BY MIM | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
CHECK THE SPECS
Manufacturers and retailers often label laminate ukuleles as simply the name of the wood. For example, a laminate mahogany ukulele will be labeled “mahogany,” while a ukulele with solid wood will be labeled “solid mahogany.” So look for the word “solid” if you are looking for a solid top or all-solid instrument. If in doubt, ask the retailer or look up the model online. I have known ukulele players who have assumed they owned a solid instrument when it was, in fact, a laminate.
CHECK THE TUNERS
Even if the ukulele is in-tune, make sure you tune the ukulele down and then back up again to make sure the gears of the tuners are turning smoothly and not grinding. If the ukulele has friction tuners, and it is not keeping tune, ask the retailer to tighten the screw on the back of the tuner, so you can adequately tune and try out the ukulele.
CHECK THE NUT
Barre chords should not be hard to make. If you cannot make a Bb chord easily and you have no physical issues that inhibit your ability to make a barre chord, then you should easily be able to make a Bb chord. Too many ukulele players think their inability to make the basic barre chords has to do with their skill level. I often ask them if they mind me checking out their ukulele, and most of the time the problem is that the nut is way too high. With a few simple adjustments, in less than five minutes they go from barre chord failure to success. Also, give the open strings a nice hard pluck. If any of the strings rattle at all, it may be that the nut of your ukulele is cut too low.
CHECK THE FRETS
This is very important and very easy to do. Check the frets by plucking every string on every fret of the ukulele and listening for a metallic or annoying buzzing sound. And don’t be shy—really pluck every note on the fretboard. Unlevel frets are very common in ukuleles of all price points. When a string is fretted, the ukulele will rattle and buzz if there is a high fret higher up the fretboard. Often players think a note that does not ring clear is due to their inexperience and improper finger placement, but high frets are very common and often overlooked as the cause of a buzzy ukulele.
CHECK THE SADDLE
The action is normally measured at the 12th fret. I do not like to give specific measurements for the action at the 12th fret, because each size, brand, and build of ukulele has different measurements they can accommodate. So a good guideline is make sure the ukulele is easy to play up the neck and that the strings do not feel overly high. If your saddle is high, it is often to compensate for high frets, so make sure your frets are level before you have the saddle taken down.
CHECK THE TONE
When a customer comes to my shop, the number of choices can often be overwhelming and they say to me, “How am I possibly going to choose?” My answer is that we are going to treat this like an eye exam for your ears. I play two ukes back-to-back, they eliminate one, and it goes back on the wall. Then I play the “winner” with another ukulele and they pick a favorite of those two, and so on, until it is down to one ukulele. Sometimes it’s love at first uke, and sometimes it takes time to narrow it down to the proper ukulele for the player. So my advice is to take your time, play every uke. If you are a new player and are uncomfortable playing on your own, ask the retailer to play the ukuleles to you. Sometimes getting the audience perspective of the ukulele tone will help you decide.