Octopus Soprano Ukulele – REVIEW

ukulele review time again! I have had a few people say to me recently that I am hard on ukes at the cheap end of the scale. That really isn’t the case, and anyone who reads this blog knows I regularly recommend cheap ukes like the Makala Dolphin. Then the Octopus Soprano came my way – do we have a Dolphin killer?

Octopus Soprano <a href='http://dr.tl/Ukulele' target='_blank'>ukulele</a>

The Octopus retails at under £20, and puts it slap bang in the minefield territory of ukes – where your chances of getting total junk are high. But it was explained to me that this is a re-issue of an earlier Octopus, and that the brand went back to make several improvements to the instrument whilst retaining a very low price.

It’s an all laminate uke, and thick laminate at that, which is not unexpected at this price. But the body is put together remarkably well. It is finished in a satin stain, and the one with me for test is in a rather unattractive brown colour.  Thankfully, a look at the full range shows a range of bright colours, some with glittery sparkles so there is bound to be something you will like. But the satin finish feels very nice, and I can’t find any flaws at all.

Octopus Soprano Ukulele back

The bridge looks like rosewood and is a tie bar design, screwed to the top of the uke. The saddle is white plastic. Up to the sound hole and we have a simple rosette design applied as a transfer.

And overall it feels solid. The back is flat, and is otherwise a traditional ukulele shape. Looking into the sound hole and it all looks very neat and tidy. I also notice that it is unbraced – something presumably considered unnecessary on account of the thick laminate build. Will this affect the tone and volume?

Octopus Soprano Ukulele body

Moving on to the neck, and we have a three piece wooden neck, with joints at the heel and headstock. Nothing unusual. I really don’t like how much wood there is at the heel which is incredibly chunky. New players may not be troubled with playing that high up the fingerboard, but I noticed it. Thankfully the profile and finish at the lower frets is very nice and makes for comfortable play. When I moved on to the fingerboard however I was quite blown away. The 12 nickel silver frets are finished flawlessly and better than I have seen on ukes costing hundreds of pounds. And the rosewood fingerboard itself is wonderful. On inspection, they have sanded / rolled the fingerboards meaning there are no sharp edges on the wood. That is remarkable and something you will not find unless you spend considerably more. It really is a highlight of the instrument, and far better than the neck and fingerboard on the Makala Dolphin. Far  far better.

Octopus Soprano Ukulele fingerboard

We have fingerboard markers at the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces in inlaid plastic looking pearl. Sadly there are no markers on the side for the player.

Past the plastic nut, we have a standard Martin style crown headstock shape and the Octopus logo applied in silk screen or decal in white. I like the dual logos too.

Octopus Soprano Ukulele headstock

The tuners are unbranded silver open gears, and I found one or two of them a little sticky with a bit of grind when turned. That said, they hold just fine. The tuner buttons are also delightful, with a  kind of rubberised black coating that makes them feel great.

Octopus Soprano Ukulele tuners

The whole package is completed with a zippered thin gig bag, and strings that may look like Aquila, but are Octopus brand white synthetic gut (whatever that means). What I will say though, is the strings are quick to get in tune and stay there, and feel nice on the fingers with none of the roughness of Aquila brand.

So overall I am rather impressed. There are one or two issues, but it feels great to play and that neck is incredible for the money. How does it sound though?

Well – it sounds like a boxy laminate uke, I didn’t expect anything else. There is nothing complex about the tone, and it is a little one dimensional. But then so is the Dolphin. I actually think though this has a brighter and a more traditional uke sound than the Dolphin has. I often think that whilst the Dolphin has great volume, it can sound a little muddy. To my ears the Octopus matches the Dolphin for volume, but has a slightly sweeter, more percussive sound. It’s really quite pleasant to both play and listen to for my ears.

The setup needs adjusting at the saddle (hardly a big job) but otherwise the intonation is pretty damn accurate too.

And I really don’t know how they do it for the price (it’s also quite a bit cheaper than a Dolphin). Sure, it’s a cheap uke, and my readers know that I always try to recommend getting something more serious as a first uke, but I appreciate that many people need to stick at this level money wise. And in the contest of the Dolphin vs the Octopus….. well, the Octopus wins.

Read the scores below and take a look at the video review at the end of this review.


Looks – 7
Fit and Finish – 8
Sound – 8.5
Value For Money – 10

Overall – 8.4 out of 10


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Ukulele Songs For Beginners

But That’s Not On The Songsheet! Get Out Of Your Ukulele Rut

Time for another ukulele rant. Well, like other rants on Got A ukulele, actually more of a discussion piece to promote some debate and hopefully inspire someone. This time, do you want to move away from up down up down ukulele boredom?

OK, OK, I can hear the angst growing, and that opening was deliberately incendiary, but do read on… I have been meaning to write this piece for some time, and actually decided not to. But then I thought about it  and spoke to several players in clubs who thought it would be healthy and welcomed. ( I hope you folks were right!!). The aim is simple – how do you get beyond unison playing with your club or band when going out performing?

In part, it’s connected to this post I wrote some time ago –  (IS IT ACCEPTABLE TO PLAY THIS ON THE UKULELE), but goes a little deeper. It starts with a confession. I really, really don’t like the sound of dozens or more ukuleles playing exactly the same thing at the same time. It might just be me (suspect it isn’t though) but I find the sound rather annoying in a nails on a blackboard kind of way. You see the standard tuned uke is a very trebly instrument by its very nature. Play two of those together and you are doubling that up. Play 100 together and just consider the sound. Add to that the fact that if the multiple ukes are not all precisely tuned to each other (and not just to their own clip tuners, to each other!) then you can get layers of warbly bad harmonics which kind of jar my ear. Just me?

two many ukes

I’d much rather hear things being mixed up a little.

A quick word. I am not pointing fingers here, and certainly am not aiming anything at the many ukulele clubs around the world. I take my hat off to the organisers of these clubs as getting multiple players, particularly beginners all playing together is no mean feat at all. It’s also incredible to see these players stand up (when many ukers may have only been playing a matter of weeks) and perform songs. For those sort of performances, a rigid integrated team performance is absolutely necessary unless you want to alienate newcomers and beginners. I totally ‘get’ that system and if it gets people confident to play with others, then I think that can only be welcomed.

