Monthly Archives: June 2015

Ukulele Artist Profile: James Hill

James Hill

The second installment in my collection of professional ukulele recording artist profiles features James Hill. If you haven’t heard his latest release, The Old Silo, it’s a treat. Whether James is playing classical, jazz, country, folk or Michael Jackson, his performance demonstrates a unique mastery of the instrument and a master songwriter coming into his own.

Tons of Wicked Cool Ukulele Stuff

If you don’t follow me on social media, here is the past week of wicked cool stuff I’ve found and shared, minus all the jibba jabba and self promotion, saved here for posterity and the blog-only Luddites among you.

(Gordon responded that the Wine Country Uke Fest was another biggie to consider)

Comparison of Ukulele Nut Widths

ukulele nut closeup

The nut is part of the ukulele where the strings start at the top, between the tuners and the fret board. The width of the nut varies slightly by make and model and affects the feel of the instrument. A wider nut gives a bit more space between the strings, while a narrower nut makes the strings a bit closer together.

Nut width is very much a preference thing. Just because you have big fingers doesn’t mean you need an extra wide nut to play the ukulele – anyone can learn to play any standard nut width. I don’t have particularly fat fingers, but I prefer a wider nut. Some players say a narrower nut gives them more speed.

This aspect of a ukulele’s specification is minor enough that most dealers don’t even mention it, making it hard to narrow down models when nut width is an important factor for you in selecting an instrument.

To that end, I’ve scoured the web for this information and included it here. I’ve tried to find at least two confirmations of each of these, but some are harder to find than others. If you own a common ukulele brand not listed here, please measure the width of your nut and post it in a comment. Likewise, drop a comment if you can confirm one of these where I’ve only found one confirmation.

Last updated: 6/24/2015

Make Model/Size Nut Width Confirmations
Anuenue 1.375″ / 35mm 1
Big Island Honu Traditional 1.375″ / 35mm 1
Bushman 1.45″ / 37mm 1
Cordoba 30T, 35T 1.5″ / 38mm 1
Fender U’uko Soprano 1.375″ / 35mm 1
Gordon MultiUke 1.375″ / 35mm 2
Gretsch G9100, G9110, G9112, G9120… 1.375″ / 35mm 1
Kala import models 1.375″ / 35mm 3
Kala Elite 1.5″ / 38mm 2
Kamaka HF Series 1.375″ / 35mm 2
Kamaka HF Series Baritone 1.5″ / 38mm 1
Kanilea K Series, Islander 1.5″ / 38mm 2
Ko,oLau 1.375″ / 35mm 2
Ko’olau Soprano, Concert, Tenor 1.375″ / 35mm 1
Ko’olau Baritone 1.5″ / 38mm 1
Koaloha 1.5″ / 38mm 1
Lanikai LBU-C 1.375″ / 35mm 1
Lanikai SMP-C 1.5″ / 38mm 1
Lanikai 21 Concert, Tenor, Baritone 1.46″ / 37mm 1
Lanikai 21 Soprano 1.45″ / 36mm 1
Magic Fluke Flea, Soprano & Concert Fluke 1.4″ / 35mm 2
Magic Fluke Tenor Fluke 1.45″ / 37mm 2
Mainland 1.375″ / 35mm 2
Martin Tenor 1.344 / 34mm 2
Martin Concert, Soprano 1.4 / 36mm 2
Ohana 1.375″ / 35mm 1
Oscar Schmidt OU6W 1.75″ / 44mm 2
Pono MCD, MT 1.375″ / 35mm 2
Romero Creations Grand Tenor 1.5″ / 38mm 1

The table above includes widths in decimal inches and millimeters. Nut width is also commonly measured in fractional inches. Here are the common width equivalents in fractional inches for translation purposes:

  • 1.5″ = 1-1/2″
  • 1.4″ = 1-13/32″
  • 1.375″ = 1-3/8″
  • 1.344″ = 1-11/32”

Photo credit

When Our Parents Die, Danielle Ate The Sandwich – Fingerstyle Ukulele Arrangement

When Our Parents Die video caption

Ever since writing an artist profile of Danielle Ate The Sandwich and selecting When Our Parents Die as the feature video, I’ve had that tune stuck in my head. It’s such a simple, catchy and peaceful tune. As I often do with songs stuck in my head, I decided to work it out on the ukulele.

