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S2E20 – Joel Blechinger

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Chatting about ukulele strings and setups with Hawaiʻi Music Supply’s very own, Joel Blechinger.

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Transcript

Edited for clarity.

Brad Bordessa (00:00:03):
Aloha, welcome to the Live ʻUkulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa. And on this episode I’m featuring an interview with Joel Blechinger from Hawaiian Music Supply and Uke Logic strings, we’re going to talk about ukulele strings and how he came to create the Uke Logic brand. And also whatever else we can get up to. He’s a service tech, a setup tech at Hawaiʻi Music Supply. And if you buy an ukulele from those guys, odds are Joel or one of his teammates there in the shop have worked on your ukulele to make sure it’s in the most cherry shape possible before it ships out to you. So he knows a lot about the technical side of the instrument. I haven’t heard him play. I don’t think so. I’m not sure what his ukulele playing status is, but as far as making sure that the players have access to the best instrument possible, I know he’s the guy you want. He changed a pickup in one of my ukuleles last time I was on a Oʻahu and he did it after hours and he did it faster than I would have ever thought possible. I mean, it was like, took him 10 minutes, 15 minutes at best. And then we were moving onto the next thing. It was incredible. But he does so many of these that he knows the process so well, he can just get stuff done. So that’s why he gets paid the big bucks. And I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to share.

Brad Bordessa (00:01:46):
If you haven’t heard already, I have a new ebook called Step-By-Step Single String Ukulele Picking, it’s geared towards beginner players who want to jump in and learn to start picking that are a little bit intimidated by the whole thing, because most picking is really not that user-friendly when compared to what it could be. And so in this new ebook, I talk about how to play on just one string. So you eliminate the motion of trying to change strings with your picking hand, and this makes your life a lot easier. It makes it so you can focus on just moving to the right notes with your left hand. And it allows you to actually study some more foundational things that are a little bit more advanced than you’d think you would teach a beginner. But that you can talk about because you’re not overloaded by trying to switch between the strings. That’s available on the website: liveukulele.com/store. You can go check it out. It’s a hundred page PDF download, and I’d love to hear what you think about it.

Brad Bordessa (00:02:56):
To start out though, so I know: how do you pronounce your last name?

Joel Blechinger (00:02:59):
Oh man. I ask people actually. My family has just said Blessinger for a long time. Cause it’s easier. I think it’s supposed to be like Blachkinghe

Brad Bordessa (00:03:09):
Right. One of those haole names.

Joel Blechinger (00:03:11):
Yeah, I actually asked Andreas from over in Germany when he comes and I try to remember what he says. But I’ve gotten like three different answers whenever I ask somebody from Germany. So I don’t know.

Brad Bordessa (00:03:21):
So Blessinger?

Joel Blechinger (00:03:23):
Yeah. Or if I’m on the phone, I’ll say Bleshinger, just because that’s how someone’s going to read it. So if I got to verify my name, that’s the easiest way to do it.

Brad Bordessa (00:03:32):
Well, yeah, man, can you give us a little bit of a background of you and how you got started at HMS and met Andrew and got involved with doing the setup stuff there?

Joel Blechinger (00:03:42):
Oh yeah, sure. Well back in 2007, I was 17, and I had a friend who worked for Mike Aratani doing set up work out of his house and he was gonna be moving to Big Island and needed somebody to fill in for him. And I had an opening. Like, you know, I needed a job right around the same time. So I kind of took it as temporary work and it ended up becoming something a lot longer than that. But so yeah, I started working for Mike Aratani. And he had an eBay business selling ukuleles, and he got me started showing me how to do setup work and worked for him for about six months.

New Speaker (00:04:30):
We ended up moving to the other side of the island. I kinda did construction for a little while, some carpentry and then ended up kinda missing it, doubling back. I’d go in there and I’d check in on the guys and say, hi. And then I just realized, like, I kind of miss being around them and just doing that kind of work. So I kind of did a little bit of half and half, and then I just went full time back with Mike. And then he was having some health issues. I had just gotten married and everything. And you know, because of that, his business was kind of suffering a little bit. So I had contacted John Kitakis over at Pono seeing if they needed any help over there. It was gonna be close to where I was living. And he ended up giving Andrew a call and told me to call Andrew. And I had known Andrew from buying guitars from him over the years at Hawaiʻi Music Supply.

Joel Blechinger (00:05:29):
And it kind of went from there. Talked to him on the phone. He told me to come in. And then the first day I was in there, kind of walked my to the back and I got started right away. And it was a one man operation at the time doing the set up. He had some had some things listed on eBay. It was like the very rudimentary version of the website. So I’d taken the orders, do the setup work, do the shipping. And then slowly it kind of built on from there as Zach Shimizu jumped on, who was already working at the store.

Joel Blechinger (00:06:05):
And it just kind of got, you know, bigger and bigger. Andrew started putting more time into doing recordings and photos and samples and worked on a new version of the website. And it just kind of picked up more and more from there. We were able to… We hired on Chris Murray who worked with me back when I worked for a Mike Aratani. So we had another setup guy. And then Zach was dedicated to shipping and we just kind of added on more and more people as time went on. It shifted from the storefront where we had guitars and drums and everything. And then it became The Ukulele Site where we just kind of got focused on that, got a new location. And you know, Andrew just got more and more into – and better at – you know, recording and web design and all that stuff, and kind of wanted to build it up more as a resource. And you know, everything it’s become now, but it’s been over 10 years now that I’ve been working for Andrew since I started.

Brad Bordessa (00:07:09):
Wow. And so are you guys still growing? Is the staff still growing or have you been able to continue adding people to the staff?