But more recently (and this is really encouraging) I’ve had quite a few club players get in touch explaining they are creating a ‘band’ or a breakaway group, and asking for advice on ‘arrangements’ and changing their sound. I’ve seen many more clubs and units doing exactly the same thing and this is great to see. And it is particularly pleasing to see that these players recognise when they go out and perform they want to try to work on something a bit more complicated and worked out. A fuller sound if you will.

the cursed ukulele song sheet

Sadly though, many of the same people who have talked to me have said that they want to change, was because the previous club or band they were with were totally resistant to any form of departure from what the club has always done. In a very sad real world example I know of one such outfit who refuses to deal with anything that is ‘not on the song sheet’. No transposing of chords, no individual playing parts, no changing the basic feel of the song by experimenting with alternative rhythms and patterns, no vocal parts. No, if it’s not on the sheet, it’s not acceptable, no more discussion… What the hell is that about?  At a fairly recent gig in front of uke players, mid set I encouraged the audience to experiment with their playing, and if their club refused, to stamp their feet and shout about it. I got several ‘hear hear’s’ back from the crowd and that, in part, encouraged me to get around to writing this.

The song sheet really is a blessing and a curse in my opinion. I totally get them (heck I have many on this site too), but I think they can only take you so far. Worse still, many song sheets out there in internet land are actually just plain wrong (compared to being a reliable chord sequence based on the original).  Many are transposed badly in order to avoid things like E chords and as such lose the feel of the song, many miss out interesting chord progressions in instrumentals or middle sections. Sure, they are a great way for a beginner to get playing quickly, and a godsend for a uke club to hand out to new players. I use them myself all the time. But they become a curse when anyone then tries to ‘insist’ that the playing must stick to what is on the sheet. It really doesn’t. In fact, surely more fun comes from going off piste a little? Actually, I will go further. More fun really comes if you start working the chords out yourself and thinking about your own versions, variations and style. With our band, some of the songs that have proved most successful in our shows are not ones that we downloaded a sheet for, but rather kind of fell out of jam sessions, sounded good, and then one of the players went away and worked it up themselves. Far more satisfying we think.

So if we are going to explore getting out of a rut with your playing, the first thing to bear in mind is that the song sheet is not gospel, it’s just a guide. You ARE allowed to experiment. In fact I would positively encourage it.

Sadly, I can’t write a complete guide to working with ukulele band arrangements in this post. It’s not just that I don’t have the time or the space, it’s just that it is a massive topic, with very personal elements. When we work on band arrangements, they are our own arrangements that make us sound like ‘US’ (we hope). They don’t make ours perfect or suitable for everyone, they are just what we have worked out and we like.  Others might not like them, and that is cool too – each to their own.  Added to which, we have other instruments in the mix that you may not have (although I strongly feel that other instruments are a big part of any ‘band’ finding alternative sounds).

What I can do though is provide some thinking points that may help you experiment. Not everything may work for you, but consider this. If you are in a band with five ukes and you move to getting at least half of those into playing separate parts, then you will automatically have given yourselves a far different (and for more interesting) sound. Take a look at these ideas, and bear in mind that these are just simple structural changes you can consider. One of the best ways to improve your sound of course it to improve your playing, learn to use more of the fingerboard etc. But you knew that already!

  • Everyone is not duty bound to play exactly the same thing at the same time. Back to the song sheet dilemma again. All you are then doing is just expanding exactly the same sound to the audience, but not filling out the sound space. Speak to the band members and talk about people doing something different. Not everyone will be comfortable, and that is just fine – having a couple of ukes on rhythm doing the basic song (i.e. – whats on the sheet!), will work if you explore other avenues with the other performers.
  • Think about the bass. And in that I don’t just mean the inclusion of a bass ukulele, double bass or bass guitar (although I would heartily recommend that to offset the naturally high uke sound and fill your performance), but think about the bass on the ukes. That may sound odd for such a high pitched instrument, but even the inclusion of a low G on some of the instruments will add a different dynamic to you overall sound. Try having some of the band keep some basic strums to the low G and C of one of the ukes in a percussive style. Better still, why not look at a Baritone or a Guitar. They are allowed!
  • Picking. Often considered scary or just overlooked by those starting out, but even a very basic picked roll over the ukulele chords joined with a partner playing the same chords with strums will immediately change your sound for the better.
  • Lead breaks. Ah yes, release your inner guitar rock god! More seriously, if you have multiple players then you will have ‘room’ for one or more of your band to play out the melody or a blues lick over the top.
  • Less can be more. Not every player needs to strum like a demon on every song. The beauty of a band with multiple players, is that certain members can just accentuate certain beats and strums in songs to give them more emphasis. Sure individual players can do this too, but if two players alternate such strums on different sounding instruments you can get some cool effects.
  • Starts and finishes. Again, often overlooked as in many cases they are ‘not on the sheet’, but pick up any record you own and have a listen to some songs. Really, not that many start with “1, 2, 3, 4″ and then go straight into the song. Similarly not many end with a ‘dooby dee doo’ and then stop. Work on each song and see if you can build up some longer starts and finishes. In most cases, these intros and endings will work through a repeat of a bridge / chorus or verse pattern, and there are no rules really.
  • Transpose / learn your Inversions. Just because the sheet says that the song is played in the key of G, does that really suit your style and your vocal ranges. Don’t try and stress the vocal chords out just to stick to the sheet – consider transposing the song to suit the majority of the band. Even when the song works and you are happy with the key, bear in mind that there are several ways to play the chords and often a chord played at a higher position can enhance your sound dramatically. There are no hard and fast rules to this – just experiment. (Oh, and an E7 is not exactly the same as an E – just learn the E…)
  • Harmonies. Firstly on vocals – it is just a simple fact that vocal harmonies between two or three people sound hugely better than those singers performing exactly the same tune. The same works for the ukes too and you can find harmonic patterns on chord sequences that will naturally work together, yet still keep the feel of the song right. The science of harmonies is too big a subject for this blog post but I would recommend you do some other reading on the subject.
  • Instrumentals. Another failure of many song sheets – they can often just be verse chorus verse chorus throughout. As well as missing the intro and endings, they often miss out an instrumental verse. Even if they don’t miss one, there is no reason why you can’t add one to both lengthen the song and allow some of your players to show off some chops in the song.
  • Look beyond the ukulele. Perhaps the one most capable of stirring the hornets nest, and the subject of the other blog post I mentioned earlier. If you really want to work on complimenting the ukulele, getting a thicker sound, then please, please, don’t be afraid of bringing other instruments into the mix. Drums, keyboards, other strings, melodicas, fiddles, whistles, brass, bass, whatever, it’s all good.
  • Challenge everything you do. A simple last thought. Record your performances and play them back. Does it sound ‘samey’ or ‘simplistic’? If so, at your next practice, try and work on an addition. I am not suggesting you throw everything away, but week by week if you work on adding some other interesting elements, before you know it you may have a fully fledged song on your hands.
But those are just ideas, and as I say, they are not compulsory and may not work for your band. But at the very least they should help you get some variation in your sound, and in doing so I strongly believe you will have more fun in your gigging exploits. Make notes of what you practice and then keep experimenting. We often try things out and then hate them, but often we usually find something we like and then try it out on stage. If it goes down badly we try again.
I may well get get some questions back on this such as ‘but we want to be a ukulele band’. I get that, and I am not suggesting that you stop the ukulele playing, but consider this. How many ‘guitar bands’ out there consist of a range of guitars, all playing exactly the same pattern, chords in every song. Mix it up!
Oh and finally – no, the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain don’t sit in a line and all play exactly the same thing. Look closer!

