Over the years I have become a genuine instrument collector and have spent many hours chatting to my good friend Martin Simpson about the joys of purchasing and playing great instruments. Many people will know me for my love of different types of ukuleles, but I have a really diverse collection of many stringed instruments, not just ukes.
I’m lucky in my other work to be able to travel around the world and Japan and the USA are wonderful places for seeking out new creative tools. My favorite stores across the globe include Ukulele Mania in Tokyo, The Ohana store outside Osaka, Poe Poe in Tokyo, Matt Umanov Guitars in NYC, Mandolin Brothers in NYC (no longer in existence) , Hill Country Guitars in Austin and Carters Guitars in Nashville. All these stores have a fantastic range of instruments and great customer service.
I also have a number of instruments that can’t be bought through retail stores including guitars and a mandola by Stefan Sobell. The Sobells came as recommendations from Martin Simpson and there’s usually a two year wait for these instruments. Similarly Takahiro Shimos instruments are also custom builds and of the highest quality and there’s a waiting list for them. In terms of instrument brands I’m a big fan of Collings and when I met Bill before he passed I mentioned that I had never played a Collings that was not excellent. The recent Waterloo guitars are more examples of the highest standards in building and an absolute joy to play.
I’m a big fan of instruments where the main focus is in using the best woods and the investment is in the woods rather than ornate decoration. I recently saw a ukulele advertised for thousands of pounds where the store commented that huge amounts of time had been spent on the inlay, so it looked really nice but I prefer a more simple well constructed instrument. Every instrument will spark different creative ideas and the best ones are always those that I may pick up in a store and find I’m still playing 30 – 40 minutes later. There are thousands of “ok” instruments, but few which really are keepers.
In terms of electric guitars I have some great instruments including two Parkers, a George Benson Ibanez, some custom Ransom strats and Telecasters from San Francisco and some Warmoth guitars as well as a brilliant Collings I35 Deluxe. This is a growing family that continue to provide countless hours of musical joy as well as being great investments. I always advise people to try out instruments for themselves rather than rely on online advice as production models which in theory should be the same often vary wildly. There are no “best instruments” only different ones. If you want to create great music, its a lot easier if you are playing an instrument you truly love.
Let me start by saying I have no problem with people strumming chords on the ukulele, BUT there’s so much more potential with this brilliant instrument. I totally fell in love with the uke three years ago and to date have written and recorded 25 tracks using the ukulele with many more in the pipeline. Prior to picking up the uke I had the stereotypical idea of the uke as a bit of a gimmick and not really “a proper musical instrument” Now I realise how wrong I was. If I had only watched YouTube clips and attended a few uke festivals I would probably have never explored the potential for this instrument. A lot of what I see and hear is at best pretty average. Fortunately there are some conter examples to this and when I set up Original Ukulele Songs (OUS) almost two years ago, players like Victoria Vox, Alan Thornton, Paul Cameron, Phil Doleman and others gave me some hope that the mighty uke can be used infar more creative ways.
My good friend and longstanding brilliant international musician Martin Simpson makes some really useful and insightful comments 8.20 minutes into this clip
Martin is the most extraordinary player and this is a rare clip of him playing the uke. Last year I saw him play live with the uke leaving the audience amazed at a quite extraordinary performance. Of course Martin plays a wide range of instruments and over the years we have talked about how this develops new ways of musical exploration.
I appreciate that there is a place for people learning the ukulele and starting out with simple chords, everyone has to start somewhere. The tragedy in my view is that often that’s where exploration stops when there are so many more possibilities. Such explorations are of course not for everyone, but if players and event hosts want to capture the public imagination in a far bigger way then its important to showcase the uke in a much more expanded way. A crucial part of this exploration is creating new music and not just recycling previous material and the OUS platform is a small but mighty group of artists who are helping with this task.
When people think about ukuleles, the stereotypical idea is often that a ukulele is a cheap instrument that is not really a musical instrument. On online forums, often people can insist that nobody should pay more than “X” for a ukulele, and the “X” will of course depend on each person. One person’s idea of expensive is another person’s idea of what is entirely reasonable. Price does not always determine quality, but of course a hand built instrument made to order will mostly have less cost considerations than a ukulele that is mass produced.