Joel Blechinger (00:07:19):
Yeah, we did. And then we actually… We had two store locations for while over here on top of the website. It got to the point where… I mean, it was actually, it was good timing, all things considered. It was probably the best thing that could happen. Right before COVID hit we decided to close one of the storefronts… Because I mean, we had a lot of great employees working for us, a couple had to move away. Also like splitting up inventory. It was two exact opposite ends of the island – Honolulu and the north shore. So like if we did have to you know… Customers would want to check out instruments, just moving them back and forth just things still on the website, whether we decide to move things to the store that are on the website and then move them back if they sell. The logistics of it was just kind of becoming a bit of a headache or just a little hard to decide how to split everything up. And when we started running out of people, when we had a few move away, we decided just to close up the one store and then just kinda double down and just simplified so we could do everything. Not feel as spread apart and just have more resources available and everything. But yeah, that was like a few months right before COVID hit. And then we would have been kind of in a bad spot, having two stores closed down for a long time with all the overhead and everything. So yeah. You know, all things considered, it worked out pretty well. But we’re just kind of running like a tight crew right now. Corey and Kalei mostly hold down the storefront. I’ll fill in there once in a while, but then we have a full, like three person setup team, two in shipping. And then I usually am doing like customer support now on the phones, emails. And then I’ll jump in to setup whenever it gets busy.

Brad Bordessa (00:09:09):
So you mentioned playing guitar or buying guitars from Andrew and knowing him through that. We don’t see you on the video podcasts playing – at least I haven’t noticed you ever playing there – do play ukulele? Or what is your musical interaction with…?

Joel Blechinger (00:09:26):
Oh, yeah. I mean, I started off on guitar when I was like… I forget… I guess sophomore high school, there’s a guitar class. I got a guitar. I started off just… You know, I’ve never like sat down and like, I’d never decided to become a musician. It was just something I did as a hobby. And then when I got into the setup work, that was… You know, I grew up around ukulele. I never really knew how toit play before that. When I got into guitar, I kind of was just doing guitar. So it wasn’t until I started working on them that I kind of got an appreciation for it through that. And just being around everybody who’s so enthusiastic about it. So I kinda got a different… I guess when I realized the scope of it, kind of outside of Hawaii, and then also the different possibilities of even just, you know, styles of music you could play.

Joel Blechinger (00:10:15):
I think a lot of guitar players, even in the mainland coming to it, like, you know, over here, I love Hawaiian music and so my brother-in-law is a excellent player. So I grew up like seven years old, like listening to him play. Cause he’s a local guy. So he grew up over here. I think he was like a student of Roy Sakuma’s like back in the day since he was a kid. But so, you know, that’s kinda how I got a bigger appreciation of Hawaiian music. But I never learned how to play the ukulele until I started working on it. So these days that’s usually what I just end up playing. I haven’t really picked up my guitar in quite a while, but you know, at the same time, I wouldn’t call myself like… I’m nowhere near any of you guys, as far as like playing level. I kind of put more of my focus into working on instruments. And then when I get home, it’s just like a thing to unwind. It’s not like I’m sitting there like practicing hardcore, like I’m going to go to a performance or anything. So I just, nothing special, but I do. That’s what I ended up playing most of the time now is just ukulele.

Brad Bordessa (00:11:30):
Well, that’s the most important part is the appreciation. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the shred race.

Joel Blechinger (00:11:37):
Oh yeah, No, that’s definitely not me.

Brad Bordessa (00:11:42):
Nice. Well, you have that background in kind of the tech side of the instruments. What inspired you to start Uke Logic strings and to start looking into creating… Why was that important to you?

Joel Blechinger (00:11:57):
So from like a problem solving standpoint… Like whenever we’re doing setup work, you could have times where you’re trying out different strings. Like you’ve already been through the whole… Trying to make setups work or like alternate tunings or just not having a lot of options aside from like making, we call them Frankenstein sets. Like, you know, you borrow one from one set, one from another. A customer wants like a special tuning. They want it to feel a certain way. They want, you know, whatever they’re looking for. And for a long time, it was just kind of using what we had available. And I’d looked through this little, like treasure chest of half-used string sets. And I try to piece stuff together and…

Joel Blechinger (00:12:52):
I always had an idea that I wanted to do it. In my head, it was a much more… I guess I kind of, I tend to overthink things a bit. So the way I approached it, I initially would want to like map out all these tension charts from different sets and everything. And I kind of blew it up into a bigger process than it needed to be. And then it was probably… I put it off for probably a couple of years. And then I think it was, yeah, it was sometime like early 2019, late 2018. I just decided to kind of start experimenting with stuff that I had. Get some kind of frame of reference for what I would want to use. And then fluorocarbon just ended up being… Not only is it like one of the more popular materials that everybody’s using now, but also there’s just more options out there, I guess, for experimenting with it, to find something new. Like there’s only a handful of string manufacturers out there. And a lot of brands are having… Like curating their own sets, but having them made from regular string manufacturers. So a lot of them are kind of reworking a lot of similar materials and you’re just kind of playing around with gauges at that point. So I wanted something a little different if I could find it, mainly just something that I liked the sound and feel of, but to give a full spectrum of options. So that let’s say, if someone wants to make a custom tuning or even just from a functional setup standpoint. You know, if one string isn’t working out or if it’s not the tone you think the customer’s looking for, or you think compliments the instrument, just to have like at least a gradient selection available that I could just pick and choose from. Okay, we need to step up this gauge a little bit, back this one down a little bit. Without having to just pull apart like five different string sets and borrow from… There’s a lot of waste that goes into it too. Like there’s just, you know, we hold on all those strings, but now we have like bins full of them and you go through and catalog them every six months and you wind up with, like now I have like 60 A-strings from this set and, you know, just a bunch of unused strings. And it’s still not always going to be exactly what you need.

Joel Blechinger (00:15:06):
So it was kind of scratching my own itch to just have it available when it came up for doing the setup work. But then the more I got into it and just started testing out a bunch of different strings and tunings and scale lengths and all the possibilities. It just I don’t know… I got more appreciation, I guess, for something that just seemed more like solving a problem and kinda got into, you know, the little nuance of taste when it comes to like, you know, tonal preference or feel. And then also getting all that feedback from, you know, Corey and Kalei and Andrew, you were like one of the first ones too, to give me a lot of good feedback right off the bat. And hear it from players and then hear from more of like just the average, you know, customer or player coming to it. Tweaked it a bit from there. There was like a couple of first iterations that I like I sent out and then got some feedback. And then I ended up going back to the drawing board a little bit and, you know, finding an entirely new formula, like halfway through.