Have fun experimenting!

Ukulele Songs For Beginners

Mobius Ukulele Strap – REVIEW

Ahhh, ukulele straps… if ever there was a subject to divide opinion. Readers of my blog will know mine – want to use a strap, then use a strap! I do! I have been aware of this particular product for some time now, but only recently got around to having a closer look at one. The Mobius Strap.

Mobius <a href='http://dr.tl/Ukulele' target='_blank'>ukulele</a> Strap

The mobius uses a simple but clever bit of mathematics based on the ‘mobius ring’ to create a support system for the uke that I must say, is pretty decent.

The strap consists of simple bit of webbing as used in so many straps with velcro closures on the ends. But the closures don’t match in a way that allows you to create a basic loop – they require you to put a half turn into the loop creating a twist, that rather cleverly helps this to work.

The strap is passed underneath the strings on the front of the uke, then attached in the loop with the all important half twist in the loop. When the strap is then put over the head in the right way (I got it wrong first time) and held in place in the waist of the uke, the twist kind of resolves itself around your body and feels very comfortable. And because of the way the strap runs and twists, it doesn’t flap about under the strings, or cover the sound hole – it naturally, and lightly presses down on the soundboard behind the uke, thereby not affecting the sound projection and actually holding the uke against your body. Devilishly simple I thought and it just works.  (And whilst I got it wrong first time, that was because I, typically, didn’t read the instructions properly – thankfully they are included and very clear to understand!)

Mobius Ukulele Strap

The system comes with a standard strap buckle adjustment for length, allowing you to have the uke held just where you want it.

In play, I didn’t really notice it was there and it didn’t interfere with my play at all. I would say that I would class this as more of a support than a full strap. It does allow you to go hands free, but you need to ensure that the uke is balanced as I found it quite easy for the uke to tip one direction or the other. Thankfully the instrument is not going to hit the floor as the strap will be stopped by either the neck or the bridge, so it is quite safe, but isn’t quite so sturdy as using strap buttons. But really, this is aimed at people who don’t want to drill their ukes for whatever reason.

I like this as an alternative to the sound hole hook (something I have NEVER liked as I don’t want that kind of pressure on my sound hole, nor does it offer hands free support), and whilst I was apprehensive before it arrived, was pleasantly surprised at the comfort and ease of use.

Mobius Ukulele Strap in use

It won’t suit every uke though – pineapple body shapes may be tricky to keep the strap held, and the makers advise that ukes like resonators may be too bottom heavy to hold too. But for the vast majority of ukes, it will work just fine.

I like simple ideas put to good use and this fits the bill very well. If you are wanting to avoid the drill option, then I think you should check them out.

They are available through the Mobius Strap website at http://www.mobiusstrap.com/index.html. They retail at $16.95.

Ukulele Songs For Beginners

Lanikai LUTU-21C ‘TunaUke’ Concert Ukulele REVIEW

A new one for me in the review stakes. Despite having owned Lanikai ukes, and having regularly recommended them, I found I had not actually reviewed one. Therefore was delighted when Leon from Lanikai got in touch asking me to take a look at this new development. The LUTU-21C TunaUke.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke

I have a lot of respect for Lanikai in many ways. They don’t purport to make the worlds best ukuleles, but they do make some fine and reliable beginner instruments. They also do a lot of work in pushing boundaries and developing new ideas, such as their USB instrument. In this case, Lanikai have focussed on one gripe that many beginners have with cheaper instruments, and that is poor intonation (the accuracy of the instrument when tuned). These problems are often caused by a poor setup or a badly placed saddle and Lanikai have developed a whole new bridge concept that allows complete adjustment of the saddle for each individual string. In theory this means that, with adjustment, you can reach tuning nirvana! Let’s take a look.

The TunaUke is based on their standard LU21 series of ukes that come in soprano, concert and tenor flavours, and is essentially the same as the standard LU21C uke apart from the bridge system.  I have found the TunaUke on line from anywhere between $100 and $120, whereas the stock LU21C can be found from $80 to $100. You are therefore paying a slight premium for this system.

As such you get a laminate mahogany finished body (no solid woods here), and few other embellishments apart from some cream edge binding where the top and back meet the sides. It is plain looking, in a deep brown, but like other LU21 ukes I have played or owned, has a very nice solid and tactile feel to it. This one is extremely tidily put together with no marks or issues with the bindings.

The top is one piece, as are the sides and the back, and all have a straight regular grain pattern that runs in parallel with the uke. We have no other decoration and the sound hole is unadorned.  Simple to look at but pleasing is my view. That back is dead flat with no arch at all.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke body

But that new bridge system really stands out. What we have is a rosewood bridge mounting, and within is a plastic insert where a standard saddle would sit. The insert comprises four separate slots into which individually shaped saddle pieces are fitted. Therefore we have no single saddle, rather a saddle for each string.

