In this episode I’m joined by Brad Donaldson for an exploration of how ukuleles are built and what makes them sound good. Lutherie is a mystical art and Brad helps to shed some light on a few of the mysteries and myths associated with it, along with sharing some fun stories from his 40 year building career.
- Brad Donaldson’s website
- Ukulele Zen
- Roger Siminoff
- Gibson F-5
- John Larrivee guitars
- Ukulele Underground forum
- Kumalae ukulele
- Grover Champion tuners
- Hide glue
- Titebond glue
- Taylor V-class bracing
- The fun build
- Chuck Moore
- Graphtech Tune-a-Lele ratio tuners
- John Monteleone
Brad Bordessa (00:02):
Aloha. Welcome to the Live Ukulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa. Thank you for tuning in. In this episode, I sit down with Brad Donaldson from the Island of Kauaʻi. He is an ukulele luthier and an ukulele builder of almost 40 years of experience. Started out as a mandolin maker in Seattle, and has since become entangled with ukulele scene, and now spends his time on Kauaʻi. So if you’re in the market for a handmade instrument, or just are generally curious about how ukuleles are built, what makes them tick. Then I think Brad can help shed some light on the mystery and also perpetuate some of the mysteries that surround the craft of ukulele luthierie.
This podcast is supported by readers of liveukulele.com. So if you haven’t already seen it, please go check it out. There are lots of resources and lessons available for free, and also some of my premium eBooks that dive into the depths of learning, how to play the ukulele from a concept standpoint and how to adapt everything to your current skill level and learn to play from maybe more of a Zen place. Even though that’s not my thing, Ukulele Zen. That’s the other guy. That’s Stu Fuchs, not Brad. Anyways, I’m really excited to share this episode with you. I had a great time talking to Brad. He’s a delightful guest. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Well, why don’t you give us a little bit of a background of how you got started building ukuleles?
Brad Donaldson (01:57):
Okay, well that, that goes back quite a ways. I’ve always enjoyed building things. I mean, when I was in the third grade, I just would love to go to the library and find a book that would teach me how to make barometers out of orange juice cans and that sort of stuff. So anyway, with that background, as a young man I was a custom knife maker when I started out. Taught myself how to hand forge pattern welded steel by reading books and did that.
So on a trip to Hawaii, I discovered Koa. And you could use koa and make display boxes. On a subsequent trip to Hawaii, I’m reading the magazine on board, the plane that they use koa to make ukuleles. Well as a kid growing up, my father had a Martin tenor ukulele that he taught me how to play. And damn George Harrison, the Beatle. I was a teenager in the mid sixties and the Beatles were big, but I was running around with this tenor Martin playing it and everyone thought I was a geek and Harrison wouldn’t tell the world that he loved ukuleles for 20 years after that. But anyway, as I got older and got married and, and grew up when I discovered that they made ukuleles out of koa, I said, I don’t have the Martin anymore, I want an ukulele. So I read a little bit, did a little research and built myself three ukuleles out of koa. And they were playable, not much. Overbuilt, like most beginning instruments and stuff like this. But anyway, my wife then declared she wanted a mandolin and this was early eighties. And back then you had two choices. The mandolin you either, you know, bought a Gibson for $3,000 or something from the far East that was questionably playable.
So I discovered Roger Siminoff’s book on how to build a bluegrass mandolin and proceeded to find the parts from various music stores in Seattle and build her one. Well, it wasn’t much of an instrument, but as it happened, we went to a guitar store that had just opened in a suburb of Seattle called the Guitar Emporium in Ballard. And she declared to the owner of the store that I made her a mandolin. And he said, “well, why don’t you bring in? I’d like to have a look at it.” So I took it in a week later and he said, “well, it’s a little crude, but if you want to clean it up a little bit, I’ll hang them on the wall for you.” And with that invitation in mind, I built one and put it in the store. And three weeks later and $1,300, I got into building mandolins.
