By Mr. Byron Yasui – Professor Emeritus of Composition & Theory at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa
SIZE: My preference is the baritone ukulele because I often play up very high where the frets get close together and my fingers, slender as they may be, are too wide to comfortably play single notes or chords in the highest register on smaller ukes.
PLAYABILITY: This encompasses many things. (1) Each fret should be filed and smoothed down at both edges of the fingerboard so that the left-hand won’t feel it when sliding up and down the fingerboard. The fret edges on one of my ukuleles actually caused my right index finger to bleed whenever I did excessive strumming over the fingerboard. (2) I need more than a token cutaway because I often play single notes as well as chords in the highest register. With a wide cutaway, a minimum of 20 frets is workable but I would prefer 22 or even 24 frets. (3) I prefer having several removable saddles of various heights, which will allow me to adjust the action (distance between fingerboard and strings) as my techniques change over the years, or as the style of playing demanded by my arrangement evolve. (4) The string tension range I prefer is one that allows me to play with endurance while producing a sound that sings out. This may require tuning to pitches that are not the standard tuning pitches.
STRINGS: Number, Tuning, and Material: I prefer the sound of four strings tuned so that the third string is the lowest sounding string. For some tremolo chord/melody pieces, the five string sound is very effective, but only if the first string is the one in pairs tuned in octaves, thus making the third string the second lowest sounding string. I also prefer all nylon (or other synthetic) strings and never wire wound strings that squeak when doing left hand shifts.
WEIGHT: Machine Head (tuning pegs) and Amplification Add-ons: The Gotoh and Schaller type of tuners seem to work very well as long as they don’t add dramatically to the over-all weight, which could affect endurance. As a professional performer, an electronic amplification system is a must, but, again, it must be very light in weight, with volume control (and even EQ knobs or slides.)
SOUND: This embodies tone, which is a very personal thing that’s hard to put into words. Aside from that, the attack for the note for each fret of each string must be buzz free, the sustain must be reasonably long without a sudden decay, the projection must be reasonably far reaching, and all of the above must be even from lowest to highest note with no sudden spikes or drops. The result will be an instrument that sounds very full.
INTONATION: The twelfth fret harmonic on each string must be the exact same pitch as the stopped note on the twelfth fret of those strings.
LOOKS: For me, appearance is near the bottom of what I look for in a ukulele. I would rather play an instrument that plays and sounds good, even if it looks horrible. What good are looks if the playability and/or sound are not to the player’s liking? Looks, I guess are important mainly for nonplayers, collectors, and luthiers trying to impress other luthiers. For players like me, the instrument is not meant to be a museum piece displayed in a glass showcase. Don’t ignore looks but keep your priorities straight.
My advice to aspiring and emerging luthiers is to sell your instruments at very reasonable prices early in your career to move your stock, even if it means breaking even or taking a slight loss. This forces you to build more, thus learning with each new creation. Concentrate on student models first, because novice players are always looking for inexpensive instruments. Talk to players to see what they look for in an instrument and be open to constructive criticism and to trying out new ideas. In time, as your instruments improve the word about the quality of your work will spread, and you may eventually increase your prices as demand rises. Remember to focus on sound and playability before appearance and aesthetic quality.
Courtesy of Byron Yasui. Published here with his permission.