The concept is similar to that seen on electric guitars, and allows you to move the saddles back and forth, which either lengthens or shortens the string. An accurate ukulele needs accuracy in the distance between the nut and saddle, and the concept here is that you can set that perfectly. Many people assume that the distance should be the same for each string, but as the strings are different thicknesses, technically they need separate scale lengths. Therefore, to test your accuracy, you tune the uke up, then compare the note played at the 12th fret to the note played when the string is open. They should be exactly the same, just an octave apart. If the note at the 12th fret is slightly flatter in tone, then by moving the saddle toward the nut you shorten the string and try again. Eventually you will get a note at the 12th which is the same as the open note, and your uke is perfectly intonated. Likewise if the note at the 12th is sharp, you move it the other way to lengthen the string. Repeat that for each string and you are done. It’s a simple concept and it works. My views on it are further down though.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke bridge

Moving on from the body we have a very comfortable and tidy mahogany neck, made from three pieces of wood. The rosewood fingerboard is equally tidy and has some nice shaping at the end. The edges of the rosewood are a little sharp, but I wouldn’t expect rolled fingerboard edges at this price. The frets are nickel silver and we have 18 in all and 14 to the body. They are dressed very well and comfortable on the fingers.

Fingerboard markers are inlaid in a mother of pearl type material at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th frets, but sadly there are no side fretboard markers for the player. The edges of the fingerboard look to be bound to hide the fret edges, though this may just be a wood stain or paint. Either way though it is a nice touch.

The nut both interests and confuses me. It appears to be made of NuBone or Tusq and is itself cut for intonation. I have not seen nut slots like them before and give a different break point to each individual string. I like the concept, but with the adjustable bridge I wonder why it is needed? That said, with a nut like this and a bridge you could NOT move, you would then face issues if you moved to thicker strings or a low G. Still, interesting to note.

The headstock is a typical Lanikai design, and is unfaced and made from the same neck material. The Lanikai logo is in gold and is applied a sticker rather than an inlay or screen print. I don’t personally like it as I believe that consistent use of a clip on tuner may eventually cause the sticker to peel.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke headstock

Tuning is provided by silver sealed geared tuners with no branding. They work really well though and feel great. The buttons especially I really like. Not only are they sized to compliment the instrument, they are made of a kind of soft touch matte plastic and are really pleasing on the fingers. The kind of material you may expect on the dashboard of a premium car.

Lanikai LUTU-21c TunaUke tuners

The package is completed by Aquila brand strings (what else) a booklet and chord charts showing you how to adjust the bridge and, helpfully, a second spare set of saddle pieces that are higher allowing you to adjust the action up.

So all in all a nice little package, well made and just that little bit different. But how did I get on with it.

Well let us deal with the bridge system first of all. I don’t mind admitting that when I first saw these I thought, WHY? A couple of things crossed my mind really. Firstly, why not just make the uke properly and well intonated?  Sure, many beginner ukes can be woeful in this department, but is the answer to that creating a system that puts the adjustment in the hands of the player and not the manufacturer?

Secondly, is intonation on a concert scale uke really that much in need of adjustment?  My Kanile’a Tenor has a pretty straight bridge saddle but intonates incredibly well and I am often confused at the need for compensated saddles.

Sounds like I am being down on it, right? Well then I thought a little more and things started to make some sense to me.

1. Intonation is an issue for many ukes, and not everybody is buying a hand crafted instrument that you would expect to be perfect. And here is the thing, even with hand crafted uke saddles, they too can often need adjustment. I have adjusted these for scale myself through the use of a bit of very careful sanding at the top of the saddle to adjust the break point of the string. But does a beginner with a budget of $100 really want to go through that? The TunaUke gives them the ability to adjust, and that should be a good thing.

2. When you make a change to a low G string (or to fatter strings) you can throw intonation out if you don’t adjust the bridge. This model removes any worries in that regard.

3. What if you are left handed? This allows you to re configure all strings to intonate correctly without getting a saddle reshaped

4. Of course, this will appeal to anyone who is addicted to ‘meddling’. If you like fiddling with instruments, you will knock yourselves out with this!

So on the whole, I ‘get’ the system to some degree, and I would give top marks to Lanikai for working with new ideas. I do have an issue though, and that is with action height. Because of the way the saddles fit in the mounting, it seems to me that you have little option but the two action heights Lanikai allows with the two sets of saddle pieces. Action, I find, is a very personal thing and I cannot see how, for example, you could find a halfway house height between the two saddle sets. Perhaps if Lanikai offered more sets, such as extra low, low, medium, high this could be solved.

But I am nit picking and for a beginner, so long as it plays in tune, without buzzing, they should be happy. Thankfully, this one does just that, and the setup out of the box on mine was pretty much perfect. A little high on action at the higher frets, but nothing crazy. Action at the nut is pretty much perfect as it can be.

The whole uke ‘feels’ good and solid in the hands. It is not overly heavy, and feels tactile and playable. The neck has a nice profile for my hands, and aside from the slightly sharp wood edges is comfortable and fast to play.

Sound wise, well, being a laminate uke, it is never going to give you a highly complex tone and bags of harmonics, but it has a bold ‘uke like’ tone to it that is perfectly acceptable. Sustain is a touch on the low side, but that is to be expected for a laminate body such as this, but it is percussive and enjoyable. Picking seems a little sweeter, but again the lack of sustain is noticeable. But for the price I have played a LOT worse, usually ukes made by guitar makers that are totally overbuilt and dead sounding. This one is not, it sounds like a fun percussive uke.

All in all, I think if you are in the market for a uke at this price, Lanikai should always be on your shopping list. Whether you will drop the extra dollars for the new bridge system I am not sure. I think it certainly should give you some peace of mind that you can adjust if you need to on string changes, low G, being left handed etc. However if you play one side by side with a cheaper LU21c and find the standard uke intonates well, do you really need the new system? It certainly doesn’t hamper the uke, so I guess it will come down to your own choice. Full marks though for working with new innovations Lanikai.

Scores and video review below!


Build quality


Inability to fine tune action
Price premium over standard


Looks – 8
Fit and Finish – 9
Sound – 7.5
Value For Money – 8.5

OVERALL – 8.4 out of 10


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Ukulele Songs For Beginners

The Burning Glass – Air Of Grandeur – Ukulele Carnage!

Got this tune stuck in my head. Warning now – contains scenes of ukulele carnage.

That said, I can think of a fair few junk ukuleles on the market that I would happily do this to….