Joel Blechinger (00:16:15):
I guess that’s the roundabout way of saying it was to solve a setup headache. And then I kind of got a little bit more into just the curation and the fun of it. And then it’s still a good problem solving option whenever people want custom tunings and to just tweak something without having to break apart a bunch of sets.

Brad Bordessa (00:16:34):
Nice. And so you have a range of different gauge options. How was it dealing with… I don’t want to assume, but I’m assuming that you’re using fishing line and dealing with a fishing line manufacturer?

Joel Blechinger (00:16:47):
Yeah, yeah. I mean, yeah, I don’t think there’s… Aside from like D’Addario or companies that have specifically string manufacturing factory, pretty much any fluorocarbon’s initially made for fishing line. So there’s so many options out there. Initially it was just reaching out to… I mean at first I was just buying everything. I would just buy some samples retail. Get ’em in and then just compare a bunch of them, then whittle it down. And then it was like… The tricky part was I picked out what I liked before I picked out how easy it would be to get it. Which isn’t a bad way to get exactly what you know, not just what’s convenient, but what actually sounds good. And then also the feedback of these guys and what they like too. So it was another one I was like kind of last minute audible things. I came across another manufacturer I hadn’t seen before and just tried it out, compared it against the other two that I was kind of leaning on at the time. And just overwhelmingly everybody said that they favored that one. I liked it better, but I just, you know, kept second guessing myself. But enough good feedback came in that I just ended up doubling down. And luckily they had a distributor in the US. So it was easier to get ahold of them than having to get on the phone and try to get ahold of somebody in Japan and, you know, negotiate all of that. So it made a little more accessible getting started and, you know, they’ve been pretty good about working with me and being able to get everything they have.

Joel Blechinger (00:18:27):
It would be nice to like have that direct connection and be able to… I still am hopeful in the future that I can just get a hold of the factory and be able to like commission all those in-between gauges so there’d be even more options. Right now it’s kind of working with what’s what’s available out there. And I think that’s kind of true for the most part. You see a lot of the same string gauge kind of patterns pop up in different sets out there. So I think a lot of string brands are kind of doing the same thing, unless you have like a direct in at a factory where, you know… I’m sure you get to do like a pretty significant amount of volume to be able to get them to make you custom gauges. But that’s what I’ve been really happy with the formula of it. But that’s something for down the road. But so far, yeah. Once it whittled down to what it was and did the work to find the distributor, then it wasn’t too tricky at that part. Then it was just sitting down to sift through the gauges and figure out what goes, where and what it can be used for.

Brad Bordessa (00:19:30):
Right. So how many sets are you offering these days?

Joel Blechinger (00:19:35):
So right now it’s… There’s basically like a hard and a soft tension set that goes for like soprano, concert, tenor. Same for baritone. There’s technically like like a re-entrant set and two low-G sets or two low-D sets that go for each one. But then within that, you know, I leave it up to the customers. Like if you get it and try it out and you just want to tweak one or two of the strings then they can just get ahold of me. You know, I send them the other gauges so that they can test it out and then decide if they have some sort of like custom combination between the two.

Joel Blechinger (00:20:12):
So technically you could say like six sets for soprano, concert, tenor, and then six sets for baritone. But if you add up all the possibilities that extra strings you can throw in, it’s probably like a few dozen of like, by the time you can have what I actually have labeled out of all the different combinations. And then you can throw in, like… People want Thomastik strings thrown in, or some you know, thrown in the wound strings. That’s like one more variable too. I just didn’t want to make like… Throw up 30 sets. And it’s just these really, you know, semantic differences between it. But I kinda just leave it up to customers to hit me up if they want to parse them in, but I’ll probably make it a little easier to just build out a set online. I just don’t want to make it too confusing initially and just kind of get a read for what people like for the standard and then tweak it as needed for custom requests.

Brad Bordessa (00:21:07):
Nice. Well, you mentioned the wound strings. That has been what I’ve found to be one of the big drawbacks about the fluorocarbon is that to get the low strings, you have such a fat diameter that it kind of chokes its own sound and it starts sounding kind of “thump, thump” rubber bandy. Have you found a workaround for that or are you encouraging the wound strings?

Joel Blechinger (00:21:33):
I do. So like, yeah. When it comes to that, it’s always interesting. It’s been interesting too to hear back from customers because it’s not always… I guess even like against my own… I’ll give my recommendation of what I think people… Like if they’ll ask me what I think that they’ll like on a certain instrument. But it’s still you know, there’s still people ordering the strings just as-is, and then I get feedback later. Like they get them and just test them out on something and it surprises me occasionally what people end up really liking. Because like you said, they’re really heavy. Especially… So like in the hard tension sets that I make, the low-G, that thing is like, it’s .042″, but it’s fluorocarbon. So it’s higher density and it’s pretty, you know, the thing is pretty tight. Compared to like a nylon string that’s the same density. That’s gonna have a little bit more of like an elasticity to it. So it’s got a little bit more of like a natural kind of resonance. The fluorocarbon just kind of wants to cut through and punch a little bit. So on certain instruments, it’s definitely too much.

Joel Blechinger (00:22:43):
There’s a tipping point with tension. Like you said, like if you have too much tension on a build, that’s, you know, braced a little bit more lightly, or just already has a pretty sensitive sound board. You end up kind of going past the point where the extra tension is just driving the soundboard and it ends up just kind of choking it and suffocating it a little bit. So like, it’s partially… I think like, in a tactical way, there’s some players that just want it to feel a certain way. It ends up being like a lot of the professional players really like the hard tension. But trying to balance that out with, you know, tone is the, is the goal. So it’s like, my gut is still always to recommend like a wound string to get that extra power from the low end. But if you’re dead set on having all strings uniform and material and feel and everything, then that’s the alternative. But yeah, it’s rare that that’s my go-to one is like that really heavy, all plain set. Baritones it tends to work out a little bit better. Cause you got a lower tuning, it kind of slacks the string a little bit so it’s got a little more movement. But on like a tenor, it can be pretty stiff. So it’s like certain situations, it turns out well, and then some it’s just it’s too much. So for the most part, I tell people to start out with the wound strings and usually like a soft tension set too. That ends up being what most people are gonna want, unless you specifically know you want some extra tension in there.

