S1E8 – Unpacking the UAS Myth

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This is a very opinionated episode. Not trying to throw down any absolutes, just sharing my thoughts. Take them with a grain of salt.

UAS is ukulele acquisition syndrome. It’s the tendency to keep buying new instruments that uke players seem to get sucked into. In this episode I explore why this is what it is and some things to consider as you continue on your ukulele journey. Hand in hand, I also talk about overthinking uke features – “overshopping.”

Transcript

Edited for clarity.

Aloha! Welcome to The Live ʻUkulele Podcast. I’m your host Brad Bordessa and in this episode I want to talk about UAS: ʻukulele acquisition syndrome. And some of the side effects and counter measures that one might put into place to change your course maybe, from just buying a bunch of ʻukuleles – or sometimes the greater problem is wondering about better ʻukuleles all the time. And it’s something that I often answer and encourage people to look at in different ways. Hopefully I can share some of those opinions in this episode and we’ll dig in and have a look at it. Live ʻUkulele t-shirts arrived in the mail yesterday and so, I tried them on, of course, immediately. They’re nice and comfy. The t-shirts are high quality and the printing is well done. So you can get a Live ʻUkulele logo t-shirt now in the store on the website. There’s multiple colors, multiple shirt styles. Get your own and support the brand, show off your love for the instrument, and have a comfy shirt to wear around and feel awesome in. I know I did yesterday. I put it on right out of the bag. I know you’re supposed to wash it first, but I couldn’t wait. And it was awesome!

UAS. ʻUkulele acquisition syndrome is a funny little acronym that somebody many, many years ago came up with to describe the condition of people wanting to buy more and more ʻukuleles. Because it’s very typical that an ʻukulele player is not going to have just one ʻukulele, they’re going to have many ʻukulele. And they might have a small one and a big one and a medium-sized one – it’s kind of like the Goldilocks effect in that folks are often trying out new things and seeing what works for them, what they like best, and they end up with a whole lot of different instruments. And I’m not really that different. I don’t have a lot of extra ʻukuleles that I never play. I try and move those along and not have a closet that’s just stacked to the gills. But I have several different instruments that I play and I have… they kind of have their useful place in my lifestyle. Whether it be like my take it to the beach ʻukulele or my recording ʻukulele or, hey, I need a baritone ʻukulele. So I have a handful of different instruments. That’s my disclaimer right up front is, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a bunch of instruments. But what I see a lot of times is that the mindset of UAS is sometimes more problematic than the actual getting of the instruments.

Now, there’s sort of two sides to this that I want to examine. First of all, is the UAS “typical” mindset, which is, “Oh, I want to get this new ʻukulele because it’s going to be different, better, more pink…” More koa. More, more, more, more whatever the different thing is. And that’s cool – to a certain extent. And I don’t want to kind of throw anybody out who gets joy from buying new ʻukuleles. Because some people, they’re collectors, they have a… That’s kind of their thing is they collect the instruments. They have a lot of different instruments, they know a lot about the different instruments, and by bringing them into their lives that brings them joy. And I don’t want to negate that in any way with what I’m saying. So when I’m explaining this and bringing my opinions to the table, please take them as kind of encouragement for somebody who is studying the instrument and just wanting to become a better player, I guess. Somebody who – you know, in a way, everybody who’s listening is sort of, kind of, my students, so I bring this from the concerned teacher kind of viewpoint. So keep that in mind. But some people like to collect the instruments, they have lots of instruments, and that’s fine.

What tends to happen though is that people who are playing, and learning to play, and, kind of, coming up through the ranks, they end up buying instruments because they think they will do something for them. You buy your first starter ʻukulele. You learn to play some chords. You get the bug. And then you buy your next ʻukulele because it’s a little better and you know what you need. And that’s really great. That next ʻukulele is always kind of the commitment jump. It’s like, okay I’m beyond my crappy starter ʻukulele that I learned a few chords on, now I’m in. Now I’m playing. Now I’m practicing. Now I’m doing all the stuff and I have a better instrument. You know, whether that be a $150 instrument to somebody or a thousand dollar instrument to the next guy, doesn’t really matter. It’s the heartfelt commitment to the idea that you are now an ʻukulele player.

