From the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY DOUGLAS REYNOLDS
If “Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome” strikes and a higher-quality instrument is in your future, you want to get it right. Everyone’s hands, ears, and tastes are unique. But beyond how an instrument feels, sounds, or calls to you, there are some often overlooked features to consider. These apply, whether purchasing “off-the-rack” or having a custom ukulele built just for you. Here are five options to look for while shopping.
1. RADIUSED FRETBOARD
This feature is a must for me. Most ukuleles have flat fretboards. If you plan on playing a lot of barre chords, a slightly curved fretboard might just change your world. Not sure if you have a radiused fingerboard? One way to check is to rest your chin on your uke’s strings over the sound hole and stare down the length of the fretboard. The wood and fret wires across the width of the neck will likely be completely flat. Most acoustic guitars have slightly curved or “radiused fretboards,” and this feature is now finding favor with ukulele builders. The term refers to the radius, in inches, of the circle that would be created if that slight curve were to be extended a complete 360 degrees. [Ed note: Shorter radiuses mean a more curved fingerboard.] Why does this slight curve make such a difference? Fingers naturally curve at rest. When barring your index finger across all-four strings, your middle knuckle can press hard against the wood on a flat fretboard. Over time, this can cause discomfort and fatigue. Although the curve of a radiused fretboard is slight, it reduces strain and makes for a more comfortable playing experience.
This is a case in which zero is more! A zero-fret is an extra fret placed just inside the nut. There are tonal advantages for using a zero-fret, such as making open strings sound more like fretted notes, but it also reduces the finger pressure needed to play at the first fret. Why? The nut is much taller than the fret wires, causing the strings at that position to sit higher. The string between the nut and first fret is also at its shortest. These two factors make it tough for newer players to handle the pesky Bb chord, not to mention Bb m or C#7. A zero-fret reduces that negative combination by half. Your fingers will thank you. Zero-frets are not new, nor are they reserved solely for custom instruments. Unfortunately, “off the rack” ukuleles with zero-frets are somewhat rare, but they do exist. Certainly, if you are having a new ukulele built, ask for this terrific option.
3. WIDER NECK
Ukulele neck-width specifications are measured at the nut. Most ukuleles have a nut width of 1 3/8-inch, but some offer wider nuts, up to 1.5-inch. That extra 1/8-inch divided over four strings might not seem like much, but if you have large hands or thick fingers, a wider neck will make you feel like you just traded in your regular mattress for a king size!
4. EXTRA SIDE DOTS
Dots on the side of a ukulele’s neck are extremely beneficial for newer players. They are easily installed on any ukulele and can help you track which frets you are playing on. I recommend dots at the third, fifth, seventh, tenth, and 12th frets. Most ukes have dots on the front of the fretboard, but don’t be seduced into using them for neck navigation—they can actually make playing more difficult! Eye-catching decorations on the face of your fretboard can coerce you into tilting the uke back toward you. This overextends the curve of your fretting hand’s wrist and puts a strain on all the components that make up this remarkably complex joint. Even after playing for many years, my custom ukuleles have blank fretboards for this very reason. To give your fretting hand the most strength, your ukulele should be held perpendicular to the floor or even tilted slightly away from you. Resist the urge to peek over the neck! Embrace your side dots!
5. SOUND PORT
This somewhat recent option in ukulele-building is a hole on the side of the ukulele, instead of the front, that directs a little more volume and tone toward your ears. You’re playing music! Why not hear it as clearly as possible?
Douglas Reynolds is president of PlayUke.net and is the founder of the Reno and Palm Strings Ukulele Festivals. He runs the ukulele department at Play Your Own Music in Carson City, Nevada. A life-long guitarist, he fell prey to the call of the ukulele in 2005.