account of a Glyph tenor being made.

5.    Bob Drinkwater   An appreciation of a West Midland's ukulele player and his charts by John Colter.

6.    The Pros.    Some well known UK wooden uke players

7.    Getting a gloss finish on a matt Stagg Soprano by John Brown.

8.    A few more thoughts on polishing that uke. Please read before you start smartening up that old uke. by Rufus Yells.

9.     The Revolution Starts Here!  How to start a school ukulele orchestra, by Tim Lewis.

10.    Stewart MacDonald Mahogany Soprano Uke Kit by John Colter

11.    Ukuloudly  by Martyn Dormer of 'Skiffle Haze.  A fluke goes to Glastonbury!

12.    Supplementary Instructions for use with the Stewart MacDonald Soprano Uke Kits by John Colter.

13.     "What uke should I buy as a newbie in the UK?" by Ray Shakeshaft.

14.    Cigar Box Ukuleles - A Guide. by John Colter

 


STARTING A UKE CLUB

This is not as daunting as it may seem and I suggest that you do not have to be an expert uke player since all members can learn at the same time. It is enjoyable to meet with other enthusiasts or even to introduce people to playing. I strongly recommend it and here are some tips to help you. Whilst it has been written with the UK in mind and based upon UK experiences you will probably find similar organizations and authorities in most countries.

Venue.

Stage one is to find somewhere to play and since you will have no idea what the response will be then it has to be cheap or better still, free.. 

Your local authority will almost certainly have a list of all rooms for hire in the area. Other places that you may try are pubs, schools, churches and chapels, libraries, and clubs (Working Mens', British Legion etc). 

You may find that if you explain the situation the owner will offer the room for free for the first night until you see how many actually turn up - it worked for my club..

Promotion.

Local newspapers and local radio are always eager for stories and it is free advertising. Public libraries will usually allow you to put up an A4 poster and leave small handouts.  Supermarkets often have boards that allow you to advertise for free. Music shops also like to promote the playing of any musical instrument. 

We had great success by advertising with small handouts and A4 posters at 'Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain' concerts and we are extremely grateful to George Hinchcliffe of the UOoGB who announced the details from the stage. 

If the local authority can be convinced that you are offering a community beneficial project then they can be very helpful.  They often have access to newsletters or slots in your local newspaper - free advertising!. Our local council Leisure Department printed all our leaflets and starter packs for free!

Promotion Leaflets.

They should not only state venue and times etc. but also offer a contact phone number or email address. I think every member of our club phoned me before coming along for the first time.  People want to know what you have in mind and do they need to be able to play already.  Stress that the club is for beginners or players and that the material will reflect that. Should you be fortunate to find someone who is already a good player then recruit them as leaders.

Meetings

So you have a few people that say they will turn up and you have your first meeting. Many are going to want to know where to get ukes from in the UK?, How expensive are they? What exactly is going to happen. How often do you intend to meet? (For the last question it is best to reach a consensus). You are unlikely to get much uke playing on that first night but if you do have any ukes then take them along so that people get to see what is available.  

You can make up a handout on where to get ukes in the UK from the information on this website. See LINKS.  There are plenty of so-called beginners ukes around but many of them are virtually unplayable so I would advise you to stick to those reviewed on this site.

Whilst this site is dedicated to the WOODEN figure eight uke you will almost certainly get someone turn up with a banjo uke (there are a lot of them about in the UK).  You will find that in a group they are much louder than the wooden uke so a bit of tact might be needed. It is something to be borne in mind when people ring you up to find out what you intend.

Material.

You may well have your own ideas but if not then UKUKE will send via email a starter pack that should at least get your members playing two and three chord songs. (Due to the work and time involved I would want to know that you are serious and have a nucleus of a club). This material has been proven successful by a number of people and I personally have used it for two hour corporate workshops and clubs.

Should you decide to write or gather your own material then remember that your songs should try to 'progress', introducing new keys, chords, tempos and ideas as you go. There are songs and chords on this website but there are other sites such as 4th Peg that also offer specific uke arrangements or you can work them out yourselves

You will be surprised at the speed that people learn to play the uke and you can soon find that you will need at least three new songs per meeting. If you are very fortunate - and I was - you will have members that like to work out the chords from sheet music or the internet and so you will not have to shoulder the full burden of finding and preparing songs.

 

NB.  This article was written using our experience from forming and running the Severnside Ukulele Strummers Association (SUSA) (Bewdley Worcs). The club is proving very successful with around twelve very keen members . Whilst it started in late April 2004 we have already formed an 'orchestra' that has played gigs and there are more bookings on offer for 2005 if we want them

If we can help you to set up a club then please contact UKUKE.

If you contact us we may be able to put you in touch with like minded people in your area so please register your interest with UKUKE.


VIVE LA DIFFERENCE…

A brief look at the British Ukulele past and present by Rufus Yells

England and America are two countries divided by a common language,” George Bernard Shaw famously opined – though of course, essential differences run far deeper. Football in the US ? Try rugby. Baseball? Have a look at cricket. Cars? Compare the fine barges of US automotive excess in the fifties with their British equivalents: endearing, underpowered utility vehicles. So, by extension, is there a similar difference in the British and US approach to creating fine wooden ukuleles? Indeed, is there such a thing as a quintessentially British uke?

 The immediate answer to this last question seems to be… possibly. Though, in keeping with the British taste for the slightly unorthodox, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the approach differs greatly for each British luthier, whether from the past or the present, and there seems to be a distinct lack of homogeneity in UK instruments. I have spoken to a few builders and players to try to get closer to a convincing picture – though the short answer seems to indicate highly individual tastes which inevitably deny a common approach.

 Going back to fundamentals, let’s remember that the ukulele as we know it has a strong European ancestry. I know that many cultures producing stringed instruments came up with a small, four-coursed chordophone at one point or another (different in tuning, size and material for strings, admittedly) – but the Portuguese machete, braguinha and rajao all have some claim to stake as the grandaddies of the jumping flea clan. The original Portuguese trinity refined and codified the instrument – and when the Martin company (originally of German stock), taking the Hawaiian model as their starting point, began their highly successful and benchmarking manufacture in the ‘teens, the style was largely set for USA instruments to this day – resulting in the Nunes / Kumalae island style, alongside the Martin mainland style. Both feature extremely light construction (albeit in different materials). Steady trade across the USA and Hawaii dispersed this most successful of designs, and any developments on the mainland were slight – a dreadnought body shape here, longer scale lengths there… in fact, harp variants and electrics aside, modern US instruments don’t seem a million miles away from those of Nunes, Dias and do Espirito Santo.

 But what was going on in the UK ? Far less cross-fertilisation with Hawaii , to be sure. The music made its way over to these shores, but the appeal of the wooden ukulele was always eclipsed by the banjo uke – George Formby, by the thirties, had made this instrument the weapon of choice for countless amateurs and professionals in the music halls. The wooden cousin was certainly known and produced by a few makers – but these instruments seem to turn up in relatively small numbers. And, in the absence of thousands of Martin models to keep them standardised, many of them are subtly different from their US counterparts.

 The twenties and thirties saw many small manufacturers producing instruments – respected luthiers such as George La Foley in London, and Aladar De Vekey in Bournemouth, where he had been at least since the turn of the century – though interestingly, De Vekey’s 1928 sole contribution to ukulele literature qualifies the instrument as a ‘miniature guitar’. Even Keech, better known for their banjo ukes, produced wooden instruments.

 De Vekey instruments seem to set the trend for early British styles. All tenor size, they feature a shallow, elongated spruce body, owing more to the parlour guitar than the Hawaiian uke. In four styles, from the plain to the most decorated imaginable, they were made in small numbers, decorated abroad and sold with a ‘foreign’ stamp to meet with legal requirements. Mellow in tone, they are curious to play (they seem far too long in the body for a concert, yet smaller than a tenor), and are finished to a high gloss. De Vekey was obviously going very much his own way in ukulele design – back towards the high decoration of nineteenth century Europe for inspiration.