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Ukulele Songs For Beginners

Schoenhut Oak Mahogany Ukulele REVIEW

Straight up with another ukulele review so quickly after the last. Doing so as this one is putting the cat amongst the pigeons on social media and a few people are keen to see my thoughts. The Schoenhut Oak Mahogany ukulele.

Schoenhut Oak Mahogany Ukulele

The instrument is part of their 5400 series which also comes in several other designs, and retail for about £35 over here in the UK. It sure is a striking uke design, but striking to me because it is a direct (and I mean direct) copy of the Flea ukulele designed by the Magic Fluke Company in the USA. The Schoenhut is made in China. Is that cool? I don’t think so, but this review will not get into the politics of how this came about. All I will say is that Magic Fluke have announced that they came to an agreement with Schoenhut regarding the design, and it is not for me to speculate further on that – it is their business. One thing is for sure though, there are fans out there who are raving about these and those who are claiming they are the worst ukes on earth. Neither view will affect my own review, but I mention it as it seems to be a hot topic at the moment. It is worth saying though that some people are reporting no quality problems, and some are reporting a ton of them.

As a final point before we get into the body of the review, Schoenhut are marketing this as a ‘toy’ and not an instrument. I will give you my thoughts on that towards the end of this piece, but it is an interesting and important thing to note.

So from a visual perspective it is pretty much identical to the Flea. The body is a single piece of polycarbonate onto which a laminate wood top is fitted to make the sound chamber. The plastic seems to have a slightly different feel to the Flea original so I don’t know if it is as strong as the Flea (a uke I have dropped from a great height and is still going strong).  It was also quite scuffed out of the box.

Schoenhut Oak Mahogany Ukulele back

The top though is VERY different. The Flea uses a laminate wood made from Australian Hoop Pine and is extremely thin. The Schoenhut on the other hand uses an excessively thick top. While we are here, I have no idea what ‘Oak Mahogany’ is, and think they couldn’t make up their minds. No matter though because that bright orange grain pattern isn’t wood anyway, the top is finished with a sticker or transfer of a wood design, over which the sound hole decoration is applied in black. The whole top is overly glossy to me.

I quite like the sound hole rosette, but would have preferred them to have left the large name logo off the front. It is also overly glossy unlike the Flea.

Schoenhut Oak Mahogany Ukulele top

The bridge is a slotted type and looks very similar to the Flea. It is however lifting off the soundboard and I therefore have no idea on how long this will last. Looks precarious to me.

Schoenhut Oak Mahogany Ukulele bridge

The neck is wooden like the Flea and very similar in shape. It is however finished in an overly thick gloss for my liking. It is also a wider shape when we reach the headstock, with the Flea having a far narrower taper. This is an issue to me as I found that when playing chords that use a lot of the first fret space, my hand is bumping into the headstock. It feels cramped, particularly evident on a chord like F minor.

The fingerboard is made of plastic and glued on to the wooden neck, just like the Flea, but again looks like a different sort of plastic. These moulded necks have the advantage of being super accurate in intonation, also helped by the use of a zero fret. No complaints in this regard, the Schoenhut is indeed accurate all down the neck. But a word about that material. One complaint people have levelled at Flea is the fact that their plastic frets can wear down over time. Mine is about five years old, gets played a LOT and is starting to show it. Sure, it can be replaced, but its a hassle. I took a small file and pressed it onto one of the frets on the Flea that I don’t play too much and it left no mark. I repeated this on the Schoenhut and it left a noticeable dent in the fret. This suggests to me that the Schoenhut fingerboard will not last too long at all.

Fret markers are painted on in silver at the 5th, 7th and 12th, just like the Flea. The slightest touch of a nail on the Schoenhut markers though scratches them off as you may be able to see in the pictures.

Schoenhut Oak Mahogany Ukulele fingerboard

Tuning is provided by friction tuners of an extremely cheap quality. Plastic on plastic friction, and they were incredibly sticky and extremely difficult to adjust to anything useable. Worse still one of the tuner buttons had sheared internally and turning it would not turn the post. That is terrible quality control. I fitted new pegs I had lying around just so I could play it and write this review. For the record the originals were also black, with silver, not gold posts. I have read some suggest they are Gotoh pegs – the certainly are not!

Schoenhut Oak Mahogany Ukulele headstock

Finishing the deal are black, cheap nylon strings which were absolutely hopeless so I immediately re strung this with Worth Flourocarbons.

And there we have it. Very similar looks, but not quite an exact match to the Flea, let down in my opinion by the quality of materials (top, bridge, fingerboard and tuners) for my liking. But for such a saving on the Flea is that forgivable? I think it depends who the player is. For a beginner or a child, then I say no (marketed as a toy or not). If you are already a player and fancies a project or a bit of fun for £35, then maybe. But this is only half the picture, how does it play?

I have prepared a video review side by side with the Flea for you to listen to which will help you here (see below), but generally, it’s quite a playable little thing. I say that when what I should say is ‘its playable now I have replaced the tuners and the strings!’

Play on the neck feels very similar to the Flea, but is let down by that chunky headstock on the lower open chords and the feel of the gloss on the neck. Action and setup is identical to the Flea, but no surprises there as that is what the design is intended to do.

Sound wise, it really isn’t too bad at all. I think it has similar volume to the Flea, but lacks some of the more complex harmonics of its rival. It has a thinner and boxier sound, but really, not as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, some people may not actually notice the difference. In short, it took some  effort to get there, but it sounds surprisingly good.

So perhaps a review of two halves this one? Well, not quite. The quality control is a major bugbear for me, and I have no idea how long that fingerboard or bridge are going to last. Nobody wants those sort of issues.

And in coming to a  conclusion on it, I have to return to the issue of who is buying it. Sure, if you know what you are doing, and prepared to deal with the pitfalls, it is a bit of a bargain (even though that £35 will become about £60 when you have bought new tuners and strings!). But for beginners and children, I cannot recommend this as I am not convinced you will get one without issues. Perhaps I was just totally unlucky, but I don’t think so for one very simple reason. £35 does not buy a lot of anything these days and it was unlikely to be a miracle for that price.

And that brings me on to perhaps my biggest issue with it – the concept of it being a ‘toy’. I personally don’t like ukes being touted as toys in any case as I think it just devalues them and reinforces the stereotype as ‘joke instrument’. But are they really toys? They are priced at a level that puts them a little more expensive than the likes of a Makala Dolphin, and more than the Korala Explore, both of which I think are great. If its a toy, why not cheaper still? Is the toy reference a handy get out clause. Baz from Got A Ukulele thinks its bad, so what – it’s just a toy!!!