Brad Bordessa (00:24:19):
And so you mentioned the different… Trying to find the right strings for an ukulele. Is there any kind of guideline that you follow or what is, what is your intuition? Though you’re so used to just kind of making a decision on the fly, what could a customer think about in regards to what ukulele they have and what strings they might want to put with that ukulele?

Joel Blechinger (00:24:42):
Yeah, I mean, for me, what I’m kind of just pulling off of is the frame of reference of what I’ve tried on these instruments before. Like at this point we’ve strung up almost everything with everything. At least the strings that we carry, the instruments that we carry. So I’ve got, you know, thousands of instruments over the years and trying out different strings on those. So like, it’s easier for me to kind of just… Not take a shot in the dark, but like I kinda can guess at least fairly closely how something will sound with certain strings, even though you never really know until you get it on. Every instrument’s got its own character and everything. But for customers like thinking… First of all, just because tension and like comfort ends up being a big focus for a lot of players. Especially ones that maybe they’re a bit older, you have arthritis or, you know, if you’re struggling to make certain chord shapes or… You know, I guess, coming from a setup standpoint too, that’s always like one of the biggest concerns is everybody’s just worried about how it’s going to feel to play it. So for the most part, the going with something that’s a little bit easier on your hands. So you’re not as focused about like having to fight, you know, the tension of the strings or depending, like how your instruments set up too, if you didn’t have it dialed in or set up by us or someone else and it’s on the higher side… Like I never know what the customer is looking at from the other end of it, unless it’s an instrument that came through our shop. So I guess when you’re looking for something that’s just going to be, you know, more comfortable, err on the side of softer tension. Usually, thinner strings will have like a brighter sound to them, in general, even with, you know, nylon and you go in heavier gauges, then it’s going to kind of beef it up and warm up the tone a little bit.

Joel Blechinger (00:26:33):
So you know, tonality wise, you can play that into it. It’s kind of like just deciding what is your hierarchy of needs, I guess. If it’s comfort and then playing around with the tone that you like to decide on either the string combination or, you know, even string material. Like if you really want a really, really warm set, it’s kind of hard to get away from some type of nylon, even though there are like warmer fluorocarbon sets out there. You kind of got to have some jumping off point, a frame of reference. So like, look at what you’ve used. I always tell customers like, just keep a little notebook or a notepad, like jot down when you put a new set of strings on, what you used, what the set was, and then what you did and didn’t like about it. Just keep it in your case. And as you’re playing it, at least you have something to reference like a year later. And you’re like, I’ve tried four different sets. I was like, “what have you tried? Did you like these?” “I can’t remember.” Like, “I think I had this on there.” If you don’t have some sort of sample set, cause a lot of what I’m pulling off of is just a lot of trial and error for years.

Joel Blechinger (00:27:42):
And there’s not always a perfect answer too. Like trying to talk about sound is like you know, everybody’s got, it’s like, you can have a synonym book out and it’s just like, you know, you’re just throwing out a bunch of adjectives, but it can mean something different to everybody. Someone can say “bright” and someone else can think of it as like twangy or tinny or harsh. And you can say warm, someone else will call it muddy. It’s like, you can throw all these terms out there. So it’s hard to like pin it down exactly what someone’s going to like, but you just need a frame of reference and then just be okay with a little bit of trial and error until you dial it in. Like, you know, you can usually within about three moves from a starting point, if you’re making like conscious steps to try to find a set, usually within like three or four tries you can, you can hone in on something pretty close to what you’re going to like if you’re paying attention to all those little differences in what you specifically did or didn’t like about a set. Rather than just kind of, you know, picking at random. And you know, going online too… Even with us, it’s like, it’s just our opinion. You go on forums or you go and look at reviews and stuff. It’s like, you’re still taking somebody else’s instruments and their ear and their playing style and everything and trying to fit that into what you like. And really you just got to kind of put it on there and see what you like.

Brad Bordessa (00:29:08):
So you see so many ukuleles come through your desk and you do so much to them with the stock HMS setup. Is there one thing that really makes or breaks an instrument in your mind? Just in general? Because there’s so many different angles, you can approach something. And as you were talking, I was thinking, well, you know, you’ve moved the saddle down and then the nut’s gotta be adjusted and it’s like, so interchangeable, how would you even explain that? You know, from your point view, how would you present that? The complexity of that is so grand. There’s so many moving parts. Is it possible to kind of nail it down and have one thing that… It’s simple for somebody at home to like take their saddle out and sand it down a little bit, but is that going to mess up other things? You kind of get what I’m going on?

Joel Blechinger (00:30:06):
Yeah, absolutely. No, it is like a little bit, like it’s all kind of interconnected. Like you, you mess with one variable and then the others usually need to be adjusted too. Like, it all has to kind of coincide. It’s like if you had like three points, nut, saddle, and neck angle. Like, the neck angle is going to be the thing that’s the most static, usually. And let like barring something that has like a truss rod, which is, you know, aside from a couple of people, they use them in baritones. Like Pono has them in the tenors and baritones. But you don’t usually have any control over the neck angle, really. That’s like the fixed point. And then the nut and saddle, you know, will fluctuate, but you only have a certain degree that you can change those before it interferes with the other.

