Thursday, March 31, 2011

Zither Heaven Banjo Ukulele Review

    I've been wanting two things for awhile now-a ukulele maker that will supply me with
ukuleles for Mandolin Babe's Pickin Parlour and a banjo ukulele. I found both thru Zither Heaven,who touts their instruments to be "toys". Let me assure you this is one seriously made for musicians banjo uke & the word "toy" doesn't belong here. Not for this. It's tenor/sized at nearly 25" in length and sports features I've seen on vintage ukes like a zero fret and borrowing from the old Harmony ukes that used plastic fingerboards & frets,the Zither Heaven has plastic frets. I raised an eyebrow on this till I remembered my Harmony uke. 
    I love the thru the body stringing and solid birch wood "skin". I don't have to worry about strings popping out while stringing,or the banjo "skin" on this splitting. The bridge isn't fixed,but comes set at the right spot. Harmonics at the 12th fret sound gorgeous.
    Speaking of intonation,this is spot on. It's the most perfect intonation I've experienced except for my Savannah baritone. 
    Playing it is easy-I've never played a tenor before,so there was a little adjustment to make as far as the fingerboard went. It's made like the USS constitution-this is the most sturdy built uke I've ever seen in my life. The pot is black walnut,and there's nearly 1/4" clearance between the backside of the birch skin and the reinforcement brace you see on the back shot below:
And the tone? It's made to be played with a pick,thumbpick or fingerpicks,in my honest opinion. Playing with thumb alone wasn't personally impressive,but with a pick this little gem has a twangy banjo-ish tone about it. It's not a super loud uke,however. Great for a banjo feel or for playing bl-ukegrass on. The pot is app 1 3/4" wide.
    Now on to the tuning. This doesn't sport the traditional tuners you're used to seeing on ukes-it uses the same type you see on autoharps,which requires the use of a "tuning wrench". Upside is you don't have to worry about tightening the screws that's on most vintage tuners. To be honest,on the banjo uke,two of the ones on mine were a bit tight in the beginning and I had to really crank it the first time or two to get them going. Zither Heaven says these can be replaced with traditional tuners at a luthier,but I'm not so sure on that as the headstock is app 1/2" thick,and I don't know if replacement tuners would work on that thickness. For this reason,I cannot recommend these instruments for small children-I feel having to use a tuning wrench and effort required would totally frustrate a small kid...and some adults.


   But for a kid 11 years and up,esp one that's familiar with autoharps & the like,and for adults with an open mind & a little patience,I feel this is a well made,eclectic ukulele that may well end up being collectible down the road. A very inexpensive and good buy if you want a banjo uke and don't want to spend a lot of $$ as the vintage ones go thru the roof,and new ones are very high priced.
    Other suggestions for Zither Heaven would be to put a strap pin in the end of the body as well as marking the 10th and 12th fret-I didn't realise how much I rely on that till I didn't have them as "roadsigns". 
      These ukes are made and assembled in the USA using sustainable woods. Perfect for the environmentally minded.
   If any readers are interested in purchasing one,please contact me thru this blog as I am a Zither Heaven dealer.                                    

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Planning Ahead With The Seasons

      One of my worst habits is learning "Holiday" themed songs in time for the actual event. I come up with a ton of excuses for each one except Yule cause I love playing carols. However-with the 4th of July and Halloween,I have a terrible tendency to get lazy. So- figuring I'm not the only one,I thought I'd get you kids inspired to plan ahead. For me-the next big holiday is 4th of July-meaning I'll be wanting to learn some Patriotic tunes and some old time ditties. That means getting to work on those songs starting tonight,as I'll have a lot of time between now & then to get them down pat. 
       No doubt you're thinking that there's no Halloween songs out there. Well there is in a sense-you can learn tunes from movies like "Ghost Busters",classics like Bach's Tocatta & Fugue in DM (I looove that piece!) or old time fiddle tunes with spooky titles like "The Hangman's Reel". In fact,with Halloween you may want to step it up a notch or two. Ever think about dressing up as a zombie uke player? One from the roaring 20's? If you're a storyteller,so much the better. Think about what costume you'd like to wear,(thrift stores & yard sales are a great place to find costumes & accessories) Sit on your porch if you have one,playing your flea next to the candy bowl. scare the dickens out of the kids. The reason I'm bringing this all up so far ahead is you won't be able to give yourself the excuse of not having enough time to prepare. Just think-you could be a ukulele wielding vampire this year......:-)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Porches...A Player's Paradise!

      I didn't mean to be away for this long-I must confess the news from Japan has had an effect on me,and when I haven't been watching news updates I've been packing orders and working in the yard. And speaking of gardening,(in a sense) now that spring is near,it's warming up,the sun is shining,I have to ask you......aren't you sick of playing in the house?!?

