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View Full Version : How to inspect a ukulele before purchase



cocohonk
06-07-2009, 05:24 PM
Hi. I am a relatively new player upgrading my cheap ukulele to a real one, but before I go to the store and check out these three babies - a Kala Spruce Top, a Kala Solid Mahogany and a Pono Solid Ohai (any opinions on the ohai would be greatly appreciated. I can't find a lot of info on this particular uke, in terms of how it sounds, if it's good compared to the other two, etc.) - I was wondering if anyone could give me a list of rundown of things I should check on before picking the one. Like, should I play the scales on them? Or, play a song on them to see how it sounds? (if so, is there a simple easy song to play that will cover everything (like the way typing "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" would help test a typewriter) What are the musts in checking it out?

And how about the physical instrument - are there specific no-nos to look out for?

Thanks!

Spooner
06-07-2009, 06:55 PM
For volume and tone:

I usually test out non barred chords.


For intonation and to see if the uke plays as it should all the way up...I'll test out every note on every string.

The first three frets are important ones to check out. If the uke is not set up properly that's usually where you will find it.

I'm sure others will chime in with their testing out methods. This is just a little bit of what I do when checking them out.

buddhuu
06-08-2009, 12:04 AM
Checklist for buying any fretted string instrument. Some things are more relevant for second-hand instruments, but it never hurts to take a thorough look.


Check for twisted neck and uneven frets: sight along the fretboard from nut to bridge and then from bridge to nut. A twisted neck or uneven frets will often show up, BUT be aware that variations in the height across the bridge saddle may give a superficial impression that things aren't straight. A few seconds of looking and thinking will show you what is a trick of perspective and what is a real issue.

Check for dead spots and high/low frets by playing every note at every fret on every string.

Check intonation. Be aware that poor intonation on a uke with very high action, or very old strings, may be cured by a good set-up. If strings seem sound and action is ok then intonation can be harder to fix.

Check for neck bow or backbow. Hold the strings down at the first fret and at either the body fret or the highest fret. If the neck has backbow then the strings will be stretched flat across the frets and, during normal playing, low position fretted notes may buzz or sound dead. A straight edge laid along the frets may rock slightly at the middle of the neck. Unless the instrument has a dual action truss rod, this is likely to be a serious problem. Fortunately it is not common. A forward bowed neck, when you fret at the two points described above, will leave the strings standing some way off the fretboard at the middle of the neck. Modest forward bow (or "relief") resulting in the fretted strings being a millimeter or so above the middle of the fretboard is often preferred, and is not a problem. On instruments with truss rods it can be adjusted to suit player preference. Some players, and makers, prefer their necks dead straight with no relief. Excessive relief can be beyond the capacity of a truss to correct, and can be an awkward and costly repair.

Check that neck and bridge are solidly glued with no sign of movement.

Check for excessive "bellying" where the top is pulled out of shape by string tension on the bridge. If this happens the top may dip slightly on the nut side of the bridge and bulge slightly on the tail side.

Check for grain cracks or failing glue seams.

Check operation of tuners. Geared tuners should be smooth and not too tight or too loose. Bear in mind that if the uke is otherwise sound, and attractively priced, tuners are usually easy to change and inexpensive to buy.

Listen to the tone. Remember that different strings will make a huge difference to the sound of a ukulele. IMHO, much more so on ukulele than on a guitar or mandolin.

beeejums
06-08-2009, 01:39 AM
buddhu's got a good checklist.

Many people look for excess glue showing the joints inside the instrument. I don't know if it would have any effect on the sound, but if it matters to you, I would take a look inside the soundhole to make sure everything is in order. Also, my first uke was supposed to be a solid wood instrument, but upon inspection when I recieved it, I noticed that the grain on the inside is in a separate direction from the grain on the outside, meaning that the instrument is a laminate. I guess that's one of the dangers of buying online.

Ukuleleblues
06-08-2009, 02:21 AM
Checklist for buying any fretted string instrument. Some things are more relevant for second-hand instruments, but it never hurts to take a thorough look.


Check for twisted neck and uneven frets: sight along the fretboard from nut to bridge and then from bridge to nut. A twisted neck or uneven frets will often show up, BUT be aware that variations in the height across the bridge saddle may give a superficial impression that things aren't straight. A few seconds of looking and thinking will show you what is a trick of perspective and what is a real issue.

Check for dead spots and high/low frets by playing every note at every fret on every string.

Check intonation. Be aware that poor intonation on a uke with very high action, or very old strings, may be cured by a good set-up. If strings seem sound and action is ok then intonation can be harder to fix.

