TIPS ABOUT BUYING AN INSTRUMENT


So, you’re looking to buy a Ukulele or Banjo Uke and you want to know which one you should buy. Well, although I can’t answer that for you I can give you some advice based upon my 45+ years of interest in these lovely instruments. Answering such a question is an area fraught with difficulties, but I’ll do my best to give you some advice.


What is an instrument really worth? The simple answer is that just like anything else, an instrument is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it. Instrument prices will tend to find their own level in the market place, but always remember that different people have different reasons for liking or disliking a particular instrument. Before you buy any instrument always look at it carefully and if possible play it before you make up your mind about it (although this may not be possible), and never buy from anyone who won’t guarantee giving you a full refund of your money if for some reason you’re not satisfied with it - as long of course that it is returned to the seller in  the same condition as when it was purchased and within a reasonably short time after purchase. You can’t just change your mind after you buy it because you decide that you don’t like it after all!


Are expensive instruments really worth it? The simple rule here is that as with most things  in life, generally speaking you get what you pay for. Higher priced instruments are usually well designed, well constructed, made of better materials, better sounding, easier to play, longer lasting, and they have a known or desirable pedigree. They may also be a good investment because they may increase in value over the years, but this can never be guaranteed because like all things, prices may go down as well as up. The golden rule is that you should never buy an instrument purely as an investment, but always buy one because you really like it and enjoy playing it.


Remember that many of today’s highly sought-after and higher priced instruments were the choice of many professional and semi-professional players over the years, and the reason such players chose them was that they did the job better than any of the other instruments that they could find. Ludwig's, Martin’s, Gibson's and Abbott’s are the classic example of this. They look good, sound great, and play well, but it is now very hard to find original examples that are in really good condition because many of them were made between 1925 and 1935, as a result of which very few of them have survived through to the present day. So when you buy one today there is also the rarity factor that will push the price up, and the rarer models or the more highly decorated and more attractive models will tend to fetch premium prices. For years and years I always wanted to own three banjo ukes; a Ludwig, a Gibson, and an Abbott. Why? Because the great English entertainer George Formby played them on his records and in his films, and the ones he played most of the time all looked good and sounded terrific. George Formby was a huge star in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s, and like any professional he would only ever play an instrument in public that was going to provide him with a great sound, and this has been the case with all other top professional players past and present, such as Roy Smeck, Tessie O’Shea, Billy ‘Uke’ Scott, Alan Randall, George Harrison, and Andy Eastwood.

Are there any good cheaper instruments? Definitely - but watch out because there are an awful lot of lousy ones as well. And what do I mean by ‘cheaper’? Well, you may argue about this, but I would say that in the context of the entire range of instruments on the market, an instrument costing between £0 to £199 could be classified as being ‘cheap’, and one of between £200 to £499 could be classified as being ‘reasonably cheap’. You would expect to find the little Dallas ‘A’ model, most ‘John Grey’ banjo ukes and many ‘G. H. & S’ banjo ukes in the ‘cheap’ category, whilst in the ‘reasonably cheap’ category  you would have the Dallas ‘B’ Model (which is a great little instrument) plus some versions of the Slingerland ‘May Bell’ and the Abbott No.1, No. 2 and No. 3 banjo ukes plus the smaller ‘Will van Allen’ banjo ukes without the big resonator. Many ‘Keech’ banjo ukes can make a nice sound but their design can make them tricky to play in the ‘Formby’ style, and I would expect to see Keech ‘A’ and ‘B’ models in the ‘cheap’ category but a good Keech ‘C’ model, a Dallas ‘C’ model, a J. R. Stewart banjo uke and a little Gibson UB-1 banjo uke would be within the ‘reasonably cheap’ category, although really nice Dallas ‘C’ models often fetch around £550 nowadays. These are just a few, and there are many more decent instruments in these price ranges.


Next, we have what I would call ‘mid-priced’ instruments which range from around £600 to £1,400 Within this category I would include some banjo ukes by Shellard, Cartwright, Bacon, Markendale and Stromberg-Voisinet, a top-end Oscar Schmidt ‘Sovereign’, a Gibson UB-2 in pretty good original condition, the Dallas ‘D’ and ‘E’ models and the big resonator ‘Will van Allen’ banjo ukes. Phil Davidson also makes some superb modern banjo ukes at the top end of this price range.


Beyond this category is the ‘more expensive’ category from about £1,500 to around £2,500, which would include  instruments such as a Gibson UB-2 in top original condition with its original case, the Gibson UB-3, the Abbott ‘Victor’ and the Abbott ‘Monarch’ made by Jack Abbott junior, the Ludwig Wendell Hall professional model, , some higher fancier Bacon banjo ukes and a Markendale Ludwig copy.


