BY EDDIE SCHER | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
Farida Old Town ukuleles follow the model of Chicago-based instrument manufacturers of a century ago, who put great-sounding, solidly built, affordable ukuleles into the hands of millions of players.
At first, the only widely available ukuleles were from Hawaiian builders and Martin, the first major mainland manufacturer. But by the mid-1920s, if you wanted a ukulele, the instruments you were most likely to find and afford were built in Chicago and sold by catalogue. Harmony Company, which was acquired by Sears in 1917, dominated the U.S. instrument trade. And with a large staff of skilled German and Latino woodworkers, Harmony was able to produce enormous numbers of high-quality ukuleles under their own Supertone brand and many other names. Martin influenced its designs, but the ukuleles were often made with a close eye on purfling and binding used by Hawaiian builders. Today, the quality and value of these Chicago instruments is widely recognized on the vintage market and some of the high-end models are revered for their beautiful purfling and rope binding.
While Farida is relatively new to North America, the company has a lot in common with the prewar Harmony Company. Since 1995, the Chinese instrument manufacturer GREE has built a reputation in Asia and Europe for producing guitars in Guangdong under its own name and for other brands. The company has offered the Farida brand instruments since 2004 and with the company’s new line of Old Town ukuleles, Farida follows a recipe of sticking to what works best about vintage instruments. “Classic design meets modern playability,” is what they call it. I think what that means is that these are close reinterpretations, copies that capture the sound and feel of vintage ukuleles but using modern construction. And after playing these ukuleles over several weeks, I must agree. These instruments achieve the company’s goal of looking, feeling, and sounding like “coveted instruments of the early 20th century…”
Farida offers tenor, concert, and soprano ukuleles in simpler versions featuring friction tuners, and deluxe models featuring solid koa woods, rope binding—including a beautiful marquetry strip down the fretboard—and geared Planetary tuners. The price difference between the two versions reflects the amount of woodwork that, despite the technological advances of the century, still are mostly accomplished by the hands of skilled craftspeople. All the Farida ukes in their Old Town line have mahogany necks and an asymmetric headstock design that takes a visual cue from the Gibson open book scroll, or the haircut headstock found on the higher-end Collings ukuleles.
During my time playing all three, the size, shape, neck, and balance reminded me of my old Martin and Gibsons. And the nitrocellulose finishes feel right, minus 80–100 years of drops, dings, and scratches.
KAS-3 NC Soprano
First up was the mahogany soprano with an acacia fingerboard and bridge. My first impressions were that the ukulele is light and responsive. Tuning it to C, I found that it holds tune and sounds just fine. Like all new ukes, it will take some time to open up, and maybe I’d be happier with different strings, but even out of the box the tone is woody and warm. My next trick with a soprano is to tune to D—where a soprano would have been played in the 1920s (and in 2019 in Canada, I’m told)—and here, this soprano really wakes up and delivers the bright, punchy mahogany sound from a century ago.
The star feature of this ukulele is the wooden soundhole rosette, something right out of a shop on Oahu circa 1920 (or Chicago circa 1929). This is a simply adorned soprano, but the seven-stripe rosette is first class.
KAS-3 NC soprano BODY Solid mahogany top, back, and sides; 7-ring rosette; nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK 13-5/8″ scale mahogany neck, 15-fret acacia fingerboard with acrylic dot position-markers, 1-3/8″-wide nut, nitrocellulose lacquer finish
OTHER Friction tuners, acacia bridge, Aquila strings
PRICE $267 (street)
KAC-5 NC Concert
Next up was the acacia concert with a mahogany neck and acacia fingerboard and bridge. It took me several tries before I got comfortable with the sound from the acacia body. With its deep, rich, mellow tone, it’s not like any vintage ukulele I’ve ever heard or played, but this ukulele sang when I fingerpicked it. The abalone rosette sets this model apart from the other models, and this nod to the modern is an excellent choice for this unique instrument.
KAC-5 NC concert BODY Solid acacia top, back, and sides; 3-ring wood and faux abalone rosette; nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK 15″ scale mahogany neck; 19-fret acacia fingerboard with acrylic dot position-markers; 1-3/8″-wide nut; nitrocellulose finish
OTHER Friction tuners; acacia bridge; Aquila strings
PRICE $474 (street)
KKT-6 NC Tenor
Last but, maybe, most was the tenor. This was the only deluxe version of the three models I auditioned. I immediately fell in love with the geared planetary tuners and the rope binding on the top, rosette, and fretboard strip with light- and dark-toned wood, plus orange strips; just beautiful. The sound of the koa body is live and responsive, with a wide dynamic range—much wider that I expect from a koa body, especially one that hasn’t seen decades of playing. Unlike the other two ukuleles with tie bridges, all Farida tenors use pin bridges. Fret dots do not make sense with the rope binding stripe, but I missed seeing side dot markers telling me where I am on the fretboard. [Farida responds that all of its ukes have acrylic side dot markers and our tester was a “one-off mistake from the factory.“]
So, if you live near a Farida dealer, I recommend you go play one. If you don’t, you should know that a Farida is an awful lot like the very nicest Chicago ukuleles that Americans once ordered out of Sears catalogues—solid wood instruments built by skilled craftspeople and played with joy in every corner of America and beyond.
KKT-6 NC tenor BODY Solid koa top, back, and sides; rope-style binding and rosette; nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK 17″ scale mahogany neck,
18-fret koa fingerboard with rope-style center strip and acrylic dot side position-markers, nitrocellulose lacquer finish
OTHER Koa bridge, planetary geared tuners, Aquila strings
PRICE $684 (street)
MADE IN China