It was, it was a very lucky break in terms of people that aspire to lutherie because what happened was this was a high end guitar store. Carried guitars from $1,500 to $5,000. And this was back again in the early eighties. So what I didn’t realize at the time is by having my instrument in that store, I had instant credibility and it took off. Plus the marvelous thing about it is Rob was – the owner – was a beautiful source of information and he just he took me by the hand. The hardest lesson I had to learn is that plagiarism in building musical instruments is encouraged. He told me to make a Gibson F5 mandolin for people. And the first one I made, I couldn’t copy it directly. I just, that was against everything. I stood for kind of stuff. So I changed some details and I took it into and he said, “no, don’t do that. Make a Gibson F5 copy. People don’t care that it’s not a Gibson. They just want an F5.” And that was an important lesson, but he taught me a number of things. He was the sole importer at that time for John Larrivee guitars. And he took me up to the Larrivee factory, a number of trips. I met John Larrivee in person who is just marvelous, and he taught me an awful lot. So it was a great experience. But anyway, that was the beginnings.
Brad Bordessa (06:33):
Wow. And so you’ve since relocated-ish to Kauaʻi.
Brad Donaldson (06:38):
And are you building just ukuleles these days?
Brad Donaldson (06:43):
Pretty much. Again, what took off is for about the first half of my career, I built primarily mandolins because that’s what sell. And I retired my real job, that was other, other thing about my luthierie careers is I’m a part-time builder. The pressure was never, I mean, it started out first of all, to acquire tools. I could go, I was selling enough of a mandolin so that I could go to my wife and say, “dear, I need to spend a thousand dollars on a band saw. Can we afford that?” And, and it was “okay, no worries,” because I was bringing in enough money. So it started out kind of on that and then grew. But about… Let’s see, I retired in 2005 from my career. And about that time, I started hearing rumblings ukuleles were making a comeback. And Rob at the Guitar Emporium didn’t seem to verify that. He didn’t have a lot of interest in verifications. But as I retired in 2005, my agency kept on calling me back to work and I ran into a couple other coworkers back then who had heard, I made instruments and they wanted ukuleles. So actually I had a couple of bodies I just started years ago and I finished them up and got into ukulele and building them. And then shortly, shortly thereafter that it had taken off again and I got on Ukulele Underground and has been pretty much ukuleles since then.
Nice. It seems like a good place to be. But like you say, Ukulele Underground, that’s where we’ve crossed paths briefly in the past, you know, I hear your name there, but more recently you contacted me to talk about and buy a vintage Kumalae that I was trying to pass on to somebody who could appreciate it instead of having it sit under my bed. And it got to you. I assume you’ve had a chance to look at it at least a little bit so far?
Oh I’ve… Here lemme move just a little bit. You can’t see it on the pad, but there it is. It is all set up and ready to go. And I love it. I’m really glad we got together because it’s a neat little instrument and I’ve subsequently learned a lot more about the Kumalae instruments since then. I was a little puzzled at first when I got it, because a couple of the things I wasn’t sure about, I didn’t know any of his history or anything.
So the first thing that I want to do as a luthier is to find out how authentic it is and whether anything’s been changed. And it was a little bit… The finish on the thing ostensibly should be shellac, should be kind of a French polish. They didn’t really French polish, they put shack on the thing. It shouldn’t be that, but what was on there seems to be impervious to alcohol. I can put alcohol on there and it should get sticky or something, but it seemed to be, and I know you thought the neck was mahogany because it was so dark, but no, it’s… I basically what I did, I took most of the finish off except for the top of the fret board and the peg head itself. Cause I didn’t want to damage the decal at all. But as near as I can tell, it is perfectly authentic. Nothing has been modified. The tuners, which I wasn’t so sure about are Champion tuners that are still being made by Grover. But as near as I can figure out, my guess is it was made in late twenties, early thirties.
Brad Bordessa (10:47):
Brad Donaldson (10:48):
Cause I, in subsequent research, I didn’t find out that they did change some details right at the end and how they made things. Different bracing and stuff like this. But it’s got even… Factories like what they did was they with pencils, wrote on the inside surface of the top and back, this one says 44 B on the back and 44, something I assume was a T on the top to match, match things. All this is things, it doesn’t have a label, but that’s not surprising that that thing came off. But everything else is perfectly Kumalae as near as I can tell. The other thing that makes it kind of special is Kumalaes have a reputation and I’ve just seen a couple of being paper thin in their construction. They didn’t waste any wood, they slice it thin. And that’s why they’ve got the sound they do, the ones that have survived. This one actually was built pretty stout. It’s over… As far as I can measure it’s about 70 thousands thick on the top and measuring it. And then, and that’s, you know, that’s fairly stout cause most of them I think would be about 55 to 60 thousands and stuff. So anyway, probably helped that it lasted so long as it was, was a little stout. As far as the rebuild quick. It, it was good that it came to me because it was structurally compromised.
