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View Full Version : Breaking in (opening up) an ukulele?



aarondelacruz
07-17-2016, 03:38 PM
What up,

You know how there are some guitars out there that play and sound better with age, ie they were broken in (or opened up). Have any of you experienced this with an ukulele? If so, how long did it take?

I have a relatively new Kamaka Tenor with a koa top (and I think back and sides as well) (exact model is HF-3 D2I) and while it does sound great, I was wondering if it would improve in sound with playing. I play it almost every day for anywhere between 30 minutes - 2 hours. It doesn't really have the sound that other notable Kamaka have (like Andrew Molina's or Kalei Gamiao's or Kris Fuchigami's, albeit theirs are customs and mine is just a glorified tenor).

I have also been experimenting with strings. I know the most popular strings among those artists is the D'Addario J71 (I think now called EJ65T). I'm currently using the D'Addario EJ87T and it honestly doesn't sound too bad, but it doesn't sound too good either. It's a little too bright for my liking. I think the first set I used on this ukulele was the EJ65T, but I figured why not try something new...haha, kind of regretting my decision. Well, you live and you learn.

Mahalo nui,
Aaron

janeray1940
07-17-2016, 03:54 PM
Hi Aaron, I've got a couple of thoughts on this. I'm pretty skeptical about the whole "breaking in" thing in that I tend to believe that if a uke (or guitar, or other wooden instrument) doesn't sound somewhat *great* from the start, it's not going to get any better. But I do know that the uke I've had the longest (a Kamaka HF-2 concert) did gain some volume and resonance after... oh, about 5 years of daily playing. It was a definite improvement and it's the best-sounding (and oldest) of my three Kamakas, but then it sounded great to begin with. So if that's "breaking in," then yes, I guess it happens, but definitely not quickly.

As for strings - I know some of the pros swear by D'Addarios, but I don't care for them. I do like a bright uke though (I use Martin fluoros on my Kamakas). A few other players I know who like a warmer/mellower tone use Worth Browns, so you might try those.

JJFN
07-17-2016, 04:25 PM
Hello Aaron, I would also recommend checking out the Southcoast strings site. Dirk the owner has a wealth of information and is glad to share same. The site contains everything you need to know about strings. As to the "breaking in", thankfully all of my ukuleles have sounded great from day one. Changing strings brought different tones, some I liked some I didn't. We all have different equipment, play in areas with different acoustics and hear things differently. Thankfully strings aren't that expensive and we can experiment. Only you know what sounds best on your ukulele. Enjoy the journey.

BearMakingNoises
07-17-2016, 04:56 PM
I have noticed it a bit with some ukes. My #1 sounds a little stiff and thin when I first take her out of the case but after a few minutes of play she opens up and seems to be more resonant and full. In the few months I have had her she has opened up a good bit but that may just be because she was sitting in a case in the shop for a while without being played at all. I think it is just the woods getting used to vibrating again and being in the open air more. The effect is really noticeable on my early 60-s Gibson J-50. If I don't play it for a few days it sounds like a dead log but after an hour or so of playing it is the best sounding guitar I have found.

stevepetergal
07-17-2016, 05:27 PM
I still think breaking in is a myth.

sam13
07-17-2016, 05:49 PM
I don't believe breaking in a Uke is a myth at all. I have several which have improved with play.

I recommend using Clear Worth Strings ... more sound and sustain.

Ukulele Eddie
07-17-2016, 06:48 PM
You might as well be talking politics or religion when discussing acoustic instruments "opening up." Many swear they do. Attempts to prove it scientifically have not settled the argument. But, even among those that do "know" it to be true, most will agree (a) it depends on the top wood (e.g., spruce more likely to improve noticeably with age, cedar and redwood won't open up as much) and (b) the change won't be "dramatic."

Strings can have a big impact on sound and I'd wager more so than any opening up -- certainly more immediate. ;-). Which strings sound best will depend on your preference in sound, your playing style (hard attack, soft, nail striker, pad striker, etc.), your preferred musical genres, etc. Strings are relatively inexpensive. Keep experimenting. That's all you can do.

I generally don't like the D'Addario strings as I find them too hard for my liking. On your Kamaka, I'd consider trying Worth Clear and/or Brown, Fremont Backlines, Living Waters and Oasis Bright (the name is a misnomer, they are not bright at all they are simply thinner than Oasis Warm as I understand it). I've also used Aquila Reds a lot and have found them to add some warmth to an instrument that seemed bright to my ear. YMMV.

Experiment and let us know where you land!

