All Things Ukulele: Summer of uke


There’s a question that pops up every time a bunch of ukulele players get together. They’ll play a couple of tunes, check out each other’s instruments, and give them a trial run… then, inventively, someone will ask,"SO, how many ukuleles do you own?" The question is usually met with a variety of answers, but, more often than not, there's at least one person in the group who wows everyone with their staggering ukulele count.

Taking a look at this Rawuke guy’s video, I am thinking he has more than a handful of ukes at his fingertips:

The assumption is that most die-hard players are likely to own more than one. Half a dozen, maybe? Ten? Twenty? Twenty five? The habit of collecting ukuleles is so far-reaching that ukers have even given the malady a name. They call it UAS, or Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome.

I decided to put out the call to my ukulele pals, and find out about their own collections.

Some folks, like Geoff Davis, have managed to avoid UAS. Ten or twenty years ago, he admits that he too had a whopping collection of gotta-have ukes. Then he learned to build his own, and the problem was solved. He’s hung on to a few, though—including that cool Roy Smeck Vita Uke and his original Frank Bremermann Indiana ukulele. But, he’s a man of ingenuity. When he sees something he likes, he has the ability to tell himself, “I can make that,” and the motivation to go right ahead and, well, make it. A prime example would be that much coveted antique tenor parlor guitar that our mutual friend Jude Odell plays with so much pluck. Instead of combing the world in search of an instrument just like that one, Davis stepped into the woodshop and emerged with a baritone uke that is pretty much a replica in proportion and appearance of that lovely little guitar.

James Vyhnak from Vermont is cut from similar cloth. While he currently boasts 28 ukes in his current collection, including his current favorite, a Favilla soprano from the 1920s, he is setting about making his own concert sized uke, from Vermont flamed cherry wood. I’m thinking that’s going to be a thing of beauty when it’s finished.

For the rest of us, though, the problem prevails. You’ll go out and get your first uke. For most, it will be like Jim Vyhnak’s first, plywood Makala or Malaho uke. Or, it might be a tacky little plastic toy that your Aunt Edith picked up on her latest trip to Hawaii. It’s likely that the thing doesn’t stay in tune and it looks better hanging on the wall than it sounds in your hands. You quickly decide that you need to upgrade, but maybe you haven’t figured out yet that in order to have an instrument sound like a quality instrument, you have to spend some cash. So, you end up with a colorful little Mahalo uke. Not bad for starters.

But, as you continue to play, you start to realize that the little laminate cutie just doesn’t produce the sound you need. You start to hear good sounding ukes and you learn about this thing called RESONANCE. You also start to read about different types of strings, and you decide to maybe give some better strings a try. You get yourself a package of Aquila or Worth strings, and you follow an online tutorial and by some miracle, manage to restring your uke all by yourself. And, your cheap little uke starts to sound a little better.

New strings aside, you then come to the realization that what you really need is a quality solid wood instrument. You start combing company websites like a junky, lusting over a cute little soprano or lying awake at night, dreaming of a curvaceous concert. Words like mango and mahogany and the holy grail of uke woods, Koa, stream through your brain like the lyrics of some unfinished song.

We started out fairly simply at our house. Our first uke was a $30 Harmony ukulele that, it turned out made next to no sound at all. Next, we added Spencer’s first playable uke—the purple plywood Mahalo that came with our first ukulele lessons. Both of us quickly moved on to better ukes—for him, it was a nice little nato-top by Lanikai. We bought it with the spare change in his piggy bank, attracted by the $60 price tag and the fact that it came outfitted with Aguila strings.

For me, after several weeks of research, I finally decided to upgrade to an Ohana SK35-G ukulele. The instrument had all the buzzwords I’d been instructed to look for—Solid wood, Aquila strings, good tuners. This video, by Ken Middleton, is mostly to credit to my decision. I now have two Ohana ukuleles in my collection, and I would be happy to add more.

With so many ukuleles to chose from, I will still argue that it is possible to be happy with just one really good one. And, even if a person lives in a home stuffed to the gills with countless instruments, I am pretty sure that there is a certain uke that each collector gravitates to more often than not. With the current ukulele craze in high gear, manufacturers are constantly churning out new models. Some ukers can’t rest till they’ve had at least one of each in their possession for at least a short period of time. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. Then, there are the folks who need different ukes for different sounds, a different type of wood or a low-G tuning.

Then, of course, there’s the other faction of ukulele players who seek out quality vintage instruments and collect them like treasures. But, we’ll save that discussion for another day.

My pal Jon Nelson from California boasts 13 ukes in his collection; his pattern seems to follow those of most people suffering from UAS. His list starts with a little blue Makala dolphin soprano, then moves on to bigger and better things, including a National Resophonic Style O Deluxe and a Soprano banjo uke from Jere Canote. He also has a big Pono baritone and, the latest in ukulele coolness, a Kala pocket Uke. After reading his list, I am beginning to feel the need to play a little catch-up.

More than one uke in a household makes it easier to share music with your partner. Here are my adorable Indianapolis friends, Shawn and Lonna Brockaway, showing off two of their family’s six ukes. Here, you’ll see a fabulous Mainland concert uke and a Fluke. Watching them, it’s pretty clear that the more ukes a family has, the more collective fun can be had.

By the end of this past week, I found myself searching for ways to come down from the experience of our first jug band performance. I stayed indoors much of the rest of the week, hiding from the terrible heat and felting a variety of scary monsters from wool. A Facebook friend, named Tony Casey caught wind of my project and sent me the link to a song he wrote—it’s about monsters, too. Inspired by Alan Brandt (A.K.A. “Ukusociety” on YouTube,) he’s been writing “two second songs,” the kind of songs that he says write themselves. Supposedly, we all write them. I am thinking that I could use a lesson or two in this vein. It’s certainly one way to lift the spirits.

At any rate, I have a few of my own end of summer monsters, and Tony’s song, which accompanies this sweet video by LastDanceSalloon, brought me no end of joy. He tells me that he is playing his favorite uke here, a Baton Rouge U7S in solid Mango wood, tuned aDF#B—which happens to be his preferred soprano tuning. No wonder I couldn’t reproduce that sound. I really need to learn more about these alternate tunings. For now, have a peek at this fun video:


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