Brad Bordessa (12:18):
Yeah, no doubt.
Brad Donaldson (12:19):
Yeah. Well, not only the crack, but typically that crack – and it’s hard to say with the chicken and the egg – is the two braces on the sound hole had come loose on one point and that’s what led to that depression and stuff like that. So the first thing I did was jack up those braces and re glue them to restore that. Then in repairing the crack, I added basically a cleat brace underneath on that and pulled it up tight and stuff like this to reinforce things. After that, you know, I’m the type of… I don’t restore instruments. I’ve read a couple of a couple things per se of guys that have handled Kumalaes that take a hot palette knife and carefully take off the back and restore everything on hot hide glue and stuff like this. I’m not a big fan of hot hide glue. I like Titebond. And for the kind of stuff I do, it’s minimalist, is superglue into things and squeeze together because it holds it really, really good. But you know, it’s a quick and dirty repair. So hopefully it’s good for another 80 years.
Brad Bordessa (13:26):
Wow. So you didn’t end up taking it apart?
Brad Donaldson (13:29):
No, I didn’t, you know, the problem with that is getting them back together again. Because when you’re building, you’ve got overlap from tops and things and you’ve sanded them and things. When you take a finished instrument, if something shifts, you know, you’ll never, I mean, the way you would do it typically would be take a hot palette knife and with hot glue, you get it apart and you’d pop off the back. And so you could get to things, but getting that thing to line up again, if anything shifts when you re glue the braces or anything like that. Yeah. You’ve got a can of worms on your hand. I will tell you that restoring old instruments is an order of magnitude, more difficult than building them.
Brad Bordessa (14:24):
Interesting. I wouldn’t have thought that.
Brad Donaldson (14:26):
Oh, no, it’s a re… Top-notch repair people are amazing in my group because yeah. As a Luther, you always get somewhat of a feel for doing that stuff because you have to fix your own mistakes. So you get involved in repair work in a sense doing that, but you also discover that, boy it’s a hell of a lot easier not to make mistakes in the first place.
Brad Bordessa (14:58):
So having had a chance to look at it, where… Did you have any takeaways from the build style? Cause I know that’s why you wanted to get hold of it was to see if you could learn something from how they built.
Brad Donaldson (15:09):
Yeah. Again, I did. As I say, I mentioned it was a little stouter than I imagined the other takeaway with it is, you know, again, these were instruments that were made cheaply for tourists. And you find that out when you get them, I mean those braces are just rectangular hunks. There’s no sanding, they weren’t finish sanding, there’s nothing extra that’s done. There’s not a bridge patch in the thing, you know, the linings are just kind of rectangular. I mean, they slapped them together expeditiously to make money. So that was, you know, that was interesting how they are made. But I love it cause it’s, it’s a real piece of history in the early days of that. And again, it’s a marvelous sounding instrument.
Brad Bordessa (16:09):
So having, having seen that instrument that’s going on a hundred years old and building ukuleles today, do you feel like the craft has improved the entire way or have there been places along the way where the craft, in general, has, like, I don’t know, maybe lost an art or kind of devolved in certain ways?
Brad Donaldson (16:31):
You know, that’s hard to say. Some years ago, just like this, I got a bug having owned, still having my father’s old Martin now tenor. On eBay I saw what was advertised at the time as a 1950s Martin soprano O-style ukulele. Finish was all cracked on the thing. It was missing a tuner and stuff like this. And I went and got it. Paid $400 for it and we come to an agreement and he shipped it to me. The seller didn’t know what he’d had. Cause the first thing I saw when I got it is, “Oh my God, this thing has got bar frets on it instead of T frets,” which supposedly Martin quit using in 1934. Now I found out later from the Martin book that it’s possible that it could have been into the forties, but because it has metal tuners or whatever kind of stuff and everything.
