Sunday, 9 September 2007

A Tale Of Two Ukuleles

In the last couple of weeks Mrs Nipper and I have both become the proud owners of bespoke hand built ukuleles. They could not be more different from each other and so this really is a tale of two ukuleles.

First up is Mrs Nipper's Kepasa Soprano made by Kevin Crossett. A few months back Mrs Nipper asked Kevin to make a small bodied soprano and after some deliberation decided she would like something like an old Hawaiian ukulele in the style of Augusto Dias. Kevin designed the 'Madeira' style ukulele to fit her requirements whilst using the best modern building techniques. The resulting instrument is a triumph. It looks incredible, subtle handmade rope binding and stunning koa combine with the creamy spruce top to make a truly beautiful uke.


The headstock has an interesting asymmetric tuning peg arrangement and a design straight from the work table of Dias. The tuners are black and white, as requested by Mrs Nipper, to compliment the rope binding. As you would expect from Kevin the fit and finish is absolutely tip top and demonstrates he is a world class luthier. His ukuleles certainly hold their own with those made by the likes of Dave Means and Joel Eckhaus.



The 'Madeira' is a very playable ukulele and the slim neck sits easily in the hand. Kevin will shape a neck to suit the client and in this case has made a ukulele which is a perfect fit for Mrs Nipper's delicate hands. Despite this it still feels great to play in my much larger hands; again this is down to Kevin's great skill as a luthier. The way the tuners sit leaves plenty of room for the fretting hand and is exactly what Mrs Nipper asked for when ordering this ukulele. The action has been set to allow height to dig in and suits both strumming and finger picking styles. The lightness of the build and slim body make this a ukulele that is easy to hold and comfortable to strum.

As you would expect with a spruce top the 'Madeira' sounded superb right out of the box, a warm, full tone and a nice punch when pushed. The tone is very focused and even; with the short sustain you expect from a soprano. Mrs Nipper can not put this uke down and I have had to wrestle it from her just to get a few minutes playing. This is because the ukulele sounds so good, gently strumming brings forth a beautifully crisp tone which nicely complements singing; push and there is plenty of dynamic and the sound finds a little more bite. When finger picked the tone is full and even with plenty of volume.


So I have written a completely glowing review, surely there must be something, just a tiny hint of criticism to make about this ukulele; well there isn't! I can honestly find no faults with it. This is without doubt an outstanding instrument. It is a joy to look at, play and listen too. The Kepasa 'Maderia' is one of the best ukuleles I have ever played.

I have a Kepasa 'Hollywood' concert which is equally as thrilling a ukulele as the 'Maderia', Craig Robertson performs and records with Kepasa ukuleles, they are the favourite ukuleles of Chris of the 'Ukecast' (he has two and one on order), everyone should own one of Kevin's ukuleles as they are consistently great. My advice is get your order in now as his book will surely be full to bursting before long.

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And now for something completely different........ The 'Ukelectric'. This ukulele is from the first batch of electric concert ukuleles made by Pete Howlett of UK-Ukes. Unlike the 'Madeira' which was created for Mrs Nipper, I only had to choose the top wood and head plate for this ukulele. In fact as the uke will eventually be painted Pete choose the Madrone wood for the top and when I asked for something unusual for the head plate, he went with beautiful burr walnut. The result, even before painting, is a good looking ukulele.

The 'Ukelectric' is constructed like a drop top electric guitar with a solid cedar body, hollowed out to form sound chambers and then a solid top glued in place. Pete has then followed ukulele tradition with a pin bridge and Gibson style headstock. These ukuleles are very competitively priced and so there is no choice about set up or neck profile, but I wasn't disappointed, Pete is a master craftsman and the uke feels great in the hand. Pete must also feel the same way about action as I do, as it is perfect for me!

The fit and finish is incredible for the price, far and away better than you would ever expect. The wood is great and the whole thing sturdy and ready to gig with. The ukulele is surprisingly light for it's solid construction and I was able to play it easily without a strap. The hardware is gold and looks great, however the tuners are grover style copies and not quite as good as the real thing, I would have been happy to pay a few pounds more and get some 'sta-tites'. The position of the lead socket is such that if you want to play in a sitting position you will need a right angle lead, however with a strap or playing standing up there isn't an issue, and I prefer this socket position to the end pin design most often used.

One reason I bought the 'Ukelectric' was to practise late at night without disturbing the family, and for this it is great. It has a quiet acoustic sound which is still loud enough for late night, solo, practicing and is much louder than the Risa 'Ukestick' or 'Ellie'. However this uke was meant to be plugged in and when fed into an amp, it does not disappoint. I tryed it through a number of amps and got a reasonably convicing acoustic tone from my PA and a Boss AD5 acoustic preamp, however you cannot escape that this is an under saddle pickup and so it will never sound like a microphone on an acoustic uke. With this in mind I decided to forget trying to get acoustic tone and concentrate on getting an electric sound that would blend well with other instruments and still work in a solo situation. The uke gives a fairly even response across the strings and sounded good with all the amps I tried, so partly because of the online advice of Gerald Ross and mostly because it runs on batteries, I went for a battery powered Vox DA5. The pairing is good and the amp/uke worked well at TUSC and during a club gig, sounding good with both clean tones and auto wah effect. I like the freedom of battery power but with the 'Ukelectric' a mini amp, except as a headphone pre, is out of the question; with both the Orange Micro Crush and the Mini Marshall the sound is awful and distorts at the lowest volume. The Vox DA5 has five watts of power and a big enough speaker to give clean tones at a reasonable volume. Other than a lack of multiband eq, it is a good companion to Pete's creation.


All the sounds, except for bass and drums, are from the uke. The lead is played through the VoxDA5 with other tones coming from VST effects.

Overall the 'Ukelectric' is an immense amount of fun, but when needed is a serious live musicians instrument. It allows for easy use when a gig demands high gain to cut through other instruments and unlike most of the competition it looks like a proper ukulele. You can also live out all your bedroom Jimi Hendrix fantasies, and wail on it through a multitude of effects. Pete Howlett is not a full time luthier, so you may have to wait a while when ordering an electric uke, but it is most definitely worth the wait.

BSY
Nipper
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