Best, Eddie

Mivo
07-17-2016, 08:44 PM
Well, this topic has been discussed countless times and opinions on it are always controversial.

My take on it is that I don't doubt that the materials an ukulele is made from change over time and from wear, but I don't believe that "changing" necessarily equals "sounding better". Just different. I think it's just as likely that an instrument may sound worse.

What I do know is that my own ears aren't a good judge for it. My ukuleles sound different to me from day to day, depending also on where I play them, the weather, and so on. Different strings have a substantial impact on sound. And we adjust to what we are exposed to, both in terms of getting used to the sound and developing technique specific to the instrument (we learn how to make it sound better to us).

My view on vintage instruments sounding good is the that the poorly built or poorly sounding instruments probably didn't survive long enough to become vintage ukuleles.

As for strings, the Aquila Red Series strings have made the biggest impact on the sound of my ukuleles. By far the best strings I know. It's very subjective, though.

Booli
07-17-2016, 09:16 PM
I would caution you NOT to use the same strings as another uke player, especially one who is a professional, i.e., 'just because Jake/Kalei/Taimane uses them'...

Doing so negates the 15+ yrs and 10,000 hrs of practice to develop their unique talents and tries to boil it down to THAT uke, THAT pickup and THOSE strings, which is an insult to those players as well as sets you on a path that is nearly GUARANTEED to end with disappointment.

Are YOU willing to invest the time and sweat with the tiniest hope of having a copy-cat sound of someone else?

Why not try to find YOUR OWN SOUND?, and one that YOU like and that NOBODY ELSE has...huh?

just sayin....:) :2cents:

Croaky Keith
07-17-2016, 10:01 PM
:agree: Find the right strings for you & your uke, & then just enjoy. :)

I have only 'cheap' ukes, but with the 'right' strings, they sound good to me, but maybe not to others, especially the way I play them! :biglaugh:

Mivo
07-17-2016, 11:09 PM
Most UU uke owners buy low cost strongly built ukes with stiff pretty wood tops that wont open up for fifty years, so they are justified in saying they don't believe in opening up, the ukes they own wont open up in the lifetimes of the current owners.

My impression is that most of the active UU users have higher end ukes that are lightly built, including their custom ones.

cml
07-17-2016, 11:23 PM
My impression is that most of the active UU users have higher end ukes that are lightly built, including their custom ones.
Agreed, this is a rather high-end heavy forum, at least in the active member base.

EDIT:
Actually, I think it's sometimes so high-end focused that we might scare new players off! ;)

Croaky Keith
07-18-2016, 12:18 AM
Agreed, this is a rather high-end heavy forum, at least in the active member base.

EDIT:
Actually, I think it's sometimes so high-end focused that we might scare new players off! ;)

My 'best' uke, (Kala Cedar topped bari), cost just over 200, & it also seems to have put paid to my UAS!

However, looking at lovely ukes isn't a crime, is it. :)

PhilUSAFRet
07-18-2016, 12:34 AM
A controversial topic. I suspect it's more about acclimatizing or settling in than opening up. I got a KPK solid acacia long neck soprano that I thought was decent, but nothing special. Several months later, it "opened up"...by that I mean it has more projection, is louder, and the tone has improved. I'm wondering if it has more to do with the tone wood used....how well was it "seasoned", moisture content, how long has the finish cured, etc. ?

DownUpDave
07-18-2016, 12:37 AM
Agreed, this is a rather high-end heavy forum, at least in the active member base.

EDIT:
Actually, I think it's sometimes so high-end focused that we might scare new players off! ;)


Go to a Golf forum, Stereo forum, Camera forum, Banjo forum, Car performance forum etc. etc. they all talk about high end high quality product. It is not exclusive to this Ukulele forum.......not by a long shot......but some members here like to express that.

Back on topic I have heard some of my ukes open up, but as Janeray says if they aren't great to start they won't get there over time. Your Kamaka like all wooden instruments is an individual and can be different in sound compared to an identical model. Yours doesn't sound like the best players in the world because they are not playing it. The player makes the biggest difference, then strings, then the uke itself. Definitely try different strings and play the heck out of it, she may open up as you become a better player:music:

Booli
07-18-2016, 12:40 AM
Maybe it's NOT the uke itself that changes over time as much as it is the player learns to refine both their hearing perception as well as their playing technique and thus the uke in question 'seems' to give a better sound, since the player/owner has developed both aforementioned skills sufficiently to notice a difference from when they started.