But anyway, long story short, when I build an ukulele, that sounds as good as that Martin, I’ll probably quit. Because it just, you know… And I don’t really know why, what there is. There’s a possibility because I do think it was made in the thirties. It’s a possibility that it was made out of Cuban mahogany rather than Honduran mahogany, which may have made a difference. It’s not particularly… I mean it’s a light instrument, but it’s not overly light or lightly constructed. There was no fret wear whatsoever on it. But there’s no defamation on the top at all. And it’s, you know, I don’t know.
But anyway, back to your question. In some respects, there’s a lot of things that we do that have improved the craft, but in other respects, the materials are inferior. We don’t have the old growth that we used to have, the air dried things and stuff like that. So, you know, the bottom line is that particular Martin sounds as good as any ukulele I’ve ever heard. And the same thing. So you know, you improve in some respects, but in other respects, due to materials and stuff like this you know, we’re kind of treading water.
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Brad Bordessa (19:56):
So for you as a builder, what… I mean, it seems like the vintage instruments hold a special appeal to you. Do you… What is your lane as a builder? What do you kind of get a kick out of building?
Brad Donaldson (20:10):
I enjoy, I mean, the thing is, I encourage young builders, people that are getting into it, one of the things I tell them to avoid is, do not try and reinvent the wheel. Because generally speaking, if they can think of it, it’s been tried. I mean, people have used balsa for soundboard materials. I heard a violin, it was entirely made out of balsa that was marvelous sounding and stuff like this. But I enjoy actual true innovation, which is very difficult to do. And again, what you do is you should have a good deal of experience to have some idea, you know, for a young builder, I encouraged them, take the Martin style-O And build them till you can’t make them any better. Then from there on, then start experimenting with your own ideas.
I mean, I came up with… This is a funny story, years ago getting into it. On Ukulele Underground, Amy Singer from Toronto had a post saying she wanted to know if there’s an ukulele made for women. The gist of it was she had a large chest and the standard domed ukulele did not set on the girls too good. It just wiggled around. And people told her on the thing, well, get a strap, play sitting down and stuff like this. So I like a challenge like that. So in my mind, I’m going, “Hmm, what could I do that would make it more stable?” I know! There’s no reason why an ukulele has to be made convex in the back. I designed what I called the Amy model. It has a concave back. I told Amy, I couldn’t make it a D cup size, but actually I can put quite a bit of deflection in the back. And so I made it, called it` my Amy model, sent it to her as a prototype and she absolutely loved it.
But the funny thing about the Amy model that I didn’t think about in the hand, it turns out it’s a hell of an idea because me with my big gut and stuff like this, when I take an Amy model and you rest it against… Just the edges of the back touch your body. The rest of the back is still free to vibrate.
Brad Bordessa (22:41):
Brad Donaldson (22:43):
And so I have sold a number to a lot of men, you know, that have gone, “Oh, wow.” Because, you know, and it’s one of the things in mandolin, especially because with archtop instruments, the back contributes every bit as much of the sound as the top does. They work in concert. So if you rest it against your body at all, a mandolin, you’re killing a lot of the sound. And they construct these cages that go on the back or the player learns to hold it away from his body and stuff so he doesn’t do it.
Brad Donaldson (23:12):
So that’s kind of one of the innovations that I’m proud of. I very much enjoy this. There’s a lot of work… Bracing gets a lot of attention in instrument building. But it is difficult to come up with bracing that is truly unique. Taylor guitar with their, with their V style bracing is actually one of the latest new features. It actually has a great deal of promise in the thing. And I’m doing an experiment with that.
So some of the other innovations I’m working on is, in the past, I’ve done some ukuleles that had a top out of two different woods. I don’t know if you remember, Brad, but years ago there was Victor Jones from Kentucky started this. It was called the fun build. We had a bunch of Luthiers from around the world supply various parts for ukulele based on the standard Martin O soprano. And the idea was to get wild and crazy. I built the top. The top was made out of Oregon myrtle and Koa cut in a diagonal seam instead of straight up and down. And the guys took it from there. I had the privilege of assembling the instrument and then finished the build on the stuff. And it was really cool.