 George La Foley, on the other hand, went in the other direction. This man of mystery (I’m hoping to find out more about him for a future piece) was hugely respected by his peers, winning sound words of approbation. He apparently had a manufactory in Rathbone Place , off London ’s Oxford Street , which was bombed during the Blitz in the 1940s, putting an end to his production. His instruments take the other extreme to De Vekey’s – the three soprano models I have seen are as plain as a pikestaff: no binding anywhere, birch back and sides, mahogany soundboard, and a slightly reduced size (more like Harmony soprano than Martin). Very lightly constructed, with bar frets and a wafer thin rosewood fingerboard, the only decoration is a single line round the soundhole. But play one of these – and you hear the true uke sound ring out. I also have a La Foley taropatch – perhaps a one-off, as the taropatch doesn’t seem to have made much headway in the UK . Again, this is a plain and understated instrument, but the sound is fabulous. There is also a concert I have seen – far more decorated, in fact. But until catalogues come to light, or research throws up advertising in contemporaneous publications, it is impossible to state which came first. All that can be said is that there don’t seem to be many La Foley instruments around - I have only seen six.

 Keech in the UK produced long scale tenor models – not the loudest instruments, but well made. It may be the case that these wooden instruments were made too much with De Vekey’s ‘miniature guitar’ description in mind and were made too heavily – Keech, after all, were more used to satisfying Britain’s insatiable craving for the banjo uke.

 It is telling, I suppose, that when I went to purchase my first ukulele in 1974, I found only one available: a USA Maxitone in an ancient box, presumably taken out of the storeroom where it had lain since the 1940s. British luthiers had, as Martin et al discovered in the USA , been affected by the folk boom (and skiffle here in the UK ) which demanded guitars, guitars and more guitars. Then rock, punk, indie… there were more profitable ways to spend time than creating labour-intensive ukuleles for a market that didn’t want them. The George Formby Society and the Ukulele Society of Great Britain kept the flag flying through all this, of course (as they still do) – but the simple wooden ukulele had all but disappeared from the scene.

 Nowadays, of course, things are very different. Just taking a cursory glance at current ukulele makers, there is a healthy choice. Pete Howlett continues to enjoy a high profile. Stuart Longridge is going his own way. David Hodson produces several idiosyncratic models. Paul Hathway has just reintroduced ukes into his roster of instruments… So, is the modern British ukulele any more standardised than its illustrious forebears?

 I don’t think so. Let’s look at the reasons current builders have for producing our instrument in the UK . There is frequently the instance of an existing instrument builder branching out into the ukulele as an addition to the current range. Paul Hathway is one such: alongside citterns, lutes, bouzoukis, renaissance guitars and the like, two models of ukulele have resurfaced in his catalogue. Dreadnought bodied, boxwood bound and satin finished, these sturdy instruments feature a zero fret and the perfect intonation you would expect from a maker of Hathway’s experience. To many, holding the Martin pattern as ideal, they seem chunky, solid instruments – once again, borrowing from De Vekey’s ‘miniature guitar’ description. But their tone is plangent and sweet, and they are unmistakeably Hathway’s, as opposed to Martin’s.

 A second exemplar may be considered David Hodson. A hugely respected maker of Selmer / Maccaferri style jazz and tenor guitars, Hodson is extremely loath to get rid of any of the fine tonewoods in his workshop. This admirable parsimony led to the initial solution of producing mandolins from offcuts too small for guitars – with the logical corollary of making ukuleles as well. These are also fine, mellow instruments, again featuring the zero fret and an oval ‘petite bouche’ soundhole. After I enquired about a concert size, with D-shaped soundhole, he produced the first of his D’ukes – a sitka spruce soundboard with macassar ebony back and sides that sounds every bit as good as it looks. So, a fine ukulele – but not necessarily as we know it, Captain. Ukes are a by-product for Hodson, and never feature highly in his production figures; but they are fine British ukes nonetheless.

 In the third category come makers such as Stuart Longridge. He concentrates on ukes to the exclusion of all other instruments, and has gone back to the drawing board to produce instruments (principally concerts and tenors) that owe more than a little to an English tradition of ‘folk instruments’. With small soundholes, deep bodies and a complete absence of binding, decoration or position dots, Longridge’s instruments are like no others currently being made in the UK .

 Longridge got into the idea of creating his own ukulele when asked to build a half scale guitar for a child. Going straight back to first principles, he decided to work out new scale lengths for baritone, tenor and concert ukes – slightly more room for comfort, more space in the first position. Increasing baritone scale as well, adding a chunky dimension to the neck, he wanted to find a bright, ‘English’ sound, and opted for strong and stable woods such as ripple ash, Italian cypress for a brighter sound, walnut for a softer. Longridge’s instruments may be the hardest for a traditionalist to get used to – although they seem, once again, to resemble small guitars at first, you soon realise that they are in fact highly idiosyncratic ukes with a British slant, with their deep bodies and ringing tone.

 Finally, we can square the circle with Pete Howlett. Back in the UK for some time now, Howlett’s ukulele building career was started and perfected in Hawaii , continued in the USA , and (following a period of ill health) earns great loyalty and respect to this day in Wales . Howlett’s recipe for a great instrument is simple: build ‘em light. With an admiration for the sound and feel of Kumalae instruments (though with considerably greater attention to detail and build quality!), Howlett continues to create instruments from the finest grade tonewoods, and has the waiting list to prove the desirability of his ukuleles – which, to bring us back to the very beginning, are sold under his name of UK Ukes…

 This has been just a cursory look at ukes in the UK – although, of course, the ultimate arbiters of taste are not the builders, but the players. Few players can claim as many hours in the saddle as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – so the last opinions of a player and connoisseur should perhaps be left to George Hinchliffe, eminence grise of the band. Having established here that no two makers seem to think alike, what would a Great British player be looking for in the perfect ukulele?

 “I don't really care whether they look like a baroque guitar or a tenor planchette; how do they feel under the fingers, what is the sound like, and most importantly, do you regretfully have to put it down after an hour and a half, or have you put it down after ten minutes thinking that something else would feel nicer - a mug of cocoa for example? That is to say has it got the inspirational playing factor? Sometimes the least promising instrument has this in abundance.”

 Hinchliffe quotes as current favourites instruments made by Moon (picked up in Japan , with the fingerboard joining the body at the 14th fret), Marshall Stapleton, and Pete Howlett (who is currently making two more instruments for him).

 “The thing I look for is that you can play a great instrument very quiet and pretty loud, and it doesn’t turn into a nasty noise at either extreme. Often a uke will get to a certain volume and then no matter how hard you twang it, it will sound merely harsher and more twangy but no louder, and sometimes the very quiet play has a nasty signal to noise ratio so that the string buzz and the fret noise and whatnot are louder than the pure uke tone.”

Amen to that. The conclusion seems to be that it doesn’t matter what it looks like or how famous the maker – when a ukulele seems right, it IS right. The Great British uke may not be the same thing to all people, but it’s out there somewhere. We just have to keep looking.


SO, YOU FANCY BUILDING A UKE 

Recently, I wrote a review of the book “Ukulele Design & Construction “, and commented that it required the production of various complex moulds and formers.   Also, it necessitated the use of special tools, machines and facilities not usually available to the casual hobbyist.   Fear not, help is at hand!

 If you fancy making a uke, but are put off by the degree of difficulty that entails, have you considered building your own instrument from a kit?   I have bought one of Pete Howlett’s kits (a concert size, in koa), and believe it meets the needs of the amateur builder admirably.  

