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Thread: Differences between "cheap" and "expensive" ukuleles

  1. #1
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    Question Differences between "cheap" and "expensive" ukuleles

    This both is and isn't a beginner's question. It is in so far that I don't have a clue as to what the real difference is, and it isn't in so far as this isn't a "what ukulele should I buy" thread. I have two, and they're fine. Ultimately, I may be questioning the value of an expensive ukulele when compared to the cheap alternatives. So, what do I mean by "cheap" and "expensive"?

    For purposes of this thread, let's say cheap is somewhere between $100 and $400, inclusive. That covers most of the decent to very nice Kala's, Ohana's, and the like ($400's actually a little high). Also for purposes of this thread, let's say expensive is $500 on up. That seems to be where the inexpensive Kamakas, Koaloha, and the like, start (and $500 might be a little low). We all, of course, have our own definitions of cheap and expensive, depending on our personal budgets, but these two groups I've identified have some overlap in terms of what is offered for these amounts of money. For example, $180 will get you an all mahogany Ohana, where $1800 will get you an all mahogany Martin. That's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point.

    The question, then, is, what does 10x the cost get me? I am a beginner, so I wouldn't necessarily know the difference, but I've been to Elderly Instruments several times and played around with some Martins (including 80 year old Martins, one of them absolutely beat to hell and back and still costing $500), and while I can hear a difference, I'm not convinced it's a difference worth the money.

    Perhaps a little background to this question will help with the cogitation. As a beginner, I bought what I thought was a decent Ukulele at a reasonable price. The more I play it, the more I like it, the better I get, the more I think, someday I'll spring for a really nice one. Which brings me to the thought, what's so great about those really nice ones that I'd want to spend many times more for one?

  2. #2
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    You simply should not buy an expensive uke at this point unless you think you'll be playing for the rest of your life, you can afford to spend the money on something both useful and beautiful, and you want that extra refinement of tone that you'll get with a hand made instrument made with really fine woods.

    Most people shouldn't buy original art, either, when cheap posters do just as good a job at hiding the cracks in the plaster, and a chair from Ikea will suit your bottom just as well as one from Thomas Moser or a custom furniture builder.

    All too often, people get way too practical about this and then try to pit those who choose custom-made products of any kind (jewelry, art, furniture, pottery, fabrics, etc.) against those for whom a more Wall Mart approach to life is fine. There are those who choose to fill their homes with hand-made objects, and they pay what they have to in order to do so. Those hand made products of human labor are much less likely to wind up in land-fill, though, and being precious from the get go, their longevity may just make them the long term bargain.

    I'd rather have a $1,000.00 uke for the rest of my life than five $200.00 ukes that don't inspire me and wind up in the rubbish heap.

    Written from the perspective of someone who designs and makes high end ukes and guitars...

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    If it is within your budget and you are interested in playing the uke, I would entirely advise you to buy the nicest ukulele you can. This is for multiple reasons.

    A) A high quality uke will go as far as you can go. As you learn the uke will sound better and better and there won't be instances where your instrument is holding you back from playing. By starting with a great instrument you can learn much easier and progress more quickly because you won't have to deal with many of the problems that occur with cheaper imports. (I.E. String buzzing, sharp frets, bad intonation, etc)

    B) You won't be inclined to continually upgrade. By buying a 25 dollar uke, you will need to upgrade pretty quick. Than you buy a 100 dollar uke. Well, now it is a couple months later and you need yet another upgrade. Eventually you have 5 cheaper ukes that could have bought you 1 nice one.

    c) Resale value. Imports don't increase in value. Hawaiian K's do. My Kamaka has gone up over 400 dollars in MSRP since I have bought it. If you decide the uke isn't for you, it is very easy to sell a nice uke for nearly the amount you payed. (Sometimes more!)
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    and it's not just resale value, but resalability period! I had a pretty nice solid top guitar that was 80-90% as good as the Gibson I replaced it with. I didn't even bother to sell it as other ones on Ebay were getting no bids, at a less than $100 price. Unless it's a good name you may not be able to sell it at all.