And besides, if it is a toy, then is that an excuse for it to be badly made? Toy does not have to mean ‘crap’.

Mainly though if you want to buy your child a ukulele, then buy them a ukulele not a toy. Something like the Dolphin or the Korala are cheaper, and in my experience more reliable. Better still, talk to your child and get them something like a Lanikai LU11 which is about the same price as this uke when you take into account string cost and tuner price.

So do I recommend it. Well if you want a project, then knock yourself out, but if you are a beginner or buying for a child I would recommend caution.

Does sound ok though. Intriguing!

Schoenhut Oak Mahogany Ukulele next to Flea
Schoenhut next to my original Flea


Sound (when properly setup  and strings changed)


Quality control
Thick top
Overly glossy
Concerns over fingerboard hardness
Bad tuners


Looks – 7
Fit and Finish – 4.5
Sound – 7.5
Value For Money – 6

OVERALL – 6.3 out of 10


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Ukulele Songs For Beginners

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele – REVIEW

It’s nice when a new ukulele brand comes my way for review. I am not talking about the flood of cheap rubbish at the bottom end, but a new, decent playable instrument. Thanks to Omega Music in the UK, I have been lucky to have been able to spend some time testing such a uke. The Kremona Coco Tenor.

Kremona Coco Tenor <a href='http://dr.tl/Ukulele' target='_blank'>ukulele</a>

Kremona are an instrument company based in Bulgaria in Eastern Europe, and have actually been making stringed instruments for many years. This though is part of a new range of ukuleles they have brought to the market, and the Coco Tenor represents (I believe) the top of their line. It retails at £349 and is made in Bulgaria. Yes, that’s right a move away from the usual China for ukes at this price point.

My readers will know that I am not a huge one for ‘bling’ but when I first took this out of its box my reaction was ‘WOW’.  Perhaps ‘bling’ is the wrong word, as this isn’t actually an overly ostentatious instrument, but it just spoke to me on many levels, and impressed me for being bold enough to change many of the norms that are relied upon by so many manufacturers.

The body is a traditional double bout shape, and is made of solid woods all round. The top is made from solid cedar, and the back and sides are solid Indian Rosewood. The contrast between the light and dark woods is, in my opinion, fantastic. The grain on the top is (typically for cedar) straight and even, the top itself being made of two pieces of wood, nicely book matched.

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele sides

The sides are in a deep rosewood brown with plenty of stripe that is even and parallel with the build. The back is put together by two book matched pieces of the same deep rosewood and looks great. The back has very little arch to it (if any at all) which was a surprise, but we will come on to sound projection and range later on.

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele back

There is decorative binding where the top and back meet the sides, with a  brown white brown stripe showing on the top and back, and also a similar finish on the sides themselves. I think it looks really nice and sets off the darker wood really well. Where the sides meet at the base there is a similar trim.

The whole body is finished in a satin that, like some of the Kalas who employ the same finish, make it look and feel a little artificial. Thankfully though there is enough grain coming through to offset this more than it does on say, the Kala Acacia I reviewed. Finish is generally good, though there are one or two bubble spots and rougher patches. Honestly though, I have seen much, much worse on ukes that cost more money.

I mentioned above that I like manufacturers who do things a little differently and the first thing that strikes you in that regard on the Kremona is that sound hole. It’s an oval shape (itself unusual) but is decorated around in quartered segments of inlaid wood (what appear to be rosewood and maple). I think it looks great and will certainly turn heads when you turn up to a jam with one of these.

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele sound hole

The bridge mounting is also different. It’s a standard tie bar bridge but shaped nicely and differently than 99% of ukes you will buy. The saddle appears to be bone or Tusq and is set on an angle. Sadly the bridge seems very low giving little room for manoeuvre if you needed to take the action down.

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele bridge

A look inside and all seems neat and tidy. The manufacturer label is hand filled in on the serial number line (I like little touches like this that remind you it was actually built with human intervention!) and the bracing looks nicely shaped (if a little rough around some edges). All tidy generally though.

On to the neck and this is made of mahogany and is in three pieces with a joint at the heel and the headstock. It has a nice profile to it, not too thin and slightly wider at the nut than many tenors – something I prefer and I find helps playability. People often think the scale of the ukulele (i.e. soprano, concert, tenor) dictates fingerboard space, and as such the myth that concerts are easier than sopranos. Whilst this applies to some degree, nut width is a far bigger factor.

The neck is topped with a rosewood fingerboard, which is evenly coloured all over. The fingerboard edges are not rolled, but it remains extremely comfortable in the hand. Outward facing fretboard markers are inlaid in white at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th frets. As far as player facing markers go, we have a solitary one at the 7th. Better than none I suppose!

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele neck

There are 18 nickel silver frets, with 14 to the top of the body and they are on the chunkier side which I like to play. They are really nicely finished on the fret ends, in fact one of the better examples of finish I have seen in this regard.

Past the bone nut (which is nicely applied, nice and low with the strings sitting on the slots, not deep inside them) and the headstock is another highlight. I will always applaud a manufacturer who chooses to go with a headstock shape different from the most common Martin clone shape. This one is kind of offset and looks like a mountain range silhouette.  I really like it. The headstock is faced with rosewood, and the facing plate also has binding detail where it joins the headstock. Another really nice point of detail.

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele headstock

Tuning is provided by open geared tuners in gold. They are unbranded but work perfectly and seem to be of good quality. The buttons are not overly large and suit the scale of the instrument just fine. I personally would have preferred the tuners in silver not gold, and perhaps the pegs in dark rosewood to compliment the back, but I am now nit-picking. (I do think they are a little gaudy though).

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele tuners

The package is finished off with Aquila strings, what else. I haven’t changed them as this uke has to go back to the dealer, but I would be sorely tempted to experiment with strings on this one.

So I think you can probably tell from the description above, that I am really rather taken with how this uke looks, and the little differences that set it apart from the pack. I will go further, I think it looks FABULOUS. As I often say though, looks do not affect tone or playability. The Kremona is doing well so far, but how does it play and sound?

