At the past few NAMM Shows, my journo colleagues and I have noticed a precipitous increase in the number of diminutive four-string fretted instruments known as the ukulele (a Samoan word meaning “jumping flea,” the ukulele is Hawaiian by way of Portugal). Actually, it’s been more like an invasion. For a while, we made affectionate jokes about it, relaying with mock alarm that there seemed to be this invading non-indigenous species threatening to choke off the oxygen of the guitar market. There is not only an increase in manufacturers offering ukes, there is increased demand in educational materials for learning uke music, as reported by major publishers Alfred and Hal Leonard. Now we’ve completely succumbed, and it’s no longer an amusing fluke. Uke madness is upon us, and apparently here to stay.
And why not? Who can resist the angelic vocals and plaintive strumming in Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s immortal rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or the tour-de-force virtuosity of Jake Shimabukuro, as he shreds his way through Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”? Whether playing accompaniment for campfire songs or adding a strummed texture to a recorded track, the ukulele has a lovely, intimate, and unique sound, unlike any other smaller fretted stringed instrument.
YOU TOO CAN UKE
First of all, if you don’t already know, a uke can be played with the same left hand fingerings you use for guitar chords. A uke is tuned to the same relative pitches as the top four strings of a guitar, with an octave shift up on the 4th string. This doesn’t affect your chord fingerings, it just means that the highest-numbered string (usually the lowest on a string instrument) is now almost as high as the 1st string. The point is, if you play guitar, you can automatically play the ukulele. As such, the uke makes for a great double. There’s nothing like the sound of its small-bodied resonance, the gentle nylon string plucking, and the unique voicing the high-pitched, octave-shifted string provides to give a tropical quality to any track.
Second, ukes are cheap. A good uke doesn’t have to be expensive, and this brings us to our review unit, the Lag U44C. For several NAMM Shows, I noticed how handsome the Lag uke was compared to other models, and in the end, Lag ukes topped my list of favorites for both aesthetics and value. Lag is a French guitar mfr. distributed by Korg USA, and they are known for making handsome guitars for affordable prices. This ethic carries over into the 44 Series of ukuleles.
The U44C is the concert version of the 44 series, meaning it’s slightly larger than the soprano U44S ($89) and $10 more expensive, even though it’s tuned the same (G, C, E, A). The concert version has a scale length of 385mm (14.9") vs. the U44S’s 340mm (13.58"). Because the strings of each instrument are tuned to the same pitch, the concert version will have a slightly higher tension--desirable for a slightly snappier response, as I prefer. This is most detectable in single-note playing rather than chordal strumming. With a slightly larger body, the U44C might be a bit louder as well. Never a bad thing on a small instrument.
Both the Soprano and Concert models of the U44 series feature laminated mahogany top, back, and sides, an arched back, a rosewood fingerboard and bridge, nickel frets, a Natural French Satin finish, and come with Aquila strings and a thin nylon gig bag. The appointments are minimal, with appliqués for the rosette and headstock logo, and painted fret markers. The cosmetics are quite tastefully done, and the tribal illustration at the lower end of the rosette adds a splash of color.
For under $100, street, this does not look like a budget uke. Its finish is flawless, the fretwork excellent, and the all-mahogany construction, cohesive design and subdued satin finish imbues this instrument with a certain professional feel.
PLAYABILITY AND SOUND
The U44C produced sweet tones when strummed lightly with the back of the nails, and the strings were quite balanced. I had no trouble hearing the high A and G strings blending with the lower C and E. Despite its laminate construction, the resonance was full and warm.
I also found I could dig in when necessary, especially to produce single-note lines. This was one of the most satisfying aspect of the U44C—its ability to project single notes with relative power, alongside the gentler strumming passages. Fretting was true (with no fretting out, even with aggressive playing) and easy up to the 12th fret. The only problem I discovered was intonation in the upper frets. At the 12th fret, the 3rd string fretted noticeably sharp. But for down-the-neck rhythm work, where most uke playing takes place, the U44 played well in tune for recording and critical live work.
Though not as fancy as some of the higher-end units in the Lâg line, the U44C is every bit as well built. The craftsmanship is excellent throughout, with clean joints and blemish-free surfaces in all visible portions of the wood. The sound holds its own, both tonally, as well its ability to project. I wouldn’t hesitate to add this uke alongside my other professionally set up instruments for stage and studio work. And to say that an axe for under $100 can hold forth with high-end instruments in the several-thousand-dollar range, that's saying something.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).