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ukuleles: necks, notes, colors, sizes, and misc. info about ukes and other instruments.

October 16, 2013

Instrument necks and notes..

I played the uke a little today and got very very concerned about it. I played the notes down the neck.. down the neck means the notes get higher.. same as with guitar.. this can be confusing at first.

When people hold a guitar or uke or bass or mandolin, the neck is held higher than the body, generally. Actually, maybe this is not true of ukes, I don’t know. But for the rest of the instruments, this is true. The neck is up higher than the body of the instrument. But, the notes that are at the top of the neck are the lowest notes. Moving one’s hand across the frets in a downward direction toward the body is going “down the neck,” but raising the notes up in pitch.

I’ve played guitars, basses, and mandolins, and all of them have frets that go up and down in half step margins, and sound like they go in half step margins.. they sound.. logical. Think of a half step as the distance between one key and the next on a piano. I don’t mean just the white keys, I mean the distance between any key and the one right next to it.

Usually, this involves a sharp or a flat .. the black keys on the piano ..”ebony and ivory.. work together in perfect harmony.. side by side on my piano keyboard oh lord why don’t we.. ” Those of you over 40 are probably now humming the melody to “Ebony and Ivory,” a song about racial reconciliation performed by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney many years ago. Great.. now it is stuck in my head.. and might be stuck in yours too.

Back to ukes..

The ukulele is unique in many ways. Small, tuned oddly (but I suppose that’s relative), associated with Hawaii, played by a guy named Tiny Tim, who might have been of at least average height (?) “Tiptoe through the tulips, through the tulips.. ” (Hey at least I got that Wonder/McCartney song out of your head for a few moments, but some of you have made the mental jump to another song, “Say Say Say,” which McCartney performed with Michael Jackson.. and who’d ever have thought McCartney and Wonder would have outlived Michael Jackson?)

Moving along.. I made an incorrect assumption that playing fret by fret, the notes would sound to me as balanced as when I have played all those other stringed instruments. But, playing fret by fret, up or down the neck.. the notes on a ukulele sound uneven to me.

I was really really concerned that the vintage instrument I bought last night had a warped neck or something wrong with the fretboard.. something that made the notes all sound weird.

My aunt is in possession of an old gourd-back style mandolin that makes a nice decoration, but a terrible instrument. I had a tech look at it, and I was told that a lot of the older gourd-back mandolins were made not to be played so much as looked at. There was a defect with the fretboard (what musicians put their fingers on to make the notes), and the neck (where musicians rest their thumbs, and what the fretboard is attached to and a part of. We rest our thumbs on the back of the neck.. but not both thumbs.. just one of our thumbs).

I finally decided it would be smart to go down to Guitar Center (it’s the closest music store to where I live, although it is not where I bought the ukulele) and try their ukes to see if they sounded just as odd as mine when I played fret by fret (note by note) down the neck. They sounded odd too. That was a relief.

However, my ukulele still has a flaw. Sometimes, especially on the C string (the lowest in pitch, using standard tuning) I fret a note, and the note doesn’t sound clearly even though I push the string down pretty hard. Granted, I am not accustomed to playing ukes, and I need to improve my fretting technique.. that could be part of the problem. But, I am concerned there might still be a problem.. the note sounds almost like a mixture of two.. you’d have to hear it, I can’t explain it very well. It’s like hearing the fretted note, and a tiny bit of another one in the background.

No, it’s not quite like that.. I’m getting a lot of resonance.. echo from the instrument. This is not bad when playing chords, but maybe not so great when playing individual notes, because the sound can get muddy.. the notes might not be heard very clearly. This is not noticeable though, unless I am playing individual notes very slowly.

Uke sizes..

I tried many ukes at GC. Almost all of them were bigger than mine. I bought the smallest kind, which is called a soprano ukulele. I don’t think this kind is very popular. The next size larger is a “concert ukulele.” Most of the ones at GC were in that size, and a few were “tenor” ukuleles. I don’t know why the “concert” size is not called an “alto” ukulele. That would make more sense. There’s even a baritone ukulele. That one is tuned differently than the others, but at least it is named after a vocal part, like “soprano” and “tenor.”

There are soprano, alto, tenor, and etc. saxophones.. why is the second size of uke called “concert?” Maybe it was developed to project sound better than a soprano uke when played in a concert, and the tenor uke was not invented until sometime later.

Alright then.. back to mine, and trying out some at GC. I only found one soprano uke at GC. It was under $40. It was tuned like mine and the others, but when I played the higher notes, they sounded clear.

I think mine might not be defective, just designed somewhat differently. I really should have brought mine down to compare with the ones at GC.  I think the soprano model there probably has a larger soundhole (the hole that the strings are strung over). That would make a difference. Also, without getting too technical, acoustic guitars and ukes  are created with different types of hollow bodies. Some acoustic guitars would look different from other acoustic guitars if the top were removed. I think this is true of ukes as well. My uke is likely 50 years old, or something like that. A different construction technique might have been used on this one as compared to new models, which, unlike mine, are made overseas.

Wood makes a difference as well. There are certain woods called “tone woods,” such as mahogany, rosewood, spruce (usually just used for guitar tops.. the part that the soundhole is carved out of and where the bridge is attached), cedar, ash, agathis, swamp ash, alder, bass wood, koa,  and etc. Some cheap instruments are made of plywood. The uke I have is made of mahogany.. both the body of the instrument and the neck. I don’t know what kinds of wood other ukes are made out of. As you might guess, an instrument made out of mahogany will sound different from an instrument made out of another type of wood.