It’s when you move beyond that things get a little bit questionable. Because I would argue that the amount of time you could put in to improve on an instrument in that kind of commitment range is massive. We’re talking years and years you could play on an instrument like that and not max it out. Assuming that it’s a good quality instrument that’s well made, that’s, you know, the quality control has been checked out and it’s decent. You could play so much music on an instrument like that. But a lot of times what happens is people think that maybe a different ʻukulele will allow me to play better, easier, faster, you know, maybe it’ll sound better. This, that, and the other thing. And while that can be the case, depending on where you’re at on the spectrum, it’s easy to get sucked into thinking, “Oh the next one will make me sound better, oh the next one will make me sound better, oh the next one will make me sound better.” And, in my experience, that is almost never the case. I mean I’ve seen people who ask me for an opinion on an instrument and, you know, I give them what I think would be a good use of their money. And they get it and, you know, they’re no better. And so that’s something… That’s sort of one side of the coin that I see super often, is that folks tend to think that, “Oh, I have this ʻukulele. It’s fine, but there are better ʻukuleles.” Well yeah, of course there’s better ʻukuleles. There’s always something better. You know, you get married. Is there somebody better? Maybe. Probably. But it doesn’t matter because you’re married to that person and that’s just who you live your life with. That’s probably a super terrible example. But I’m sure you get my drift.

So it’s a sense of being content with what you have and working with it instead of wondering what’s next. Because you can always be unsatisfied if you let yourself be unsatisfied. It’s just never going to be good enough, but that’s there’s no happiness in that from any of, you know, my observations of life. Just like, jump in, find something that you like, find something that works well, find something that’s quality, and work with it. That’s what you use and, you know, get the most out of it that you can. As opposed to letting yourself get sucked into the capitalistic mindset of, you know, buying the next thing, buying the next thing, buying the next thing. Because it doesn’t, for the most part, improve the way you play. Because your playing relies upon your practice and the time that you put in on the instrument. So nine times out of ten, my recommendation for people is, you know, instead of buying another instrument or instead of thinking about buying another instrument, wondering what you could spend your money on, you know, what do I need, what do I want, what do, you know, what color, what kind of finish do I want on the instrument, instead of spending the time on those things, if you practice, the practice is actually going towards making you sound better. But the new instrument has zero guarantees. You know, it might sound better when you just strum the chord, but it also might still sound bad because you haven’t practiced improving the skills for those things.

The other side of the UAS mindset that I see a lot are people who are intellectualizing the build of the instrument. And the way an ʻukulele is built is so very specific it’s unbelievable. There’s so many things that go into making an instrument and making it the way it is. A certain number of them are controlled and a certain number of them are just happy accidents, as Bob Ross would say. It’s just sort of this perfect storm of skill and randomness and magic. And when you jump in and try and intellectualize what’s happening with a nice instrument, I think you’re really going down a dangerous path. And I don’t mean that you shouldn’t consider like the wood options and the different flavors of instruments that you can acquire. Because those things are important. What I mean more so are the very intangible things. If you have to ask “is ____ important in an instrument?” The answer is probably no. Because ʻukulele builders are trying to make the best instruments possible and the most valuable and appealing instruments possible. And if they can do that with their build, they’re going to have done it or offered it as an option. But if it’s not something that you get to pick on the instrument or it’s not something that’s provided, they’re probably already doing the best that they can with their instruments and you intellectualizing this question of like, “Well, what if this changed the sound?” Yeah, well, what if it did? They aren’t doing it, so does it really make that much of a difference? I’m going to run off a couple that I’ve heard in the past that are on the top of my mind. Like, a radius fretboard, sound hole size, bracing patterns, arm bevels, fret wire size, saddle depth in the bridge, bridge size, headstock size, and tuner weight… All of these things are considerations, for sure. But to what effect is their importance and is it your place to question or wonder about them. Because there’s a certain trust bond that the buyer or the player has with the builder in that, you assume the builder is going to build the best possible instrument they can and that’s their product. That’s what they think is best. Whether you think it’s best or not is sort of up to you and your sensibilities. And that will impact whether or not you buy the instrument. Wondering or trying to control what the the builder does I don’t feel like that’s necessarily productive because, as the player, you don’t have the expertise that the builder has. You’ve played your music, you’ve played the chords, you’ve learned the picking, or whatever you do as a player. That’s where you put your focus. The builder builds instruments and tries to make them as nice to play and as nice sounding as possible. So I would tend to trust that the builder is doing the best that they can. And if you don’t like the best that they have, maybe it’s not for you. Maybe you should search for a different brand of ʻukulele. Instead of wondering…