Of the 12+ ukes I own, a few from the start at 3 yrs ago, the more time that *I* spend playing one continuously, the better it SOUNDS to me, and I accredit this to becoming intimately famliliar with how the instrument responds to my playing, which will adapt slightly when I have a different instrument in my hands...

For example, to get a more pleasing tone that I prefer from my koa tenor Fluke I will both fret and pluck the strings a bit more firmly than I will with the Mainland mahogany slothead all-solid tenor. The Mainland not only SOUNDS different, but the WOOD responds differently to my playing technique than the Fluke does.

The Mainland has the Martin M600 strings on it for a more bell-like tone and requires a softer touch since the strings are a lighter gauge and have less tension, tuned re-entrant GCEA, and the Fluke has the Martin M620 strings on it and is tuned re-entrant E-A-C#-F#, and because of being tuned low from when the strings were first installed and never going higher, the intonation is spot-on, and the Fluke has a more 'throaty' tone than the Mainland, and is in a different key, however the M620 strings still have a slightly higher tension than the strings on the Mainland which I attribute to the thicker string gauges.

If I play the Mainland with the dig-in technique used on the Fluke, the Mainland sounds over-driven, and I attribute this mostly to the way the the soundboard resonates, being quite thin compared to the Fluke.

On the Mainland, it's as if I can 'hear' the wood, whereas on the Fluke I mainly 'hear' the strings.

Each require a different technique to achieve the sweeter sounds that I want to make with each instrument.

I've played guitar for 35+ yrs, uke ukulele now for 3.5 yrs, and with the uke it's taken me a while to understand and FEEL and HEAR how each instrument responds differently.

Maybe this is the reason that in all the recent videos of Jake over the past 2 yrs or so, he is ALWAYS seen with the SAME Kamaka tenor, i.e., this is the instrument with which he is most comfortable to play in such a way as to MAXIMIZE both his technique, as WELL AS the desired TONE from that SINGLE uke...

just some food for thought about the perception of an instrument's tone changing over time....

wayfarer75
07-18-2016, 03:17 AM
Everything wooden changes with age. Most UU uke owners buy low cost strongly built ukes with stiff pretty wood tops that wont open up for fifty years, so they are justified in saying they don't believe in opening up, the ukes they own wont open up in the lifetimes of the current owners. Even the customs we see on UU NUD posts mostly have pretty wood stiff tops and wont open up or change much for a long time if at all this century. It really is counter productive to ask most UU members about ukes opening up, because they mostly don't own instruments which will open up while they are still alive. You need to find a forum where most of the the uke owners buy lightly built ukes that have tops with only A or AA grade woods that are chosen because they sound amazing but look dull, this sort of uke is likely to open up while the current owner is still alive.
A key thing about opening up is to never buy a uke hoping it will open up, always buy it for the sound it has on the day you pay for it. If it does open up and start to sound better, that is a bonus.
The best way to find out about Kamakas opening up is to track down some owners of the same model you own and start up a conversation. My Kamakas certainly seem to be getting better and better sounding as time goes by, but they are different models.

I'm sure ukes change over time, but I think it takes a long time. There might be a little "settling" of a brand new ukulele immediately after it's been finished, or a little adjustment to the new owner's local temp/humidity, but I doubt that there's a lot that will change over the months and years after that. My Barron River sounded great when I got it, my Kamaka pineapple too; neither has "opened up" to my ear. Neither has fancy-looking wood, especially the BR, and both are lightly built. Although I've noticed that really humid air makes my ukes sound dull, and string changes can really alter the tone and volume; overall, no, my ukes haven't opened up.

Rllink
07-18-2016, 03:23 AM
Maybe it's NOT the uke itself that changes over time as much as it is the player learns to refine both their hearing perception as well as their playing technique and thus the uke in question 'seems' to give a better sound, since the player/owner has developed both aforementioned skills sufficiently to notice a difference from when they started.

Of the 12+ ukes I own, a few from the start at 3 yrs ago, the more time that *I* spend playing one continuously, the better it SOUNDS to me, and I accredit this to becoming intimately famliliar with how the instrument responds to my playing, which will adapt slightly when I have a different instrument in my hands...


