View Full Version : New to the forum. Guidance with brands to look at

02-10-2016, 11:54 AM
Hello, Uke folk,
I'm taking a break from the mandolin because of hand problems. I'd like to ask a question that sometimes comes out as "what's best" or even worse, "is brand X worth it." I really mean something else.

I am a bit of a luthier with a pretty good ear and, unfortunately, also a sucker for quality. In starting to explore Ukes, I just have no idea which way to look. Prices are all over the map, so the correlation there seems a little weak. I have no idea who are the good guys/gals, which are those ukes made with precision and a eye for perfections, and which are bold and thoughtful in their sound.

I know! Can of worms. But I suppose the question is, from those of you who know your ways around the ukulele village, if you were me, what brands would you focus in on? I probably prefer to fish for used, but budget isn't my first concern, and I'm probably going to pass on the $2,000+ Collings and the $200 famous-name antiques that seem to be selling in the $1k - $5k range. Looking for 1) Sound, 2) Build quality 3) Sharp luthier

Hoping this isn't too broad. Many thanks.

02-10-2016, 12:04 PM
Do you have a uke-friendly music store nearby? Always best to try before you buy.

If I were you I'd go straight for the K-brands - Kamaka, Koaloha, Kanile'a. (Personally my choice is Kamaka but they're all good in different ways.) For a first uke, I'd opt for solid koa - although some people are fond of mahogany. These will all be less than that Collings or that antique you referred to, but are all well-made ukes which in my experience have good intonation and sound right off the shelf. Also consider Martin's Mexican-made koa ukes - they're a pretty good deal for not a lot of money.

02-10-2016, 12:30 PM
I'd probably look at some of the mid-range custom builders too, covered bridge is one that comes to mind.

02-10-2016, 12:50 PM
Besides the previously mentioned Kamaka, Kanile'a and KoAloha, other brands to consider are Ono, Compass Rose, Black Bear, Pepe Romero, Covered Bridge, and Barron River.

This a good start to your search.

02-10-2016, 01:11 PM
Here is a good place to start:


02-10-2016, 02:23 PM
Not a luthier product but the Pro Classic series of Pono Ukuleles offer TREMENDOUS value.

I have three tenors of them and can't recommend them enough.

Andrew at www.theukulelesite.com always sells me super sounding Ukes.

Peace Train
02-10-2016, 02:49 PM
1) Sound is subjective. Try doing blind listening tests with the ukes on theukulelesite (HMS) and take notes. Using a good pair of headphones makes a big difference in the depth and richness of sound you'll detect.

2) Build quality. In general, the K brands as mentioned. That's in addition to some of the smaller shops and luthiers that rappsy mentioned above. You didn't really give a price parameter, but that will really help with your search and our ability to help you.

3) Luthier. There's lots of great luthiers to choose from depending upon your budget and personal aesthetic. Check out the uke reviews section of this forum, and browse the various ukulele sites to see what appeals to you.

If you're anything like me, you'll set a budget then multiply it the moment you see a uke that just does it for you, both sound-wise and aesthetically. For me, it's currently that emerald green concert from Japan over at HMS that's more in price than what you mentioned in the OP.

tenor madness
02-10-2016, 02:54 PM
As Janeray suggests you might want to go a local retailer if possible to get a better idea of what size you prefer to play first (soprano, concert, tenor or baritone). You might want to try settle on a neck shape you feel will be more comfortable for you to play as it can very greatly too. All of the brands mentioned are well regarded, though if you settle on a tenor size with the exception of Covered Bridge and Pono a new one will set you back 3 figures (though some the ones mentioned do have lower priced lines). Another sub 1,000 luthier option is LoPrinzi's more basic ukes, there is one in the marketplace now - I have model A Cherry I play regularly (not sure if listing is a great value, don't know how much ebony fretboard and pua rosette should add to price - seems to unless item is collectable generally going for 75-80% price if item in very good condition). I think DrJ has a Larrivee still listed. Both the Larrivee and LoPrinzi have a thinner neck, whereas a Pono and Compass Rose mentioned have thicker necks.

02-10-2016, 03:11 PM
Go somewhere, and play the ukes, or if you can't, listen to alot of them over a bit of time.
What you're looking for, and what others are looking for probably isn't the same.
Sound and feel is not something you can put in words.