I guess instead of comparing apples and oranges, you know. Is this spec on this ʻukulele going to sound better than this spec on this ʻukulele? Because you could have the same exact model instrument and change one thing on it and you still couldn’t be sure… I mean, you could probably, if you wanted to, do a scientific test and average the change over a number of instruments, you could do that. But from one instrument to the next, there’s no guarantee that that one change is going to be the reason the sound is different. Or the reason the playability is different. Because each instrument is so personal. Especially when you get into playing handmade instruments. You know, there’s so many happy accidents happening that, if you change one thing, that might be what you could attribute the change in sound to, or it might not. It might just be a collection of other things that you’re hearing in one instrument that makes it different. So trying to pin such a specific thing onto, “Oh well, this sounds better, oh well, this is easier to play.” It’s a little abstract. Which is why I kind of get frustrated and concerned for folks who go down these rabbit holes and really… They really dig. They really look for, like, every little feature and try and intellectualize every little feature they could possibly think about when, as the player…. It’s sort of, in my opinion, it’s not your business to stick your nose in such a specific place. I mean who cares really if the ʻukulele is good, it’s good. And that’s a real drawback of the internet and an ʻukulele player. Is that you can look at things and you could spend all day online looking at different ʻukuleles and different specs and different features and really drive yourself crazy and waste a lot of your life away just looking at things. As opposed to if you go into a music shop and you play the instrument or you play a friend’s instrument and you feel the difference and you hear the difference. Really all it comes down to is, does this instrument inspire me? And if it does, awesome. That’s the magic, that is what you’re going for. But if it doesn’t, meh, it doesn’t really matter what features it has or what specs it has or what, you know… If I play an ʻukulele with a radius fretboard and, “Oh, radius fretboards are the new fad and they’re really cool,” but the ʻukulele just doesn’t do anything for me, if it’s not inspiring. I’m not going to set aside all my other sensibilities to play it because it has a radius fretboard, you know? That’s beside the point. It’s like, this is not that great of an instrument, in general, so why would I place all my bets on this because it has a radius fretboard? It’s the bigger picture that I think we need to focus more on, as players.

And so there are things that you should think about if you want to get a new instrument. And, you know, the tone woods and the size of the instrument and does it have a pickup, how is it made, you know, what is the the construction style? All of these sort of bigger picture things that make greater differences – and greater differences in your experience as a player – those are things you should think about. But when you get down to the, you know, percentage of a percentage point, that small amount of impact on the overall build of the ʻukulele, then you’re digging too deep. Then it’s probably one of those situations where it’s like, you know, you could think about this all day and keep yourself up at night wondering, you know, does the size of the sound hole affect the sound, or do you just trust that the builder is doing the best to bring out a good sound in their instruments and just let it go. And just play your instrument or find an instrument that inspires you to play and put your time there, just making the music.
So I know a lot of that comes across as a little bit of a negative spin, but I’m not quite sure how else to express it. That said, let me send you away with a few things that I feel are considerations that you should be making when, or if, you decide you want a new instrument.

