How do you determine that your current instrument is holding you back?

Wiggy

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This was prompted by the recent "should I buy an expensive ukulele or stay in the gap" thread. This has to do with a ukulele's playability and whether I need to move on, or up.

- - -

The first bit of advice given here when it's NUD is to "get a setup." Easy to say, but I agree that every ukulele I've ever bought has needed that. (If your instrument has a 'zero' fret, this may not apply.)

However, I have learned (largely by trial and error) how to do some setup myself. Finding good files turned out to be the biggest challenge. I found some very small machinist files at a flea market. They are very small, thin, and not sputtered diamond. Do not use those cheap guitar nut file sets. I tried using those and learned the hard way by destroying several inexpensive ukuleles before I realized what I was doing wrong.

I found that adjusting all of my uke's nut slots for a clearance I like (.025") at the 1st fret was all the setup that I've needed. I do check clearance at the 12th fret, and unless the instrument was a wreck, they have all been within an acceptable range. In general, current products, even at the low end, are geometrically pretty darned good.

Concerning nut slot adjustment the best advice I found on UU was (see BaxMaz quote, below), while holding down each string at the 3rd fret, make sure there is a very slight gap at the 1st fret. If there is no gap you may have cut the nut too low. Not good; so be careful and check often when filing.

"The way I like it at the nut - hold the string at the third, and the base of the string should only just kiss the top of the first (or not quite touch, but there should not be much gap.

-BazMaz"

Another possibility is the frets are not level, but that's a whole different bucket of worms. I have tried to level what I thought were uneven frets with the result being a ruined uke. If that's the problem, unless this is a very expensive instrument, my advice is put it on the burn pile.

To me, getting the action at the 1st fret is the most important part of setup.

Intonation has not been a problem that wasn't resolved by improving my playing technique.

Any and all advice on this is welcomed.

-WiggyMachinist Files.jpg
That is my index finger, not my big toe:)

Oh, I almost forgot the point of all this. Being able to get the instruments I have to be comfortable play has allowed me to keep moving forward with absorbing musical skills. I was previously in an endless rut pursuing 'the dream uke,' when it wasn't near as much about the price as it was about the ease of play and of course, the tone of the instrument.

-W
 
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KohanMike

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After going through 16 tenor cutaway ukes under $200 in my first year, July 2013, then buying a Kala solid cedar top that rivaled $1000 K-brands I tried, I realized I don't need most of the others and culled them down to 4 of my best. But, I don't feel I was being hampered by the others because I carried on playing continuously with the group I joined. Also, I use Eric's Guitar in Van Nuys, CA for all my setup and fixing work, I don't have the patience or desire to do it, he does an excellent job.


This is Michael Kohan in Los Angeles, Beverly Grove near the Beverly Center
8 tenor cutaway ukes, 4 acoustic bass ukes, 10 solid body bass ukes, 14 mini electric bass guitars (Total: 36)

Donate to The Ukulele Kids Club, they provide ukuleles to children in hospital music therapy programs. www.theukc.org
Member The CC Strummers: www.youtube.com/user/CCStrummers/video, www.facebook.com/TheCCStrummers
 

captain-janeway

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Love the sound of my Kala cedar top. I have a cheap soprano if I really need that size and made a banjo uke that fits well. 10" drum head pot, cut up a really cheap uke for the neck and just followed some DIY instructions for the build. Plays decently. Wish Duke10 came with a concert neck.
Don't feel like I need a really expensive on at this point. I'm not going to be a pro player. It's just for me
 

ripock

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I had a Russian coach for some competitive weight lifting I was doing. I remember approaching him because I was having a problem and needed some help. He told me to go do 10,000 reps and then, if the problem persisted, he would address the issue. Perhaps you should take the same approach. If you feel your uke is holding you back, go practice for a year. If, after a year, you're still feeling held back, then upgrade ukes
 

Graham Greenbag

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“How do you determine that your current instrument is holding you back?”

I think that that is a really interesting question and generally not addressed on this forum. We say that this Uke is better than that one, these strings sound better than those strings, this Uke gives better value than that Uke, etc., but we rarely, if ever, identify what’s actually needed for us as individuals to play well - or should that be play happily and achieve much of our potential.

I’ve an assortment of not particularly expensive instruments and have discarded / sold / given away some instruments along my journey. The ones I parted with generally didn’t give the sound quality and or volume that I sought; I’m not too picky but if the sound doesn’t please then I won’t practice with that instrument and lack of practice holds me back. If a Uke is expensive then it will sit in its case rather than handy to play, if it’s handy I pick it up for moments of fun and practice so too expensive holds me back. What holds folk back is complex and YMMV.

Playability has been mentioned and again if an instrument is hard to play I either correct that by set-up or part with it. If it don’t play easy then I don’t practice with it and that holds me back. Playability includes string spacing and scale length too, is the Uke a physical fit for you ‘cause if not then it’s time to loose it. Does the Uke have side markers and what height frets does it use are also important to me. Weight very occasionally comes into it too, I had one Uke that was just a burden to hold and that distracted me, unhelpful ‘features’ hold you back and playability is important.