Kits can vary from a box of raw materials and a plan, to an almost complete article, which only requires final assembly and finishing.   Pete’s kits follow the middle way.   The sides are already bent, and joined together with blocks and binding fitted.   The top and bottom are not attached, but are cut to shape.   The neck is profiled, but requires shaping.   The all-important areas at the joint of neck to body are finished, enabling accurate alignment and fitting.   The finger board is ready slotted to receive the frets.   All other parts (bridge, bracing struts, nut, etc.) are supplied ready for shaping and finishing.   The quality of the wood is excellent.

 So, all the difficult operations have been done for you, but you will still have to put in quite a bit of work.   Which is as it should be.   The finished instrument will reflect the skill and care you have put in to it, and there is plenty of scope for individual touches to really personalise your uke, if you so desire.

You should find yourself playing an instrument equivalent to one costing about three times the outlay.   I recommend anyone with the desire and the necessary basic skills to have a look at Pete’s kits.   They are an excellent product, fairly priced.

John Colter.


THE GLYPH UKULELE SERVICE

This is not so much an article as a sharing with readers how Dave Means of Glyph Ukuleles operates and some of you may be interested in the finer points of uke making so I have also attached the pictures that he so kindly sent me. (Click on thumbnails).   I should explain that I have largely put myself in Dave's hands. I am very much aware that he knows far better than I do what will make a 'player' uke so I simply told him I wanted a good koa tenor and let him get on with it. (Nobody ever told me how to do my job).    I will keep you posted on progress.               Ray Shakeshaft.

Hi Ray,

I finally got around to uploading some progress pictures on your tenor project from the camera.

I chose a nice honey-colored koa set with a light, uniform curl throughout that will be a good match for the mahogany neck.

Here are captions for the pics:

Dave

SSW1.jpg (46321 bytes)SSW1:  Joining one of the bookmatched plates
SSW2.jpg (39195 bytes)SSW2:  Roughing out the profile of one of the plates
SSW3.jpg (37269 bytes)SSW3:  Thickness sanding one of the plates
SSW4.jpg (40413 bytes)SSW4:  The plates, lightly moistened with alcohol to show curl.  They will be slightly darker when finished (more like the color in the next picture)
SSW5.jpg (62602 bytes)SSW5:  Spraying the sides with water in preparation for bending
SSW6.jpg (69170 bytes)SSW6:  Removing the sides from the bender after cooking
SSW7.jpg (45609 bytes)SSW7:  The sides clamped in the mold, awaiting trimming
SSW8.jpg (54546 bytes)SSW8:  Gluing in the heel and tail blocks
SSW9.jpg (43813 bytes)SSW9:  Roughing out the neck blank on the bandsaw
SSW10.jpg (47390 bytes)SSW10:  Gluing in the back linings
SSW11.jpg (51836 bytes)SSW11:  Sanding the sides and linings in a sanding dish to match the curvature of the domed back

SSW12.jpg (51710 bytes)SSW12:  Gluing in the back braces in the go-bar deck

SSW13.jpg (42393 bytes)SSW13:  Profiling the back braces

SSW14.jpg (42971 bytes)SSW14:  Ramping the brace ends
SSW15.jpg (35239 bytes)SSW15:  The finished back
SSW16.jpg (44507 bytes)SSW16:  Drilling the hole in the neck heel for the neck attachment barrel bolt
SSW17.jpg (51159 bytes)SSW17:  Cutting the slot for the carbon fiber neck reinforcement rod
SSW18.jpg (55174 bytes)SSW18:  Gluing on the back
SSW19.jpg (56108 bytes)SSW19:  Routing the rosette inlay channel
SSW20.jpg (54486 bytes)SSW20:  Cutting out the soundhole
SSW21.jpg (48014 bytes)SSW21:  Sanding the soundhole edges
SSW22.jpg (46074 bytes)SSW22:  Gluing in the neck attachment barrel nut and the carbon fiber reinforcement rod
SSW23.jpg (50526 bytes)SSW23:  Gluing in the soundboard crossbraces and bridge patch
SSW24.jpg (41547 bytes)SSW24:  Gluing in the fan braces
SSW25.jpg (39371 bytes)SSW25:  Carving the fan braces
SSW26.jpg (36980 bytes)SSW26:  The finished soundboard
SSW27.jpg (47614 bytes)SSW27:  The neck, carved and rough-sanded
SSW28.jpg (50430 bytes)SSW28:  Gluing in the top linings

SSW29.jpg (62753 bytes)SSW29:  Pressing in the frets
SSW30.jpg (52442 bytes)SSW30:  Gluing on the fretboard
SSW31.jpg (50942 bytes)SSW31:  Gluing on the peghead overlay
SSW32.jpg (56376 bytes)SSW32:  Gluing on the soundboard
SSW33.jpg (50393 bytes)SSW33:  Dry-fitting the neck
SSW34.jpg (40815 bytes)SSW34:  Applying the French polish bodying coats
SSW35.jpg (35833 bytes)SSW35:  Checking the gloss... not there yet... still can't read the label on the light bulb in the reflection
SSW36.jpg (49743 bytes)SSW36:  The top after after applying bodying coats
SSW37.jpg (55290 bytes)SSW37:  Waiting for the bodying coats to cure before applying finish top coats
SSW38.jpg (53059 bytes)SSW38:  Gluing on the bridge
SSW39.jpg (50202 bytes)SSW39 The finished product!

SSW40.jpg (81076 bytes)SSW40:The finished product!  

Many thanks to Dave means for the pictures - what a way to keep customers happy - if anxious :-).


Now all I have to do is wait! 

Ray


AN APPRECIATION OF  H. F. (BOB) DRINKWATER ( STOURBRIDGE)  

 I am writing this in memory of my first ukulele mentor.   I met Bob in 1995 (or thereabouts), when I was first bitten by the ukulele bug.   I responded to an advert in a local newspaper offering a uke for sale.   The vendor was a venerable gentleman of, probably, 80+ years – very sprightly and astute.   I bought the uke, and started going to him for lessons.  

 He guided me through my early stumbling efforts, and he was an endless source of anecdotes about famous players, instruments and general ukulele lore.   Inevitably, he had a collection of fine and valuable ukes, (and uke/banjos) and when I decided to try making a uke from scratch, he allowed me to take detailed measurements of his Martins, and Gibsons, and to peer inside them, using a flashlight, and a small mirror on a stick.

 Soon our lessons had moved away from formal teaching, to general wide-ranging discussions about the wonderful word of ukes, and though Bob’s charges for tuition were very reasonable, it struck me that it was quite expensive for a cup of tea and a chat!  

 Bob had been into ukes since his childhood, and his life encompassed almost the whole of the period(s) of uke popularity.   Thus, his anecdotes and opinions carried a lot of weight.   He saw himself as THE local authority on all things ukey, and this could alienate some other enthusiasts, but anyone of his seniority and experience is worthy of some deference, and attention.

 I drifted away from music after a couple of years, and my ukes gathered dust until recently, when I began playing again.   I mentioned Bob to a new acquaintance, and learned that he had passed away, not so long ago.   I thought him a most interesting old chap, and remember him with affection and respect.   No doubt he is sitting on a cloud, somewhere in the ethereal void, playing a four-stringed harp, and reminiscing with George Formby, Billy “Uke” Scott, Roy Smeck and other luminaries.   Good on yer, Bob - strum in peace.  

John Colter  SUSA

Here are the actual charts that Bob wrote out.

I Love to Play-- Bob D.(1).jpg (360427 bytes)   I Love to Play-- Bob D.(2).jpg (166380 bytes)   I love to play my Ukulele.

If I Didn't Care - Bob D(1).jpg (289072 bytes)    If I Didn't Care - Bob D(2).jpg (164779 bytes)   If I didn't care

I Like N.Y - Bob D..jpg (547327 bytes)   How about you? (I like New York in June)

Kiss Me Once - Bob D(1).jpg (307033 bytes)    Kiss Me Once - Bob D(2).jpg (318466 bytes) Kiss me once

Sheik of Araby - Bob D.jpg (565584 bytes) The Sheik of Araby

Singin' the Blues - Bob D. (1).jpg (388083 bytes)    Singin' the Blues - Bob D (2).jpg (513533 bytes)  Singing the Blues


THE PROS.

