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View Full Version : Judging quality of a custom uke or luthier



hammer40
06-03-2012, 11:58 PM
At some point I know I would like to be purchasing a custom made uke. How can one judge the quality of build and sound from all the luthiers out there? It's not like there is a custom showroom with a wide selction to look over and listen to.

There are some that are well known and extremely expensive but then there are many in the 8 hundred to 1.2K range. So is a "K" brand a better choice than choosing a custom uke? It doesn't seem like a custom would be any better, or maybe I should say, with a "K" you know exactly what your getting for your money.

I do understand with custom you can choose your wood and bling and that is attractive, but sonically is it a roll of the dice? Any thoughts?

Nickie
06-04-2012, 12:39 AM
I'd read the reviews here. That's the best second hand recommendation you can get.

consitter
06-04-2012, 12:46 AM
Nickie's right. The reviews will guide you.

Plainsong
06-04-2012, 04:13 AM
Well I'm not so sure how useful forum reviews are. They're usually made in the first flush of excitement. And, we've all seen what happens when someone has an opinion contrary to what the groupthink is. Meaning, if you post something negative about a builder, you better put on your flame-resistant suit. If you don't want to rock the boat, you're more likely to not say anything. It's not worth it, you'll just sell it on to someone who'll hopefully like it.

The best bet is to PM people who own this or that build and ask them for candid opinions. Seriously, there are big names that I'd just assume are awesome, only to hear from people in person that their ukes ain't all that. Now I've never played them myself, so the truth of it isn't the issue, so much as that you need to ask people privately for frank opinions.

hammer40
06-04-2012, 04:50 AM
Well I'm not so sure how useful forum reviews are. They're usually made in the first flush of excitement. And, we've all seen what happens when someone has an opinion contrary to what the groupthink is. Meaning, if you post something negative about a builder, you better put on your flame-resistant suit. If you don't want to rock the boat, you're more likely to not say anything. It's not worth it, you'll just sell it on to someone who'll hopefully like it.

The best bet is to PM people who own this or that build and ask them for candid opinions. Seriously, there are big names that I'd just assume are awesome, only to hear from people in person that their ukes ain't all that. Now I've never played them myself, so the truth of it isn't the issue, so much as that you need to ask people privately for frank opinions.

I guess if you don't know someone who owns one, you could always ask for references as well.

mm stan
06-04-2012, 05:49 AM
you never know how your uke will sound...like you said, you take risks...but the better the luthier, the better the consistancy...you never know as there is so much variation in the building process
but if the luthier is a stand up person, he/ she will accomadate you......choose wisely....every uke will sound dfferent and have it's own voice..

mds725
06-04-2012, 07:28 AM
I agree that if you want a candid review of a custom, you should try to find people who own them and chat with them in private. (PM if they're on UU; luthiers may be willing to give their other customers your email address so they can contact you if they want to, although with luthier-supplied references, you may only get positive feedback. Maybe someone needs to set up a Yelp! site for luthiers.) Many less well-known luthiers (and some very well-known luthiers, like Mya-Moe) go to ukulele festivals. If there are any festivals in your area or near someplace you've always wanted to go, you could test drive ukuleles of the luthiers who are there. I've never been to the Reno festival, but I believe there may have been several luthiers there.

Bradford
06-04-2012, 08:33 AM
This subject pops up now and then, as a custom builder let me add my perspective. The above advice is all pretty good, the first step is to do research, talk to people and check out websites. Ultimately however you will need to have conversations with the possible builders. Here are some things to consider.

What is the builder's primary philosophy? In my case I want to build a great sounding, easy to play, nice looking ukulele at a very affordable price. All of which sounds like marketing hype and does not convey a lot of information. However, a five minute conversation with me going over all of those points will quickly clarify what I am about.

How much input on the build do you wish to have, and how much will the luthier tolerate? Some of my customers wish to pick every piece and part of the build, and others simply tell me to build them something that I would like. I am comfortable either way and most of my customers fall in between. Some builders on the other hand do not want a great deal of input and prefer to be left alone. Picking a builder who is compatible with your thoughts on this is vital.

What are the methods and schedule of payments? I do not want or accept deposits. I want my customers to be free to walk away at any time. The total amount is due right before I ship the instrument. Many of my customers like this, some I know would prefer a more formal arrangement. There is no right answer here. Most builders want a deposit up front and the balance before delivery. The important thing is that you are comfortable with the arrangement.

What is the return policy? This should be clearly spelled out by the luthier.

Usually these conversations are started by email and then may progress to phone conversations. All during this process the buyer should be assessing is this a person I wish to deal with. In my experience the compatibility between the buyer and the luthier can play a large role in the success of the build.

