Holiday Ukulele Gift Guide

I am often asked to recommend ukuleles for purchase.  Here is my list for 2012, from the cheapest to the finest and lots inbetween plus the most neccesary accessories.

 very ukulele christmas!

But, let me begin by urging you consider  spending more.

When I turned a certian age I bought myself  what I referred to as my “mid-life crisis present”.  A Kamaka Ota San.  It was waaaay more money then I had.   My teacher, the beloved John Zhender, was dying.  I had been playing the Kamaka weekly, pulling it off the wall at McCabes for several months when I came for my  lesson.  It was made for a low G, (which was how John liked to play), it was beautiful in every way, made of koa with rope binding and a creamy tone.  Fancy.  I wanted it, but I thought I wasn’t a good enough player to warrant such an extravagance.  John encouraged me and in a moment of weakness I put it on lay away.  (and a serious hardshell case for it to travel in!)

Best thing I ever did.  I got it on my birthday, took it to John’s house for a visit when he was in hospice.  Two days later he passed away.  I Played it at his memorial service. Since then I have played it almost every day, and I believe I have grown into it.  I am still not a great player, but it has become my voice.  I don’t know if my journey would have been the same without the inspiration which a beautiful instrument gave me.  Not that you have to go all the way on your first instrument, or on a present for a child.  But if you listen to an instrument, find one with a beautiful voice, you may want to hear that voice all the more often.

The Ohana and the Kamaka at Austin City Limits Festival

The Ohana and the Kamaka at Austin City Limits Festival

So….Let’s start at the middle, and with a full disclosure.  Ohana has been very generous to the Sukey Jump Band this year and even took Daniel and myself to China (see the last few posts).  However,  I played an Ohana for several years before any of this came to pass.  (pause for another personal story)

I wanted a good instrument with a pick up to plug in for stage shows.  I sure didnt want to drill a hole in my Kamaka, so I went with my very small purse to McCabes.  They set me up with an instrument that had been damaged and repaired, putting it in my very meager price range.  I loved it, and have treasured it since, cracks and all.

For mid-range instruments, even starter mid-range I recommend Ohana.  This is not just an endorsement talking,  I really do like their stuff.  I also love their company.  Small and sweet, a more decent crew you never met.  The owner, Louis Wu, personally rolls his sleves up to do set up on even the least expensive models.  That’s him in our Owl and the Pussycat video shot in the warehouse.

Of the starter soprano models I like the pineapple uke, pk-10s.  This shape is not usually my first choice, but it’s got a great sound, a little fuller then the standard shape. I use their concert model ck 10 as my “kit”, and if you have borrowed an instrument from me in the last year that would be it.  They do well with a Low G, which, as you may know, is the way I roll.  Even beginners deserve a good instrument.  Trust me, it is well worth a little extra to have a pleasant tone and good action.

My main axe is a CK 50G.  It rocks.  In this video Daniel plays the tenor version and I play my concert at radio station KDHX in St Louis durring spin around the  Musical Merry Go Round with  Grandpa Paul Stark.  I also like their willow-sided ones and I really like the Martin-inspired soprano I noodled around with in China.  (but I don’t know the stock number)

If you want better you gotta go handmade.  BIG price jump.

Elevator up…..

All the way to Michael DaSilva.

Michael making something beautiful

Michael making something beautiful

Really, go all the way.  Go meet him, hang in his shop. Once you do you will never want a factory instrument again.  You will pine for the hand made beauty of his instruments.  I LOVED the one he made for James hill.  It has the sexiest cutaway I have ever caressed.  His shop is a beautiful home for the heart of a musician and he is the dearest man you will ever meet.  Not that Michael’s are the most expensive instruments out there.  He is probably overly modest in his pricing.  I do think they are among the sweetest.  They are alive.  They sing.  It is a joy to hold them in your arms.

The James hill model.   Tasty.

The James hill model. Tasty.

Elevator down….

The best of the bottom.

Buying something for a 2 year old?  Want something to keep in the back of your car?  Take to the beach?  First timer wanting to try it out, no risk?  Want to buy 20 ukes to give as gifts to all you know?   Diamond head.  Get it on Amazon.  CHEEP.  Like around 30 bucks.Oddly, I have foundthe shiny painted ones to have a better sound then the “natural” wood.  Remember, you get what you pay for,but this time around you get a playable instrument, cheerful and fun.  These used to be my “kit” before I upgraded to Ohana concert ukes.  Change the strings and they are better then most instruments costing twice that. Here is a video of a young man playing one to great effect.  (and I am poud to say, covering one of my songs!)

at $30 bucks nobody gets hurt

at $30 bucks nobody gets hurt


Tuner    the Snark.

chord book        The Alfred Handy Guide

instructional CDs   Jim deVille  or Fred Sokolow

and of course, I would be remiss not to indulge in a moment of SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION not to recommend my CD PLAY, which is comprised of many of the simple songs I  use to teach ukulele to all ages.  The included booklet has all the chords and lyrics, and it’s a good time for the youngest of kids and even grandparents.  It has a wacky edge and adults dig it too.  At least the cool ones.

The ultimate gift for any ukulele player is lessons!

I still take lessons whenever I can, either with Fred Sokolow or Daniel Ward.  He taught traditional sevillanas for ukulele at a recent workshop at McCabes, and I really dug being introduced to that!  Lots of teachers, like Jim, Daniel and myself are available to teach via skype, so you are never too far away.  And you don’t have to smell us!

More affordable are workshops and group lessons.  Great music shops, like McCabes in Santa Monica often host them.  I will be leading one there on February 2nd, the lovely Jim Beloff has one there in January.  Check in with your local ukulele club and see if they know what’s going on in your area.

A fun way to give a gift without spending a dime is to share your songs on    I will be making my friends and family some charts for lullabies and putting them up as a Holiday gift, and then sending them home-recorded MP3s.  Ain’t technology wonderful?

So, what are you doing sitting around reading this?  Go buy a uke and download a chart (maybe buy my CD) and MAKE SOME MUSIC!