Maybe this is the reason that in all the recent videos of Jake over the past 2 yrs or so, he is ALWAYS seen with the SAME Kamaka tenor, i.e., this is the instrument with which he is most comfortable to play in such a way as to MAXIMIZE both his technique, as WELL AS the desired TONE from that SINGLE uke...

just some food for thought about the perception of an instrument's tone changing over time....I think that I agree to a large extent with Booli's post here. The only solid wood ukulele that I own, or have ever owned, it a Mainland Mahogany concert. As time goes on, I am making my Mainland sound better. I don't think it has changed, I have. I'm hardly and expert though. But my reasoning is that if such a transformation does take place, why would it always be for the good? Why would we not see ukuleles that get worse over time? In fact, I would think that would be more common. Ukuleles are very precisely built instruments. I would think that if any change took place after it was built it would be detrimental. But again, that's just just thinking about it

M3Ukulele
07-18-2016, 06:13 AM
My Opio Tenor has definitely opened up. I first noticed it dull out of the box. Two weeks of constant playing.... it got a bit better. Two months later...... better but still stiff. Now a year later, six or 7 different sets of strings and combinations......definitely getting really nice. I can tell the difference that strings make and will say that for the most part - strings and your playing style will make the most difference in a sound of a Ukulele, yet I can say I believe in "some" ukuleles opening up. Wood type is a big part of it and I do believe that settling in with climate where ukulele lives also affect the sound. I too have experience a ukulele sound good one day and then not so good another day which is likely weather and humidity because ukuleles are such small instruments.

On the other hand, my Custom Moodyville Tenor - Spruce/Walnut was great right out of the box......... My Pono AT was good out of the box but it took the string trials to get the right strings for it to sound best to my ear. I have played, in particular, a Pono Mango Tenor that was really stiff a dull sounding. I have no doubt that this Ukulele with some constant playing, some strings changes, some settling in would also "open up".

I would not be worried about a Kamaka Tenor. It may not sound like Jake or someone else out there but as mentioned before.......... can't expect that. Keep trying new strings and enjoy the journey.

Kimo said in a video that play each ukulele and try to find what each one is best at. They are all individual.

Good luck with the journey!
YMMV........

bearbike137
07-18-2016, 07:54 AM
Yes! They do open up with play and age. They get louder, more open and fuller sounding. It won't make a bad sounding uke sound good, but it will make a good sounding uke sound great! So play, play, play it - a lot!

(And my favorite strings are usually a mix of Worth Clear and Martins - with an occasional SouthCoast string thrown in the mix)

Kyle23
07-18-2016, 08:06 AM
I'm not sure where I stand on this, depends on the day really. When I first started playing, I thought my ukulele sounded great, but as I got better and more knowledgeable, I realized it didn't sound so great. I'm not sure which side that really favors in the argument, maybe neither lol. But I do think the more we play an instrument the more our opinions change on it.

Pete F
07-18-2016, 08:08 AM
One point worth thinking about is oil finished instruments. I used the ubiquitous gun oil on a uke of mine, and I did notice an immediate dulling of the tone and loss of volume. Not surprising when you think about it, adding moisture/fluid to a piece of wood will have an affect on the resonance.
I've always viewed 'opening up' as simply the drying out of any products used in the manufacturing process. Take Mya Moe for example who provide an excellent stage by stage visual of each of their builds. They apply four coats of gun oil followed by a coat of lemon oil. They sound great from the off, but I fully expect a slight change when all of that oil dries/vaporises. I'll let you know when I get mine!
I think that oil finished ukes sound warmer in general that nitro lacquered ones, which adds rightly or wrongly to my theory.

SailingUke
07-18-2016, 08:10 AM
While I believe wood instruments do open up over time. The more you play an instrument the more get used to it's nuances and get more out of the instrument.

stevepetergal
07-18-2016, 02:12 PM
I would caution you NOT to use the same strings as another uke player, especially one who is a professional, i.e., 'just because Jake/Kalei/Taimane uses them'...

Doing so negates the 15+ yrs and 10,000 hrs of practice to develop their unique talents and tries to boil it down to THAT uke, THAT pickup and THOSE strings, which is an insult to those players as well as sets you on a path that is nearly GUARANTEED to end with disappointment.

Are YOU willing to invest the time and sweat with the tiniest hope of having a copy-cat sound of someone else?

Why not try to find YOUR OWN SOUND?, and one that YOU like and that NOBODY ELSE has...huh?

just sayin....:) :2cents:

Yup.