This one was a bit of a challenge since the notes she sings, especially that low one during the verses, are hard to fit into a ukulele arrangement. The song also has a really big range – it goes from 1 note above the lowest note on the ukulele up to a several notes below the highest. I’m very pleased with the result though, and hope it has retained the spare, thoughtful feel of the original. Enjoy!

New section: Professional Ukulele Recording Artists

ukulele recording artistsI’m excited to announce a new section to this site that highlights the many professional recording artists who play the ukulele. I’ve done a fair bit of digging and found some really great musicians whose primary instrument is the beloved uke. I look forward to learning more about them by researching and writing profiles, and sharing what I find with the readers here.

Profiles will be listed on the Professional Ukulele Artists page and the very first profile is of one of my favorites: Danielle Ate The Sandwich.

If you are a raving fan of a truly gifted ukulele artist, let me know by dropping a comment.

World Premier of Yasui’s Concerto for Ukulele

Yasui Composition for Ukulele performed by Jake ShimabukuroThere has been much anticipation over the first formal concerto written for ukulele. For those not into classical music, a concerto is traditionally a composition of three movements in which a solo instrument is accompanied by an orchestra or concert band. Usually that solo instrument is one from the orchestra, like a trumpet, flute, clarinet or cello. The ukulele as a solo instrument for classical music compositions may be new, but master players such as John King have shown that the instrument holds its own in this genre.

Speaking of master players, this particular concerto was written to be performed by Jake Shimabukuro. Jake hardly needs an introduction to the readers of this blog. He is certainly among the world’s top players in terms of skill level and dedication to the ukulele specifically as a solo instrument.

The composer is Byron Yasui, chair of the graduate music program at the University of Hawaii. This isn’t Yasui’s first rodeo – two of his orchestral works have premiered at Carnegie Hall and his compositions have received many prestigious awards. As an accomplished classical guitarist, the constraints and capabilities of the ukulele are not lost on him. This video preview of the event discusses some of the challenges for both player and composer.

The world premier of the composition took place in Honolulu on June 6 & 7. The event was nearly sold out and received a strong review from Honolulu Pulse:

Adhering to concerto tradition, Yasui created three movements: the first arresting and compact; the second more meandering, exploratory and sensitive; and the third fiery, its expression and drive the most free-flowing. Each movement stretched the ukulele’s possibilities, from gently blurred plucking to climactic tutti strumming.”

Yasui was able to balance the softer ukulele timbre with the large orchestra by amplifying the ukulele and through careful scoring. Most impressively, Yasui was able to achieve that balance without constraining the orchestra’s power.

The opening of the second movement was like raindrops on a quiet afternoon, and Shi­ma­bu­kuro’s duets with harpist Constance Uejio were entrancing, his final delicate chord with harp and bells a gentle goodbye kiss.

Shimabukuro’s cadenzas shone and his climaxes exploded, bringing the audience to a standing ovation.

Before leaving the stage and the orchestra to finish with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Jake gave an encore of his composition Pianoforte in duet with violin.

And so we’re left with the big question: when will the rest of us get to hear it?! I’ll update this post as soon as I find out, but for now no plans for a recorded release have been announced nor have additional performances been scheduled.

If all this is too serious for you, take solace that this is not actually the first ukulele concerto to be performed. Yes, Jim Belof of Flea Market Music beat Jake to the punch on that one, and its quite a bit more lighthearted, as you might expect from Jim.

And James Hill performed this little ditty (technically not a concerto, but still pretty damned good) with the Taipei Chinese Orchestra.

Ripple by The Grateful Dead arranged for Fingerstyle Ukulele

Grateful Dead - American BeautyWhile there is a wonderful book of fingerstyle Grateful Dead arrangements for guitar by Fred Sokolow, us ukulele players have no such luck. Until Fred gets around to doing one for ukulele (he did the Jumpin’ Jim Bluegrass Ukulele Songbook, after all) we’ll have to manage on our own. To that end, I’ve done a simple arrangement of Ripple in fairly traditional fingerstyle fashion. Tabs are of course provided below for your enjoyment.