Sound I have mentioned and then there is responsiveness. I am tolerant of imperfections but not overly tolerant, perfect sound, perfect responsiveness and longer sustain come at a noticeably high price too. How much, if at all, does tolerable imperfection hold you back? That’s hard if even possible to correctly answer, maybe variable on the individual too, but I would say that progress is all about practice. At the end of the day one has to identify and consider the importance of what, if anything, an instrument is stopping you achieving.

Looks shouldn’t be that important but they can effect how we feel about ourselves and so enhance or damage our concentration. I like friction tuners and I like a Uke that looks like it’s been well played, that feeling translates into better playing. I don’t like bling and bright colourful stuff, that would just be a distraction to me and so hold me back.

I was playing music with a friend the other day, she had a nicer instrument than mine but the music she produced wasn’t what it could have been - my friend had an ‘off day’ and has very little time to practice. My instrument was cheaper but sounded OK and then I put more of the right notes in the right places at the right time. Identify what’s clearly limiting you, what particular things are you struggling to do and why? There are usually a group of reasons but in my experience the biggest limit to most people’s achievement is themselves. Assuming that you can correctly identify them (not always easy) then sometimes you might change the other things - and up to a typically low point or threshold that’s a worthwhile and enabling removal of barriers to progress - but ultimately you’re still held back by the shortcomings of the individual.

Eventually, maybe a decade or two away, there might come a point at which my instruments could in practical terms limit some of what I do, however the more I practice and stretch myself the more I’m able to do with relatively inexpensive (but still good) instruments. A basic but still good instrument rarely holds anyone back; if any proof of that is needed then listen to and watch some videos of Wilfried Welti playing some of his relatively inexpensive Sopranos.
 
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clear

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I think if you are asking this question, then your uke is likely holding you back.

Although I've never felt this way with an uke, I've definitely had this feeling with guitars. Some guitars just inspire you to want to hold it and play it all day long; you just have to find that guitar. Given that, if you can find that inspiring uke, then you'll want to play it all the time and naturally improve (well, technically improving is different than just playing, so even if you don't improve, you'll get better at wahtever songs you play).
 

Eggs_n_Ham

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As a ukulele player of less than one year I'd say the best thing I could have ever done for my learning to play ukulele is buying an excellent playing and sounding (anuenue amm3) ukulele (from a $50 ukulele!!).
I hear everything better and more clearly as I play and it makes me want to play and practice longer.
 

Eggs_n_Ham

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I had a Russian coach for some competitive weight lifting I was doing. I remember approaching him because I was having a problem and needed some help. He told me to go do 10,000 reps and then, if the problem persisted, he would address the issue. Perhaps you should take the same approach. If you feel your uke is holding you back, go practice for a year. If, after a year, you're still feeling held back, then upgrade ukes

I love that wisdom!
 

Wiggy

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Well, today I took my own advice when I found an Ohana BKT-70g for a good price at the local GC. It is in VG to EX condition. The first thing I did was press each string at the 3rd fret to check clearance at the 1st fret. The gaps were very consistent with the height of each nut slot. The gap at the 12th fret looked to be in the 2.5mm (about .1") range; also good. This was the factory setup; a little high at the nut, but that's the way it should be.

I didn't intend to buy it (hah-hah), but I did bring a no-longer-used Peavey amp for trade. Got a fair deal and brought it home.

I restrung it to my liking, began adjusting the nuts slots (just a tiny bit at a time), and started playing chords for 'Crazy' out of the Yellow Book. It really sings; a bit louder and a bit brighter ('clearer') than my Caramel CT402. Spruce tops will do that:)

It'll take a day or so for the strings to settle, but so far this is a step up for me.

-Wiggy

<edit> "step up" is a bit of a misnomer. What it does provide. besides being comfortable to play. is a new tonal balance. My ukes generally don't sit in cases but rather are on easy-to-reach hangers surroounding my desk. Their array of tones and personalities do inspire me, though I am fickle and moody:)
 
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merlin666

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I grew up learning to play guitar in the 70s. In those days if you did not have rich parents it meant you only could afford a cheap guitar, and the they were bad then... I mean like finger eating monsters with no tone whatsoever. It also meant that in order to play well and sound good you had to work much, much harder. As a result many of the poor kids emerged as much better player than the rich kids who started out with guitars that played like buttah.
 

CheapUkulele

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I grew up learning to play guitar in the 70s. In those days if you did not have rich parents it meant you only could afford a cheap guitar, and the they were bad then... I mean like finger eating monsters with no tone whatsoever. It also meant that in order to play well and sound good you had to work much, much harder. As a result many of the poor kids emerged as much better player than the rich kids who started out with guitars that played like buttah.