Firstly, the setup is just fine for my tastes. Thankfully the action at the bridge is acceptable as if it was high I may struggle to take it down much more. The action at the nut and the general finish is excellent and one of the best nut finishes I have seen outside bespoke ukulele builds.

To hold, the instrument is comfortable. It actually feels a little body heavy which is no bad thing, although if this was mine I would fit a strap button for performances anyway. The satin finish makes it a very tactile thing to hold though and the neck comfort is better than most instruments I have played at this price point.

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele body

Volume wise, well, it has bags of it. A really good projection, and when strummed or plucked hard it can really shout the volume out when needed. Played quietly though it is surprising how easy it is to get a clear tone out of it, so it clearly has a great range.

Strummed and there is great separation between the strings, and chords ring very accurately all over the neck. It doesn’t quite have the complex harmonics and chime of some higher end instruments, but compared to a lot of Kalas I have played in this price range, the Kremona excels. Sustain seems to be a little shorter on strumming compared to picking though. Nothing overly short, but to my style of playing and my ears, this instrument seems slightly better suited to fingerpicking than plain strumming. I don’t think that is a bad thing. Also bear in mind the Aquila strings. I am not a fan, and sustain when strumming will, I suspect, be improved with a string change to fluorocarbons.

Playability is helped by that really nice neck and nut width. I found it very easy to play with no issues of bumping fingers or lack of space when hammering on more complex chord shapes, even on the lower frets. It feels very natural and intuitive to play and that is, in my experience, the mark of a very playable instrument. To date only a couple of other ukes have given me that feeling and they both cost considerably more than this one.

So in short, I think this is a winner. I was immediately taken by the fact that the build features a number of elements that make it stand out from a crowd that is increasing in size. It’s a head turner for sure, but I am particularly pleased that the playability and tone do not let it down. That would have been a real shame.

Recommended, and be sure to check out the video review below. Thanks again to Matt at Omega for the loan.

Kremona Coco Tenor Ukulele top


Looks – all sorts of details and features that are unique
Neck finish, nut, frets, width – all wonderful
The contrast between that top and the back
A move away from China


Slighty plasticy satin finish
Gaudy tuners


Looks – 9
Fit and Finish – 8.5
Sound – 9
Value For Money – 9



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Ukulele Songs For Beginners

A Look Inside Ukulele Friction Tuners – Not All Bad!

A common thing I read on ukulele social media is how beginners seem to hate friction tuning pegs on ukes. I decided to look into them a little more closely. Guess what… you get what you pay for.

Personally, on smaller traditional looking instruments, particularly sopranos, I don’t think you can beat the look of friction pegs. Geared tuners on small instruments can make the neck top heavy and just, kind of, stick out! But it is a worry that friction tuning pegs have gained a reputation to being difficult to use, sticky or just plain useless. This is not true across the board.

Sadly, like many things with the uke today, cheap parts flood the market and it is therefore no wonder that pegs form part of that. The friction pegs on the recent uke that I took to pieces, are some of the worst I have seen and are a nightmare to use for a beginner (I just about got them working). The vast majority of other cheaper ukes that use friction pegs (including some higher cost ones) will use pretty basic friction tuners too. I am used to them, and I can tune with them, but have been working with them for years. A beginner though will find they stick, shoot to over tuning and that they are generally hard to be precise with. A shame, but very common.

However, if you spend only a little extra money, you can find some really nice pegs with a number of parts that honestly will change your perception of friction pegs. The pegs on my Koaloha Soprano are sublime. They look pretty much the same as other friction pegs, but only when using them will you see what I mean. They hold, but turn as smooth as geared pegs, without slipping. Not all friction pegs are alike!

So whilst it may not be cost effective to add £25′s worth of better pegs to a £20 ukulele, if you are playing a £100 uke and dissatisfied with the friction pegs, or fancy removing geared tuners to move to a more traditional look, retro fitting them is easy and you can get good quality.

Anyway, I put together this video to show you how they compare, and what goes in to making a higher end peg.


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Ukulele Songs For Beginners

Why Do We Accept Cheap Junk Ukuleles?

Time for another rant, and another piece I have been meaning to write for some time. Why do we accept and buy such cheap junk ukuleles? Since when did the assumption that a musical instrument can be a bargain price come along?

This post was prompted by me spotting a cheap ukulele in a local shop that took my breath away. You know the sort of thing – the brightly painted, thick laminate ukes that plague eBay and other dealers who jump on the bandwagon because they see the ukulele as ‘popular’. Sadly what they don’t do though is actually give much of a damn as to whether the ukulele is actually playable or not, and as such the market is full of instruments that could only very loosely be called ‘musical instruments’.

A couple of points before I continue. This is not a case of snobbery and I appreciate that money is tight for many people, but is there really an expectation that you are going to get something that works for only £10 (or in the case of the uke I look at below, £8 or about the price of a good set of strings)? These are musical instruments. Would you expect a violin, guitar, piano, flute or whatever else for £10? Why the uke?

I am writing this because I get a lot of email on the subject of ‘I bought a ukulele for cheap and it won’t play in tune’, and equally see a lot of beginners saying the same on various social media spots. Equally, I have ranted about this subject before, particularly over instruments I have reviewed such as this Mahalo. Interestingly I have had a backlash for my views on Mahalo (for the record, I have never played a good one, and until I do, my position stands), but I could say the same for a range of ukes in the same price category such as Clifton, Hudson, Ashton, examples of which I have played and been totally let down by the build.

People have also said to me that the ukulele should be cheap because it is small. What a complete nonsense. They are musical instruments and need a certain basic level of technicality in the build to make them capable of being played. I am not just talking about action and setup, but basic build characteristics such as the neck angle, the position of the bridge and the frets. I have seen instruments by the likes of Mahalo and Ashton where they were just plain built ‘wrong’, making accurate playability a total impossibility. In that I mean, not a subjective problem such as ‘they sound rubbish’, but build defects that would mean the instrument would never play in tune. Ever. And if small should be cheap, a good tin whistle or harmonica costs more than the uke I include in the example below!

So what has happened? Well, with any boom supply grows to meet demand, and China is the powerhouse in this regard. They are churning out instruments by the bucketload and in many cases giving little thought to the end player. I am not down on China, and they produce some fine quality instruments when the order is overseen by a brand that demands quality, but they are equally quite happy to knock out sub par products that find their ways into our homes in their droves.