My first ukulele was a Collings pre-production concert ukulele which cost around 600 quid. Some may consider that to be excessive, but it’s a beautiful instrument and Bill Collings always makes sure that all his instruments are of the highest quality. Such instruments usually hold their value and can be really great investments. Collings no longer currently make ukuleles, so these are going to be hard to find. Of course, if we were talking about violins or brass instruments 600 sterling would be small change.
It’s all a matter of personal choice and I have learned to have a real appreciation for luthiers who put heart and soul into creating bespoke instruments. The attention to detail and the quality is mostly excellent and of course this excellence is reflected in the playability and the sound. I recently unsubscribed from many ukulele FB forums where people had a habit of spouting opinions about instruments they had never played or heard. It just made for truly depressing and somewhat daft reading.
To date I have favoured ukuleles built by Takahiro Shimo, Bill Collins and a few other builders mostly outside the UK. There are plenty of production models that are “ok” but don’t sound anything like as good to my ears. I no longer get into discussions with people who insist on ukuleles over 250 sterling being expensive as we are clearly looking for very different things in a playing and recording instrument. In the recording studio the sonic differences becomes totally obvious and I thank all those builders who dedicate time and energy to creating such wonderful instruments. So in answer to “What is an expensive ukulele?” its totally subjective and it depends what you can afford and how much you value the investment. Personally for me its all about sound and playability and I’m totally happy to make such investments, both financially and in the time spent in seeking out the really good ones that suit my ears and fingers
One of the best finds from my latest trip to Japan is the emergence of carbon fibre cases for ukuleles. I had heard about these previously but only saw one last year in Tokyo at the end of my 2016 trip and had no space left in luggage to entertain a purchase. This year I rectified the situation and ordered a tenor from Ukulele Mania ahead of time to collect.
Most people will be aware of fibre glass cases and there are some quite respectable ones out there which offer good protection to instruments. For my guitars I always went down this route and have a number of Carlton cases as used by Martin Simpson. For ukuleles Crossrock make fiberglass cases but these are very different to Aranjuez carbon fibre cases which are made in China. Such cases will be familiar to violinists who want maximum protection but the lightest possible option for travel. The first thing that struck me about these carbon fibre ukulele cases is how well they are made and how they are literally half the weight of the lightest case I have come across to date. Of course this comes at a price and many uke players would be reluctant to make such an investment as these are not inexpensive to say the least.
On this trip I was travelling across most of Japan and had a tenor in a carbon fibre ukulele case and another uke in a standard respectable uke case. The carbon fibre uke case was a fraction of the weight and the difference was astonishing compared to the standard case. These are available in standard colours as well as what Aranjuez describe as the camouflage spec. At present these are incredibly rare and I can’t find any reference to any online and you certainly won’t find them in the UK. eEven in Tokyo I know of a couple of great stores that can get these items. There’s a specialised company in the USA making instrument cases with this material, but that is an even bigger ticket item. In the meantime, here is a photo of a tenor and concert sized case. I love them and hope that they become more available for musicians.
This is a Sofla soprano by Shun Yamazaki. Brazilian Rosewood headstock, fretboard, bridge and pickguard. Body binding is Indian Rosewood. Nut saddle cowbone. Huron pine top, cuban mahogany back, mahogany neck. This is without doubt one of the sweetest sopranos that I have played, a brilliant sound and superb to play as well as a great looking instrument. I played around 20 ukuleles, before settling on this one.
Japan remains the place for the best ukuleles at all price points and especially custom builds. There are four great stores in Tokyo alone and this one was from a store outside Osaka, “The Ohana Store” no relation to the ukulele brand. Its the second soprano I have bought from these folks and its always a joy to visit.
Shun Yamazaki is a new builder to me and this is a very different instrument to anything I have played before. Clrealy he knows his woods and I love the design on this instrument. Its sonically superb and very mellow to play. I instantly took to it and I suspect it will be a great instrument for writing. I already have dates to return to Japan in 2018 and 2019 and I’m constantly amazed at the great instruments I find there.