      In modern America I fear we've forgotten what a fun place the porch can be. It is the perfect place to sit and play ukulele while sipping your favorite beverage on the porch. What? Your porch is a mess? Well-now that the weather is nice,consider this a musical assignment. Go out and take a nice,honest look at your front porch. Make a list of what it needs, and don't forget comfy chairs without arms. And plants. The ones you really think look dandy. Need a table? Chairs are good but needs new cushions? If you're on a budget my "places to shop" would be as follows: 
  •        Chairs & tables,stools,etc Garage sales,Big Lots if they're in your area,Thrift Stores. 
  • Cushions-I always buy these new!!! Big Lots,Lowes,Home Depot
  • Flowers & plants,etc Pots at yard sales (ceramic ones) or Big Lots. Flowers at Home Depot or Lowes or a reasonable nursery. Plant seeds if you love to garden. 
   Clear off the porch and sweep it off-I like to hose mine down,but if there's water rationing in your area,don't chance it-make a clean sweep. Now before you put everything back "where it was before" experiment and re arrange things in a different way that may work better for you. 
   Bear in mind this is also applicable to the back porch if you don't have a front porch,the deck,or a nice spot in the backyard. 
   Apartment dweller? (I 've done that!) If possible,pick a place that gets a nice amount of natural daylight,preferably by a window. A window with a pretty view is great. Bring the outdoors in with houseplants,(some blooming varieties too!) an indoor fountain,bird feeder hooked up to the outside of the window if possible. Make sure you have a nice chair or stool to sit on & play,with a small table for your cup o java,tuner,& books to sit on. 
   When all is done,take your ukulele to your new "playin place" and enjoy. Bless it with sound!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Restored Uke.......

I was scared to start & but once I got going,my confidence grew,and now I have the coolest sounding uke-esp for bluegrass! And I figure I probably saved myself around $60 in luthier fees. My only investment was a bottle of Titebond glue-recommeded by @Doug Berch & @cursleyukuleles,who are two great guys to ask luthiery questions of. She had heat cracks on the front & back,and the small clamp that was picked up at Harbor Freight turned out to be worth it's weight in gold. All mahogany,it's got the thinnest neck I've ever seen. Thinner than my vintage Japanese made Hilo,which I considered to be pretty trim. I've noticed the modern ukes have chunky necks-not good for doing barre positions personally speaking. I found a very helpful article online for repairing heat cracks-that told me all I needed to know. I've been playing "Sally Goodin" on it-my own arrangement heavily influenced by a guitar version I had memorized as a teen. The Tab for that will be appearing shortly-and as I've been asked for a utube presentation,that will also be forthcoming.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Repairs are underway!

     You're looking at my unlabeled Harmony uke that I won in an online auction nearly 2 months ago. It came with heat cracks,which was mentioned in the listing. I don't know if any beginning luthiers go thru this,but I went thru an indecision cycle that nearly drove me crazy. I originally had in mind to repair the cracks myself-which I've never done before. So then I thought perhaps it would be better to take to someone with experience. However-my budget has been tighter than I'd care to admit lately,and there aren't any local luthiers in my area. That being said,I ordered the glue recommended by a repairman or two and set to work. I started on friday with the cracks in the back,then the cracks in the front,saving the biggest one for last. I nabbed one of these handy dandy clamps off my father,and tomorrow I'm hoping to get the rest of the strings on & see how it sounds. The mahogany on it is beautiful-it just glows in the sunlight. My skills are growing ever slowly-I can now replace tuners,tuner buttons,and fix heat cracks. The mahagany Harmony ukes are slightly bigger than your standard soprano,and this one has an arched back. Will take a pic of it when it's all fixed up & ready to sing. All in all I'm glad I walked thru my fear and fixed it up myself-very empowering. 

Friday, March 4, 2011


         Today the copies of "Ukulele Bluegrass Solos" arrived for the store,and I think a new era has dawned in the ukulele world and bluegrass music. I believe the term I coined,"Bl-ukegrass" says it all. Kids,get prepared to see bl-ukegrass bands springing up like dandy-lions. I expect traditional bluegrass bands may get a ukulele player joining up here & there. Don't forget banjo ukes or baritone,either. This book,by Ondrej Sarek,is absolutely wonderful You get to learn right hand techniques like banjo rolls,flatpicking,using fingerpicks,and a capo.
         The author got a lot of the standards in,like "Sally Goodin" (one of my faves) "Soldiers Joy" and "Red Haired Boy". It's in TAB and standard notation. Wish a CD would've been included with the book. I can't help but think that this guy has started something. I'll bet he does a volume II for this,in addition to other uke arrangers writing these old time tunes for ukulele adding their own flair. I'm already looking at some old time tunebooks I have for soprano & baritone arranging. 
         Fun to play out of,too! Started using a thumbpick to see how I like it. Nice thing about thumbpicks as opposed to plectrums is you never have to worry about dropping them. 
         So what would make a great name for a bl-ukegrass band?