Whilst the UK scene has someway to go we do have, and have had, some good figure eight uke players. The first three pictures are of players who are currently doing an excellent job on behalf of UK ukedom. The next two are of a couple of guys that made it big in some rock and roll band but nevertheless played uke and finally a well known screen actor who was also a useful player and even played on a record. Click on thumbnails to enlarge.

Big UOGB 1.jpg (594780 bytes)   THE UKULELE ORCHESTRA OF GREAT BRITAIN.

Hula Bluebirds.jpg (139761 bytes)    THE HULA BLUEBIRDS

Paul with ukes.jpg (144266 bytes)  PAUL MOORE

George Harrison with ukulele.jpg (194112 bytes)    GEORGE HARRISON.

John Lennon.gif (90385 bytes)   JOHN LENNON.

Sellers Steeleye Span.jpg (56412 bytes)   PETER SELLERS WITH STEELEYE SPAN

Joe Brown.jpg (53209 bytes)    JOE BROWN


    

Attributed to R.Yells


GETTING A GLOSS FINISH ON A MATT STAGG SOPRANO.

With reference to my great new Stagg soprano uke which with the added Aquila strings sounds superb I would like to add a note with reference to Uncle Rufus's review .

 
At the moment the Stagg comes in a  beautiful  matt finish but as with Uncle Rufus who likes a little shine on his ukes as do many other players, me included, there is a way.
 
Well  there is many a debate about instruments with a lacquered finish as to if it would alter the true sound which is fair comment and its a personal reflection (no pun intended) These days polyurethane is used widely on most guitars as opposed to cellulose which was used fifty or more years ago and many, as in the case of Fender and Gibson guitars, used the  paint as used in the motor industry. However ,I didn't want to spray my new Stagg with any of today's varnishes  so I decided on another route.
 
So I set about the task in hand, After removing strings and tuners ,I masked up the fret board. With a gentle light wipe of the whole body with a isopropyl  I gave a good shake to the T -CUT. As many of you who have used T cut know, it is a polish with a very light cut to it depending on how hard you use and apply pressure .
 
 Well, a test rub on the back of the body revealed what I was looking to get, a lovely vintage shine, not high gloss but
a shine that without doubt brought out the lovely deep red grain of the  wood. With even application a section at a time  and polishing off before the T-CUT had dried the job was completed and with a dusting of none silicone wood polish the job was finished.
 
Assembling the uke and tuning to pitch the uke now looked every bit a stunner 
 
Maybe if the demand was there the manufacturers may bring out a shiny finish in the future but if they don't and you like a little bit shine on your ukes, here is a simple way to do it without reaching for the spray varnish

The finished glossy Stagg Soprano.

(BTW. The white case is not a Stagg).

 
John Brown    (Surrey Uke Banjo Society - SUBS)

A FEW MORE THOUGHTS ON POLISHING THAT UKE.......

 For some people, the decades of patination caused by greasy fingers, hard playing, gentle knocks and bashes and just plain dirt on a ukulele are part of the charm of its identity. Assuming it sounds great and looks acceptable, these are the badges of courage that mark a vintage instrument out as one that has served its time as a hard-working musical tool. I am not one of those people, however. Call me simple in taste (“It’s shiny! I love it!”), but I number myself among the duster-wielders who think back to the owners’ literature supplied with such venerable marques as Martin and particularly Gibson, with its exhortation to:

 “Spend a few minutes each week cleaning and polishing your instrument with famous GIBSON POLISH, to protect its lustrous finish against dirt and grime. GIBSON POLISH can restore a high lustre even to instruments dulled by neglect, and is highly recommended for furniture and piano finishes as well.”

 Now I’m not suggesting we all set a weekend aside to buff up our pianos; but a ukulele is small enough to be attended to quite simply – and even quite dull-looking finishes can be easily spruced (or mahoganied…) up to look and feel a lot better in an hour or so

John Brown’s excellent feature (see above article) on how to achieve a deep and lustrous gloss on a satin finish Stagg is great for any instrument that has a smooth and unbroken surface – but there are potential pitfalls for anyone who takes cutting polish to a surface which has finish or grain cracks, strum wear or imprinted makers’ stamps.

 The cutting polish (T-Cut being the most readily available) tends to deposit a residue which dries to a pale buff colur and sits in the dings and cracks, making them even more noticeable than before (particularly when the surrounding wood has taken on a deep shine). There are ways around this. Some polishes, designed for automotive use, already have a dye in them to match the original colour of a car. Brown is not the easiest to find, but is available – the key advice, however, is to avoid letting this residue build up in the first place. Keep your application and polishing away from these areas – put a small amount of polish on a soft cloth, working it in and buffing as you go. If some paler spots do appear, you may be able to remove them with the judicious and GENTLE use of a needle point. The ‘soft cloth’ part is important too when it comes to the finishing polish – kitchen paper has a slightly abrasive quality.

 So once you’ve removed the strings and tuners, it’s a good opportunity to clean the tuners as well. Good metal polish easily removes grime and small scratches from the buttons themselves, and cleaning of the shanks and any washers improves adhesion when you reassemble them, making accurate tuning easier. Watch out for overenthusiastic cleaning of plated brass barrels – the chrome or nickel plating is very thin, and it is possible to go through to the brass. Be very wary too of applying any cutting polish at all to headstock decals – these are extrememly fragile and best left well alone: even attempting to mask them can damage them.

 Once the grime of ages has been removed from the wooden surfaces, there may still be some deeper dings and marks that show up paler wood (or some of those paler deposits mentioned earlier). What often works here is a judicious application of a little shoe polish mixed with some high quality antique grade wax polish. It may sound a little curious, but the results frequently justify the attention paid. Just a tiny amount massaged in to disguise an unsightly blemish can work wonders – I experiment first on a real basket case instrument if in any doubt.

 Once the instrument has been cut and attended to, the time for finishing polish has arrived. Don’t forget to put a large soft cloth on the table where you’re working to avoid putting new scratches on your uke, then apply two or three THIN coats of the wax polish, buffing it all up each time. It should be looking great now – but there is more to come…

 The wax polish (NOTHING WITH SILICON!) will shine up magnificently, but is often prone to leaving fingerprints visible after playing. These can be polished out each time before putting the uke away – but it starts to seem as though you’re under a lifelong sentence of endless polishing. Modern (non-silicon) spray polishes have a fingerprint retardant that seems to work very well, so I add a quick squirt of this and buff it up again. As the polish settles over the next two or three days, a quick shine every now and again seems to build up a very fingerprint-resistant surface. Subsequent occasional applications of Gibson or Martin guitar polish keep any instrument looking and feeling at its best.

 This treatment of older instruments should be approached with reason – ukes that were originally finished with a matt or satin finish (Stagg notably excepted!) should be left that way, and merely cleaned up as far as possible without altering the integrity of the instrument – and I apologise if the foregoing appears obvious or idiotic. I also hasten to add that I am not some fetishist in quest of the perfect mirror surface – just seeking to maintain a gloss finish if that is the way the instrument maker intended it. I originally started doing this sort of thing years back, when a beautiful vintage Gibson, near perfect, had some ugly nail or plectrum marks on the upper treble bout. A luthier friend of mine, on being asked for his advice to get rid of the scratches, advocated toothpaste – which worked wonders.

 Any mild cutting or finishing agent works in the same way – minute scouring granules, finer than any steel wool, smooth out unwanted irregularities on the surface. T-Cut? If it’s good enough for a Bugatti, it’s good enough for me. The advice, as in so many cases, is to proceed slowly and with caution – but the results can be astonishing.

Rufus Yells.


The Revolution Starts Here.

