UD#56 Money and Sound: New Instruments

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Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 1.53.32 PMMoney and Sound: New Instruments (UD#56)
from Ukulele in the Dark
w/ Guido Heistek

“I’ve picked up some very expensive ukuleles in the store and I don’t really hear any difference from the ukulele that I have. Why would I bother to pay so much money?”

The decision to upgrade your ukulele to a “higher-end” instrument can be a tricky one. How much better will it sound? Is it worth it?

I’ve put together a little listening experience so you can compare the sounds of 2 different ukes: one well-made entry level instrument and one ukulele that is considered “higher-end”. The idea is to see if you can hear a difference. Can you distinguish the sound of an entry-level ukulele from a more expensive or vintage model? Is there really a difference? Which sound do you prefer?

I’ve recorded the same arrangement on each instrument: Cielito Lindo, which will be appearing in my upcoming chord melody book.

Here are the ukes I’ll be using:

Kaala Soprano Ukulele KU-1:
Not to be confused with Kala, Kaala is a Japanese company that builds for the Japanese market exclusively. This was the my first uke. It’s a very well made entry-level instrument. It was given to me by my wife 15 years ago.
Body Material: Koa Laminate
Price: approx. $200
Is this ukulele Soprano A or B?

Martin S-1 (1950s):
This is a vintage instrument which gives it a unique sound character. I bought it from Daphne at Ruby’s Ukes in Vancouver.
Body Material: All Solid Mahogany
Price: approx. $1000
Is this ukulele Soprano A or B?


A Personal Anecdote On Buying a New Instrument:

The Martin S-1 above is not the only vintage Martin uke that I own. I also have a pre-war (1930s) Martin T-1, a truly beautiful instrument. It was built sometime in the 30s. I love its earnest tone, the simple resonance of its all-mahogany body. But I had a little bit of a bumpy start when it came into my life.

I found it online at a store in the U.S. and the sales person sent me recordings of it being played. I loved its tone and I decided to buy it. When the instrument arrived at my home I quickly unpacked it and gave it a strum. My first reaction was negative! I thought, “Gee, I don’t know if I like the way this thing sounds. I might have made a big mistake. And an expensive mistake!” How can this be? I had loved its sound on the recordings!

I have since come to understand that I have plywood ears. I learned to play guitar on my dad’s plywood C-40 Yamaha classical guitar. And it sounded just fine to me. My first ukulele was also all plywood. It’s the KU-1 featured above. Until recently my go to acoustic guitar was a Japanese plywood folk guitar from the early 60s. My other acoustic has laminate back and sides but a solid wood top.

NOTE: Generally the word laminate, not plywood is used to describe wood used in instruments. Both words refer to building material that is comprised of thin layers of wood glued or otherwise fused together. Generally it is not considered as desirable as solid wood. I use the two words laminate and plywood interchangeably in this article.

It’s a misconception that it is not possible to have a good-sounding plywood/laminate instrument. I would gladly take a well-built plywood instrument over a poorly built solid wood instrument. Any day! However, the sound of a well-built all-wood instrument can be truly unbelievable. But, very unsettling to my plywood ears! Especially when the instrument is in my hands.

So, when I picked up that Martin T-1 for the first time. Something in me said, “This isn’t right!” The instrument was too responsive, had too many overtones, was simply too much. And the irony is that if I had tried my Martin T-1 in the store I would have quickly put it back down and decided not to buy it. Something just felt wrong about it to me. It was only after I did a few test recordings of it and heard the feedback of fellow musicians and friends that I was able to become convinced that I had a winner. Here is the T-1 in action:

For me a musical instrument is almost like part of the body. Having a new instrument to play is like having a new set of hands. And it takes a lot of getting used to. I really like my hands to behave predictably! And new instruments when I first pick them up often feel and sound wrong. And it takes some patience to bring them into my life. I just acquired a beautiful handmade Halcyon solid-wood RF-00 guitar. For the first three days I owned it I thought I would have to return it! It was just too different to my other guitars. Too much sound! Big bass, vibrant overtones. I’m used to it now and it’s found a home in my collection. Again, it was a test recording that convinced me I had a winner.


Soprano A was the Kaala Soprano.
Soprano B was the vintage Martin S-1

I think my little Kaala Soprano did well in this experiment! It stands up well to the Martin. But, there is something in the tone of the vintage S-1 that has a story telling quality, I think. Something that can stand repeat listenings. Offering more to explore. Can you hear it? That’s what I want in an instrument.

I’ve enjoyed putting this article together. I look forward to doing more sound comparisons in the future.

See you next time,


P.S. I am regularly adding new lessons to Ukulele in the Dark. Please subscribe to my mailing list below to receive every lesson right when it comes out. Be sure not to miss a thing!


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