But recently again, I’ve done that. I mean, I couldn’t tell any difference between the combination between… The koa and myrtle were perfect and compatible. I couldn’t tell that any difference between solid Myrtle top or a solid koa top in the sound. But recently I have started using a combination of woods. I’ll use koa and spruce with a spruce wedge in the middle, and then a modified, I call it an, a bracing that goes underneath the seams of the koa and spruce. And it’s working out to be kind of an a neat kind of idea. I’ve sold a couple of the people that had been impressed because the big difference… You have a discussion with luthier’s all the time, “how much does the wood it’s made out effect the sound?” And I find when it comes to hardwoods, your mahoganies, your koa, your myrtle, and stuff like this. There may be subtle differences in how they sound, but they’re really subtle. The builder is far more important. But when you go into soft woods like spruce and cedar, redwood for the tops, there’s a definite difference then. I mean, the softwoods are definitely brighter sounding, you know, punchier and brighter. They don’t have the warmth or the overtones that the hardwoods tend to have, but there’s a noticeable difference. So what I found in using a combination of spruce and Koa is that I am getting some of the punch from the spruce, but with the warmer overtones of the koa, kind of stuff. So it’s fun to experiment with stuff like that.
Brad Bordessa (26:18):
So just to clarify, is that a spruce and koa top? Or how… What is the configuration?
Brad Donaldson (26:25):
Again? Yes, it’s two bookmatched pieces of koa on the sides. And then there’s, if you imagine the letter A, it’s a wedge of spruce in the center. So as you go across the top, it’s koa, spruce in the center, and then koa again on the thing. So it’s a three piece top like Martin used to do a three-piece back and stuff like this, but different woods – hardwood and softwood.
Brad Bordessa (26:53):
And I imagine the look is very striking.
Brad Donaldson (26:57):
The look is. When I first did it… This is some of the crazier stuff that you get into. A question was asked on Ukulele Underground once. Why does the grain always run vertically in tops? Why couldn’t you build them with it going across? And you know, it actually kind of, to get wild and crazy and stuff like this. So the first one I did the spruce in the top actually runs horizontally. The koa is vertical and stuff like that. And it’s an interesting thing because it opens up that spruce from a longitudinal, you know, flexibility. I mean it’s really flexible in there. Of course the bracings run alongside it so you get involved with tuning that. I since then have gone to well, that’s a little too esoteric. I don’t think I was gaining anything. And now I just leave the spruce vertical. But it’s an interesting experiment. We’ll see how it… You know, one of the things, when you do stuff like this is… You never know what the longevity of an instrument’s going to be like that. Where the problems occur down the road cause you’re using different woods and different expansion, contractions, and stuff like that, you know? One of the things about it that is different in the bracing too, is I did away with the transverse bracing around the sound hole. I’ve got two small pieces, two short braces, right above and below the sound hole, but they don’t go across the whole body. And I like that idea because it opens up the entire top. Because otherwise with the transverse braces that you normally find on either side of the sound hole – it separates the upper about from lower bout. And I don’t… I think it, it takes a lot of the lower – or the upper bout – out of the equation. So anyway, who knows all that speculative.
Brad Bordessa (29:01):
Well, it’s just fascinating to hear… I don’t know, to hear you kind of break down your process of experimenting and how you’ve worked through these things. And I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years with Chuck Moore and I play one of his instruments, but we’ve been good friends for a lot longer than that. And just see seeing him work. I get the impression that building is, it is very esoteric. And you mentioned that the builder is the key and not so much the materials. Do you feel like nitpicking the little tiny things out of an instrument are that important or is it the greater whole that the builder can bring?
Brad Donaldson (29:40):
The, the nitpicking details are vital. I mean, that’s what differentiates a quality instrument from, you know, a rather ordinary one. It’s all in the details. The whole building process… This was an interesting thing. Years ago when I was building mandolins, I had an interesting experience. Happened a couple of years in a row, where I had customers sit around in a circle in the quiet room to listen to instruments playing my mandolins, and they would hand them off in a circle. And what blew me away was how similar those mandolins all sounded. I mean, there was a very, very distinctive sound. And what really surprised me is, I had changed a lot of building details. X bracing, the parallel bracing, and a lot of stuff that were changing that didn’t, you know, overall didn’t mean anything.
