4 nylon strings: Priceless

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that it is easier to learn to play three chords on a decent uke than on a bad guitar. I had a guitar once. A cheap one. Bought it — I can’t even remember where, now — back around 1981 or so. Spent a few weeks trying to play, ended up deciding not to pursue it, got rid of it eventually. I learned some small number of chords but was never able to move from one chord to another proficiently, without getting horrible buzzing and/or damped strings on the first two or three attempts.

It’s just as well. Guitar players are universally scum, you know.

There are no sour grapes involved here.

For no particularly understandable reason, a while ago I started thinking it might be fun to take up something guitar-like. But smaller, hence easier to lug around. Fewer strings, hence less to keep track of. Nylon strung, hence easier on the left hand fingers. Something like:

Wait, no, that’s not it. Something like this:

Actually what I bought first, last month, was one of these:

Yeah, Grizzly Industrial, better known for selling stuff like table saws and jointers and drill presses, also carries a few kits for things like guitars… and ukuleles. The uke kit costs about $23. From what I’ve read it makes a thoroughly mediocre, or worse, instrument, though it can be improved a good deal by using good strings instead of the ones they supply and making one or two modifications to the instructions. I don’t know yet, having done nothing with mine so far (in part having to do with being in Newport News for three weeks since getting it). But I figure even if it’s unplayable, at that price, it’s a cheap bit of instrument-building education.

But what about something to play? Some research turned up the following factoids:

  1. Your average guitar store, or at least places like Guitar Center, will carry very few ukes. Specifically:
    1. Guitar Center, DeWitt NY: Zero ukes, I think, though they did have Martin uke strings.
    2. Guitar Outlet, Syracuse NY: A dozen or so ukes on display, but none priced above $90.
    3. Music and Arts, Yorktown VA: One uke, really cheap, though half a dozen or so uke books.
    4. Jeff’s Guitar Warehouse, Newport News VA: Zero ukes.

    And I submit that, even if one wanted to buy a sub-$90 uke, buying one from a store that sells nothing more expensive is a bad risk. It probably means the management places little value on ukuleles, and the staff knows almost nothing about them.

  2. The self proclaimed only full-service ukulele store on the mainland US (though I’m not sure such a claim would not be disputed) is outside Richmond VA, tantalizingly close to Newport News. Still, it would have taken about five hours to drive there, shop, and return, and I didn’t have five hours available for that sort of thing. They also sell on eBay, but
  3. so does musicguymic (MGM), who seems to be nearly universally adored by the online ukulele community (such as at Ukulele Underground).
  4. Ukuleles are cheaper than, say, Anglo concertinas.
  5. You can buy a new ukulele for under $20. But I wouldn’t. In fact I wanted to spend well over $100. Years ago I learned not to buy a cheap instrument — unless I had reason to believe it was much better than the price would suggest. If you’re thinking “I don’t want to spend a lot because I don’t know if I’ll like the instrument”… well, think about it: if you buy a bad instrument, of course you won’t like it. If you buy a good instrument, one that plays well and easily, there’s a much better chance you’ll like it. And if you buy a good instrument and you still don’t like it, at least you can sell it for some good fraction of what you paid. If you buy a piece of crap, you’ll maybe get five bucks at a garage sale for it. That cheap guitar I never learned to play serves as an example. (Unfortunately I didn’t learn the lesson until I’d made the mistake again.) Now, obviously, cheap is not necessarily bad, nor expensive necessarily good, but counting on getting what you’re not paying for is a bad bet when you’re a novice.
  6. Solid wood (as opposed to laminate) bodies, or at least tops, are considered preferred — though there are some good laminate ukes around.
  7. In the $100-$250 price range, Kala is one of the brands to look for. (Mainland is another, but I was put off by the small number of models and by a distaste for the rope binding they’re so big on. Ohana and Lanikai get some good reviews. Fluke and Flea are a little closer to the pricier end of that range, and though they get great reviews I was not particularly enticed by their plastic bodies, laminate tops, and funky designs. A lot of people love them, though, and maybe I’ll consider them for a second instrument someday.)
  8. Ukes come in various sizes; the confusingly-named soprano, concert, and tenor sizes all are tuned the same while the baritone is tuned a fourth lower. It sometimes seems as though people who like concerts and tenors greatly outnumber those who like sopranos, but sopranos are often advocated for uke novices. One thing for sure, the string tension is less on a soprano (for a given string diameter), contributing to easier playing.

Ultimately I ordered a Kala solid lacewood soprano from MGM; that’s it in the photo up there. It arrived a week ago. At this point I can play C, Am, F, and G7 chords, moving between them clumsily but without having to take three tries to do it; and I’ve started working on an A/D7/E7 12-bar blues progression. In other words, lousy big 6 steel string instrument << decent small 4 nylon string instrument. Too early to be sure I’ll stick with it, but I certainly am liking it more than the guitar, and doing better with it.

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