What makes for a great instrument?

I’m currently doing an annual review of my instrument collection and was reflecting on what makes for a great instrument. Over the years I have bought all manner of instruments from all over the globe. The challenge in the UK is often the lack of selection. In terms of guitars there are still a few good stores, but none compare with what I know in the USA and Japan.

“The keepers” in my collection include my Shimo collection of ukuleles. Shimo is an exceptional builder and I’ve been using his instruments on almost all my recordings to date across three albums and one ep. Here are some of the collection

I also have my two Stefan Sobell acoustics and mandola. I first heard about Sobells from Martin Simpson, who has been playing them for many years. These are custom made exceptional instruments and there is often a two year wait for any build.

Both Stefan and Shimo make instruments to order. In terms of a company, Bill Collings is still in my view the best and I have two of his concert ukuleles as well as an electric I35, and a tenor and 6 string acoustic

Collings make great electric guitars as well as acoustics. Here is the I35 in action

I’m generally not a fan of “old is best” but I do love this Martin ukulele that is almost 100 years old. Again the build quality is superb and the sound is great

These are just some of my collection. Great instruments are those that inspire creativity and are a joy to play. Often they come at a price, but not always. The problem with many production instruments is that the quality can vary massively for what should essentially be the exact same instrument. This is true for guitars and ukuleles. I take online reviews with a pinch of salt for this very reason.

Of course all of these views are subjective and the only way to find out what is a great instrument for you, is to go play a buncg of them. This means a bit of effort in exploring, but in my opinion that’s a worthwhile time investment and it pays off massively in terms of what then inspires creativity.

What’s the best ukulele?

Almost on a daily basis I see the question “What’s the best ukulele?” posted on social media and especially on many ukulele based FB groups.

I appreciate the enthusiasm for wanting information and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the question of course, BUT of course without any qualifying information its a bit like asking

“What’s the best meal?”

Everyone will have an opinion according to THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE and that experience will vary massively from one person to another.

When this question appears usually  hordes of people start offering well intentioned opinions from their own experience. The threads go on and on…

 Again, nothing wrong with the sentiment, BUT every enthusiastic response can only be subjective and although well intentioned, ultimately may not actually be of any practical use for the person asking the question.

Musical instruments of course come in all shapes and sizes and the ukulele is no exception. There’s a massive range of options in how a ukulele plays and sounds. If we expand the question to

“What in your opinion is the best ukulele for playing jazz style music?”, the question becomes more focused and easier to usefully answer. You will note I added “in your opinion” as its useful yo remember these are ALL OPINIONS, something that can be forgotten. 

A Few considerations worth pondering before buying

The size of the ukulele makes a big difference to the feel and the sound. A soprano uke is very different to a tenor or baritone. Secondly the construction of the instrument will make all the difference to the sound. Different woods respond differently. There are no “best woods” just different sounding woods. Thirdly the string choice matched to the wood choice makes a big difference. I have done a lot of experimentation with different strings and just as pickups on electric guitars and amp combinations create all manner of sonic possibilities, string and wood choices do the same. 

Another consideration is how the instrument is constructed, There are some very respectable production line ukulele models, BUT there can be a big variation in quality. Even a model that is in theory identical, can often be quite different. I have been in stores with an extensive range of ukuleles and tried many exact same models to discover big variations. There’s nothing wrong with general advice, but any person can only really say what they personally like and LIKES WILL BE DIFFERENT FOR EACH PERSON.

Another element  is how the instrument is set up. Some ukuleles straight out of a factory can have all manner of issues including fret buzz through low action or unhelpfully high action that makes the instrument hard to play

As I have already suggested another factor to think about  is

“What kind of sound do you want to create?” 

People can have very different preferences and playing solo can be different to playing in a band. The price is usually another factor in any selection process. I know people online who insist that anything over X price is unacceptable and a waste of money. Of course any response  is often based on limited awareness of what’s actually available in the marketplace.

Price does not always signify (to my ears and fingers) a great sounding and playing ukulele. I have seen some videos of ukuleles for thousands of pounds with terrific inlay work, but don’t sound anything special to my ears. Similarly I have come across some really excellent instruments that to my ears and fingers are really superb. I’m fortunate to be able to travel a great deal and know that many great ukuleles never reach UK stores. Similarly there are some great UK custom build ukes that are very affordable that are not known in Asia and the USA.

As the happy owner of 24 ukuleles, I can vouch for the fact that they all play and sound different. When I am playing live or recording in the studio, I’ll pick the instrument according to the sound I want. This is all before we get to discussing the options of amplification and whether to go down the pickup route or using a microphone, where again there are lots of possibilities. The term “best ukulele” becomes confused with favorite uke…

One of the great joys of exploring the ukulele is to find out what suits your fingers and your ears.

The Fun is often in the exploration so you find what you love

This means TRYING OUT INSTRUMENTS. Yes, it really is that simple and of course the sound you hear as the player will be different to that when someone plays your potential purchase as you are hearing it from a different physical location. I always make a point of finding a store where I can hear the instruments in the same physical space as this will affect what you hear when comparing instruments. Of course if the sound and play ability are not important to you then there are countless uke shaped objects that are easy to purchase online.

I appreciate that not everyone can have access to a great store, so in my view second best option can be to look at video of instruments being played. My personal totally biased advice is to focus as much as possible on play ability and sound, although I appreciate some people love the quirky designs that make ukes look like classic guitars and of course manufacturers realize that many people see the gimmick appeal of the uke and market accordingly. Also be mindful that some online may be endorsers for certain brands so are not exactly neutral in their recommended suggestions…


So, “What’s the best ukulele for you?”

The stark truth is ultimately (drum roll!)

“I have no idea. Go find out for yourself and really enjoy this process of exploration” 

I can offer only general advise from my own experience, but your tastes in terms of what your ears and fingers tell you may be totally different! Personal tastes also inevitably change over time of course so THERE IS NO BEST UKE

That said, here are some of my ukulele family and you can see and hear how different they sound. I love them all for very different reasons.