And one of the things that helped me immensely is, again, I’m a Seattle native. Born and raised in Seattle. And my early career was in Seattle. Well, the Guild of American Luthiers is located in Tacoma, Washington, 30 miles South of Seattle. Every two or three years, they have an annual convention. And seeing as how it’s 30 miles away, I could go to that every time they had one. And it is the most amazing experience anyone can have. Because I could have – and have had – private conversations with Roger Siminoff who is the world’s leading expert on mandolins, you know, and told him, I said, “geez, Roger, what is this?” I mean, because I know I changed the details. He says, “no, there’s enough similarities in how you build that creates that overall sound.” And so it’s definitely the builder and it is those myriad of little tiny details that do shape it.
Brad Bordessa (32:01):
Wow. So it’s… You’re saying it’s more like the fingerprint of the builder than say, maybe the specs?
Brad Donaldson (32:08):
Yes. Because as I say, this is what… I changed the specs on those. The funny thing, I know on Ukulele Underground, I’ll throw this little tidbit in there. There’s many times a lively discussion on whether instruments open up as they age and stuff like this. Well, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind, because I build instruments, back in the mandolin days I built them in batches. And I would string up four, five mandolins at a time. And out of a batch of that, you would have two that were relatively quiet, two that kind of, as you’d expect, and one that just went boom. Big differences. Well, what I learned from that circle is that the quiet ones would open up in a number of months and improve greatly. The middle ones would improve slightly. And the ones that when boom didn’t get much better at all. But there is no doubt in my mind that this… I don’t have an explanation necessarily for it or whatever, but this is, I mean, it is also was, you know, verified in the fact is the quiet instruments would typically sit in Rob’s shop for three or four months, open up, and then get sold. The one that went boom would be sold within a week. But again, when the people sat around, I couldn’t tell which was which in, in these things. So it’s just kind of one of those unknown mysteries.
Brad Bordessa (33:55):
That is so fascinating.
Brad Donaldson (33:57):
Well, the fascinating thing about lutherie is: it is not terribly difficult for someone to make an instrument. You know, a confident woodworker, with just a modicum of skills is perfectly capable of building a perfectly acceptable instrument. But to master the craft of lutherie can take a lifetime.
We still do not know. And this surprises people. There is still a great debate on what the sides and back contribute to the overall sound of an ukulele or a guitar. It’s not known. You know? And what you have is, today interesting in the modern builders, you have two camps. You have people – Chuck Moore likes to build his sides and back fairly thick to reflect the sound. Okay. I on the other hand like to build them lightly so they vibrate. Now, which one is it? Well, in my opinion, there’s probably both going on. You have some reflection of the sound and you have some vibration of the sound. What’s the best approach? I have no idea. But that’s the fascinating thing about it is, again, the things that we don’t know far exceed… I mean, the Stradivarius violin, the most studied instrument in the world, and still no ones knows what makes them tick. I mean, I will say this, there are modern builders that meet or exceed the Stradivarius violin. That they do better. It is no longer necessarily the gold standard that it was, but they still don’t necessarily understand what is special about a Stradivarius violin. And what do you think of your Moore Bettah? In terms of… I’ve never had had the experience to play one, but I understand they’re marvelous.
Brad Bordessa (36:10):
I mean, I love mine. It’s perfect for what I do. I’ve learned to play to it. So it sounds the best that I can make it sound. But you know, I’m kind of in the camp of: his job and your job is to build the instruments and my job is to play it and not, kind of, question what could be better about it so much. Like this is really good. I really like it. I’m just gonna play it and get the best out of it. So I love it. It’s great. It’s got… Well, funny thing about that is when I first sat down to play it, when he first handed it to me in the shop, it’s like, “here it is, it’s done.” It was so bright. Because he built it with a super tight grain spruce, top – one piece with Koa back and sides. And it was super bright. I was like, almost disappointed in how bright it was. But, you know, I took it home and played it for a couple of months. And over the years it’s gotten just warmer and warmer and warmer and warmer. And now it’s just like any other instrument, you know, I had…
Brad Donaldson (37:15):
Yeah, you understand then. Especially with spruce. Spruce ages over time. It is very bright at first. And again, one of the reason that classical guitarists went to cedar tops is that for a concert classical guitar player, if he has a spruce top guitar, it needs to be at least 10 years old before he takes it to a concert. It needs to aid that much, a cedar top matures in a year. And so that’s why you went to a lot of, you’re seeing classical guitarists use cedar and stuff like that because… Yeah, spruce takes a while to come into its own, but it does.