This is my 16th trip to Japan and I continue to be inspired and delighted by Japanese design, especially with musical instruments. I’m very aware of whats available in the UK, Europe and USA, but in Japan there seems to be a whole new level of atttention to detail. I’m also increasingly discovering many amazing ukulele stores which have led to some new family members returning to the UK. Whether its musical instruments, gardens, buildings or trains, the Japanese in my view are ahead of the rest of the world. I already have the diary booked for return trips in 2018 and 2019 and can’t wait to explore more of this amazing country
This is the 16th time I have visited Japan and this visit reconfirms to me just how much the Japanese love the ukulele. In the last two days I visited 3 stores in Tokyo alone which have a vastly greater range of ukes that anywhere else I have seen or heard of in the UK or Europe. The range of quality is quite staggering and today our guide my good friend Takahiro Shimo showed us many of his instruments and some stores, one of which has been around for almost 100 years. The final store on our “Shimo trip” had a museum of ukuleles including many extremely rare Martin ukuleles that I have only seen in books.
These three stores have the standard range you would expect for beginners and enthusiasts, but what is crucially different are the high-end instruments that you’d never see in the UK at all. It’s an absolute joy to be able to play these in the same acoustic space and shows just how much the Japanese regard the ukulele as a musical instrument rather than something to bang out a few chords! (Not that playing a few verses of Wagon Wheel is a crime) I am also struck from talking to be people about the OUS platform that there is more of a seriousness and enthusiasm for music rather than the uke being a focus for community get togethers. Such strum alongs are of course fine and fun, but there seems here to be a greater musical appreciation and that’s reflected in what’s on offer in the marketplace. I think many players and builders would love to visit here and see what’s on offer
I just returned from Vienna after interviewing Gregor Nowak about his work
We talked extensively about what makes for a great instrument and of course Gregor builds a range of instruments, not just ukuleles. I’m a massive fan of ukuleles, but in my view the ukulele is not some kind of mystical instrument, its simply a great tool which if used well can create wonderful music. During out morning conversation I tried out a ukulele tenor, a guitaralele and a mandola. I am pleased to report that all of these were exceptional.
Folks who know me, appreciate that I have a great love of well made instruments. To date I have interviewed many great builders from all over the world including Takahiro Shimo, Bill Collins, Pete Howlett, Zachary Taylor, Rob Collings to name a few. All these individuals have a definite point of view and an absolute focus on creating the best possible playing instrument. The approaches may vary from one builder to another, but there also some noticable similarities.
One of these similarities is the reassuring mahogany neck which in my hans always feels and sounds great, regardless of whether this is a ukulele, guitar or mandolin. Gregor is clearly a designer and builder with excellent attention to detail and like all great builders one with terrific curiosity about what is possible beyond the stereotypical build.
I always know when I have found a really excellent instrument, when I pick it up and after thirty minutes I’m still playing it. This was the case in Japan when I came across Shimo’s work and has been the same for the other builders I mentioned. On this visit I was really taken by Gregor’s guitaralele which is different to anything else I either own or have played. Every instrument sparks a particular kind of music and melodic inspiration and this is no exception. For some reason this instrument inspires a Mali style blues. Its got a really wide neck with two wound and four unwound strings. This one was a prototype and I am pleased to say has now joined the ever growing “Cody family” I’ll certainly be recording with it.
I’m discovering that in the ukulele world there are lots of opinions about ukulele strings and which ones to select. At one extreme some folks insist that “brand X” is “the best string choice”, while others insist on simply going down to the local fishing store and getting some fishing line! Let me be clear in my view there are no “best strings” just different. Some folks seem to relish the idea of never changing strings and feel quite confronted by the every idea that maybe, just maybe the string choice might me one of the elements that determines who the instrument sounds, just a thought… As someone who is interested in this area, to date I have tested over 12 different string types across two dozen instruments with many surprising results…
Call me picky, BUT I would respectfully suggest that some of the following elements are worthy of some consideration BEFORE making any definitive statement about this matter.
What type of ukulele is being played – yes size matters – an 8 string bari is different to a soprano
What’s the ukulele made of? Different woods can make for very different sounds
How does the instrument sound acoustically and’or with a pickup?