How to start a school ukulele orchestra

 I am passionate about the ukulele.  I love it.  I’m also passionate about educating children and providing them with interesting and inspiring musical experiences. 

 "Over time, all pupils in primary schools who wish to will have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument;"                 Secretary of State for Education and Skills, 2000

 My name is Tim Lewis and I have played the ukulele on and off since I was 16.  I am now a primary school music teacher in Somerset and teach ukulele to 74 children at my school.  How did this happen?  Well after a chance hearing of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain on Radio 4, and my baby sons love of “The devil and the deep blue sea” as sung by George Harrison;  I decided to buy a better ukulele.  I had cheap ukuleles over the years, I just never realised there was anything better to be had in the UK .  Well to cut a long story short, the children at my school loved the ukulele and when they saw a blue mahalo I had bought for my son, they wanted their own.

 The head teacher of my school (an amazingly good head teacher) took one look at this blue ukulele in school colours and saw the potential.  “Order a dozen” he said without a moments hesitation.  So I did.

I chose children who had a talent for music or who needed to develop their confidence socially, put the ukuleles in their eager hands, and we were off.  The Holway Park School Ukulele Orchestra was born.  The progress was startling with the children playing to a large audience of parents after only 4 lessons.  The children’s abilities vary greatly, some learn chords and songs very quickly, others may never quite play in time but what they all have is the feeling of being real musicians.  Raising children’s self esteem will help them to achieve in all areas of their lives, being part of an orchestra has done this.

 Over the last year we have performed concerts in school, church and at the local senior citizens lunch club.  At Christmas we were recorded for BBC Somerset Sound and helped raise money for a local charity.   We have our own special school orchestra jerseys and all the original children own their own ukuleles.  

I now have 30 school ukuleles at my disposal and teach whole class groups of 30 children at a time.  Several members of staff have started playing ukuleles and our staff uke band will make its debut at our next school concert.  

Ok so all this sounds a bit crazy, my wife says I’m obsessed, however the government have set up a scheme called “Wider Opportunities”  to provide instrument tuition to children aged between 7 and 11 years, and why not the ukulele.  It is the perfect instrument for children, size, speed of success, cost and the ability of teachers confident with guitar to teach it.  The government body who offer curriculum guidance (QCA) don’t specify a particular instrument but leave this up to schools.  They recommend teaching of whole classes and that is what I am now doing.  Read QCA teachers handbook for wider opportunities at;

http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/schemes3/documents/TeachersHandbk_Music.pdf?timestamp=1090336241

 So why might a school choose ukulele?  In my school we have been part of wider opportunities for 3 years and provide the opportunity for all key stage 2 children to learn a brass instrument with a peripatetic brass teacher.  We hire instruments and pay for the teacher.  This year we stopped getting LEA subsidies and paid the full cost, it was a huge amount of money (it’s the fantastic head teacher again).  To purchase 30 ukuleles and teach a whole class has cost only £300.  We have offset some of this cost from money made with performances and have been able to sell ukuleles to children for £9:50; this is simply not possible with traditional orchestral instruments.  The government is about to release 26 million pounds for wider opportunities and will be paying money directly to schools, they don’t have to spend this on music.  Yes you read correctly they don’t have to spend this on music.  The financial pressures on schools are immense and I and others fear this money will be spent elsewhere.

http://education.guardian.co.uk/egweekly/story/0,5500,1687504,00.html

 It’s up to us, the UK ukulele community, to promote the idea of using the ukulele for wider opportunities.  We have the knowledge and expertise to make this happen.  I have put together a school pack for “Starting a school ukulele orchestra” with all the written material needed to support the children’s learning.  I can supply this free for anyone who may find it useful.  It’s not just for teachers but parents, grandparents, ukulele clubs and players who may be able to help.  It contains links to the national curriculum and so ensures the children will be learning the appropriate skills.   

I am currently working on a version of the pack specifically to support wider opportunities with a unit of work for teachers to follow.  

So go to schools, offer to play for the children, inspire them.  Show my pack to the head teacher and if you can, support the teachers practically.  Other teachers in Somerset are becoming interested: its time for a revolution!  

Another way to get involved could be to sign the music manifesto at www.musicmanifesto.co.uk its free and you can pledge to help children learn the ukulele.

 Tim Lewis  February 2006

(Tim is a contributor to the 'UK Ukes' section of the 4th Peg Bulletin Board or may be contacted through me (see Aquila Nylgut page)  Ray.)


STEWART MACDONALD MAHOGANY SOPRANO UKE KIT

 Firstly, a word about Stewart MacDonald.   This is an American company, whose catalogue states “Everything for building and repairing stringed instruments”.   They specialise in mail order business, and buying the kit could not have been easier.   I paid by Visa debit card, and the postman delivered the kit two weeks later.   The cost was $99.99 plus post & packing, which worked out at about£70 sterling.

 Stew Mac supply kits for several instruments: guitars; mandolins; violins; mountain dulcimers, and their so-called beginners’ kit – the ukulele.   This is only a beginners’ kit because of the small size, and the inherent simplicity of the soprano uke.   It is not simplified or skimped in any way.   It is all that a uke should be.    

                  

The kit is very comprehensive.   Everything is supplied except for glues and varnishes/lacquers.   I was able to make my kit uke at home (I do not have a workshop, or even a shed) using no power tools.   For the dusty or messy jobs I sat outside on the garden bench in the sunshine.   I followed the instructions very closely.   My only modification was to insert a ¼” dowel to strengthen the neck-to-body joint.   Not strictly necessary – I just felt like it.   I don’t like the idea of too much shiny varnish on a ukulele, so I used a can of car-spray lacquer.   Four coats, then a very light sanding with 1200 grade wet and dry, finished off with rubbing compound, and wax polish.   No lacquer on the fret board or the rosewood head veneer - just wax polish.

All the pre-formed wooden pieces were accurately made and smoothly finished.   All the other kit contents were entirely satisfactory.   The tuners are basic and functional, and the strings are of decent quality.   Only one small criticism, there is some slight marking on the sides at the waist bend, but no worse than I have seen on some good shop-bought ukes.

Altogether, the build was engrossing, enjoyable, and satisfying.   The finished instrument looks very attractive, and sounds great – but I would say that, wouldn’t I?   For an impartial opinion, see Ray Shakeshaft’s appraisal herewith.

For a detailed view of the build-up see the Carrot Creek blog at http://www.carrotcreek.com but note that the early versions were built without tapering the body.   The taper is fully described in the latest version of the instructions.

Stew Mac’s site is at :- http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Kits/Ukulele_Kits/Ukulele_Kit.html                                                           and the building instructions may be printed off.  

I recommend this kit without reservation.   If you’ve ever thought of building a uke, I can think of no better way to start.   The finished instrument can be the equivalent of one worth several times the actual outlay.

 Now for an up-date:-

 My wife liked the Stew Mac uke so much that she claimed it for herself.   I didn’t object too strenuously, as it meant I could make another for myself.   I ordered two more kits, because Ray showed an interest in having one.   I can report that the quality of these kits is very consistent – all three  were of the same high standard.   I’ve now built up my second one, and it is every bit as good as the first.   The method of construction is satisfactory, but I have decided to make a full size body mold, and some simple jigs for the third kit.   I enjoy the process of making things, so it will add to the pleasure, and ensure an easy and accurate build.  

I must mention that I ordered the second two kits for express delivery by DHL, at a small extra cost.   I placed the order on a Wednesday morning, and they were delivered on Friday morning.   All the way from Athens, Ohio to the West Midlands of England in two days!

This is a most satisfactory product, from a company that gives very good service.

John Colter

 

APPRAISAL.

A few days before I was flying to the NYUke Festival John showed me his completed kit uke. I was fully expecting to get my credit  card out in NY but I didn't because I was so impressed with John's creation and I persuaded him to make one for me.  