I had the same experience with guitar, starting in the mid 60s.
I started with a Ferrarotti 2nd hand (it costed about 10,000 liras then, about 5 €), and ended with a Larrivee LV10e.
With that guitar, I realized it was too much for my skill.....:)

With ukulele I started with a relative good but affordable instrument (with a tone I like, good playability all over the fretboard, good intonation) and I know I have to play it until I can "master" it. When this limit is reached, I'll be ready to think to buy another instrument.
Even if the market is always pushing to buy more and more, I guess the best acquisition is being able to play by heart a piece we like with a good tone, softly and loud and with our eyes closed. And to put some feeling into what we are playing.
 

kkimura

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I had the same experience with guitar, starting in the mid 60s.
I started with a Ferrarotti 2nd hand (it costed about 10,000 liras then, about 5 €), and ended with a Larrivee LV10e.
With that guitar, I realized it was too much for my skill.....:)

With ukulele I started with a relative good but affordable instrument (with a tone I like, good playability all over the fretboard, good intonation) and I know I have to play it until I can "master" it. When this limit is reached, I'll be ready to think to buy another instrument.
Even if the market is always pushing to buy more and more, I guess the best acquisition is being able to play by heart a piece we like with a good tone, softly and loud and with our eyes closed. And to put some feeling into what we are playing.

Well said. Thank you!
 

merlin666

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As to the initial question I don't think that a uke can hold you back at all. Now for set up it is a different question. I am not sure if there is a specific way to set up the uke that works for every beginner, as everyone has different hands and different level of dexterity so the same set up will not work well for everyone. Typically the way most ukes come from factory is a compromise that should work for most. Set up is more important for intermediate to advanced players who have already developed their playing style. For example someone who plays intricate fingerstyle will need wide string spacing and low action. On the contrary a vigorous strummer will benefit from high action and a narrow nut and tighter string spacing at the saddle.
 

Arik

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I've been held back by plenty of instruments. My dream is to solo like Corey, Kalei, Neal, and Andrew Molina. Every time I try I end up falling flat. I blame the uke so I end up buying another one. It could be my lack of skills but blaming my uke is much easier...
 

snowdenn

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First, check the uniformity of the paint. Good manufacturers do not tolerate any streaks, uneven coloring, or visually overlapping layers.

I get what you're saying, but one of my best sounding ukes was made by someone a bit older, who's vision wasn't the best. Everything's straight and well constructed. But the finish was not the greatest. I just realized you said "paint" instead of finish. I generally think of good ukes as not painted. Anyway, welcome to UU!
 

chris667

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I've been held back by plenty of instruments. My dream is to solo like Corey, Kalei, Neal, and Andrew Molina. Every time I try I end up falling flat. I blame the uke so I end up buying another one. It could be my lack of skills but blaming my uke is much easier...
Truth.

Some of the best music of the last century was made on homemade or catalogue-bought instruments. By modern standards some of these would be unplayable.

The question to ask is do you want to be a player, or a collector of instruments?
 

RickOlson

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If you golf, the same thing happens there. People want to buy the latest equipment to improve their game. At one point I took some lessons. I had just bought a new set of clubs, but couldn't afford high end stuff. My teacher picked up the driver, blasted a couple of 250+ yd drives, handed the club back to me and said, "Yep, these will work fine."

Watching this video of Jake playing a cheap uke is probably evidence that you don't need an expensive uke to sound great.

As long as the setup is reasonable, it will be playable. A $100 uke won't look or sound like an $800, and it may not be *quite* as easy to play, but it will get the job done if you put in the time. To *me* the action is probably the most important factor; if bar chords are hard to play up the neck there's a problem. People with hand issues might need a radiused fingerboard to do some things, but you'd probably know it if that applies to you. But even people with 'fat fingers' seem to be able to play a soprano, so to some extent it's a question of how much work you want to do to adapt to the uke.

New trumpet syndrome was prevalent in high school. When someone got a new trumpet, they practiced more and got better. Maybe the instrument that's holding us back is between our ears.
 

Nickie

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Plenty of instruments hold me back!
Really, though, the only ukulele that I can honestly say held me back was a Flea. I couldn't hold it still. The back of it was the same shape as my middle. Not a good combination.
The only other thing that holds me back is pure laziness. That could be related to my laziness.
 

ripock

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I think some are missing one of the points. Nine times out of ten, it isn't about necessity. I am saving up for a baritone that will cost more than a used automobile. Will a cheap Lanikai do the trick? I guess it could. But do I want it? No. Not having my sweet ass baritone is holding me back. Is it all in my head? Certainly. But my head is attached to my fingers which play the arpeggios. It is a package deal. So I have to give the head what it wants. And I do that openly instead of telling my head that the pioneers of blues played guitars from the Sear Roebuck catalog.
 

Larry Usselman

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First, check the uniformity of the paint. Good manufacturers do not tolerate any streaks, uneven coloring, or visually overlapping layers. The right technology has long been worked out and works like clockwork, so mercilessly discard an instrument that does not fit this parameter. One more important moment is to check the fingerboard. It should be straight and not bent; moreover, the strings should be placed at the same distance from it along its entire length. Bravely refuse a lousy option if you do not want to spend your own time grinding these very thresholds. You better look at the best mandolins under 300
The strings on a proper ukulele (or guitar, or ???) are not the same distance above the fretboard for the entire length. They will be closest at the top (the nut) and gradually increase in height above the fretboard as you move down toward the bridge.