Brad Bordessa (37:59):
So those 10 years, do you believe those are 10 years of just being or 10 years of being played? I know people do like the tone bright [Tonerite] thing or whatever. They stick it on the bridge and let it…
Brad Donaldson (38:09):
I have no verification of that. I’ve had lots of discussions in the store. I know Rob Eagle and everything, he played music in his store all the time to vibrate the instruments. He believed, and I know a lot of very good guitar players that believe that if you’re someone with a strong attack and you play someone’s guitar, who has a lighter attack, it takes, you know, a good two hours of their playing again to get that guitar back to where it’ll respond to their playing. I can’t verify that. I’m not that good of a player myself. And surprising enough again, the best instrument I have is my old Martin. There was no sign that it had ever been played at all. Like I say, it doesn’t take much playing to put a very slight groove in a fret. You know, if it had been fretted at all, you’d see something. And there’s not a sign of anything on that old Martin. So I doubt very much it was played, but it still sounds marvelous. So the jury’s out for me on that. I don’t have an opinion one way or another.
Brad Bordessa (39:15):
This is wonderful. This is exactly the kind of conversation that I love to have is that, you know so much and you’re so accomplished, and yet you almost realize like every day how little you actually do know with the craft and I feel the same way about music.
Brad Donaldson (39:31):
Well, yeah, music is that way. I wish I was a better player, but I can spend my time building instruments or spending it playing. So I chose chose the building side. But yeah, this is what’s fascinating in the art is, again, we don’t know an awful lot and you know.
The coolest thing, what really drew me to lutherie is people like Chuck Moore. The funny thing about the craft is the total, you know. Basic Lutherie is the kuleana, you know, a responsibility to share your knowledge if you learn something. You know, when I first did the Amy model, I was told patent it. And I said, no, I’m not patenting that. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to do an idea like that, but no, that’s to be shared with everyone. But I mean, I don’t know Chuck as a person. I’ve interacted with in a number of times, he’s been marvelous to me. He sent me his ratio tuners that he got as a gift from Graphtec, you know, cause he wasn’t going to use them on his and I understand why, but I love the thing. And I’ve got that on my original concert that I made from things. It’s just wonderful how sharing the luthiers are with their knowledge and how they cooperate. I mean, we’ve got a builder’s group on Kauaʻi that Bob Gleason… You probably know Bob too, he’s on your island. I love Bob. And we just have a ball. Again, we just on Friday had a zoom meeting and stuff like this and the amount of sharing of information and how to do things, it’s just a wonderful group of people.
Brad Bordessa (41:22):
That’s great. I feel the same way about the Hawaiian musicians here and it’s a blessing to be part of a scene like that.
Brad Donaldson (41:30):
Yeah, no, it’s wonderful.
Brad Bordessa (41:35):
Well, this has been really great. Maybe one last question to send us off. I know we’ve got lots of players listening to the podcast. What are your top tips for somebody who’s searching for a handmade instrument. And maybe like the interaction between the builder and the player. Because I know a lot of people get really hung up on specs and this and that and the other thing, and you know, what can, what can you provide that you, maybe you share with your customers?
Brad Donaldson (42:02):
Well, again, what you have to do is, you know, you need to establish some rapport with any builder you’re working with. Because it’s a give and take process. My attitude when a customer’s working with me is I try my best, number one, to make the process as much fun as I possibly can. I mean, that’s the whole thing. If it’s not fun, you know, it’s no good for either party. But also to impart as much knowledge about the process as I can. The more a player understands how an instrument is built, the easier my job is. So I take it just like I’m talking to you. I take the opportunity to educate people as much as I possibly can about the building process and a few other things.