Joel Blechinger (00:30:54):
So yeah, I mean, I say neck angle is probably the biggest. That’s the first thing I look at aside from like action height. Cause if you, you know, you’re trying to get a gauge for how much room you have to lower something. If there’s not any relief in the neck or it has a bit of a backbow or something, you’re not gonna be able to lower it down too much. So if you start dropping the saddle down, you’re gonna run into buzzing issues, like, pretty quickly if there’s a, you know, a significant backbow or there’s just not a lot of to room there. So the neck angle part is also the tricky thing I think… Like the nut and saddle, you can kind of put into easier terms. So when you’re trying to walk somebody through it… The neck angle, you know, you can go about it with like a fret rocker or straight edges. And there’s like general rules that are kind of like the standard of what an instrument is kind of how everything is supposed to line up in the real world. It rarely happens that way. Like, there’s so many little variables. And I almost don’t even like putting it out there, like all those checkpoints you’re supposed to hit, because you’re just gonna kind of… It’s not like a slam on anybody. It’s just, you’re gonna kind of disappoint yourself. Cause you’re going to start looking at all of those things and get hyper-focused on it. And you’re going to start ruling out instruments that are totally fine because a couple of parameters don’t line up the way that it’s like the textbook way that, you know, everything is supposed to be.

Joel Blechinger (00:32:25):
The way I approach it is like, because how set up was presented to me, it was like we’re improving something. Barring something that’s like defective that like needs to… It’s just going to be a problem for somebody, which just gets rejected and exchanged or sent back. It’s just kinda like maximizing the potential of each instrument. So looking at it in terms of what you can do, rather than like, these are all the things that are wrong with it, it’s more of like, these are the parameters we have to work with. And then making adjustments accordingly to just improve it as much as you can. Just, you know, based on the nature of that instrument.

Joel Blechinger (00:33:05):
So it is helpful to have some videos. Like it’s easier to find guitar videos for reference than there is like, ukulele specific. So I think that’s the thing that trips some people up too is like… Even getting somebody to work on it. They don’t want to go to a guitar shop or, I mean, there’s some guitar shops out there that just don’t even want to deal with ukuleles too. So they’ll send them away just because of that. But really, I mean, it’s like a small classical guitar. So like guy who can work on guitars well should be able to do some setup work on an ukulele. But just for reference, you can pull up videos about how to check the neck angle and just be able to sight, you know, relief in the neck without getting too concerned when it’s not perfect. Like, just get an idea of what straight, what having some relief, and what a backbow looks like. And that’ll give you some idea. And then the more you look at necks, you’ll just be visually able to kind of spot those differences without having a breakout a straight edge every time. And you can kind of take that into consideration.

Joel Blechinger (00:34:09):
So barring anything like a backbow, which is going to limit you, I think most players can just start out with taking a measurement of the string action. It’s usually gonna be over three millimeters, like 3.2. On the severe side maybe be like 3.4-5. That’s almost always plenty. You can take down at least a chunk of that and make it more comfortable without worrying about getting too close to that tipping point where you’re going to run into issues. And then also like if you’re having fret buzzing issues, if that’s the problem you’re trying to solve, and then you’re wanting to drop the action down, that’s kind of like, there’s something else going on that you need to fix before you worry about that. Which, you know, it may be a high fret or… There’s a few things that it can be, but it’s.. I guess figuring out what the problem is you’re trying to solve initially and then kind of working backwards from there. If it’s just a comfort thing, you can usually lower most strings a bit if it’s above that normal range. But if you really want to like dial it in, it does help to have like the right measuring tools and some idea of how to read the neck angle. All those little nuance things.

Joel Blechinger (00:35:25):
Because once you get down, there’s that like that 80, 20 rule, like just lowering the nut slots and saddle, that’s like the 80%. That extra 20 that makes it play extra good is like doing extra fret work. Those little fraction of a millimeter differences in string action. And like kind of almost like feathering in your own relief when you do the fret dress work, depending on the neck angle. Like there’s that last chunk is like where all the kind of expertise comes in and a lot of like making mistakes and learning from them and putting that into… You know, you’re gonna mess it up a few times. Like, I’ve messed up a lot of setups. Not irreversibly. Like usually it just makes it a pain to like fix it. Like you go too low on a nut slot, either got to fill it, or you’re replacing the nut. You go too low on the saddle. It’s the same thing. The frets. Don’t sand too far on the frets cause that’s a much bigger thing if you gotta replace those. Usually that doesn’t come up. But there are cases out there, like someone gets an instrument secondhand and it already had four fret dresses on it and you’ve got hardly any fret there. Like, you’re probably not going to want to just start filing down those frets when they already just looked like flat little metal speed bumps there. They’re already squared off. That’s probably is why it’s buzzing in the first place is because it had too many fret dresses rather than it needing another one.

Joel Blechinger (00:36:49):
So, you know, there’s a lot of specifics. It’s hard to say without like looking at an instrument, but I’m just going off the general guidelines of what’s out there for set up. Like, I still reference… There’s guitar set up manuals and repair manuals and stuff that I have gone back and read. I never learned any of this in like a structured, cohesive kind of way. It was literally like somebody showing me hands-on, explaining it in a very specific way. Like the first way that a fret dress was described to me and that I was walked through it was, you know, moving the file across the frets and feeling, you know, how it felt. And also how it sounded. Like the way that the file sounded against the fret and then just visually looking at it. It wasn’t even with a lot of measuring tools or anything really, or like fret rockers or straight edges or anything. It was literally like, you know, these aren’t going to be perfect. Put the file over it, see where the high and low spots are. You can see where you file before this so you can tell like where the file is hitting, where it isn’t. And then mostly listening and feeling to the… Listening to the sound and feeling the file. I think that’s totally opposite from if you go to like a guitar tech school of how they’re going to approach it. Cause they’re kind of working off of, this is how it should be when you’re done with it. This is how the instrument should have been made and everything. But if you go to a pawn shop and you pick up an ukulele and you’re just trying to improve it, you know, the things… Who knows where it’s been, what it’s experienced. Like it’s probably not going to take a standard approach to get it playing how you want to.

Joel Blechinger (00:38:32):
So I think just knowing the basics and then learning how to get there sometimes in an unconventional way. But the main goal being the end result. That’s kinda how I approach it. There’s textbook right and wrong ways to do things always. But if you’re winding up in the right spot at the end, then I think that’s what matters.

Brad Bordessa (00:38:56):
Right? It’s that human element. That’s why we hire you.