Practice, practice, practice. Jake could make your plastic Dolphin sound amazing.

timmit65
07-18-2016, 02:40 PM
Playing is always the best way to "break in" an instrument. However, I work with people that swear by Tone Rite http://www.tonerite.com/

As far as the controversy goes, I did orchestral recordings for 10 seasons for a regional NPR group of stations. I had one of the 1st violinist explain, at the mechanics level...and to physics level, of what happens to the wood as it ages and it made perfect sense to me. Moreover, having played lots of vintage acoustic instruments, it "Sounds" like things change...improve! That said...crap in, crap out! I've played Circa. 1960s Gibson acoustic guitars that sound horrible. Yet, my friend's mid-70s D-35 sounds great. I say this having sold Martins for 20+ years in retail. My buddies mid-70s D-35 sounds as good as any instrument I've ever played. My .02.

Inksplosive AL
07-18-2016, 03:23 PM
I bought a Bruce Wei tenor a few years back and hated it. Seeing as it was only $18.50 before shipping if I remember correctly and it cracked as soon as the heat went on I humidified it and used some tightbond to repair the crack and put it away for a year.

When I received my 2002 or 2003 KoAloha (need to check) of course I started comparing it to everything I owned. It really made my KA SEM sound bad at the time but to my shock and surprise my Wei Wei tenor now sang as beautifully as the KoAloha concert. No longer did it feel overbuilt and quiet but it had opened up quite a bit in the tones it produced.

Now after a couple years the SEM seems to sound much better itself against the K brand and its a laminate but my most played uke as well. My Wei Wei is aging in my back room as the tenor tension is not much to my liking. Take this for what its worth. My :2cents:.

~AL~

Nickie
07-18-2016, 04:19 PM
Maybe it's NOT the uke itself that changes over time as much as it is the player learns to refine both their hearing perception as well as their playing technique and thus the uke in question 'seems' to give a better sound, since the player/owner has developed both aforementioned skills sufficiently to notice a difference from when they started.

Of the 12+ ukes I own, a few from the start at 3 yrs ago, the more time that *I* spend playing one continuously, the better it SOUNDS to me, and I accredit this to becoming intimately famliliar with how the instrument responds to my playing, which will adapt slightly when I have a different instrument in my hands...

For example, to get a more pleasing tone that I prefer from my koa tenor Fluke I will both fret and pluck the strings a bit more firmly than I will with the Mainland mahogany slothead all-solid tenor. The Mainland not only SOUNDS different, but the WOOD responds differently to my playing technique than the Fluke does.

The Mainland has the Martin M600 strings on it for a more bell-like tone and requires a softer touch since the strings are a lighter gauge and have less tension, tuned re-entrant GCEA, and the Fluke has the Martin M620 strings on it and is tuned re-entrant E-A-C#-F#, and because of being tuned low from when the strings were first installed and never going higher, the intonation is spot-on, and the Fluke has a more 'throaty' tone than the Mainland, and is in a different key, however the M620 strings still have a slightly higher tension than the strings on the Mainland which I attribute to the thicker string gauges.

If I play the Mainland with the dig-in technique used on the Fluke, the Mainland sounds over-driven, and I attribute this mostly to the way the the soundboard resonates, being quite thin compared to the Fluke.

On the Mainland, it's as if I can 'hear' the wood, whereas on the Fluke I mainly 'hear' the strings.

Each require a different technique to achieve the sweeter sounds that I want to make with each instrument.

I've played guitar for 35+ yrs, uke ukulele now for 3.5 yrs, and with the uke it's taken me a while to understand and FEEL and HEAR how each instrument responds differently.

Maybe this is the reason that in all the recent videos of Jake over the past 2 yrs or so, he is ALWAYS seen with the SAME Kamaka tenor, i.e., this is the instrument with which he is most comfortable to play in such a way as to MAXIMIZE both his technique, as WELL AS the desired TONE from that SINGLE uke...

just some food for thought about the perception of an instrument's tone changing over time....

Booli, this makes total sense. I'm not sure that any of my ukes sound better because they sound better. I think, although I've felt I'm at a standstill lately, that the "better" sound of my ukes comes from the ukes AND I. I picked my old Kala to go out jamming with last week, because it had to sit in the hot car for a while 1st, and I couldn't bear to let the Cocobolo do that. That Kala sounded brighter and louder than ever, and I haven't even changed strings in a year.
As for changing ukes, if one uke is good enough for Jake, I might be done buying them.

b00geyman
07-18-2016, 04:42 PM
I would agree that if it doesn't sound right at the beginning it probably won't sound much better later. I've got a Tiki Soprano Series 9 which I got for my birthday and while it looks great, months later, it's still out of tune and sounds a bit like a cardboard box.

However, there is something in breaking-in as well, which I noticed about my Kala soprano, that I've been playing for a few years now, but I tend to attribute this to continuous improvement in my technique, rather than the instrument 'maturation process'.