Check for neck bow or backbow. Hold the strings down at the first fret and at either the body fret or the highest fret. If the neck has backbow then the strings will be stretched flat across the frets and, during normal playing, low position fretted notes may buzz or sound dead. A straight edge laid along the frets may rock slightly at the middle of the neck. Unless the instrument has a dual action truss rod, this is likely to be a serious problem. Fortunately it is not common. A forward bowed neck, when you fret at the two points described above, will leave the strings standing some way off the fretboard at the middle of the neck. Modest forward bow (or "relief") resulting in the fretted strings being a millimeter or so above the middle of the fretboard is often preferred, and is not a problem. On instruments with truss rods it can be adjusted to suit player preference. Some players, and makers, prefer their necks dead straight with no relief. Excessive relief can be beyond the capacity of a truss to correct, and can be an awkward and costly repair.

Check that neck and bridge are solidly glued with no sign of movement.

Check for excessive "bellying" where the top is pulled out of shape by string tension on the bridge. If this happens the top may dip slightly on the nut side of the bridge and bulge slightly on the tail side.

Check for grain cracks or failing glue seams.

Check operation of tuners. Geared tuners should be smooth and not too tight or too loose. Bear in mind that if the uke is otherwise sound, and attractively priced, tuners are usually easy to change and inexpensive to buy.

Listen to the tone. Remember that different strings will make a huge difference to the sound of a ukulele. IMHO, much more so on ukulele than on a guitar or mandolin.


Great list also check the neck angle to make sure there is enough pull off of the bridge. This is the angle the neck leaves the body.

cocohonk
06-08-2009, 03:32 AM
Wow! Buddhu, that's a great checklist. Thanks! And thanks Ukuleleblues, Spooner, and Beejums too for your input as well. I never knew there was so much to check on a uke before buying it. I'm seriously going to print this out and go through it at the store, and I'm sure this would help me loads in deciding which uke to get. THANKS! This forum is amazing.

(though I'll probably need to check the forums for some explanation of some of the terms, like "action", or "truss rods", or "pull off the bridge". :D)

I have a question about strings though. I'll be checking out three ukes, two of which should have aguila strings already and one with ko'alau golds (I think. They come with the Pono) In your opinion, should these strings be comparable in terms of sound, and 'expose' how good the uke is, because the strings are already quite good?

Also, this is kind of a ass-y question. The store I'm going to is relatively new, and I'm in Asia, so I'm just the tiniest bit worried that they might sell me a fake (especially I'm not really an experienced uke player who can tell the difference easily by sound). What are some telltale signs of authenticity (or fake) for Kala (a solid spruce top and a solid mahogany) and a Pono (ohai)? (other than that neat trick to check the grains inside and outside the uke to make sure it's a solid wood for the solids)

Thanks again, you guys are amazing.

buddhuu
06-08-2009, 05:28 AM
In my limited experience I would say that if a uke is dull and muddy with Aquilas then it may be that way generally. Aquilas seem to give a fairly bright, clean tone, but still quite sweet on some ukes.

The Golds (which I only played once on a friend's Pono) were softer and less bright, but still kind of sweet sounding. If a uke lacks punch and clarity with Golds then Aquilas may liven it up.

My experience with different ukes/strings is limited, but my general preference so far is for Aquilas on my ukes, which are all mahogany. I can't speak for other wood types or other people's preference.

Good luck with it, whatever you go for. :shaka:

Choboy
06-08-2009, 07:55 AM
i sit on the uke.
it's inevitable that one day i'll kick or sit on my uke... so might as well test out the strength before a purchase ;)

hoosierhiver
06-08-2009, 02:29 PM
Cocohonk,
If you find what you think is a "knock-off" in Asia, it is probably the same uke from the same factory, just sold out the back door. I once bought a great brand name uke in a side street in Vietnam for $20! No idea why or how it came to be there.

Choboy
06-08-2009, 02:50 PM
Cocohonk,
If you find what you think is a "knock-off" in Asia, it is probably the same uke from the same factory, just sold out the back door. I once bought a great brand name uke in a side street in Vietnam for $20! No idea why or how it came to be there.

that is one sweet story. i must train my eyes to know a good uke when i see one. :eek:

cocohonk
06-10-2009, 07:35 AM
Hee! I highly doubt I'd ever find a sweet brand uke for 20$ here in HK, but hey, if I ever go to Vietnam, I'll be sure to check out the side streets.