Personally, I really like Rebel ukes. But others may think it's too guitar like.
A Kamaka has a more hawaiian sound, which is only right.. since they are practically the original hawaiian uke.
They are both excellent in very different ways, but which way you like.. only you can say.
A Koaloha is also hawaiian, but also has a very different vibe going on. Some people really like it, others not so much.

A good uke is an investment. Each time you trade in/out, you lose money. So... you want to get it right, or at least not get it wrong too many times if money is tight.

theukulelesite has the most consistent high quality recordings, and also an incredibly broad library of recordings. They've got 2.2k vids on Vimeo.. which is pretty insane to think about.


02-10-2016, 04:45 PM
If you have a Budget in mind, let us know. A 3rd recommendation for Covered Bridge=I sold my Mahogany CB only so I could fund a Koa one.
The are meticulously made and sound wonderful as well. Best bang for the buck around 500-800 dollars IMHO, and made in the US of A.

02-10-2016, 08:01 PM
Many thanks. FIRST, my apologies for posting in the wrong forum category. No excuses, just a mistake. I will be more careful.

I appreciate the "how to" advice. I didn't say, but I'm a fairly fluent musician of many decades. And I've gone through the catch and release cycle for several classes of music machines. I'm also blessed with Gryphon Music nearby and many beautiful stringed instruments of my own. In this corner of the museum, a small collection of guitars. Over there, my wife's gorgeous Boesendorfer upright.

Even with all this experience I find Ukuleles quite baffling. The ones I've encountered in the past have had questionable intonation with cranky friction tuners and, generally, an indifferent mass-produced spirit. But now. Look at this! Good jazz is all over the place. Beautiful women ( ok, and men ) sounding spectacular! String makers are jumping through their ads to sell all kinds of uke sets! No more Whole Earth catalog, Baby! It's the internet with dozens and dozens of seductive makers. Somebody, please: lash me to the mast!

I want to know which ( FOR ME! ) are the best-built, best-looking, best thought out. These are subjective things, of course. But I can't say, oh those are subjective --- never mind. The mandolin world, the one I know the best right now, is rife with this same subjectivity and an innocent forum request for the best sound, best build, best value, etc. will usually spark scores and scores of fevered responses over at the Mandolincafe. Understood. But even without a consensus, there are some helpful correlations. Sometimes it's cost. Gilchrist and Ellis mandolins command $22,000 price tags for a reason. Popularity among the pros. A haunting sound at a jam I can't get out of my head for a month. I find a passionate, perfectionistic luthier correlates highly with a great instrument. My question was how to begin to sort all this out. I certainly don't have the spare retirement bucks or the time enough remaining to buy / try / sell a half dozen instruments in search of the one that has my name one it. I need to find it soon, plunk my self down in the music room and start making sweet jazz.

So, this post was a request to help me get my bearings. At this point, budget isn't my concern. I'm not looking for the best value ( a very enjoyable pursuit in itself ). I usually try not to look at prices at first. That one number always seems to have a crazy influence on expectations. But, having said that, I followed the Compass Rose tributary, which led to the Hives and I immediately fell in love. Darnit! I hate it when that happens. Then I looked at the price and just smiled and shook my head. There I go again! Why do I always fall in love with the expensive one? ( I say this fully aware that my wife doesn't read ukulele forums ).

Anyway, this is great fun. And it's essential in my dotage to get back to playing music. I can't grump too much about falling in love. Food, Music, Love --- no matter what the instruments. What else is there?

There are no wrong answers. Thanks again... Russ

02-10-2016, 10:36 PM
Russ, welcome to the forums.
If you have Gryphon Music that close, you are more fortunate than most of us. Spend some time in there and play them and you'll probably find one that picks you. I second the recommendation for a K brand. I would love a Collings, but it isn't in my price range. I'm very happy with my Kanile'a. You've been around long enough to know quality when you hold it.

02-11-2016, 01:50 AM
Russ you are very correct about the expansive choices we now have in the ukulele world. Many top notch builders and big manufactures are out there giving us lots to choose from. Collings, Martin, Larrivee are just a few from the guitar world.

I second, third and fourth the recommendation to make your way to Gryphon post haste and play everything they have there. Not only different makes but the different size. That in itself will be very telling as each size has its "own" sound and feel.