Joel Blechinger (00:39:01):
Yeah. It’s still weird that I’m still doing this. It kinda hit me the other day. I was like, I’ve been doing this for… I was 17 when I started. There was a little break in the beginning there and then just kind of woke up one day and I was like, I’m still doing this.

Joel Blechinger (00:39:17):
I thought ukulele wasn’t even going to last this long. I was working for Mike. I was like, “there’s people in the mainland buying these things?” And then he was like, “oh yeah.” And we started shipping out to Canada or shipping out to England and we’re shipping out to Japan. I was like, oh, it’s gotta be like… I think it was right around the time – I forget when Jake put out the My Uke Gently Weeps video. I think it was around the same time. There was like that Train song that came out that had an ukulele and he had a thing with fender. I was like, all right, well, it’s picking up some steam right now. And like, it’ll last a couple of years and I’m going to have to find some other work. So it was kind of like a placeholder job. And then it kept getting more and more popular. I was like, ah, this is weird. Well, I guess… I just kept waiting for it to drop out. And then it kept getting more popular. And I was like, oh, this is kind of crazy. I didn’t know it was gonna last this long. Because I didn’t plan on last this long. I thought I was going to run out of work at some point. But it’s been pretty rad.

New Speaker (00:40:16):
Like I have so much more appreciation for it now than I did when I started just because I didn’t understand the scope of it. And there’s a lot of cool aspects of ukulele too, that I think people, you know, had like a disappointing experience learning guitar or… Whether it be… I was talking to somebody the other day. Like, it’s definitely not the average, but like, there’s something about the ukulele community where it’s a lot more welcoming, I think. Like, everybody is happy to have whoever wants to come be a part of it. Whereas like, you know, some guitar circles or forums are always a bit of a crap shoot, but it’s like, you know, you want to ask an innocent question. Like, I’m a newbie. I just got these questions and it’s like, just get out of here. If you don’t know, you don’t know. And they’re not willing to help. And then he was saying like, he jumped on the ukulele forum. I think he’s on the Underground forum. And then he was just like, people were going out of the way to help me and send me extra information and things I didn’t even ask for. And it just, everybody is just like, I went to a uke group, everybody was happy to see me.

Joel Blechinger (00:41:20):
It’s an overwhelming, like positive community for the most part. So I think like that’s been a big a big thing for me. Like initially I think I kind of thought of it a little bit of as a, not a novelty, but I’m used to it being a Hawaiʻi thing and then realizing the scope of it. And then just how dynamic of an instrument that it can be, even beyond that. Because I was a little limited in my window of what I thought I could do when I started out. But it’s been… Especially like just being able to be around, you know like Corey and Kalei, you guys, like everybody who comes to record. Being able to… Even like when I would jump out and help Andrew with like video recording and stuff, and I’m looking through a lens and you’re watching like Daniel Ho go through just an immaculate… Hearing the audio through the headphones and just being so focused on it because you’re trying to, you know, like… You’re working, you’re wanting to make it good. But being able to like literally stare at somebody play through something over and over, and you’re just scanning the fretboard with a camera and you get the headphones in and you’re able to dial in to an extent that I think a lot of people don’t listen to music. Like I would do that too. Like, I’ll sit down, you close your eyes, you listen to music through your headphones and like you get into it. I’d never done it to that degree with like, you know, ukulele music, specifically. So it’s just been a really cool experience for me. I thought I would have been a little more jaded by now. But it’s like, from that standpoint, I get more and more appreciative of it every year.

Brad Bordessa (00:43:04):
And do you think the popularity is still going up?

Joel Blechinger (00:43:07):
Yeah, man, like, especially the last, like since COVID started, it definitely went up. It was crazy. Cause we had to close the store down for like six months over here and then it just got busier online. So, you know, everybody being at home just… I guess I understand more now because the last like year and a half, I’ve been on the phones and doing more emails and like talking directly with customers. So you kind of hear the backstory of why they’re getting an instrument. There’s a ton of people that got into it because they just had it on their checklist. And then finally, like they had the time to do it. Or you know, they just needed something to keep them sane when everything was getting locked down, so they picked it up and then they got addicted to it. And now they’re sticking with it. It’s definitely growing. It’s kinda crazy how big it is outside of Hawaiʻi. Like most of our customers aren’t even in Hawaiʻi, which is… I mean, well, yeah, there’s more people out out of Hawaiʻi. So I mean, it makes sense. But at the same time it’s like, there’ll be these pockets and they’ll tell me like, yeah, there’s like a hundred people in my uke group. I was like you couldn’t get a hundred people over here together. Aside from like a family gets together. You’re not going to have a structured, like sit down group that goes and meets together. Like everybody here, it’s like, you know, it’s like backyards, like kani ka pila. Like you’re going to go like, you know, hang out and have like a backyard party or something that everybody goes and plays. And there’ll be pockets of everybody playing music. But it’s like everyone’s thirsty for it everywhere else. And so you think you have these little, like, oasises where people find each other. It makes them more appreciative of it because it’s kind of like more scarce, I guess. Like over here, it’s easy to take it for granted. Cause it’s around all the time.

Joel Blechinger (00:44:57):
You know, everybody needs something to kind of cling to and put your energy into and have like a outlet, but also kind of reprieve from just the stress of everything. So I think it’s a perfect, it’s a perfect therapy instrument too. There’s a lot of customers that get into it either for like neurological reasons. There’s a lot of customers that go and they play in like nursing homes or hospitals or have some kind of program set up for, you know, even people with like PTSD or just like physical, neurological issues. There was a couple that got like the first round of COVID in New York before they knew how to treat it or anything. And they were still suffering like nine months later from I guess like the oxygen deprivation. So their doctor was telling them… Just heavy, heavy, like foggy brain issues, still all the respiratory things. But there was like enough cognitive damage done during that time when they both had it. And weren’t, you know, just getting a lot of oxygen cause their lung capacity was down, that they are… And young too. Like 28, something like that. So let alone like everybody else, but just like as an example.