    A good instrument with a recognizeable brand name will sell easily.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rick Turner View Post
    I'd rather have a $1,000.00 uke for the rest of my life than five $200.00 ukes that don't inspire me and wind up in the rubbish heap.

    Same here.

    Then again, I'd also rather have a $200 uke for the rest of my life than five $1000 ukes that don't inspire me and wind up in the rub... er, well, on eBay.

    It's the "inspire" part that's the key, not the cost. They're not necessarily directly correlated. Speaking just for myself, I find that I can enjoy the heck out of some pretty cheap ukes.

    JJ
    "Talent is just a pursued interest. In other words, anything you are willing to practice, you can do." -- Bob Ross

  6. #6
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    I find that with just about everything in life, not just ukuleles, the cost goes up exponentially with quality. Most people seem to expect that the cost goes up proportionally with quality, but that's just not the case with most things. Is the Martin really 10x better than the Ohana? Most likely not. And you can't even quantify that difference anyway. But is the Martin better? By most measures that's probably the case. So you're paying 10x for "better", but not "10x better". Same thing goes for something like cars. Is a BMW 3-series 2-3 times as good as a Honda Civic? I'm not sure how you can quantify that, but by most measures the BMW is definitely "better". I think if we all just want the "best bang for the buck" ukulele, we'd all be playing Kala or Ohana ukes because you can't realistically argue that the more expensive ukes are 2-10 or more times better.

    For me, I'm willing to pay the exponential climb in price if I believe I'm getting something of higher quality and it is something that I have a real desire for. So my answer for the OP's question would simply be that for 10x the price, I'm getting something "better". Whether or not you're willing to pay for "better" is entirely up to you.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ukulele JJ View Post
    Same here.

    Then again, I'd also rather have a $200 uke for the rest of my life than five $1000 ukes that don't inspire me and wind up in the rub... er, well, on eBay.

    It's the "inspire" part that's the key, not the cost. They're not necessarily directly correlated. Speaking just for myself, I find that I can enjoy the heck out of some pretty cheap ukes.

    JJ
    Good post. +1 to what he just said.
    Purchase my new solo album HERE!
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  8. #8
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    I guess this makes my KoAloha Soprano a cheap uke? It was less than 500$.

    I think there are 2 ways of looking at this.
    The Ukulele as a piece of art/workmanship.
    The Ukulele as a way to make music.

    Do I have as much fun playing my Cheep Kala Laminate Soprano as I do my Cheap KoAloha ? You bet I do.
    Is the KoAloha prettier and does it sound better? Yes by along shot.
    Would I carry around my KoAloha in my backpack? Never!!!
    Ukulele, the most fun I've had being bad at something!!!

  9. #9
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    There's a gun and knife reviewer on Youtube, Nutnfancy (really good reviewer), who classifies things with the "two types of cool."

    The first type of cool is practicality and usefulness. Translating that to ukes, that would be factors like sound, action, build quality, etc. And when you get a lower end uke like say a sub $200 kala with a setup and strung w/Aquilas, you will be getting most of those factors. The offshore ukes are becoming better and better in build quality, and sound wise, Aquilas are basically the great leveler, as demonstrated by MGM's recent blind test contest.

    The second type of cool is just how much you dig the gun/knife. As a knife guy, that would mean cool colorations on the handles, carbon fiber scales, high end steels like S30V or D2, cool blade shapes, rarity, etc. And translating that over to ukes, you're looking at solid woods, highly figured woods, rare and exotic woods, cool body shapes, custom one offs, a unique sound, made in Hawaii, slotted headstocks, carbon fiber, and if you're GX9901, you might be turned on by Gilbert tuners. It's just whatever makes you excited about the instrument.

    And really, spending more money just gives you more of both types of cool, especially the second type of cool, which, IMO, most cheaper ukes lack.

  10. #10

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    Actually, I do carry around my KoAloha all the time. It's a beautiful instrument, but that beauty means nothing if it sits unused. I can understand why others would act differently.

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