The price at which ukes become more serious is very subjective, but it certainly isn’t at £10. For me (and I am happy to debate this as there are some exceptions to the rule), I think they start getting good at about £100 over here in the UK, and in the £100-£300 range you can find ukes to suit all abilities. Beyond that you get some sublime instruments, and if you top over £1000 you get into the real stunners.

But there is another problem behind this. I am afraid to say that the sales of these junk ukes go hand in hand with the misconception that the ukulele is a toy instrument, a joke, or ‘just a bit of fun’. So long as that myth remains, then these monstrosities will continue to appear in stores. It is almost as if the uke is considered a throwaway item….


It comes packaged in a suitably Hawaiian themed box complete with tropical flower motif and goes by the name of the ‘Ready Ace’ ( a trades description breach if ever there was one as you will see…)

Ready Ace Ukulele
Ready Ace Ukulele headstock

It is a laminate uke complete with thick glossy garish paint finish like so many cheap ukes at this price point. Interestingly, the makers decided that gloss on the body was not enough for this little beauty and decided to paint the fingerboard in gloss black, and then detail the frets in gold paint. I have never seen anything quite like it.

Ready Ace Ukulele fingerboard

The bridge is a slotted type, make of plastic and screwed to the body. A look at the edge of the sound hole shows that the laminate top is super thick, so volume and tone are bound to be compromised. That bridge by the way is set in the wrong place and on a slight angle. Critical error number one.

Ready Ace Ukulele top

It is the neck though where things fall apart completely. Those frets are not set correctly, not only is the spacing somewhat random, they are all set in the fingerboard at a slight angle and as such this instrument will NEVER play in tune. In fact the instrument would play better if they didn’t bother with the frets at all!

The tuning is provided by the cheapest friction tuners I have ever seen, that use a piece of cardboard as a washer. They were loose on arrival (which would be enough to fox any new player or child) and one was actually off and rolling around in the box. I tightened them up as far as I dare without splitting the plastic and the strings (nylon by the way, and all of the same gauge) just about held.

Ready Ace Ukulele tuners

Action wise, far too high at the nut and the saddle, but that can be adjusted. Those misplaced frets and bridge cannot….

Playing it, well that high action was pretty awful, but the misplaced frets are the thing. Tuning on the E and A strings was not too bad, but don’t ever try to play a chord that uses those strings in conjunction with the G or the C string as they just won’t work! I recorded a video to accompany this post which you will find at the end if you are interested. So in other words a totally unplayable instrument. I should take it back for a refund, but……

I wanted to look deeper into this uke. So throwing my £7.99 to the wind for the sake of the good readers of this blog, out came the craft knife. What I found inside was revolting.

Firstly the top. No real surprises here, super thick plywood with some over spray from the painting process and enormous screws holding the bridge down. Presumably that super thick paint and super thick laminate was the reason why there is no bracing….

Ready Ace Ukulele underside of top

Looking into the body though it actually looks like someone has vomited into the uke. There seems to be more glue poured around the body than there is holding the back and top on to the sides. In fact, the top was really easy to prize off, so this uke was never going to last. It is a complete mess. The tail and neck blocks look like they have been sawn off a tree that was growing outside the factory. This is what your princely sum of £7.99 gets you.

Interesting note – the label says it is an Acoustic Guitar……

Ready Ace Ukulele inside body

Ready Ace Ukulele inside body

Why does this matter? We don’t play the inside of the uke. Well, it is an indication of just how shoddy the build process is from start to finish (as if that wasn’t immediately obvious from the outside…). It shows that this production line couldn’t care less about whose hands the ‘instrument’ lands in, and only cares about fleecing the buying public for what they can on the back of the ukulele trend.

Why do I care? Surely Baz, you knew this was a rubbish uke? You may be confident that you would never buy one of these. That is good to hear, but people ARE buying them, and buying them in great quantities. The very best outcome for someone with one of these is that they have wasted their money (remember the adage ‘buy cheap, buy twice.). But the worst outcome is that somebody who wanted to give the ukulele a try would end up frustrated and totally put off because the thing is unplayable. This may be their first and last foray into the uke world. Think of the child on their birthday morning who wanted a uke and opened this box. It’s very sad, and whilst there is little I can do about it, if I had my way then these things would be banned. As it is, I can shout about it here and hope that people take note.

If you are buying, buy from a reputable place and please remember that you get what you pay for. If you are a dealer, eBay or otherwise carrying these sort of ukes, and shipping them out without even opening the boxes, then shame on you. Have a think about what you are putting on the market and perhaps have a bit more pride rather than just ripping people off.

As a final point – this is an EDIT – some people are suggesting this sort of uke is not sold as an instrument, but as a toy or decorative piece. Sadly, that is not true – this one even came with a leaflet inside with a chord chart and a how to play and tune guide…. See:

And finally – a STOP PRESS, as suggested by Cliff Adams – what SHOULD you buy for yourself or your kids if these are so bad?

Well if you really don’t want to / cannot afford to spend much more than this, then you really should take a look at a Makala Dolphin uke. They will need some adjustment, but are very playable and project well (I own two). They are around 25-30 pounds and I know many top end players who own them because they are fun.

The Lanikai LU11 or 21′s are considered to be great for kids and many schools use them. I have seen some quality control issues with some, but think they sound great.

If you want to move to the £100 bracket that I suggest (and that wasn’t an order in the post, just my opinion) and get a great first ukulele then I personally think it is hard to beat the Ohana SK25. Wonderful little uke that one.

Take a look at the video. And, I couldn’t even justify giving this uke it’s own space on my review page. If I did, it is a firm 0 out of 10…. Sadly, this is not the only one out there.

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Ukulele Songs For Beginners

Ukulele News – 16 March 2014

I haven’t done a ukulele news roundup for ages, so lets take a look back over the last couple of weeks!

600 Ukes…. Fun at the Sunshine Coast ukulele Fest


That’s ‘Brooklyn’, not ‘Britain’


I heard very good reports from this years Ukes For Unicef


Fears for the uke festival in Bend


Really, two chords does NOT make you an intermediate player… When are we going to drop the ‘its easy’ tag and allow the instrument to be taken seriously?


Here’s another one..


Nice piece with James Hill and Anne Janelle


Ukulele Songs For Beginners