A Comparison of the K Brand Ukuleles

k-brand-logos

“K Brand” refers to the well-known Hawaiian ukulele makers. They share a few attributes that set them apart from other ukulele brands:

  • They’re all hand-made in Hawaii.
  • Their ukuleles are almost all made of solid Koa, the traditional Hawaiian wood used in ukuleles.
  • They’re professional grade and pricey (roughly $1,000 and up).

The big four Hawaiian ukulele makers typically included in this group are Kamaka, KoAloha, Kanile’a and Ko’olau.

Since these brands are so coveted, several other ukulele manufacturers that do not match the criteria above have named themselves confusingly similar names like Kala, Kohala and Koyama. Not to knock these brands, but they are not considered “K Brands”.

The only non-Hawaiian brand that competes with the K Brands in terms of quality, output, value retention and popularity is Martin, made in Pennsylvania (the expensive ones, any way). I’ll save Martin for another post.

First, a brief primer on each of these four ukulele makers.

kamaka-tenorKamaka

Founded in 1916, Kamaka is the only of the four brands that can boast having been around for all of the ukulele’s big moments. The company has employed four generations of the Kamaka family and remains a family-run business. Kamaka is famous for employing hearing impaired luthiers whose heightened sense of touch can accurately determine the thickness of wood by tapping on it.  The company also invented and patented the now common pineapple ukulele. Famous Kamaka players include George Harrison and Jake Shimabukuro. A simply appointed tenor ukulele from Kamaka sells for about of $1,300. To learn more, watch Heart Strings, a PBS documentary chronicling the story of Kamaka.

koaloha-tenorKoAloha

KoAloha was founded in 1995 by Alvin Okami and has earned a reputation for excellent ukuleles that are instantly recognizable. Almost all KoAlohas have a cool seven-pointed headstock and a “musubi” (Japanese rice ball) shaped sound hole. Famous KoAloha players include Herb Ohta Jr., Daniel Ho and Victoria Vox. A simply appointed KoAloha tenor sells for about $1,100. Watch KoAloha Afternooon to get to know the KoAloha team and hear some great playing, too.

kanilea-tenorKanile’a

Kanile’a means “joyful sound” and was started by Master Luthier Joe Souza and his wife Kristen some time around 2000. Kanile’a makes four models of ukulele, with the common sizes available in each. They range from simple and unadorned (K-1) to stunning heirloom instruments (K-4). Souza is known for his use of UV cured gloss finish, a superior finishing technique first pioneered by Taylor guitar and unique to Kanile’a among Hawaiian ukuleles. Among the notable artists who play Kanile’as is Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground. A simply appointed tenor Kanile’a sells for about $1,000. To learn a lot about Joe’s building philosophy, watch The History of the Hawaiian Ukulele with Master Luthier Joe Souza.

Koolau-tenorKo’olau

Of the four, Ko’olau is the only brand that doesn’t currently offer stock instruments. In true luthier fashion, you have to custom order a Ko’olau and wait months for it to be built. The company was founded by John Kitakis in the 90s and remains a family owned and operated business. Kitakis’ son Andrew owns The Ukulele Site, a top online retailer of Hawaiian ukuleles. A simply appointed Ko’olau tenor starts at around $2,000. For those that can’t afford (or wait!) for one, the company also makes the highly regarded and affordable Pono brand, made in Java under direct supervision of Ko’olau. Watch Custom Ukulele! to learn all about how the Ko’olau custom ordering and build process works.

Comparison Videos

Aside from playing them, what better way to get to know these various brands than to watch videos comparing them! Thankfully several have been made. Put on your headphones and listen carefully. Can you hear each brand’s distinct voice?

This video made by The Ukulele Site compares Kamaka, Kanile’a and KoAloha tenors.

This video, also made by The Ukulele Site, compares sopranos from all four brands.

This video pitches Kamaka and KoAloa against a Martin.

And finally this video puts a KoAloha up against a Martin.

Ukulele Underground Forum Comparisons

The UU Forums are home to many hardcore ukulele players and are a wealth of knowledge. Here are some relevant threads discussing and comparing these brands:

Your Turn

Do you own one or more of these fine instruments? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below. What made you decide to buy one brand over the other and what has your experience been?