One of the things you run into as a custom builder is, “I want my name or initials on the fret board.” And I’m immediately in their face saying, “no, you don’t.” And I can say that. I said, I have got, you know… My latest serial number was 439 on the ukulele I just boxed up. And close to 40 years of experience. I’ve had mandolin. I’ve had ukuleles that are heirlooms that will stay in a family forever. I just know the people and stuff like this. But I’ve also had instruments that the people loved. I had a mandolin once that was one of those boomers that got sold right away and the guy just was head and heels in love until it got sold. Now he sold it so he could buy a John Monteleone mandolin, which is a $10,000 instrument. So I can’t be too hurt about that. But again, what I’ve learned over the years is, you may love a given instrument for a while, but you know, the vast majority of instruments are going to have several owners in their lifetimes.
So things like putting your name on a fret board, isn’t a real good idea. So, you know, and other things. I just had a customer that I didn’t find out until later was a 12 year old boy. And he’s a great player and a very nice kid, but he wanted his name on the fretboard and we went around around about it, but I said, “okay, I’ll do it. Not an issue,” and did. And he’s thrilled to death with it, but it’s also a soprano and he wanted it low-G. And I went, “not the best idea.” You know, I mean, I’ve done it. I’ve got sopranos that can play low-G. I’ll do what I can, but you know, it’s a, generally speaking, that body, resonance… On a soprano, my body resonance on the soprano is somewhere around middle C. So for it to vibrate in that low G range is really tough. But he’s a fingerstyle player and he wants the linear tuning so I did it. Fortunately he loved it.
But anyway, in working with luthiers, you know, you want to, you know, find someone that meshes with you and you can communicate readily with, you know. And call him up and talk to him. A lot of my customers feel sometimes that somehow when they email me or otherwise call me up on the phone, that they’re bothering me. Uh-uh. That’s, you know, I don’t have that feeling. I enjoy interacting with people and stuff like this. Like I say, the more we communicate the, you know, the easier it is for me. The one thing that I’ll warn people about doing, cause I get this now and then. When I get a customer that says, well, okay, I want this sound. It needs to be, you know, warm but bright, you know, and they start rolling off all these terms. It means something to them not so much to me. And, ultimately what I have to tell people, “have you heard one of my instruments?” And if not, you know, we need to get one in your hand somehow, because that’s what it’s going to sound like.
And that’s the best answer I can get. I cringed in today’s, you know marketplace. You know, I love the Chinese, they made it possible for the ukulele scene, the way it is by cranking out thousands of instruments. And when I was young, back in the day, getting a cheap instrument with shooting yourself in the foot. Because they are out of tune and impossible to play. And it wasn’t… Now with CNC machines and manufacturing techniques, a hundred dollars buys you a perfectly playable ukulele and it’s wonderful.
But I still cringe… Understand is wood is not an engineered material. I tap it. I flex it. I smell it, taste the sawdust, you know, all that’s an intuitive process in building. And in doing that, that’s what creates the sound. When you buy a factory made instrument, even a Martin, if you don’t play it, you have no idea what you’re getting. Most of your Martin instruments are good, but not all of them. And some of them are real exceptional. So, you know, in buying instruments, it’s always better if you can play it first. Or if you’re having a custom made one, know what the luthier produces and I’ll end it there.
Brad Bordessa (48:19):
Very good. Well, thank you so much for coming on, Brad. This has been just an absolute pleasure and so nice to finally see you face to face and get to talk story.
Brad Donaldson (48:29):
Brad Bordessa (48:32):
If you want to find out more about Brad’s ukuleles and see some of his progress shots, and also some of his finished builds, you can check out donaldsonukuleles.wordpress.com and go visit him on the web. The Live Ukulele Podcast is published on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Please subscribe so you don’t miss any episodes. Got some other good interviews coming up later in the season. Thanks again to Brad for coming on the show and sharing his expertise. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another episode. Take care of one another. Be well, stay safe, wear your mask, all that good stuff. And I’ll see you down the road. Aloha.