View Full Version : What makes a great soprano?

Pleasure Paul
12-28-2015, 11:17 AM
It cannot be volume, as most decent ukes are almost unbearably loud (to my wife at least). So what is it?

Peace Train
12-28-2015, 11:46 AM
For any instrument, it's a combination of sound (resonance, vibration, sustain) and construction (materials and construction itself) vs user-feel and playability. These are emotional factors in and of themselves, and some people also connect with visual character, historical significance, a particular maker, what's popular, price, etc. Much of it is somewhat subjective, including the choice of soprano over concert or tenor. So it really comes down to what you enjoy and what works for you and the music you intend to create.

12-28-2015, 11:55 AM
For great sound I'd say light construction of traditional materials (mahogany or koa). For fun I'd say something more durable, something you can take around and bang on. It's good to have both.

12-28-2015, 01:08 PM
I think it's too much determined by the player but my answer regardless of all the physical factors would be "the one you play all the time"...

12-28-2015, 02:08 PM
I think it's too much determined by the player but my answer regardless of all the physical factors would be "the one you play all the time"...

I agree. I think it is the one that is in tune with your musical journey at that point in time.

I played a vintage Silvertone soprano for six months and loved it. I was able to find nuances and coloration of the songs I strummed that made it a joy. It went everywhere with me.

Then, I got my Opio and played it for about six months. Wow, what a ukulele! It was like riding a Thoroughbred horse instead of a nag. It made me sound like a real ukulele player. I played it all the time and really advanced my technique.

But, cold weather hit and I didn't want to take it out and about in cold/hot/humidified/unhumidified environments, so I got an OXK soprano. Loved it from the moment I played it. I could really make it bark or whisper. It was perfectly in balance with my beginning fingerstyle playing.

Now, I grab my Bruko maple and have been enjoying going through Wilfred Welti's solo ukulele pdf that was just posted here. The Bruko is perfect for playing it at this time. I have to play with a bit more care due to the higher tension Worth Browns, but it is a good thing to be more careful with fingerings and placement.

I love all the aforementioned ukuleles - I played the Silvertone today, in fact. But, there is always that one that connects a bit more.

12-28-2015, 03:26 PM
Numero Uno: Playability. No uke, soprano or otherwise, can be considered a good one unless it is supremely playable. And to my way of seeing things, playability is a direct result of quality of build, with neck set the most critical factor. If the neck is set right all else can be accommodated. Be it mahogany or koa or other wood matters not for playability.......it's how the wood is put together that matters. Secondarily, tone and sustain are qualities found in a good soprano. I've found that tone is quite subjective and sustain is better in older builds rather than new........perhaps developing over time as the cuts of wood settle down to being one resonant whole. My two cents worth on a good soprano.........

12-28-2015, 04:13 PM
Years of vocal training and she can hit all the high notes.

12-28-2015, 05:28 PM
The more we practice with our sopranos, the greater our sopranos become. The more we take care our sopranos, the greater our sopranos become. The more we customize our sopranos, the greater our sopranos become.

mm stan
12-28-2015, 07:39 PM
Everyone may have different preferences....but like in any Ukulele, tone, intonation, playability and comfort are main factors

Luke El U
12-28-2015, 09:11 PM
Excellent intonation - something very hard to find, especially on sopranos.

Pleasure Paul
12-29-2015, 12:25 AM
I used my uke only for strumming as I liked that style best, but now that I'm playing from John King's "famous ukulele solo's" book, I started noticing that there is a quality called 'sustain' which seems in short supply in my (old school) ukes. So I guess a little sustain won't hurt a uke, and make it a more universal musical instrument.

Pleasure Paul
12-29-2015, 12:38 AM
Numero Uno: Playability.

I love the 1830 book "M├ęthode pour la guitare" by Ferdinand Sor. It is full of wisdom. Sor says the same, he prefers a guitar with good playability over a less playable guitar with better sound. Because it will enable him to play all his music. He also relates this, like you, to neck set. Could you be more precise what you mean with it?

Croaky Keith
12-29-2015, 12:39 AM
Sound/tone, volume, & sustain would make for a good one in my opinion.