First of all, where does it fit into your playing? Are you upgrading to something that is going to be noticeably different? Noticeably better? Is it filling a specific gap? You know, do you not have a camping ‘ukulele and you need an ʻukulele that you can feel comfortable going outside with and, you know, throwing in the backseat of the car? Do you need to fill that specific role with a different instrument? Or are you just, you know, jonesing for something different and something new. Because if it’s just something different and something new, there are certainly things you could spend your money on, but if that’s something different and something new… If there’s an expectation that that will help you play better, then just don’t. But if you do want to upgrade or you do have room to upgrade to something better, then that’s a cool place to be. You only get to be in that place really once and then once you’ve had that next level of ʻukulele, that’s it. So it is a big jump to upgrade into that next tier of ʻukulele or to find something that fills a role. And when you’re looking for an instrument like that, I think the first thing you need to consider is what size do you want. A lot of people are going to have established this or know this because they like the ʻukulele they are already playing. You know, whatever size you currently have, if that’s comfortable for you, if you like it, you’re probably just going to stick with that. But if not, if you feel like the instrument you have now is uncomfortable, you’re going to need to try some other instruments of different sizes and see what you think. Because, you know, in a perfect world, everybody could pick up and play all the instruments they’re interested in. I know that’s not always the case, but especially with sizes, you want to be able to get your hands on an instrument of that certain scale. Because it’s just the way that it feels… You can trust that an ʻukulele by Kamaka is going to sound good. You know, they’re only going to let pretty good sounding Kamakas come out of the factory. Whereas if you don’t like a concert ʻukulele, in general, even if you buy a concert Kamaka, if the size is wrong for you, it’s still going to be gross to you. Which is why, if you’re thinking about changing sizes, you should definitely get your hands on one.

The other thing to think about is sort of the tone woods and/or the response of the instrument. How do you want the sound to bloom? Do you want it to be snappy and bright? Maybe you want to look at a spruce top. Do you want round and warm and mellow? Maybe cedar is a better bet. If you want that kind of honky, traditional Hawaiian sound, then koa is going to be where it’s at. That’s one of the second, probably the second biggest overall aesthetic and sound thing you can look at is the tone woods. And there’s millions and millions of discussions out there from people who are much more enlightened than I am on the subject of that. But at the same time, tone wood is just a means to an end. If you like the sound of the instrument, then it’s great no matter what the tone wood is. If the builder thinks that x y and z tonewood matches are going to build a nice ʻukulele, I don’t feel like I’m in a position to question that. You know, like, when Chuck went into the shop to build my Moore Bettah he said, “We’re not gonna build you another Kamaka. If you want another Kamaka just like you’ve got, go buy another Kamaka. That’s not why we’re here.” And so he built me an ʻukulele with a spruce top. And it’s very different. It’s definitely changed over the years and kind of how the sound blooms and everything, but if I didn’t trust that he was going to build a great instrument, I would never have just gone along with it. If I was shopping for an instrument where I didn’t know that it was going to be good, I might have, you know, fine-tuned the tone woods a little bit more. But I trusted what he was gonna do so I was, like, “Sure. It’ll be great. It’ll be great.” And so, in that sense, your consideration of tone woods kind of depends on how much trust you have in the builder and what they do. And also what your playing style is. But if you don’t know, now you know. No, if you don’t know… If you’re not sure what you need or what the difference in the sounds are, that’s when I would encourage somebody to kind of err on the conservative side and get an ʻukulele that’s just super traditional and well-regarded. Like, if you don’t know that you want a cedar top with a mango back and ebony sides, or what have you, for its specific tonal balance, just buy a Kamaka. You know it’s gonna sound good. Or, you know, buy a Pono. Or just get something that is established. That you know is building instruments that are well regarded and are gonna sound pretty good, no matter what.

A lot of times especially new players who aren’t sure what they want or what they need, they can convince themselves of anything, really. Like you could you could probably sway a blind playing test any way you wanted as a more experienced player if you were to impose that on a less experienced player. It’s like, “Oh, which one sounds better? A or B?” And they listen to it and then you could very easily convince them that B sounded better than A just by telling them how awesome B was. Whereas A might have actually sounded better. Or they might have actually chosen A just because of their sensibilities. And, in that sense, it’s just a matter of, get something that’s established. If you don’t know, just play it safe and keep it simple.