I cannot comment on how easy/difficult they are to make because a lot depends on one's ability but if they all come out sounding like this one then it is a very cheap way of getting a fine instrument.  In terms of sound quality I heard it as being a Martin style - loud and a little bit brash, great for playing in a group.

If you have the talent for building, and remember a lot of the work has been done for you, then go for it - you will not be disappointed.

BTW - I have asked John to bring his Stew Mac to our Suffolk Weekend. (Last weekend in May 2006)

Ray Shakeshaft


UKULOUDLY, or HOW A CHEAP TRAVEL INSTRUMENT BECAME A GIG AT GLASTONBURY FESTIVAL AND A TICKET TO SECOND CHILDHOOD.

 By Martyn Dormer of Skiffle Haze  

My pa rent s gave me piano lessons from the age of seven and being a suggestible and biddable child I went along with it, passing yearly exams and believing that all children went through this odd discipline. It was only when my class moved into a form room at school which housed an unlocked piano that I discovered, age 12, that I had a skill which few of my contemporaries shared. It was a short step from there to teaching myself guitar at 14 and spending the whole of my teens in various bands to becoming a professional rock musician age 21. Well, it was better than competing academically or worse, being good at sport.

 This was all long ago, but in 2001 I spent some time with friends in California . Not long, but I was deprived of the opportunity of any musical outlet or expression for sufficient time to resolve to acquire an instrument which would fit in a suitcase. I could play a mandolin reasonably well but felt it a bit too “serious” and certainly too “roots”. I had never even held a ukulele but it had strings and frets (important, the frets; try as I might, I could never get anything worthwhile out of a fiddle), and the dimensions were right, so I went to Hobgoblin Music and invested £18.

 It was love at first strum and soon I was even taking the uke into the office for those quieter afternoon moments. However, being used to playing “proper” instruments I was quickly dis sa tisfied with my 18-quid toy and purchased an electro-acoustic Mango Fluke, and this is where the story really begins.

 One evening with nothing better to do, my girlfriend Moby urged me to try out Flukey, as she termed it, through an amp. I plugged in but it must have been turned up to 11 from some previous rock & roll incident because a huge barrage of feedback suddenly rent the air. As a lifelong Hendrix fan, feedback only suggests one thing to me so I instantly began playing “The Star Spangled Banner”. In the Beano an idea is always signified by a light bulb above the head and this is just how the moment felt; the music of Jimi Hendrix played on a ukulele? Why not? My one-girl audience was really enthusiastic and I had two chums who I knew would be up for the Mitch & Noel roles, once they’d picked themselves up off the floor from laughing.  

And so Skiffle Haze was born. It became appa rent that the Fluke’s inherent feedback at high volume was uncontrollable so a Ri sa Uke-solid soprano was added to the armoury and by this means I became too loud for Brendan the bass player’s initial stack-a-box bass with contact mic, so he acquired an Aria “stick” bass guitar which looked exactly like the Ri sa ’s big ugly brother. Andy the drummer stuck wisely to his stand-up pared-down skiffle percussion arrangement and we were soon getting gigs, although why, except for sheer audaciousness was anyone’s guess.  

The word, as they sa y, was on the street (that word being “huh?”) and when we were invited to grace the Bandstand Stage at Glastonbury 2005 we realised what the Undertones meant when they told us “teenage dreams, so hard to beat”, although it’s fair to sa y that the average teenage dream probably doesn’t contain quite so much mud, or indeed cider. Since the inception of Skiffle Haze I have amassed a veritable arsenal of effects pedals, not to mention psychedelic shirts, and will play more gigs this year than any since the heady days of The Dancing Did, my ‘professional’ gig of so long ago. Not so much a tribute band (in fact an ex-girlfriend termed us an ‘insult band’ until she came to a gig), more a concept where much-loved and respected material is performed in an unfamiliar manner, to the amusement, bafflement and admiration of all. Well most. OK, some.

 Now then, many of you ukers I’m sure will be wagging your heads and asking the philosophical question “Ah yes, but is it Uke?”  Well, it’s not George Formby. Of course not; it’s Jimi Hendrix, after a fashion. But it seems to me that the new age ukulele is an instrument with a broader vocabulary than we in the U.K. have known hitherto, and just as with any other instrument it isn’t compulsory to like or even understand the entire repertoire. During the 20th century the ukulele spoke with a Lancashire accent, as far as the great British public were concerned, owing to the prodigious talent and all-pervasive influence of the aforementioned Mr Formby, and I am personally grateful that playing the uke has brought me an appreciation of the Great Man, a performer who I had previously just considered a risible figure from the past. Yet I feel the character and potential of the ukulele is too great to be inextricably associated with just one performer no matter how virtuosic or highly-regarded. Mention the word ‘ukulele’ to any British non-aficionado today and they will inevitably adopt a praying mantis-like posture, gurn, and na sa lly intone “When I’m cleaning windows.” A day will dawn when, with the passing of time and the combined efforts of the new ukulele renais sa nce that will no longer be the case.

 Skiffle Haze are appearing, amongst other places, at Widcombe Rising Street Party in Bath 18th June, Frome Festival 9th July, Trowbridge Village Pump Festival 21st July and the Party in the Paddock festival near Midsomer Norton 12th August.  

Despite some dark mutterings, Martyn does not use guitar tuning (what would be the point with only 4 strings?) but standard C ukulele with lower octave G. He cur rent ly plays a Ri sa Uke’Ellie with Worth ‘ultra-hard’ carbon fibre strings.


SUPPLEMENTARY ADVICE FOR STEWART MACDONALD UKE KIT CONSTRUCTION. 

by John Colter

 Assembly Jig:-   The rudimentary jig shown in the instructions will suffice, but I have always     used a full mold. If using the jig, be aware that you will be clamping  the curved end blocks and sides against a flat surface.

Attaching the linings:-    These should contact the sides as closely as possible. They are sometimes       slightly kinked in places. To help form a smooth curve in a flattened  section of lining strip, slit the contact surface (that which will be glued)  vertically to weaken the wood. Do this as often as necessary, and the slits will need to be at least half the thickness of the lining. Don’t worry if they crack or break - the clothes pegs will hold it all in place when you glue it, and there will be no unsightly discontinuity. The ends of the linings should butt up against the internal blocks. Cut them slightly oversize at first, it is easy to be fooled by the curve, and cut them too short. If you DO cut  them short, bridge that gap with a sliver of scrap wood.

Sound hole purfling:- Work very carefully to get a close joint. Trim both ends of the strips. As    supplied, they are rather roughly cut. Use a very sharp blade. I use balsa cement. Use it sparingly, none should ooze out of the channel. Work rapidly, it dries quickly!  

Taper the sides:- I don’t understand the little shaded diagram with arrows around the  edges. I can see no logic in it. The point is that the direction of the  grain (which is not necessarily constant or regular) can cause splitting. I use a Stanley knife, with a new blade, and shave away just a little at a  time. It isn’t difficult.  

Sanding the edges (top & bottom):-  If you have made a good job of positioning the linings, and trimming the taper of the back, it should not need much sanding. Do this lightly and sparingly. It is easy to overdo it, leaving the ends of the blocks (which are very hard) standing proud.  

Glue the top:- The top should make good contact with the sides all round. Don’t rely on the glue to fill gaps. It won’t.  

Bracing the back:-  Ensure good contact of the glued surfaces. If you simply clamp the ends, it is likely there will be a small gap in the centre.  

Add a label:- Monica designs mine, on the computer. People always look at the label.

Glue the top braces:- I don’t use a chisel to taper the ends, I carve them with the Stanley knife.  

Glue the back:- Trim the brace ends very accurately so they fit closely against the linings.  Again, no gaps between back and sides.  

Trim the top and back plates:-  Do not round off the edges at this stage, particularly where the neck will   be fitted to the body.  