12-29-2015, 01:25 AM


12-29-2015, 02:42 AM
He also relates this, like you, to neck set. Could you be more precise what you mean with it?

It's the angle between the fingerboard (neck) and the instrument's top (soundboard). Difficult to explain without a photo or drawing......google "guitar neck set angle" and look at images. The principle is the same be it a guitar or an ukulele: a proper neck set will allow for best action adjustment in an instrument, whatever action a player may desire, be it high or low. A poor neck set is very limiting in this regard, though there are a few solutions that crafty luthiers know of that can compensate for a bad set.

Pleasure Paul
12-29-2015, 06:17 AM
"the one you play all the time"...

Like photographers say: 'the best camera is the one you have with you'. This criterium is a pretty good reality check. By this, my Kala travel uke would be my best, or now my Timms, which I just got and took on holidays. But I am slightly awed by the price of instruments. My Ditson is really the best, but it's in the case often. There's a saying (or was it an ad?) "you'll enjoy the sound long after you forgot the price", perhaps I have to learn to live by that.

Pleasure Paul
12-29-2015, 06:34 AM
a proper neck set will allow for best action adjustment in an instrument, whatever action a player may desire, be it high or low.
I seem to get it. A proper neck set will create a window at the bridge for action adjustment. Sometimes shops call it "healthy amount of saddle".

Pleasure Paul
12-29-2015, 06:37 AM
what does koa better than other woods?

12-29-2015, 11:04 AM
I think other than the quality of the build in general, a soprano needs to be lightly built and with a thin finish. A great soprano needs more than volume, it needs the tone wood to contribute.

12-29-2015, 12:07 PM
What makes a good soprano for me is playability, which is a topic in itself, and "bark & bite" when needed.

12-29-2015, 12:16 PM
What makes my soprano a great ukulele is that is sings in my arms, it is easy and fun to move around on and I love the feel and sound. And it looks so darn cute.

12-29-2015, 12:22 PM
For me, a good soprano has to feel delightful, sound happy and look beautiful.

12-29-2015, 02:59 PM
what does koa do better than other woods?

Retain its resale value.

12-29-2015, 07:11 PM
Who not what Martin

12-30-2015, 12:09 AM
The perfect soprano is light enough to rest in your arms, but weighty enough to feel solid. It has excellent intonation and a great playing action, and is made from bright, resonant wood that sings more the longer it is played :)

Pleasure Paul
12-30-2015, 05:56 AM
Thanks for making me realize. I think it is impossible to describe the ingredients of greatness. We could draw up a wishlist of physical requirements, and have a perfectly adequate uke. We'd still need some unpredictable & unplannable interaction between parts to have a great one. Or?

Pleasure Paul
12-30-2015, 06:13 AM
If your girlfriend thinks the uke is too loud, you need to do some more work on your strumming and fretting to control the sound.

And/or get a larger room....

12-30-2015, 06:41 AM
If your girlfriend thinks the uke is too loud...

And/or get a larger room....

Ok. I'll say it. We're all thinking it.

Or get a new girlfriend....

Pleasure Paul
12-30-2015, 08:14 AM
Or get a new girlfriend....

That's logic. Why didn't I think about that?
I know why....:love:.

Joyful Uke
12-30-2015, 01:32 PM
Which sopranos have good intonation? Someone mentioned that many don't. Good intonation is important to me, and one reason why I haven't tried a soprano yet.

12-30-2015, 02:14 PM
I have a laminate kiwaya soprano that has excellent intonation. As good as my Godin tenor...

12-30-2015, 02:21 PM
Magic Fluke Co. Flea soprano. Made in the USA, $189. Probably the best intonation/deal around.

12-30-2015, 09:03 PM
To get good intonation on a soprano, you of course need a well built uke with good setup, but you also need good strings.

On a soprano, string tension is quite low. Strings are operated at a tension which is far away from their breaking point. That makes good intonation more challenging for the strings. Even if you're using high quality strings, you'll very often experience that the strings influence the intonation.

So what can you do?

You have to watch out for this. If you put a new set of strings on your uke, and one string is clearly off, you'll have to replace it. It really happens more often than you'd expect. Sometimes (but not always) it helps to turn the string around. Sometimes you can help it by making a compensated saddle just for that specific string set.