Do people often sit on their ukes? :D

Buddhu, thanks for the tip on strings. From your description, I think I will like Aguilas the most, but it sounds like the Golds give a pretty sweet sound too!

sukie
06-10-2009, 07:48 AM
Buddha -- can't rep you again, but +1 (and more) really good advice.

hoosierhiver
06-10-2009, 08:29 AM
Hee! I highly doubt I'd ever find a sweet brand uke for 20$ here in HK, but hey, if I ever go to Vietnam, I'll be sure to check out the side streets.

Do people often sit on their ukes? :D

Buddhu, thanks for the tip on strings. From your description, I think I will like Aguilas the most, but it sounds like the Golds give a pretty sweet sound too!

You've got to get ahold of my buddy Sirant;
http://www.ukulele123.com/ and on youtube http://www.youtube.com/user/sirant

He lives near HongKong and needs someone to jam with, plus he might know where to buy cheap ukes. Good Luck!

cocohonk
06-11-2009, 12:43 PM
Oooh, thanks, hoosierhiver. It's pretty darn difficult to find people who play ukes here who'd know where to get them here (I'm only recently made aware of a new store here that sells real ukes), so that's great! Thanks!

pantsfacemcgee
06-14-2009, 03:51 PM
So when you guys are suggesting checking intonation, does that mean bringing a tuner into the store? Or do you guys just have amazing ears, or some trick?

danged
06-14-2009, 06:24 PM
so, this is kind of a ass-y question. The store I'm going to is relatively new, and I'm in Asia, so I'm just the tiniest bit worried that they might sell me a fake (especially I'm not really an experienced uke player who can tell the difference easily by sound). What are some telltale signs of authenticity (or fake) for Kala (a solid spruce top and a solid mahogany) and a Pono (ohai)? (other than that neat trick to check the grains inside and outside the uke to make sure it's a solid wood for the solids).

I am a Ko'olau / Pono, and Kala authorized dealer, I would check with Ko'olau and Kala if the store you are shopping at is also an authorized reseller, they have dealer list on their respective websites. As far as the Ohai Pono, they are not available yet, they are due to be shipped from Ko'olau at the end of this month. The only place you can get an Ohai would be MGM.

danged
06-14-2009, 06:26 PM
So when you guys are suggesting checking intonation, does that mean bringing a tuner into the store? Or do you guys just have amazing ears, or some trick?

Any reputable Ukulele store should have tuners in the store, and be able to tune them! :wtf: If not buyer beware.

Jerrizo
06-16-2009, 01:22 PM
Ahh no way, I just started ukulele a little while...and I just came back from a trip to china. I brought my uke to practice during my free time, and was hoping I find a nice uke there for a good price.
Visited both HK and Mainland China, both have families there, and went to over 20+ music stores and did not find one single ukulele. :(
Lucky I brought my own to play. :(

cocohonk
06-16-2009, 05:10 PM
Thanks for the tip, danged! I did email Ko'alau/Pono and asked them on that matter - it turns out that they shipped them here (perhaps, the whole of Asia too) a bit earlier than the US, and the shop is an authorized dealer. Who knew we'd get them sooner than the US? :D

I did end up getting the Pono out of my three choices. It is a bit quieter, but the sound? Beautiful. I love it, even with the Ko'olau gold strings. (I did get some extra aguila strings too, so if I change my mind, I can switch them up.) I'm really digging this new Ohai wood, both acoustically and physically. I can't keep my hands off it.

Now all I have to do is to get better at the actual playing. :D

Jerrizo, I hear ya! They don't sell ukes in the big music stores here. I've searched too before, and only came up with a 10 dollar uke (that I did buy) in one store out of dozens.

But, it's not like you'd stumble onto this new store either, since it's more like an office in a factory area in HK and not a store in a mall or something.

danged
06-16-2009, 06:33 PM
Thanks for the tip, danged! I did email Ko'alau/Pono and asked them on that matter - it turns out that they shipped them here (perhaps, the whole of Asia too) a bit earlier than the US, and the shop is an authorized dealer. Who knew we'd get them sooner than the US? :D

I did end up getting the Pono out of my three choices. It is a bit quieter, but the sound? Beautiful. I love it, even with the Ko'olau gold strings. (I did get some extra aguila strings too, so if I change my mind, I can switch them up.) I'm really digging this new Ohai wood, both acoustically and physically. I can't keep my hands off it.


Congratulations on getting the Ohai model before us! I can't wait to see and play one. FYI especially the Tenor with slotted head coming next year. In the long run, the Pono is better made and backed by a very good company. Did you speak to John Kitakis? he's very helpful and a good guy to deal with.

cocohonk
06-17-2009, 11:04 PM
Yes, John Kitakis did email me back. He IS very helpful and a good guy to deal with. :D

And, I still love my uke.