Buying a Ukulele.
So there you are at the music store, looking for a good Ukulele. If you are an old pro, you can skip this cause you already know.
But what about the novice?
The first few Ukuleles I bought, I didn't really know what to look for, so I went with, well, looks. But looks can be deceiving.
So, what do you look for?
Well, for starters a thing called "playability" which means, how does it sound and feel while playing. Take it in your hands and feel it. Does it feel good in your hands? Play a song. Are the strings hard to press, or are there any buzzing sounds? If so the action may be off.
Now, run your fingers along the edges of the fretboard. Are the frets sharp or sticking out? Think about quick chord changes, are you going to rip up the tips of your fingers on those sharp fret ends?
Sometimes even higher end ukuleles can have this problem if there is a big difference in humidity between where it was made and where it is now. Sometimes fret boards will shrink and the ends of the frets will stick out. Now, hold it up and sight down the neck. The fingerboard and frets should be parallel with the bridge. If they "lean" to one side, the neck might be warped.
Next, how does it sound?
First, make sure it is in tune. Most Ukes on the wall are going to be way out of tune. I always bring a tuner when I go out Uke shopping. If you don't have one, ask the counter guy. They might let you borrow one. First tune it up, then, lets check the intonation. Fret each string at the 12th fret. It should be the same note as open, but an octave up. It should also be in tune. If it is in tune open, but sharp or flat at the 12th fret, then something is off. Next fret each string at each fret, and listen for any buzzing, and check the note. They should also be in tune as you go up. Now it is not uncommon for less expensive Ukes to be a little off, but it should not be noticeable to the ear. also when fretting, if you push down, does the note change significantly? if so the frets might be too high. So does it sound good?
Ok, what about condition?
First of all, if it is New, it should look new. If it is dinged up, it should be discounted. So a couple of things to look at. One, look all around the edges, where the top and back meet the sides. There should be no significant gaps or separation. Also look closely at where the neck meets the body. It should be solid, and it should not wiggle, not even a little. Also look closely at the bridge. It should be flush with the soundboard. If it looks like it is lifting in the back, then the bridge might be coming off.
Again, if it is new, it should look new.
Next, Look at the wood the top is made out of on the edges of the sound hole. (or the edges of the body, if it is not bound) Usually you can tell if it is solid wood or laminate. solid wood will look like solid wood, and you will be able to see the grain. Laminate will have "layers" of wood. Some times Ukuleles will be advertised with misleading statements like "Real wood" "genuine wood" "made with Mahogany" (or Koa) "real mahogany top" (or Koa, or spruce, or maple) Things like that. None of those statements guarantee that it is Solid woods. Plywood is "real" wood, also "genuine" wood, and can be "made with Mahogany" or just about any other wood, for that matter. If it says "Solid" wood, then it should be. Also look through the soundhole at the inside surface of the back. look for a grain pattern, now look at the back side. Is the grain pattern the same? If it is really "solid" wood, it should be the same pattern on the inside and back, but of course reversed.
I see a lot of Ukuleles described as "Vintage" including a brand name "Vintage". Vintage is one of those words that is miss used a lot. It is mistakenly used to denote antiques, and it is some times intentionally used to make you think something is an antique. The word "Vintage" only means that it came from a specific time period. Usually a specific year. Literally, it means "of the vine" and was coined by wine makers to denote the year the grapes were grown or picked. Hence there is a "Vintage" for every year. So, the word Vintage really does not mean much, as far as age goes.
Now, "Antique" although often miss used as well, has a little more meaning. There is a definition of the meaning of "Antique" for just about every class of goods. For most handmade items, such as musical instruments, the statute is 100 years or older. So as of this writing in 2008, for a Ukulele to be called "Antique", it would have had to have been made before 1908. Now, "old", "valuable", and "collectable" are pretty much up to the seller to define as they please.
Now, when it comes to buying a used Ukulele, much of the information above is the same, but condition vs. price is pretty much up to you to decide. How much you like or want it goes a long way toward value. But the main thing to consider is, if it is not in good shape, how much will it take to get it into good shape? Strings can be replaced, tuners can be sometimes adjusted. But things like cracks? Separations? missing frets? misc. damage? if you can fix these things yourself, great! but if not, a skilled Luthier will charge anywhere from $25 to $100 or more an hour, and you can figure on an hour minimum for most repairs.
If you are not sure, here is a very basic guide to degree of seriousness of a potential Ukulele problem.
Strings. No big deal. You can replace them yourself.
Tuning pegs. If they are loose, they can be tightened, but they may need to be replaced. depending on type and age, the peg holes may need to be worked on. But tuners will run you about $15 a set for low cost new ones, $100 or more for high end or older vintage
Missing or damaged nut or saddle. Probably looking at $25 to $50 each
Cracks.some can be fixed relatively easy, some can't be fixed at all. But, to get them fixed right, figure on $25-$50 an inch.
Frets worn or missing.a proper Fret job on a Uke will run you anywhere from $50 to $100 or more. Depends on how much and how many.
Bridge problems.Is the bridge lifting in the back? to fix it right, it needs to be removed, (potential damage to the sound board, if done incorrectly) the surfaces cleaned, and re glued.(Proper placement and alignment is crucial!)
All of the above still applies, but since you can't hold it, and try all these thing, you best bet is Questions. Ask up front, or be prepared to take what you get. Do your research. If the pictures are nice and clear, and you can tell the brand, look it up. type the Ukuleles name into your favorite search engine and see what other stores are selling it for, see what people are saying. Also look up the stores name, see if there are complaints out there. Also, I have seen statements like "This is the world famous (insert name here) Ukulele" But when you do a search, the only place you see them mentioned is on their own Websight. Another thing to watch out for is a borderline scam that works like this. They advertise a Ukulele as being the best you will find ever at the cheapest price anywhere! It looks pretty neat, so you read on. They also guarantee you will like it or your money back! if you bother to read all the small print, it does say there is a small re-stocking fee, and they do not refund Shipping and handling. So you think, how can I loose? Well, here is how. You buy the Uke for $100, plus "shipping and handling" of $25.00. You get it, and it is a piece of #$%@&. So you send it back. They give you your $100, minus say $15 for "re-stocking". So, they get the Ukulele back, they made $15.00. plus the shipping really only cost them $10, so another $15.00 there. So, on to the next buyer. They are making $30 over and over, basically just printing labels. So make sure you know all the details on the return policy. There are many Reputable sights with the same type of refund/return policy, but they are usually offering known quality Products. If you are not sure, ask around. Go to fleamarketMusic.com or Ukulelecosmos.com, or any number of other Ukulele bulletin boards, and ask about the seller. Another is the sight with blurry pictures and the "I don't claim to be an expert" tag line. You can't tell for sure cause the pictures are so blurry, but the headstock looks like it has a name in gold. Does that say Martin? Now, if you bother to read the small print there is either the same junk as above, or it says they only give refunds if item is not as described. The description says "Old ukulele. says martin?" So You ask the seller for more information and they say, "well, I am not an expert, but it is a Ukelele about 20" long and has four strings. It's got martin in gold on the top, it will need to be cleaned and tuned."
So you are thinking you scored. You plunk down $100 or more and when you get it, it is a circa 1980 Chinese import with martin written in gold paint pen. When you try to get your money back, you have to prove that it was not as described.
So ask yourself. Is it worth the gamble? Sure, in about 1 in a thousand of these auctions, it really is a Martin. but probably not today. So, If I don't know what I am buying, I Ask. If I don't get a good answer, I don't buy it. It is that simple.
Next, 5. Traveling with your Ukulele
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