I’ve recently been reworking my left hand techniques book and in the process I added like a half a page on “Technique X ʻUkuleles = ?.” That’s what I put as the headline. And basically it’s a half a page version of this podcast episode, but I put in there a handful of things that I think are important for a player’s ʻukulele. Like, actual, physical things that impact how easily played or how the ʻukulele sounds. And it’s a very simple list, but I figure I can give you these specifics… And really, outside of these, I wouldn’t worry, personally I wouldn’t worry, I wouldn’t really care. It’s like, do these things check the boxes? And they are: A comfortable size ʻukulele with a relatively pleasing tone. Pretty much covered that already. Decent string height or action 2.5 millimeters to 3 millimeters is a good target height at the 12th fret. Held on the 3rd fret, the string should cross to the nut within a hair of the top of the first fret. This is going towards the headstock and assessing the height of the strings at the nut. That’s going to affect the playability of the instrument and how hard or easy it is to press down the frets. Good intonation (plus or minus five to ten cents). No ʻukulele has perfect intonation, but notes should stay in tune up the neck. A straight neck and properly aligned bridge with the strings centered on the fretboard. If you look down the neck of the ʻukulele from the body towards the headstock, down the fretboard you can see if the neck will curves one way or the other and, you know, a good ʻukulele will not do that. It’ll be straight straight, even down the middle. And then the bridge… Like, my Kamaka has the bridge is slightly south. So the A-string is closer to the edge of the fretboard than the G-string. And in a perfect world that will be more evenly aligned. But I didn’t know at the time that I should be looking at that so it wasn’t on my checklist of things to do. But now you know and you can assess that. Usually you want the outside of the strings to be the same distance from the edge of the fretboard. And the last item is, smooth fret ends. So that as you slide your hand up and down the neck you’re not going to get hung up or caught and you’re not going to feel kind of rough edges, which can be a little distracting and annoying. But that’s it. There’s probably more, but in a real super shotgun overview, I feel like that kind of covers what you need to look for in an instrument. And anything beyond that is just, I won’t say obsessing because that’s a little dramatic, but it might be a little overkill – especially if you’re new, especially if you’re new. Go with something that is established, that you know is gonna be good, that everybody just raves about, and practice so that you can learn to express music the best that it can be on that instrument. That’s the most important thing is your touch on the instrument. Because as I’ve written before and said before, a great player doesn’t need a great instrument to sound good, but a bad player doesn’t need a crappy instrument to sound bad, right? It all has to do with what you bring to the ʻukulele. If you’re a good player, it’s going to be great no matter what instrument you pick up. Even if you pick up a little toy Makala or whatever. I’ve heard people, I’ve heard pros do that. They walk into the room, it’s like “Oh, hey, there’s a toy Makala!” They pick it up and they start playing the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard and it’s brilliant. But then, you know, you give give me Herb or James’s ʻukulele… You hand that to me. I’m gonna sound like me with all my limitations. I’m not gonna sound better, like I sound more like them or anything. Certainly they play great instruments so it’s nice and easy to play what I normally play, but I still sound like me because that’s what I bring to the table. So I think that’s the main thing to keep in mind is that… Don’t obsess. Appreciate what you have. If you need to upgrade, upgrade. But otherwise, I encourage everybody to put their time into practicing the music and finding the joy in the music with the instrument they have. Because that’s the bond that’s stronger than just, you know, jump roping and hop skipping around to different instruments here and there. Whenever you get bored with playing or frustrated with playing, getting a new ʻukulele just doesn’t really solve anything. Find your inspiration in the music itself.

Hopefully that’s interesting to some folks. I know it’s something that I often think about because I often see it pop up in questions on forums and on Reddit and in my email and it always makes me pull my hair out. So I thought maybe I could express a little bit of why I pull my hair out at these questions in a more lengthy format and get those points across. Because it’s so it’s so hard to express what I’ve hopefully said in this episode in just a couple paragraphs. And a lot of times it comes off as snotty because, oh, you know, blahddy, blahddy, blah, you can play and I can’t and, you know, it’s all about having a good time. Absolutely it’s all about having a good time, but at the same time, I worry for folks who get so sucked into this mindset of you know, more, more, more, more, more. It’s like, well if you just practice a little more, then that more would actually take you more places as opposed to just being the same on the new instrument. And so that’s that.

Thank you for tuning in. The podcast is released every first and third Saturdays of the month. If you like what you hear, please give it a rating, leave a review. You can find all of my teaching material and resources on liveukulele.com, most of it free. A handful of things I’ve compiled into ebooks that you can purchase. See you in the next episode, be kind to one another, stay safe out there, wear your masks, socially distance. It’s getting real out there, folks. So stay safe, take care of yourselves, and I’ll see you down the road. Aloha.