Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part IV

by Jon

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I bought three new ukuleles when I took Anne to Hawai’i, bringing my collection up to five. (If you haven’t yet, read those stories in Parts I, II, and III.) So what happened after Hawai’i?

It wasn’t hard to maintain the enthusiasm I’d built up over the vacation. I’d bought a bunch of new strings, and went straight into restringing my old instruments. Then the first order of business was choosing a “primary” ukulele, one I intended to use most of the time. That, along with stretching all the new strings, kept me busy early on, trying to get my strumming back into shape, as I played around with the books I’d bought, along with my old material from the Royal Hawaiian Ukulele Band.

The best book I picked up was Barry Maz’s The Complete What Ukulele Players Want To Know. So much useful information, but the biggest help was the chapter on finger exercises. See, my fingers were killing me, especially on the smaller soprano ukuleles, and with weak fingers came bad picking, bad chording- just a bad sound all over. But as I stuck with my Kala tenor, and did the exercises, after two or three weeks I started seeing real improvements in my ability to work the fretboard without killing my hands.

The next break came when I found a tutor in my local area, Dave from Pacific Music. I still hadn’t found a book that I liked, and knew I needed some structure and accountability if I was going to make this thing work. Dave’s been a great resource, helping me get my sight-reading into shape, as well as exposing me to a ton of easy to play songs, (and yes, skipping Mary). He got me using Lil Rev’s Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 1, which together with Jumpin Jim’s The Daily Ukulele, I have both a path to follow and a lot of material to keep me interested.

As I got better though, I still felt like the tenor was a bit too much for my hands, and I found myself accepting the pain of playing a soprano, just because the sound and size felt truer to me. I want to play ukulele, not mini-guitar. I started seriously looking at getting the medium-sized concert uke, but I just couldn’t find the variety offline here on the mainland. That is, until I got to visit a music shop in California, while visiting family. There I tested a Kala concert, and I was sold on the size almost immediately. It was the best of both worlds for me; only I wasn’t looking to get yet another Kala. I figured I’d want something cheaper, so that if I didn’t like the size after all (every uke feels great in the store when you want a new one), I wouldn’t feel bad about spending the money.

Makala Concert MK-C Ukulele

My first concert ukuele, the Makala MK-C

I waited and looked online, and after much consideration and advice from others looking at beginner concert ukes, ordered a Makala MK-C from HMS, with Aquila strings (Yes, I recognize that Makalas are made by Kala).

Turns out size really did matter.

It was big enough that I could hold it upright and not worry about it tipping over while I moved up and down the fretboard. It was small enough that I could play it standing up without needing a strap. I had enough room for my fingers without having to overstretch my hands. I could keep my arms in a more neutral position at my sides; not elbows scrunched in like on the sopranos.

It immediately became my primary instrument. I played it for a couple months, on through the holidays, having a blast the entire time. Since it was among my cheapest ukes, I wasn’t afraid of it. I could wail on it, really get into it, without having to baby it. That made me bolder on all of my instruments, so I had more fun playing those too.

But it wasn’t long before the itch for another ukulele came back. I’d found my size, but I didn’t plan on playing the Makala for the rest of my life.

I’d been given a taste of Hawai’i-made ukes, now I just needed a justification for getting one.

See, I’d told myself that I wouldn’t buy a really expensive uke until I was good enough to feel like I’d earned the right to play it. I didn’t want to drop some major cash, only to let the hobby fizzle out again, and leave me with even more expensive decorations. I hemmed and I hawed for weeks, before finally giving in.

Playing ukes makes me happy. It’s a great stress reliever. My New Year’s resolution was to reduce stress, and I’ve already got a busy year ahead of me. So I started shopping again.

I knew what I wanted. I wanted a K-Brand, solid Koa from Hawai’i. I wanted a concert-sized. And I wanted it to look traditional, like an ukulele, not a guitar, not completely blinged out. I went back and forth on several models before finally landing on a KoAloha KCM-00. I ordered it from HMS and obsessively watched the tracking number.

KoAloha Concert KCM-00 Ukulele

My perfect ukulele, a KoAloha Concert KCM-00

It’s solid Hawaiian Koa. Stylistically it’s plain, but beautiful in its plainness. I love the look of raw wood, and thankfully the gloss coat isn’t obnoxious.

It’s my first and only uke with friction tuners. I’d steered away from them before, but I wasn’t intimidated anymore, and I wanted something light and easy to handle. I was happy I did, trust me, this uke floats like a feather-weight boxer. The orange buttons are nice too.

It’s proudly traditional and someday it’ll probably become a family heirloom.

I don’t need a pickup, but I figured, if I ever did want one, now was the time to get it installed, so I got a MiSi Acoustic Trio. It’s quite amazing- no ugly controls, no tough-to-replace battery. It runs off of an easy to charge capacitor, and it’s so light you’d never know it was in there.

Oh right, the sound! I can’t describe it. It’s simply amazing.

It’s been my primary uke ever since it arrived. Don’t get me wrong, I still take out all of my ukes at least once or twice a month, to test how much better I’ve gotten at playing.

And I am getting better. I bought some basic recording equipment and ever since the Makala I’ve started posting videos on YouTube of my progress. I’m enjoying building up both my repertoire, and my techniques. I’ve got more books, am subscribed to all the best ukulele blogs, still go to classes with Dave, and even got a chance to attend a couple of Lil’ Rev’s workshops.

I practice almost every day, sometimes with a set structure, sometimes just experimenting with stuff I’ve read online. I love every minute of it.

I’ve gotten over those first major humps, and though there’s still a long road ahead of me, I’m really enjoying the trip.

Okay enough writing, time to get back strumming!

/jon

P.S. There’s no Part V post planned, but rest assured I’m sticking with it this time.

P.P.S. I even learned The Inner Light!