"Play before you buy."
In 2007, I had never played an ukulele before. (I played guitar since 1963, and electric bass since 1966.) My wife, our youngest daughter, and I were in Hawaii for two weeks. The first week, we stayed in a cottage in Lanikai because my wife's nephew was being married on a beach on Oahu. Toward the end of the week, while shopping, we went through an ukulele shop in the (then new) Royal Hawaiian mall. Two story wall of ukes... unhelpful salespeople.
The next week we stayed in two bed and breakfasts on the big island. First in Hilo, where our daughter had an old classmate who moved to Hawaii, then in Captain Cook where she had an ice skating buddy who moved to Hawaii. The first bed and breakfast had a common room with magazines and a refrigerator and there was a business card for the Hilo Guitar and Ukulele shop. We went on farmer's market day and I learned good stuff about ukes from one of their sales people. Solid wood vs. laminates, sizes, wood types, etc. I played a Kamaka standard. Good price (thefactory in Honolulu wanted $650 + $65 for the case) at $450 + $65 for the case. Two doors away was a furiture store that had a sign advertizing Musical Instruments. We went in and the older lady said her dad was an uke player and she took us back to a room with many drums and the largest selection of Kamakas I've ever seen. Standards (regular, deluxe, limited editions, custom-made), concerts (the same variety), tenors (even more variety), a couple baritones... dozens of Kamaka ukuleles in two wooden wall cases with sliding glass fronts. The sign on the Kamaka standard read $395. She pulled it out for me to play and it sounded better than the one at the nearby uke shop. She shared information about the deaf workers at the Kamaka plant who chose tone woods, and other wonderful details about the instruments and how they are made.
As I checked out the soprano, she offered to bring out others from the back so I could compare them. My wife ascented, and the lady brought out 12 hard cases, each with another standard Kamaka. My wife and I set up three stacks: ukes I had not played, ukes I played that sounded great (like the one from the case), and ukes which sounded less good than the case one. One by one I played (the lady tuned each as she handed it to me) a C chord, and F, a G, a Gm7... picked a little "Comin' Home Baby" and other arpeggios. Loud strums and soft... which sounded best? This one was too bright with little bass; this one had exaggerated mids; this one had little brightness... and so on. I tried every one, all 13 ukes. We had a stack of eight lesser (but still amazing) ukes, and a stack of five better ukes (including the displayed one).
She put the eight back in the storeroom while I went over the five selected ones. The case one still sounded great, among the very best. But she (and the guy at the Hilo Guitar store) had spoken of how a good solid wood uke will gain beauty as it is played over the years (where a laminate tends to remain the same tone forever). I tried the four others. One was slightly thinner sounding. One was slightly bassy. Down to three: the case model, another with beautiful thin dark and light striping in the koa top, and a third with larger striping... one dark stripe from each side of the bookmatched to from the middle to near the neck either side of the soundhole.
Each sounded lovely. The thin striped one was ever so lacking in the mids... but only compared to the other two. I was down to the display case uke and the broad striped one. Back and forth, back and forth. Each unique, each gorgeous. The case model had little striping on it... a beautiful medium color, tight grain, perfect looking. The stripes on the other were not straight... straight up to the soundhole, then curving slightly in toward the neck. Both were lovely. Both held a beautiful tone while strumming a chord, loud or soft. But the striped one rang truer and slightly clearer when notes were plucked. It was my uke. $395 + $35 for the hardshell case. A book and a pitchpipe. With tax, cheaper than the one next door without the book, pitchpipe, or tax. I went next door, bought a polishing cloth and another uke music book.
Here I play the uke in the B&B in Captain Cook two days later:
And that uke is one of the best ukes I still own. Only a KoAloha concert comes close. All the rest are lesser instruments... as fine as they are.