Install the frets:- Seems a daunting job, but just follow the instructions. It is easier than you may think to dent or deform the fret wire. It is not as solid as it looks.If using a hard steel hammer, hold a piece of hardwood between it and the fret. Without special fret nippers, you will not be able to trim the ends of     the frets as closely as they indicate. It just means a little more filing to get the ends level with the fingerboard.

Attach the neck to the body:- Very important stage. I use carbon paper (remember that stuff?) to show    up any high spots on the surfaces to be joined, then sand them away. The official method will also work. I’m prepared to spend as long as it takes to  get a good joint – usually several hours. The edges of the joint should be  as close to the side as you can get them. No gaps, no rocking. A uke with visible gaps at the neck joint will still play, and the joint MAY be strong enough, but every time you look at your finished uke, you will see the gaps, and wish you had got it right! I use a short piece of 1/4 inch dowel     to peg the neck joint. It is fiddly to get right, and may not be strictly necessary, but it makes me feel better. Before gluing , make sure the strings will not be significantly offset over the sound hole. See below.

Locate the bridge:- If the strings are very slightly offset relative to the sound hole it is better  to have the bridge very slightly over to one side, to cancel this out. Sounds  naff, I know, but you won’t notice a slight sideways offset of the bridge, you WILL see offset strings passing over the hole. In all of this, you also have to consider the way the strings pass over the fingerboard. So think about all these considerations before gluing the neck and the bridge. If you have built accurately, there should be no problem.

Finish:- There are various ways, but I use a clear lacquer from an aerosol can. Four coats. When thoroughly dry, I sand it with 1200 grade, wet, then  use rubbing compound.   The finish is not glossy, but still quite shiny.

That’s all Folks!

 Just remember, you are doing this for enjoyment.   The quicker you do it, the sooner your enjoyment will be over.   If you make a good job of this uke, you will be playing it for a very long time.   When you start to feel tense take a break.  Think before cutting or gluing.   Always sand WITH the grain, not across.   Any questions? Just ask. 

(Editor. I know that following John's earlier article a number of you are attempting to make up one of these kits. I have one of John's ukes myself and it is currently my soprano of choice so he has kindly added further details of how to make a really fine instrument. Ray Shakeshaft)


"WHAT UKE SHOULD I BUY AS A NEWBIE IN THE UK?"

I would like a pound or even a dollar for every time I have seen that question on a bulletin board but it is a legitimate question when a newcomer is faced with the numerous sizes, styles, brands and manufacturers available these days so based upon the experience of myself and others I will attempt to answer the question.

Starting with the smallest common uke the sizes go up soprano, concert, tenor, and finally the largest is the baritone. The size of your hands or the style that you wish to play may determine which size you go for but the soprano remains the most popular.

Much will also depend on how much money you have to spend and unlike almost every other instrument or hobby you can get away with spending very little and get a playable instrument. It is generally recognised that the Mahalo U30 coloured soprano ukes (look inside the sound hole for that number) are excellent value at around £11 and many seasoned players have one around in case they need something on the beach or for the picnic.  Most agree that they are vastly improved by re-stringing them with Aquilla Nylgut CONCERT strings. Warning - There are other coloured sopranos that are no where near as good as the Mahalos.  Kala SNs at around £25 are a step up from the Mahalos and coloured ukes and they are highly recommended beginners' ukes.

There are no decent really cheap concert ukes around in my opinion but the Mahalo U320 Tenor at around £70 comes with a hard case and it another remarkably good buy for those on a limited budget. Again it is improved by restringing with Aquillas or other quality strings such as Worths, Ko'Olau or Hilos etc.. Unfortunately manufacturers and retailers have not learned that stringing instruments with decent strings might mean they will sell more of them and that applies to almost all bottom end and intermediate ukes.

Leaving the cheaper end behind and moving towards the intermediate standard ukes there are a number of newer brands on the market and it is hard to keep up with them.  If you live in the UK then you may be restricted simply by what is available in this country. Sometimes a really good value uke is on the market then when the shipment runs out there are no more available. It is also surprising that there is such a big cost-wise leap upwards to the £100 plus area and very little that can be recommended around the £70 mark.

The plastic backed but wooden faced ukes such as the Applause brand and the Flukes and Fleas have a lot of friends and they are certainly good workhorse ukes that should last for years and are not so delicate as the totally solid wooden ones.

A few years ago the intermediate market was dominated by laminate/plywood ukes but now there are a number of solid wooden ukes appearing and opinions vary as to the quality. It also seems that even within a particular model you can get good and bad ones. That is not surprising given that wood is not made to a specification. This is the difference between intermediate and top quality ukes where the timbers have been selected for the latter. If possible then take a uke player with you or ask his/her advice before splashing out. Current solid wood models that have many friends are branded  Kala, Ohana, Lanikai, Anue Nue, Most of these are made in China or Korea but the standards are improving year by year.

The next problem for the Brit is where to see or buy these ukes. Unfortunately Ebay has it heroes and villains and seemingly more of the latter than we would like. Flowery over-the-top descriptions of mediocre and even bad instruments are rife and one retailer offers the selling point that before shipping he will tune the uke - big deal, because almost certainly by the time you get it then it will be out of tune and most experienced players will tune their instrument a number of times a session anyway. Unfortunately many people are taken in by the 'friendly chat' and prices rocket as bidders have no idea of the correct retail prices. It is not unusual for ukes to change hands for TWICE the price that you could buy them at a high street shop. Even 'Buy it now' prices can also be higher than the local shop prices.  If you are not sure then go onto www.ukulelecosmos.com bulletin board and ask what price you should be paying.

Retailers  (some even sell on Ebay) are tried and trusted by the UK ukulele community.  Southern Ukulele StoresBonsai Guitars, Eagle Music, Newcastle Music, R.U.M.C. are all retailers that have earned trust in the UK Uke community..

Another source is the US and many of us frequently buy from American retailers and dealers BUT remember that you will need to do some mathematics. Check out the dollar/pound exchange rate and then remember that you will pay export duty, VAT and the delivery service who charge a fee (usually around £10) for collecting the duty etc. If you are buying a quality uke then it can still work out cheaper. I know this article was aimed at the newcomer but if you can afford it then a top quality uke, even if not 'adopted', can fetch a good price on the UK market - you may even make a small profit.

Buying secondhand is a leap into the dark unless you know what you are doing. Watching Ebay has taught me that it is a minefield. I have seen ukes that are almost universally shunned go for silly high prices and I have seen excellent ukes go for a song (but not very often). Either take advice or stay off that market would be my advice. Private sales by people who themselves are experienced uke players are usually a good source of instruments but beware of the 'It was found it the attic and it looks nice but I don't really know anything about ukes" - they usually know more than they are letting on.

If I have not helped you with this article and you want a uke then do not hesitate to go to the bulletin boards and ask what are the best buys. Okay you will get varying opinions but you will also learn a lot about ukes, prices and what are available.

I will try to update this article as new ukes come onto the UK market. The situation changes from month to month - and what is more it is getting better!

Ray Shakeshaft.


Cigar Box Ukuleles - A Guide. by John Colter

The ukulele came into vogue in the USA in the early part of the last century. Times were hard, and money was scarce. This inspired some ingenious souls to use a wooden cigar box as a body, and to carve a neck by hand, probably using a simple pen knife or sheath knife. Those early instruments must have been quite crude, but when you do not have access to a “proper” instrument, anything is better than nothing. I guess the CBU pioneers would not have had a wide range of boxes from which to choose. They would have taken what was available, picked up a piece of wood for the neck, and started whittling. If you want to make a CBU, it can be as crude, or as sophisticated as you wish to make it. It is all good, as they say, and if it gives you pleasure – well, that is all it is about.