Joel Blechinger (00:46:04):
So learn an instrument. Learning a language, learn an instrument, picking up something new, you get all these new synapses firing. You’re building all those neural connections and everything on top of, you know, like you got some hand-eye coordination, left and right hand coordination, just all the things that it fires up in your brain too. It’s like, you’re kind of getting in one way, like if you get into like, you’re paying attention to more of the theory part of it, you kind of fire up that math side of your brain. And then from the creative side, you get all of that fired up too. So I think it’s like just in a lot of ways, there’s a lot of people, they use it for like therapeutic reasons and then everybody else who says they’re doing it for fun, but it’s probably therapy deep down at the same time.

Brad Bordessa (00:46:52):
It’s actually therapy. Great. Well, thanks so much, Joel, for your time and sharing your thoughts and everything.

Joel Blechinger (00:46:57):
Oh, no problem, man. No, it was awesome.

Brad Bordessa (00:47:00):
Especially that last bit, man. That’s great to hear. Your view of that. Cause I think a lot of us players were just in our little worlds and we don’t get to interact with maybe the general ukulele population, except for those moments where we’re at a workshop or whatever, teaching a group of people, but otherwise we kind of don’t see it, but it’s nice for you to share that as somebody who does see it.

Joel Blechinger (00:47:21):
Yeah, no, absolutely. That’s been probably the biggest takeaway I’ve had like the last several years, for sure. Cause I get into that tunnel vision of just the setup work too. And in a lot of ways it can be frustrating work at the same time. So there was definitely like an area where it was a little more just… It kind of took a little bit of the fun out of it, I guess, because I was so focused on just problem solving. So all you’re kind of focused on are like problems and issues with things rather than like what’s the bigger takeaway. Like appreciating who the instrument’s going for and like what it does for them. So for me being able to hear from player’s side. That that’s like just kind of given me a lot more I guess that fire back. Like just being able to be okay with like the hiccups and like just the, the harder part of the work end of it. Cause there’s still a lot of work that goes into it. We’re not just like hanging out and playing instruments all the time. There’s just a lot of regular headaches stuff that just comes with running a business or customer service and stuff like that too. But like overwhelmingly this is… It’s some of the best people that you ended up talking to. They’re just like just very kind, understanding, are usually in a good mood because they’re getting an ukulele or it’s something to do with that.

Joel Blechinger (00:48:46):
So I’m very appreciative for, you know, just being able to be in this whole realm and there’s a lot of people out there. Like it means a lot to them. And even like for you guys, like all the time, people saying like the lessons, the videos, that’s like the highlight of their week. So like, whether it’s they’re taking lessons from you or they’re watching like videos you put out or they’re looking for resources or just content. People are so appreciative of it. That’s kind of like the highlight that a lot of people look forward to every week. So it’s cool to see how much care and love goes into it. From talking to you from talking to like, you know, Neil Chin from talking to like Brian Tolentino. Like everybody’s got like a very… I don’t know, it’s just like a very warm, warm hearted spirit and attitude towards all of it. I think that’s what just… It like bounces back and forth. It goes from everybody getting everybody inspired to it and then, you know, they throw the love right back. So it’s definitely cool. And I know a lot of people appreciate all you guys too. Like showing them what’s possible on an instrument is like half the reason we all got fired up and decided to play an instrument the first place.

Brad Bordessa (00:50:06):
Well before we get off of here, can you tell folks about where to find the Uke Logic strings?

Joel Blechinger (00:50:13):
Oh, sure. So I mean The Ukulele Site, I always got, ’em posted up there. I do have an Etsy store. That’s been like a placeholder before I get my website set up. That’s been off and on. Eventually it will be ukelogic.com. That’s all been saved and everything. So eventually when I get everything prepped for the site, you’ll be able to find it there. If you just Google it though, it usually just pops up on my Etsy store and then you can always get them through The Ukulele Site, especially if you’re already getting stuff from us.

Joel Blechinger (00:50:47):
Yeah. And then if you got any questions, you can always hit me up joel[at]ukelogic.com. If you need some kind of custom set or you’ve got a question or anything, I’m happy to help. But yeah, that’s it, it’s pretty easy to find. If you’re in the UK, Southern Ukulele has them now. So that helps out for shipping. Because it’s ridiculous trying to send something international over here. A small package costs a lot more than most sets of strings and it takes six weeks to get there. So that’s been cool too. Those guys are rad too. So anybody over in, you know, Europe go check them out and they should be able to help you out with them.

Joel Blechinger (00:51:33):
Awesome, man. And yeah, for that low-G too, like I just need to keep bugging them. It was the same thing with… Initially I was trying to get hold of GHS for some stuff, and it was like the same thing. Like I had hit him up like three times and never heard back and then like five months later, I got a response to an email. So I’m hoping like Saverez, gets back to me. Cause I wanna see if I can get those in and then like work that into another option for the low-G.

Brad Bordessa (00:51:57):
And you just don’t have the gauges to make that in between work with your proprietary stuff?

Joel Blechinger (00:52:02):
Yeah. Yeah. It’s that jump from the .036 to the .042. There’s not really anything in between. I just realized the other day there’s a lower density. – I think I got it as a sample, like when I was first testing these out and I just found it in a, in a drawer – there’s like a .038, I think, which is just the lower density version of the low-G size that everybody uses. I was going to mess around a little bit more with throwing those on. Tension wise, it shouldn’t be any different from the .036. It’s just, you know, roughly the same string just with less density.

Brad Bordessa (00:52:44):
Do you have any kind of idea what volume they would need to make that happen?

Joel Blechinger (00:52:50):
I don’t, I mean, I imagine it’s going to be like, like

Brad Bordessa (00:52:52):
You got to go around the world, how many times with a string?

Joel Blechinger (00:52:54):
Yeah, yeah. Or it’s mainly like what the initial cost would end up being to like to get it going. Cause I’m assuming there would have to be like an initial… The problem is like, I haven’t been able to get a direct, like beat on somebody at the actual manufacturing. Cause it’s like, a lot of these, they’re bigger companies and like the factory that’s making fluorocarbon is also making, you know, dozens of other things too. So I haven’t been able to navigate the channels. Like I thought about just telling Corey, just to keep track of how much time it takes you. Because he can speak Japanese. So it was like, can you just like track somebody down over there and like, just get my message across.