If you get hooked on ukulele one instrument will not be enough. So start with something nice like a K brand (Kamaka, Koaloha, Kanilea) knowing it will lead you to explore others. You could just go straight for a Hive and never look back ;)

Go to Hawaii Music Supply website and listen to as many different ukes as you can.You have mentioned jazz a few times and that might be best performed on a tenor with a soft wood top, spruce or cedar.

02-11-2016, 05:25 AM
I guess the return question is... what do you like to play and exactly what type of tone are you looking for. By that, do you want a bright percussive sounding or are you looking for a more mellow tone? Coming from a mandolin, you have to have a good degree of proficiency. Are you trying to play the same genre of music or do you want to go in a different direction? The problem is that everyone will tell you the best for their style of music/playing. It is no different than bringing an LG0 to a bluegrass festival.

The ukulelesite.com can give you tons of sound samples, but I would suggest that you search youtube for ukulele music you want to play. You haven't even touched on scale length, it is quite common for people to buy a particular scale and end up with another scale length. With your hand issues with the mando, I don't know if scale plays a part in it.

My personal opinion is that once you understand what you want to play, and you want a quality ukulele, see what Gryphon has and take a drive down to Sylvan in Santa Cruz. If you don't find what you want, look at different luthiers such as Hoffman, Kinnard, Peralta, etc. and have a one of one discussion with the person who is actually making the instrument. It will cost you more initially, but that is the only way I know to get it as close to right as you can.


02-11-2016, 05:15 PM
Russ, Welcome to the Underground.

I don't think any of us are going to advise what is right for you. You have, as you said, a good eye and ear for quality, so I'm sure that you have developed certain unique preferences over the years. We all do. Case in point, the K brands do not talk to me what so ever. I recognise that they are fine instruments but would I ever buy one? Never! Also I'd be reluctant to provide a list of luthiers that I admire for fear of leaving a few out.

The recommendation to research the HMS website http://www.theukulelesite.com/ is a very good one in my opinion. Their videoed sound samples and great product photography will provide you with the details to allow you to make up your own mind.

There is also a great magazine (eBook version only I think) called Ukulele Rhythms you should look at IMO. Unbelievable product photography that really shows you the quality of the various builders.

I guess that once you have a short list it will be visiting good music stores, like Gryphon, and watching the UU Marketplace and the Flea Market Music for sale page to search for a 2nd hand bargain. Ebay seem to be a sales forum of last resort to most people I speak to.

Good luck on your search.

02-12-2016, 06:53 AM
There are two threads that are Stickys in the Uke Building/Luthier's Lounge Forum that may or may not provide assistance; 808 Builders (http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/showthread.php?16211-808-Builders) and A Partial List of Custom Builders (http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/showthread.php?12834-A-Partial-List-of-Custom-Builders)

hawaii 50
02-12-2016, 08:29 AM
Jake Maclay from Hive ukulele is one of the better builders around...IMO, he was the main builder at Compass Rose before he left to do his own thing...
his ukes are very nice..fit and finish top of the line....get ahold of him and you will see how committed he is at his craft.....

he also sends his ukes to HMS(aka as The Ukulele Site) but they usually sell in a day if not sooner...:)

good luck and have fun

02-12-2016, 11:38 AM

Excuse me for snooping around Mandolin Cafe, but I have a better idea of what you are talking about. For years I have had a tough time being able to fret barre chords on a guitar for any length of time because my left thumb would ache. Ukulele tension is lower than a guitar and that helps a lot, but string tension on a tenor is about double the tension on a soprano. Plus the stretch is much easier.

So to back up the bus a bit, you should still go to Gryphon, but my recommendation is to try a soprano and see if that size works for you. If you are going to be doing more of a swing/jazz style, as DownUpDave astutely picked up on, a Mahogany soprano has traditionally been the weapon of choice, but don't dismiss Koa either. It is your preference. I have a tougher time recommending a luthier for a soprano since I don't really play one. But I would go to Gryphon and have a go at it. Most production sopranos in the $500 to $1000 range will probably serve you quite well.

I would imagine soprano aficionados will be able to chime in with better direction.

Good luck with your new endeavor.


mm stan
02-12-2016, 04:58 PM
What is your budget? Since you mentioned hand issues, id start with a soprano which has less tension
Welcome to uu russ, happy strummings