Ok.. I just got my uke out. I think this is something I can live with.  The tuning is normal, as far as I can tell, and nothing wrong with the neck. The frets might have worn down some over time, and this can also affect the sound, but.. I shouldn’t worry about this.

Tuning pegs in back?

There was one other concern I had. On most ukes I’ve seen, the tuning pegs (the knobs used to tune the instrument) stick out to the side, like they do on guitar. However, on my uke, the tuning pegs are behind the headstock (the part of uke, guitar, etc. where the tuning pegs are, and where the strings are attached at the top of the instrument. The other place where the strings are attached is past the soundhole on ukes or guitars, and is near the bottom. This is called the bridge).

It might, at one time, have been common for instrument manufacturers to put uke tuning pegs in the back of the headstock.. but maybe not, I don’t know. It makes tuning more awkward at first with the tuning pegs mounted behind the headstock, not to the sides.

On my uke, not only are the tuning pegs in back, but they are very very hard to turn. Tuning pegs mounted to the sides of the headstock are made so that they are easy to turn.

I was glad to find at GC one strange looking uke that also has tuning pegs in the back, like mine. This one is a new instrument, not a vintage one, but perhaps is modeled after an old style of uke. It’s called a “camp ukulele.” The body of it is round, unlike most ukes, which have a body shaped like a guitar.  The tuning pegs of the camp model are, like mine, hard to turn.

This makes tuning more difficult.. I’m dreading changing strings on this instrument someday, since re-stringing instruments involves a lot of cranking the tuning pegs.. but the hard to turn tuning pegs are not a defect, just characteristic of the type of tuning pegs that are placed in back of the headstock.

When re-stringing and then tuning up guitars, little handheld devices called string winders are used. I don’t think I can use a string winder on back-mounted, hard to turn tuning pegs.. I’ll probably have to do this by hand. It’s hard enough just turning the pegs a tiny bit to get the instrument in tune.

I’m feeling better..

Ok.. so.. I might have paid far too much for this instrument, but that is also a minor concern. My major fear is pretty much gone. I think my uke is quite likely alright, and in decent playable condition.. so I don’t have to freak out anymore.

Different uke colors.

Comparing the ukes at GC to mine.. a lot of those do show the wood grain. I wrote in my previous post that most of the ukes I saw had powder blue or other colors. This used to be true of ukes. I don’t remember when the uke craze, the most recent one, started.. it was over 5 years ago. I don’t know what started the craze, but I’ve been hanging out in music stores since sometime in the early ’90’s, and never noticed more than a few ukes for sale, until a new trend happened. All of a sudden, medium to large music stores had 12 or 20 ukes for sale, and many of those were in whimsical colors.

It turns out this is not a fad. Music stores still sell lots of ukes. GC has a large uke display right in the middle of one of the main rooms. Very prominent and hard to miss. And, they have more ukes in their acoustic room. Almost all of the ukes have a highly polished, over-finished look to them.. too fancy. I like my worn, old, natural wood finish much much better. Also, the back of the neck on mine feels more comfortable than the others. This is important.

The humidor room.

Some ukes are on display in the acoustic room. This is my favorite room in GC. A humidor-controlled room that smells like wood, not cigars. Most people think of humidor rooms as being the rooms where cigars are kept inside tobacco shops. Acoustic instrument rooms at GC are humidity-controlled too. This is because wood dries. These rooms are where all the acoustic guitars and acoustic basses, mandolins, dobros, resonators, banjos, and some of the ukes are kept.

I love this room. It’s not entirely sound-proofed, but even on a Saturday afternoon, when the store is full of headbanging teenagers with the amps cranked up to 11, I can go into the acoustic room.. and feel better. The humidor room is a very therapeutic place to be.

Today was a Tuesday.. not very loud in the store, but that’s ok, the acoustic room still felt great. I picked up a used Taylor (an American-made brand) 12 sting guitar. The price on it was $849. Wow. I really like the sound of 12 string guitars, even though I can’t play worth a darn. This 12 string had very nice tone, but not much projection.. wasn’t very loud.. anyway.. yes.. I’m rambling. I played the 12 string for awhile, then went back out to try the ukes one more time.

Uke stands.

I then asked if there were any uke stands for sale. Sure, I could just put the uke back in its gig bag when I’m done with it, but this is inconvenient. Also, sometimes I like to pick up and put down an instrument while I’m online. Keeping an instrument on a stand is not a bad idea, as long as the instrument gets dusted from time to time and there are no kids about. When my brother’s kids come over, I’ll try to remember to put the uke away. The instrument is fragile, and my younger nephew, who is 8, likes instruments, but is not exactly a gentle person.

Earlier today, I spent an hour or so checking out reviews of various uke stands. GC only had one for sale, and I hadn’t read a review for that one. It was an entirely different type of stand compared to the ones I’d been reading about.

Eh.. I’ll pick out a stand later.. probably buy one online, and hope for the best. There are two potentially good ones I’ve found, and I think I know which one I want.

It’s a good idea to read reviews for stands. Some stands are great for larger-size ukes, but not so good for soprano ukes. I made sure to find stands online that reviewers who had soprano ukes liked to use.

Ok then.. so..

The uke I got is… probably ok, and I shouldn’t worry about it.

I’ll play it some more tonight, and try to relax.

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