Joel Blechinger (00:53:41):
So like right before COVID… I’ve never been out of the country. I just got my passport like a few months before COVID and me and my wife were planning a trip to Japan. People started getting sick and we’re like, ah, let’s pump the brakes a little bit. Like, let’s wait for this to pass. It hasn’t passed yet. So we canceled that, but that was like January right before COVID hit. But I was trying to figure out a way, like when I was over there, if I could have… I probably wouldn’t have tried to do it on the first big trip out of the country with my wife or anything. But that would have been… That would have sucked. But yeah, I need to. Cause I mean, it would help out for cost too, if I could somehow do a direct. But I guess I was just assuming…

New Speaker (00:54:30):
Like I’m trying to get past that tipping point to just fiscally. So to where I can actually have like a little bit of a savings in the business account. So I could like just have it ready rather than hitting them up now and then kind of being like, all right, I guess it’s going to take me a year to get to get to that point or whatever. Where I feel like I can maybe go and just like commission some kind of direct beat with them and see if, you know, there’ll be able to do something in between.

Joel Blechinger (00:55:03):
Just like the fact that like Daddario, like they have all the machinery and everything up. I was talking to one of the R and D guys. He stopped by Koʻolau? Say a year and a half ago. But he was just talking in depth about how they do all their testing and all the machinery they got and all of the… That’s what they do. So there’s probably not a gauge or like material or something that they haven’t messed around with, or they don’t have the capability of making. So for something like them, it could be a lot easier. Yeah, I haven’t found a work around for everything else, but I think that adding that nylon low-G will be a good thing. Because there’s some times where that string works well. And then a lot where it is just like, it’s not resonant enough it’s so stiff.

Brad Bordessa (00:56:00):
Well, thanks. Thanks for joining me.

Joel Blechinger (00:56:02):
Oh yeah, no worries, man. Anytime. Now that we finally cracked the seal on it. It’s not as hard as I thought it would be.

Brad Bordessa (00:56:11):
You know me, like suit and tie.

Joel Blechinger (00:56:16):
Oh no, no, no. I mean, if anything, oh, if you want to get out of the suit and tie, I can get one too.

Brad Bordessa (00:56:19):
That’d be fun.

Joel Blechinger (00:56:20):
We could do that one time. Do a video. Yeah. We’ll just make it like… I thought… That’s the problem. There’s so many ideas and don’t have the time to do it. I wanted to do like the Actor Studio, but with the ukulele and you just have somebody dress up like a, I forget what his name was, but get like the fake goatee, sit down, and have like a… Or like put a fake fireplace in the back one of those little like the fan with the red light and the fronds that they put in City Mill during the winter time and just have like a real serious sit down. Like a Actor Studio version interview. But one day.

Brad Bordessa (00:56:53):
60 minutes of ukulele.

Joel Blechinger (00:56:56):
Exactly. Yeah. We’re going to have like the dramatic music and the cuts and the edit and all the piano notes and [sings] have like the Law and Order music going on in the back.

Brad Bordessa (00:57:09):
I would watch that. That’d be hilarious.

Joel Blechinger (00:57:11):
Yeah, no, at some point… When things open back up and everybody can, I got to get Andrew… Andrew’s getting more and more into doing the concerts and everything. I’m going to wait and we’re going to crack into the comedy side of it. He’s got to set up some skits or something. We’ll figure that out.

New Speaker (00:57:31):
Right on, Joel.

Joel Blechinger (00:57:31):
Right on man.

Brad Bordessa (00:57:32):
Have a good one.

Joel Blechinger (00:57:32):
All right. See you, Brad. Take it easy.

Brad Bordessa (00:57:43):
As Joel mentioned, you can find Uke Logic strings on theukulelesite.com or his Etsy store. They’re fabulous. I’ve been using them for the past couple of years. I haven’t heard of anybody who didn’t really like them over whatever they were using before yet. Though, it’ll be interesting to see as more and more people start to use them. They have all the great bright characteristics of fluorocarbon, but they’re a little bit slightly meatier than like your plain Jane Worth strings, which are also great. You know, I wouldn’t ever complain about using Worth strings. They’re fabulous as well, but the Uke Logics have a little bit more of a meaty, punchy kind of a sound to it. They’re just a skosh darker. And for the music that I play and the ukulele that I run as my main instrument, it seems like that little bit of [roar] kind of sound works well for what I’m doing.

Brad Bordessa (00:58:47):
I want to thank Joel again for joining the podcast, making time. We’ve been trying to link up for over a year, at least get him on the podcast. I’m glad we finally were able to talk story and hear about his background.

Brad Bordessa (00:59:03):
Once again, if you’re interested in helping out the production process of the podcast, I would like to invite you to consider maybe helping with transcribing some of the audio of the podcast. Just tuning up an automatically generated transcription. Spellchecking it, taking out double words, you know, making sure everything that the computer hears is actually what I’m saying. It would be a huge help. It’s one part of the production process that I don’t really enjoy. And since this is just a labor of love and not a business profit thing for me, it’s sometimes hard to feel excited about spending an hour or two on getting the transcription all dialed in. If you’re so inclined, shoot me an email, liveukulele@gmail.com, and I’ll get you in the loop. It would be much appreciated.

Brad Bordessa (01:00:01):
I sat down with Jeff Peterson yesterday and had a great discussion, recorded it all. That’s going to be the season finale for the Live ʻUkulele Podcast. Be sure to tune in for that. Jeff has so much great information to share and played a couple of beautiful pieces and kind of gave a little bit of a lesson. Some really good tips for tone and phrasing, and some of the things that Jeff really excels at and also really excels at teaching. So be sure to tune in for that. That’ll be the first Saturday of November. I’m going to take a break for the holidays and catch you guys back on the podcast. Starting the first Saturday of January. Get back on the horse and see what we can get up to.

Brad Bordessa (01:00:49):
Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you in the next episode. Aloha

brad bordessa avatar About the author: Brad Bordessa I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from an off-grid cabin in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once jammed with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me