Of course it's all in vain if the uke itself doesn't intonate well. However, the fret positions are not a problem for most ukes nowadays. It's more the bridge position and the setup.

About the bridge position: Watch out for it when buying the uke. I've seen it all. There is quite some variation. There can be 10 ukes of the same model, and every single one is a bit different. Sometimes, the bridge is even a bit slanted (and that isn't too uncommon!). Just watch out for it. Check the harmonics at the 12th fret for ALL strings and compare between the different examples. You'll notice the differences. Just use to your advantage that you can try a lot of ukes in a big music store and choose the best example for you. (And when doing this also keep in mind that the strings can fool you!)

This applies for almost all imported ukes. There are some exceptions which are built to higher standards (like some kiwayas, the flukes and the fleas), however I don't like that the fleas don't have a replaceable saddle, so I can't individually compensate for a specific string set.

Then there are the tuna ukes by Lanikai. While I don't have one (yet?), this seems to be a really cool concept to get great intonation on a soprano. I'll really have to try one of those.

Last word: If you really want a very well intonating soprano, get a custom built uke from a really good ukulele builder. These are always better than a factory built uke. The intonation of my Glyph is spot-on, so I just have to keep an eye at the strings.

Edit: Another last word.
In order to get really good intonation on an uke, you have to be able to judge it. Many electronic tuners are not good enough for this job (that's no joke!). I NEVER use electronic tuners. In fact I prefer to tune by ear using a tuning fork, and to learn to hear intonation problems. I also have to admit that I'm not *that* pedantic any more. The uke has to sound *musically* right. If it does so, it doesn't matter what the actual frequencies really are. There is no absolutely perfect tuning anyway (it's physically impossible), and very slight inaccuracies are what makes the difference between a real instrument and an lifeless electronic algorithm. You can also compensate some inaccuracies by distributing them a bit when tuning (by ear), and with playing technique. And keep in mind that great players will also sound great when playing a stinking junk uke. ;)

Best Regards

01-02-2016, 05:34 AM
Which sopranos have good intonation? Someone mentioned that many don't. Good intonation is important to me, and one reason why I haven't tried a soprano yet.

I would also recommend Kiwaya. My KS-5 has excellent intonation.
For me intonation and tone are the key ingredients for a great uke. Tone seems to vary by brand and wood types.

Inksplosive AL
01-02-2016, 09:38 AM
Not reading the whole thread but thinking about this every time the title crosses my page. Having seen guys eek sweet music out of toy ukuleles my serious answer is simple.

What makes a great soprano? A great player!

Play more worry less I should be playing instead of typing myself.

01-02-2016, 01:16 PM
The question should not be what, but who? Ken Timms!

02-03-2016, 02:00 AM
Great post, Wilfried -- I always listen to your soprano playing in awe, marveling at how beautiful not only the Glyph, but also the very affordable ukuMele mahogany soprano sound. Guido Link of ukuMele does fantastic set-ups. My first "real" soprano was also set up by him, and three years later it still has great intonation and holds the tuning longer than any of my other ukuleles. Ironically, it's also the only of my ukuleles that doesn't live in a bag or a case, but sits on the shelf or the desk. Quite fond of it!

Anyway, as for what makes a soprano great for me is the sustain and the sound in the upper frets. All sopranos get "plinky" high up the neck, but some manage to still ring more sweetly than others. Playability is a key element also, though I find it hard to concisely describe what that exactly means to me. Weight plays a role, especially of the neck and headstock, but even that depends. My mahogany soprano is noticeably heavier than my koa longneck soprano, and while half the time I enjoy the lightness, there are also days and times when I appreciate the sturdiness of the heavier instrument. So "playability" probably encompasses a lot of aspects, some of them context- and situation-specific. Plenty of room for preference, too, perhaps not unlike the answer to the question "what makes a delicious meal?". You just know it when you play something with great playability.

Oh, and I want to mention frets, though that is a bit slippery. I'm not likely to buy a soprano with less than 15 frets, even though I don't even use even 12 yet, which is what makes it a dubious argument on my part. There are probably also numerous fantastic sounding sopranos that only have 12 frets, especially the vintage ones, but still, the extra range contributes to what makes a soprano good to me.