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Ukulele update: June 09

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Two new ukes have been added to the collection recently: a soprano zebrawood Ohana, and a tenor banjo uke from Waverly Street ukes. Both are reviewed on my ukulele page, here. The most recent acquisitions bring my working collection up to ten (plus three others in need of restoration).

The Ohana is the first soprano scale I've bought since I started playing (aside from the yard sale Diastone). I did have a soprano-body tenor from Ohana, previously, but it still had that extended neck. While I bought it for its looks, the zebrawood has given me the opportunity to play the smaller scale and appreciate it it somewhat. It has also reinforced my belief that tenor is the scale for me.

While I find it much easier to play this size than I originally did when I first started learning, the fretboard is still a challenge. Trying to build a D chord (2220) with all of the fingers in-line and none slipping off the fret to sharpen any note, is tricky. And the angle of my wrist for that chord is almost painful as I try to arch my fingers and get them all aligned in that cramped space. On the other hand, the shortened scale makes it easy for my pinky to reach much higher up the neck than on a longer scale. I can easily play 2227, even 2229 - and 222-10, but it's a stretch.

While the Ohana has a nice sound, it doesn't compare with the fullness of any of my tenors. Soprano is still a bit too plinky for my taste. Perhaps that's not true of the upscale, high-end ukuleles, but I haven't been able to play anything more than a few mid-priced models to compare with my tenor collection.

The Ohana has also given me an opportunity to debate the pronunciation of the wood with fellow ukers. Americans and those influenced by them seem to mispronounce it "zee-bra" more frequently than Brits and those who are more careful about their pronunciation who say "zeh-bra." How anyone can get "zee-bra" out of the word yet get "Deh-bra" from Debra (rather than Dee-bra) with only one initial consonant changing is beyond me.

I've argued this at length on the Ukulele Underground forum, but the logic of the short-syllable-dual consonant rule seems to go over the heads of those determined to say "zee-bra" no matter how illogical or foolish it sounds. It's truly amazing how many people will aggressively defend their mistake by the hollow "English has lots of exceptions so therefore I can say it as I want to" argument. I have asked if these folks say "Chay-ter" and "cay-tel" for chatter and cattle. I argued that with one consonant, the vowel before is long but with two it shortens. Holy, holly; Mary, marry; Joliet, jolly; pater, patter; cater, chatter and so on. Zebra has two consonants, therefore it is a short e: zeh-bra. Zero, zebra. The logic is inescapable. QED and all that.

It fell on deaf ears, I might add, as do most of these threads about language. America has an almost frightening influence on spelling, language and pronunciation because of the ubiquitous Microsoft software. When people start quoting Word's spellchecker as an "authority" in these arguments, you might as well bow out gracefully and give up (Word accepts 'thru' as an acceptable spelling! At least it flags the abominations 'nite' and 'lite' as mistakes...).

Still, pronunciation aside, the soprano it will give me a bit of extra challenge and entertainment to try and play some song favourites as well or as quickly as I can on the longer scale ukes. And any challenge that makes me learn is a good one. It hasn't convinced me to own more soprano ukes in the future, but it did open the door to the possibility.

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The other instrument is a banjo uke - banjolele - from Dave G at Waverly Street. It's a tenor-scale, but offers its own, very different challenges. First is the higher action. This isn't as much an issue when strumming, but it challenges me when picking. The strings feel a bit too distant from the fret board for comfort and I sometimes pick one with more aggression nthan intended, making for a harsh sound or unnecessarily emphasized note. This begs some experimentation with a different bridge to see if I can lower the action without inducing a string buzz. And of course some effort to change my picking style.

The second challenge is holding it. When I hold a uke without a strap, my right arm supports the body and presses the instrument against my chest. This can dampen the soundboard somewhat, but it isn't too noticeable. With the banjo uke, it's very noticeable because of the physics of the banjo head. I'm trying to hold it in the way that least affects the sound, but it's tricky.

On a tenor uke, my hand naturally reaches a comfortable position close to the soundhole and the high end of the fretboard. For picking, I can use the body to anchor my fingers. With the small circular BU body, my hand is off the body, and there's no place to rest my fingers when picking. I have to come up with an idea for a strap. It is, of course, somewhat easier when seated and I can balance it in my lap without dampening the skin.

The BU is a bit of a tip of the hat to my father. I recently found out he played banjo in his youth (and that my grandmother played ukulele). I don't know for sure if it was a banjo or banjolele. I do know he liked George Formby, and George made the BU popular. I'll have to pursue that question with my aunt, who may recall what my father played.

Meanwhile, it's one I don't play as much because Susan doesn't like the banjo twang, and associates it with bluegrass and country-style music (despite my attempts to play Bela Fleck's classical banjo pieces for her). I like the sound (albeit not for all tunes), and think I could possibly tune the BU in an open mode to do some bluesy songs and maybe even a little slide (nylon strings aren't good for slide but it might suffice). The BU can make some of the 1920s' and 30s' music I play sound rather nicely antiquated.

My main instruments for day-to-day play remain the cigar box uke and the Mainland red cedar. Mainland is gearing up for a whole new catalogue of models and woods this summer, and I'm keen to see what else they have to offer. Competing with that, Kala has some new models on the horizon including a bass uke, probably priced at around $600 US. That really intrigues me. But so does their new acacia wood model. How many more ukes Susan will tolerate remains to be seen, but I suspect the answer is "few" or even "none." I may have to sell one or two - thin the herd - in order to allow another in. At ten ukes, my ability to say the collection is cheaper and less intrusive than a motorcycle is waning.

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