 This is not meant to be a piece on “How to make a cigar box ukulele”. Detailed instructions on each of the stages involved would make for a very lengthy article, and could only be applied to one particular type of box. There is no standard size for cigar boxes, and the design, construction, and materials differ widely. They are mostly a regular, rectangular shape, but the dimensions and proportions are very variable. Everyone might not agree, but to me, the longest dimension of a three dimensional, rectangular shape, is the length, the next is the width, and the smallest is the depth. So that is what I shall call them.

 Obviously, a soprano uke will need  a certain size of box, and a concert, or tenor, will suit a larger box. Having said that, I don't want to suggest that there is only one way of making a cigar box uke, or even that there is a “best” way. You might want to use electronics to produce the sound, in which case, the size and construction of the box is much less important. I'm only interested in acoustic instruments, and prefer the soprano size, so that is what these guidelines will deal with.

 First choose your box. You will want a box made from solid wood – not plywood. Some very nice ukuleles are made from instrument-grade laminated wood. The plywood used for inferior cigar boxes is – erm – inferior. A close look at the edges of the wood should reveal if it is solid or not.

 Some boxes have thick sides. That is not such a bad thing, but thinner is better. One eighth of an inch is ideal, and that is the thinnest you are likely to find. Up to a quarter of an inch is acceptable. You COULD use a thicker box, if it is of particular interest to you, or if it is really attractive. The sides and back of an instrument are less involved in sound production than is the front. However, if you are looking for the “ideal” box to make a uke, a light, stiff, resonant structure is what you want.

 Using a neck which joins at the twelfth fret, you will need a box with a length of about nine and a half inches. I would not go less than nine inches. Any shorter than nine inches would place the bridge too close to the edge of the box. The strings have to transmit vibrations, via the bridge, to the  front of the uke (the soundboard). If the bridge is too close to the edge of the box, the arrangement will be too rigid to vibrate as necessary. A bit longer than the ideal is OK, but don't go crazy. Eleven inches looks out of proportion. But, hey, that is just my opinion – you might not agree.

The width and depth of the box are less critical. A width of 6 ½ to 7 inches is ideal, but if you don't mind it looking a bit, shall we say, interesting, you could go wider or narrower. A width of seven inches makes a perfect fit in some rectangular instrument cases. That is an important consideration to me. 

 The ideal depth would be around 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches, but more or less can work well. Deeper boxes are more awkward to hold.

The famous Samuel J Davis “1886” cigar boxes do not conform to my “ideal” dimensions, but they can make wonderful instruments.  

Many boxes have a lining inside; thin sheets of wood stuck to the inside surfaces, which project up slightly to fit inside the lid when the box is closed. If you are serious about making a uke that will sound good, you will remove the lining. Some boxes have attractive paper labels. You may choose to keep them, but I have always soaked them off. I prefer a box which has the maker's name, logo, and any other designs or lettering, printed or embossed directly onto the wood – but that's just me. Thin paper labels will have no noticeable effect on the sound of the uke.  

I mentioned that the neck will join the box at the twelfth fret. That is the way most soprano ukes are made, and if you are using a neck and fretboard from a standard uke, that is how it is likely to be. If you find a nice box which is a bit short, but which otherwise ticks all the – well you know what I mean – all is not lost. To keep the bridge away from the end of the box, you have two options; you could simply attach a spacer (a block of wood) between the neck and the box to achieve the desired bridge position; you could make a longer neck. Joining at the twelfth fret is traditional, but it doesn't have to be like that.  

If you are not well-versed in ukulele lore, you might wonder why the bridge has to be in a certain place in relation to the neck. I will simply say that the bridge must be the same distance from the twelfth fret as is the nut. In theory, that is. There is the small matter of “compensation”, but fear not, there is no need to hire a lawyer. Compensation, in this context, is an interesting and important subject, and if you do not fully understand it, a bit of googling will soon fill in the blanks. Anyway, it will not affect your choice of box. It involves a variation of only about one eighth of an inch.  

Right, let's assume you have chosen your box, and it is suitable for a standard soprano ukulele neck and fretboard. At some suitable point in the building process, you will be gluing the lid shut. Some folks like to leave it able to be opened. They cannot be serious about a good sound. You are making a musical instrument, not a cute novelty item.  

Another decision is required:- which way up will you use the box? Will the lid of the box be the front (the soundboard) of the uke – or will the base of the box be more suitable for the soundboard? Do you want that handsome logo and lettering to be on the front, or on the back of your uke? You will be sticking a bridge onto the front, the strings will pass across the front, and you will be cutting a sound hole in it. How will that affect the appearance of the lettering etc. If the lid is much thicker than about 1/16”, it will need to be thinned down; that will remove any designs. The base, or back of the box might be suitable for the soundboard, but it is sometimes made from poor quality wood. Planing or sanding the base will not remove any attractive decoration. There is quite a lot to consider.  

Which end of the box will be better suited to the attachment of the neck? It might not matter, but there could be some reason for favouring one over the other, so you should give that some consideration, too.                                                                                                                                                3

 I have used two different types of boxes, and have always used them back to front. One type had rather poor bases, so I removed them and replaced them with tone wood. I've used spruce, cedar, or mahogany. The other boxes had a good base, which only needed to be thinned.  

So – you have your box, and you've decided which way up to use it. From now on, when I say “front” and “back”, I am talking about the uke, not the box. As mentioned above, the soundboard (the front) will need to be about 1/16” thin, but no thinner. With an area of about 9 1/2” x 7”, the front will be quite flexible. That is good. However, it will have to resist the pull of the strings which will be attached to the bridge. The string tension tends to tilt the bridge , and can cause the front to dip inwards, between the bridge and the sound hole, and to bulge upwards between the bridge and the end of the instrument. Without some form of bracing, or stiffening, the uke will be pulled out of shape. Trust me, I tried a uke with no bracing; it sounded good, but didn't last very long. You might ask, “Why not leave the front just thick enough not to be distorted?” I've tried that, too, and the uke sounded dreadful. Bracing is the subject of great debate among guitar builders. They can wax lyrical, and become highly impassioned. Some arrangements are deeply ingenious, well thought out, and beautiful to behold. With a soprano uke, it is best to keep it simple. There is no need for anything clever or elaborate. Look inside a typical good quality ukulele, and you will see what is required. It would be hard to improve on the way Martin did it, about a hundred years ago.  

The sides of your box will be plenty strong enough. The back of the uke might need to be braced, but only if  the back is thin and flexible. A musical instrument should be capable of lasting a lifetime, and will be subjected to stresses and strains that a cigar box is not built to withstand. How good are the glued joints of your box? If it is made from 1/8” wood, the joints will have a rather small glued area, and you should think about some kind of strengthening. I use quarter-round moulding to reinforce the insides of the vertical corners, and 1/8” square strips glued into the 90 deg. angles of the long joints.  

You will need a rectangular block of hardwood on the inside of the box, where the neck will join. It needs to be as wide as the widest part of the neck, as tall as the inside of the box, and about 3/4” thick. Standard ukes usually have a “tail” block also. That would be at the opposite end of the box from the neck block, but if your box is good and solid, that will not be necessary. The neck will be attached in line with the centre line of the box, and with the surface of the fretboard parallel with the surface of the soundboard.  

There is room for much variation, and even whimsy, in the matter of sound hole design. The size, shape, number, and position of the sound hole(s) do not seem to be critical. Have a look at some of the sound holes that have been used; some are quite unusual, but they all work. I make my sound holes about the same size as a regular soprano uke, though I have been known to use a larger, oval type. It is important to me that it should look “right” to my eyes. It is easy enough to draw a few examples on a piece of paper (full size, preferably) to see what looks right to you.  

I am as opinionated as the next man (depending upon who is the next man, of course), but I have tried not to be too dogmatic. My aim is to tell you what to look out for, and to give an idea of what is required. There will be quite a lot that you will have to sort out for yourself, questions that will arise, and problems that will need to be overcome. I would not wish to deprive you of that pleasure.  

Enjoy!

 John Colter (Nov. 22nd 2010)


 

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