I have been collecting musical instruments for over two decades and am lucky enough to travel the globe in seeking out the very best available. In the last four years I have bought a fair number of ukuleles and as with all instrument some become keepers and some get moved on. I now have criteria to judge whether an instrument is a keeper. Each instrument needs to satisfy at least one of the following criteria
- Does the instrument inspire writing?
- Do I use it to record in the studio?
- Is it used at live gigs?
- Is it an investment that will appreciate in value?
I recently moved on four ukuleles that failed to meet any of the above. They were all perfectly good instruments but not good enough to make the cut. I have done the same exercise with guitars and IMO it pays to be ruthless when making such decisions.
The Best Stores, Luthiers and Brands
One of the challenges in seeking out great instruments is to find the really good ones and to try them out. This is made harder with many great instrument stores now closing. Some of my favorites including Mandolin Brothers in NYC, Matt Umanov Guitars from NYC, Chandlers Guitars from London, Hill Country Guitars from Austin USA, have all closed down. The great thing about all these stores is that you could try a wide range of great instruments at your leisure and find what you truly love. I have often blogged about the quality variation in production line instruments. Yes, there are some good ones, but often the quality is very inconsistent. Statements online about “X model is great” is mostly meaningless unless you have the instrument in your own hands.
Fortunately, there are still some great stores around, but mostly these are outside the UK. In NYC Rudy’s Music is still miles ahead of the pack. In Tokyo, Heartman Guitars has a good range and of course, Ukulele Mania is brilliant for ukuleles and I have bought some great instruments there. In terms of luthiers Pete Howlett makes great ukuleles, Stefan Sobell is a magician for guitars, mandolas and other acoustic instruments and Takahiro Shimo is still in my view the number one guy for all ukulele related instruments.
Collings Guitars have in my view make the best quality instruments. I have never played one that is not superb and to my surprise, I bought my first new guitar in ages, a Waterloo acoustic that is fantastic. I also possess three Collings concert ukes and a tenor. These are no longer made and are all superb. There are a huge number of very average instruments out there and the price is not always an indication of what is great. Of course its all personal taste, but when there are no severe price constraints there’s a better chance of the end result being really good. For some custom builds I expect to wait 2 years on average, but its worth the wait.
Below are some of my keepers that continue to provide great joy on a daily basis
Below is the Collings I35, one of my electric guitars and just fantastic
Finally here is The Waterloo I bought in Austin