Soprano Ukulele

Here is Gloria holding a soprano ukulele I built for a guy we met in Memphis in the fall of 2014. Gloria and I were on a southern adventure, towing  our travel trailer down from Massachusetts to tour Nashville, Memphis, Clarkesdale Mississippi, and the Delta region.

We had set up camp for a few days in the RV park  behind the Heartbreak Hotel right across the road from Graceland. An RV near us was shared by two English couples who were also exploring the American south. And as luck, or more likely the spirit of Elvis, would have it, one of these travelers was a ukulele player named Jack. Over the course of a couple of days in Elvis’s campground we swapped some uke licks and drained a beer or two.

So, long story short, Jack e-mailed me a couple of months later from his then geographic location,  somewhere in France, and asked me to build him a soprano ukulele.

Over the period of the next several months we discussed wood choices and design details.

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Jack selected this  back, top, and side set from pictures I forwarded to him from a Koa wood dealer in Hawaii. I ordered the set and let it sit in my shop for a month or so to stabilize in my shop’s 40 percent humidity, because it’s never a good idea to cut and glue wood that has just arrived from a different part of the world, even though it was professionally dried and cured.

We continued to discuss details as the building process progressed--selection of the white-black-white wood strip purfling and the (faux) tortoise binding. Jack, an avid skier, asked for a mountain  inlay, so I sent him photos of my suggested design for approval before routing out the headstock and installing the inlay.

Koa ukulele set for Jack
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The fretboard, headstock overlay, bridge, and tail-piece are West African ebony.

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Instead of guitar-style tuners,I used banjo-style tuning machines. These, made by Gotoh as ukulele tuners, are a bit smaller than actual banjo tuners, but otherwise are similar. They give the appearance of traditional straight-through tuning pegs, but also provide a 4:1 turning ratio, which makes them much more player-friendly than plain pegs.

I strung it with Aquila Red strings, which have become my all-time favorites because their chemical composition allows them to be thinner than nylon strings, making for very light fingering, especially for someone like me who uses a lot of guitar-style barre chords. They have a brighter sound than most strings and keep their brightness for a very long time.

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Here’s me giving the finished instrument a farewell play before packing it up for shipment.

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