What sound do you want? This can of course be very subjective…
Is the ukulele being played as a solo instrument, duo setting or in a band? Different sonic considerations here
Different people hear differently and 80 quid uke also is often going to respond differently to an 800 quid uke
Only by exploring and comparing (if that is an interest) can anyone really talk about this from actual experience
Some people are interest in the sonic possibilities of what the ukulele can do and others are not that bothered. I respect both views. That said its in my totally biased opinion to make proclamations on any matter without any actual information or exploration. It would be like trying a local pizza takeaway and then using this snapshot experience to pronounce on Italian cuisine!
My own experience in trying out a dozen or more strings types across two dozen ukuleles is that the string choice can make a big difference in how an instrument sounds and feels. I have a collection of ukuleles which are very wide ranging from my recent 1920’s Martin acquisition, to some great custom made Shimo instruments to everything in between. Wound strings (often G and C) make for a radically different sound and I have yet to find any wound fishing line…lol Its about personal choice as there are no best strings, just different…
I have been conducting some testing with a Cocobolo super soprano ukulele in what I call “The Kitchen string test” Here I test the exact same ukulele in the same acoustic space, recorded with the same gear, playing the same piece of music. Its blinding obvious to me that there’s a huge difference when changing the strings, both in how the instrument responds, how it sounds from the artist perspective and how it sounds from the audience’s perspective which of course is different.
Of course many seasoned professional musicians have long realised that this is a factor in the final sound. Stevie Ray Vaughan experimented a great deal and dazzled audiences with his music. His spirit of exploration was not only in the gear he used, but in his whole approach to musical performance, see https://www.stringjoy.com/stevie-ray-vaughans-guitar-string-gauges/ My good friend Martin Simpson similarly has an attitude of exploration and experimentation. I’m seeing him next week and will take the new Martin uke to show him. Martin is also a terrific example of somebody always questions what else is possible, never settling just for a common view. When I interviewed Bill Collings in Austin Texas and Takahiro Shimo in Tokyo, both brilliant instrument builders had the same attitude of exploration and experimentation. This also goes for many of my favorite musical artists. They are always seeking out new possibilities and I applaud such thinking.
Ultimately its all about personal choice and attitude. Personally as you may have figured by now, I am a fan of exploration and that’s one of the reasons I set up the OUS platform, which is about creating something new. I have the same view in terms of exploring how different instrument combinations, including string options can provide some really interesting results. I also respect that such exploration and experimentation is not for everyone and that’s fine too of course.
I just returned from New York and met up with my good friend Zeke Schein from Matt Umanov Guitars. Zeke sold me my first ever uke, a Collings pre production concert. This one purchase was a trigger for everything that followed and without it there would be no “Small Change Diaries” no 40+ songs written, no live gigs in the UK and overseas!
On this trip Zeke mentioned a rare Martin 1920s soprano ukulele that was for sale, described below
1920s Martin Style 2 Uke An extremely early Martin ukulele and one of their higher-grade and rarer models, from 1921 or possibly even earlier. According to correspondence from Tom Walsh, co-author of the fabulous and most authoritative book on the subject The Martin Ukulele, “The lighter colored nut and saddle suggest it is early 20s or earlier, but the real giveaway is the position marks at the 5-7-9th frets. Martin switched to inlays at frets 5-7-10 by 1921 at the latest. Another sign of age is the fact that it never had patent pegs. The style 2 ukuleles got patent pegs in 1922″. In absolutely beautiful condition with no cracks or repairs anywhere and none of the usual signs of overly enthusiastic playing. The bar frets are original with virtually no wear. It has white celluloid tuning pegs, which are most likely much older very professional replacements, to match the white celluloid body bindings.
I have always wanted to own a Martin instrument, but to date have never been totally convinced. There are two notable exceptions, the first being a guitar Martin Simpson showed me and now this 1920s Martin soprano. I’m not an advocate of “old = great” but this particular ukulele which is in excellent condition sounds very unlike anything else I have played to date. It has a great tone and plays really well. Its also almost 100 years old and will be used in the studio for future recordings. It also comes with an original case which is like a violin case. I have never seen a 1920s Martin soprano before and certainly not one in such great condition. Its a wonderful sounding instrument and a joy to play.