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Don’t Fear the Soprano

The case for choosing the soprano ukulele

I picked up the ukulele some years back because I wanted an instrument I could bring places with me more easily than I can my double bass. I’ve gotten pretty into it, and recently had a custom instrument built for me. When you have the opportunity to completly spec something out, you really explore the possibilities and form some opinions. Believe me, I have some opinions. But first, some background.

Ukuleles come in a few different sizes, and these days (somewhat ironically) the trend seems to be towards the bigger instruments. The tenor with its 17-inch scale is the go-to for most players. If you can “manage” the slightly shorter (15-inch) scale, a concert comes in a close second in terms of popularity. I think if it weren’t for the different tuning and higher price point, baritones would reign king. Hey, to each her own, but these instruments sound nothing like the instrument I know as the ukulele.

With any instrument, there are styles and players you are drawn to. For me, it’s Americana of the Vaudeville era, early country, and swing. Players like Roy Smeck, and Herb Ohta do it for me. I do like the earlier Hawiian standards, especially to the extent that they relate to country music, but I find most modern players coming out of the islands to be insufferably cheesy. On the other end of the spectrum, the TMBG fan in me sort of digs the current craze of Cartoon Network singer/songwriter indie pop stuff my kids are into, but it’s mostly outside my wheelhouse as a blue collar, middle-aged white dude.

Standards

The standard ukulele has a 13-inch scale and uses reentrant tuning of G4 C4 E4 A4. I say standard, because the soprano ukulele is also known as the standard size. The soprano was the standard instrument for players of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is responsible for producing the tight, boxy signature sound of the instrument. On the mainland, Martin set the standard for standards.

As with many other styles of music, there is a make and model of instrument that sets its standard: The Gibson F5 mandolin for bluegrass, the Fender Strat for blues rock, the Roland TR-808 for hip hop.

For vaudeville, the further you diverge from the Martin S series of ukuleles, the further you diverge from the instrument as I know it.

Size matters

As I said, I was initially attracted to the ukulele for its size. As a bass player, bringing your instrument with you on vacation, road trips, camping, and to parties isn’t practical. The ukulele on the other hand can not only be brought along anywhere, it can even be played on the way up in the back seat of the car!

Early on I decided if size was the main draw for me, I wasn’t going to mess around with any of the larger size instruments. The clincher, though, was when my friend Jessica left me with her 1940s Martin S1. This was the first solid instrument I had ever played. It wasn’t boomy, it was boxy! The fingerboard was wide, roomy, and so much more playable than any instrument I had played to date—even tenor ukuleles. It had fluorocarbon strings. They were light and lively. I could feel the instrument vibrate in my chest, and it changed me. Suddenly size really mattered, but it was no longer about portability.

I played the crap out of that instrument for a month or two before Jessica took it back. After that, I tried as many instruments as I could get my hands on, which in my area meant quite a lot of Chinese factory plywood instruments and kitschy vintage toy ukes from the 50s. I formed some opinions.

The state of things

The ukulele has been enjoying quite an extended resurgence over the past few decades, and it only seems to be accelerating. The instrument is highly affordable, is great for accompanying sing-a-longs, is easy to learn how to bang out a few chords on, and most importantly: it’s the cutest little “guitar” you have ever seen!

By and large, this is a very good situation. The more people we can get excited about music, the better off we are as a society. This doesn’t come without its down sides, though.

There is an ever-increasing number of beginners out there. This high saturation of greenhorn ukulele players in the market contributes to the misconception that the ukulele is a toy or a beginner’s instrument, making it unwelcome in more “refined jam settings.” It also ramps up the demand for beginner instruments, making higher end professional instruments harder to try out in the wild. But the largest point of frustration for me is something much less obvious: the evolution of taste.

When you take up a new instrument, suddenly everything to do with it lights up your radar, and you start discovering the virtuosos.

Look, I’ve been playing music for thirty-something years. I know what it’s like to see a virtuoso on your instrument, but one thing you learn as a seasoned musician is that superchops don’t make a player. Well, they are a part of it…but maybe a fifth at most. Tone, timing, and taste above all are collectively more critical to good music. 

“Ah, but” you say, “what one considers good is subjective.” 

“Alas,” I say, “Tone, timing and taste are all subjective things.”

Superchops are not subjective. They are amazing, fun to watch, and something to strive for, but without context, they are nothing more than the click bait of music. New players are vulnerable to the influence of superchops, and strive to emulate those players—if not their music, certainly their equipment.

Yes, Jake Shimabukuro is a super nice guy; a great person; a talented person. He certainly deserves all the respect that is flung upon him. His music, tone, and style just really, really aren’t my thing. Really, really not. (It can’t be just me, can it?)

And he isn’t the only one. Many ukulele virtuosos have popped up, showing off their flashy chops with bland covers of adult contemporary hits and blueshammer train wrecks. Suddenly, everyone is playing tenor ukuleles with piezo pickups in them, leaving even the most specialized ukulele dealers in my area with a shit-ton of plywood Kalas and boutique Tenors—effectively inventory-less.

I fear piezo pickups and cheap plywood instruments are changing the perception of the way the ukulele is “supposed” to sound. Big, booming Aquilla nylgut strings can make a plywood instrument louder, but at the expense of reducing its bark. Concert ukuleles have much less of a bark by design, and tenor ukuleles pretty much just sound like guitars. I think these larger, more popular instruments are starting to influence the tone of the standards. Both my wife and daughter play well built, highly-playable plywood ukuleles, and they sound big and boomy compared to a traditional Martin, vintage Kamaka, and my custom ukulele.

I think amature misconceptions about the playability of short scale instruments is fueling this change.

Wider is the way

The petite size of a standard ukulele throws up red flags for new players. Many coming from the guitar world think the much smaller scale might be too difficult to deal with. As a double bass player, believe me when I tell you this simply isn’t true.

I have certainly played instruments that are more difficult to play than others, but this issue is almost entirely due to neck width and not scale length. Many popular entry-level concert ukuleles have less room than a Martin soprano. On a narrow fingerboard, fingers need to be stacked together more tightly in order to fit into place, requiring more space between frets to clump your fingers behind. On a fretted instrument however, you want your fingers to sit just behind each fret to produce a clear tone. This requires width.

Trust me. My other axe is a scale double bass. A soprano ukulele with a sufficiently wide fingerboard is easy to play.

Maybe this is just my group polarization talking, but I simply don’t like the sound of the tenor ukulele. It isn’t the instrument I play, and it’s more than a little annoying that it has, in practice, overtaken the soprano for standard status.