Brad

Plainsong
06-04-2012, 10:19 AM
I don't have a custom built for me, but at once point or another I've had non-custom instruments built by popular luthiers, and of course had the kind of conversations we've all had with some of the builders. The positive experiences have far outweighed the negative. It's really tough narrowing down who I'd like to build that final uke. :)

Raygf
06-04-2012, 11:16 AM
You can listen to video and sound samples, go to ukulele festivals and meet some luthiers and hear and play their instruments. Find a group meeting near you and go see what other folks are playing. I would not say that it is a roll of the dice as far as sound goes with a custom instrument. You need to know what it is you are looking for and have a dialogue with the builder.

The luthiers whose names you see quite often around here are worth every penny of their work and you will get a superbly crafted, high quality instrument.

I was looking for a Kamaka and when I mentioned it at a festival in Annapolis, someone suggested talking to Dave Means. I did and played one of his ukes and had heard many of his instruments played live and in videos. We had many conversations and needless to say, I am the proud and ecstatically happy owner of a Glyph custom tenor. (Dave is not taking orders right now.) I waited several years, but it was worth it. You get what you pay for.

I also own an absolutely marvelous KoAloha long neck soprano that I bought on reputation alone and would never part with it. Take your time and know what it is you want before you buy. Best of luck and enjoy the process.


At some point I know I would like to be purchasing a custom made uke. How can one judge the quality of build and sound from all the luthiers out there? It's not like there is a custom showroom with a wide selction to look over and listen to.

There are some that are well known and extremely expensive but then there are many in the 8 hundred to 1.2K range. So is a "K" brand a better choice than choosing a custom uke? It doesn't seem like a custom would be any better, or maybe I should say, with a "K" you know exactly what your getting for your money.

I do understand with custom you can choose your wood and bling and that is attractive, but sonically is it a roll of the dice? Any thoughts?

haolebrownie
06-04-2012, 02:01 PM
Not to beat a dead horse, but I agree that you should ask around the forum to find people that own custom ukes. There are several members that have owned numerous customs that are more than willing to share unbiased (as much as someone can be) opinion about their experience via private message. I think that if you want to stay around $800-1,200, going with a newer K brand is pretty safe. You will get a nice quality Hawaiian instrument. Just play before you buy if possible because not all sound the same... not that one will sound junk (just different IMHO). Beware, not everyone giving an opinion knows what they are talking about. I've seen some members throw around "facts" that are anything but. Just saying.

janeray1940
06-04-2012, 02:50 PM
Tough question to answer, I just went through this myself. I'm a diehard Kamaka fan but what I wanted - soprano with 17 or more frets - isn't something they offer, so I had to go custom. In the end, I relied on a combination of forum reviews, word of mouth (I'm lucky to know a lot of uke players), trying out friends' ukes, and actually interviewing a few luthiers. I was able to conclude that some are more about building something beautiful to look at, and others are more focused on perfect intonation and sound quality - and since sound, rather than looks, is what matters to me, my decision was made based on a particular luthier's focus on sound.

hammer40
06-04-2012, 03:03 PM
All good and sound advice so far. What got me thinking on this subject was when I browsed through the Luther list here at UU, I thought, How would you pick between them, provided the price was similar or in your desired budget? It would be easy if you could play them, hold them in your hands and decide what you like best, but that is never the option really, outside of a festival I guess.

I guess this is the same problem with an "import". I had trouble deciding which to choose to start off with. The sound is so subjective, what I prefer is not what others might prefer. So choosing from a Pono, Mainland, Ohana, Kala, or others can be difficult when you can't play them.

janeray1940
06-04-2012, 03:08 PM
All good and sound advice so far. What got me thinking on this subject was when I browsed through the Luther list here at UU, I thought, How would you pick between them, provided the price was similar or in your desired budget? It would be easy if you could play them, hold them in your hands and decide what you like best, but that is never the option really, outside of a festival I guess.

I guess this is the same problem with an "import". I had trouble deciding which to choose to start off with. The sound is so subjective, what I prefer is not what others might prefer. So choosing from a Pono, Mainland, Ohana, Kala, or others can be difficult when you can't play them.

Of the luthiers I talked with, several offered 100% money-back guarantees. For me, that lowered the risk factor considerably.

As for factory ukes - even K brands vary widely in consistency. I've played identical Kamakas side by side and had a clear preference for one over the other. So yes, when buying a factory uke, being able to try it out in person is pretty important.

Of course, if you don't have that option, you don't really have anything to base a comparison on - and really, with a K brand you probably won't be disappointed. As for the other brands, buying from a reputable seller who does a setup before shipping it to you is the way to go.