My final category would be the ‘very expensive’ category from £2,500 upwards. This would include the Gibson UB-4 and UB-5, the ‘big resonator’ Gibson UB-3, an Abbott ‘Monarch’ banjo uke similar to that which George Formby played plus the later 1930's version of the same instrument, any original Ludwig banjo ukes with crown-shaped cut-outs in the flange plus various enhanced versions of other Ludwig’s including the Ludwig ‘pyralin’ peghead model (as advertised in original Ludwig catalogues from 1929), and  the very rare Bacon & Day ‘Silver Bell’ Style 3A (and higher) banjo uke. A really fantastic original Ludwig or Abbott ‘Monarch’ like Formby’s, together with their original cases also in top condition, would now sell for between £5,000 and £7,000. If you think that’s bad, then a superb original example of a C. F. Martin & Co. Style 5K soprano uke from the 1920’s (with its hard shaped case) could currently set you back between at least £6,500 and £9,000 at current prices!


Why are some instruments so expensive? At the end of the day it all comes down to a question of supply and demand. Ludwig banjo ukes were beautifully made out of great materials and they were fantastic sounding instruments. Some of their models were also aesthetically stunning, but Ludwig banjo ukes were only made from 1927 until August 1929 when the company was sold and all production stopped, after which they were never made again. Some of their most beautiful and desirable models with the crown shaped cut-outs in the flange and the gorgeous parquetry inlays around the side of the resonator and on the back of the resonator were only made for about two years within that period, so Ludwig’s are very rare, very attractive, superb sounding and highly desirable, and some models are extremely hard to find - hence the premium prices for great examples.


By the way, don’t think that ‘rare’ always means ‘desirable’ because it doesn’t! The manufacture of some instruments only lasted a short time because they turned out to be ‘dogs’ and customers thought that they were really bad, and demand for them was so low that production rapidly ceased because the company cut their losses and brought out new models in their place. Whilst Ludwig banjo ukes are rare and highly desirable, Gibson’s rare version of their style 3 soprano ukulele (with the fingerboard that did not extend to the soundhole and which had internal ‘X’-bracing) usually produced a sound as dead as the proverbial ‘Dodo’ in comparison to their earlier versions (which had standard internal bracing and a fingerboard that extended to the soundhole), and consequently it is one of Gibson’s least desirable soprano ukuleles.


Other than their ‘trap-door’ models (brought out in 1923), Gibson also made great banjo ukes, but unlike Ludwig their production ran for decades starting in 1925. As a result there are more Gibson banjo ukes around  than Ludwig’s, but they were well designed, manufactured out of excellent materials, and they all produce a wonderful and distinctive tone - hence their popularity. However, original examples of higher end Gibson banjo ukes have become extremely hard to find, and this includes the UB-3 (sometimes mistakenly referred to as a UB-2 ‘De Luxe’), the top-of-the-range UB-4 and UB-5 followed closely by the ‘Big Resonator’ UB-3’s, all of which all produce a stunning sound.


The pre-war Abbott ‘Monarch’ is different again. For its size it is much lighter to hold than it looks, the neck is a dream to play on and the tone produced by the instrument is mellow and distinctive, yet superb. However, in all honesty the Abbott ‘Monarch’ banjo uke was a rather fragile instrument that was perhaps more vulnerable to ageing and to damage than many others, so fewer of them have survived, making great examples rare and expensive.

 

*** It is always important to remember that ‘condition and originality are king’ when buying anything. A 90 year-old vintage instrument is likely to have some minor issues with it but it can still be wonderful. If you are lucky enough to find a fabulous original example with all of its original parts (except the vellum, the strings and perhaps the bridge) and its original hard shaped case in great condition, it is always going to fetch a premium price compared to a well-worn instrument or even a nicely re-finished one. Nevertheless, a properly and professionally re-finished instrument will still fetch a very good price. However, pricing an instrument is never an exact science and prices will fluctuate, nevertheless I have done my best to give you some examples that may be of help.

So which one do you buy? This is where patience comes in. Don’t rush to buy the first one you see. Pick them up, play them, compare the sound and the playability of each one and buy the one that you like the most. Ask advice from other people who have experience of playing instruments and don’t ever be pressured into buying. If you miss out on the one you want, another one should come along sooner or later. Nevertheless, you should remember that vintage instruments in great original condition are getting harder and harder to find.


Should I buy ‘new’ or ‘vintage’? This is a very difficult question to answer! There are good and bad instruments in both categories. I know of some great modern instruments that I wouldn’t hesitate to sell on my web-site and some lousy vintage ones that I would never sell. To be honest, my own personal preference tends to be for ‘vintage’ instruments, although I have to say that Phil Davidson makes superb instruments, as do Peter Howlett and Phil Cartwright, and so did Richard Shellard, Gordon Markendale and Dennis Mitchell before they stopped.


When you buy an old instrument you are also buying into a small piece of musical instrument history - usually from the period of the 1920’s and 1930’s - which is generally regarded as being the zenith of the design, manufacture, and popularity of such instruments, and many of these have successfully stood the test of time.


There is also another point to consider here; a good modern instrument may set you back a minimum of around £600 (without a case) but as more and more modern makes flood the market there are some good instruments that are considerably cheaper than that, which is fantastic value when you consider what goes into making them. Some of today's instruments may well turn out to be collectors items of the future, so we just have to make up our minds as to what we like best and what we can afford.

Over the years, a vintage instrument may well be more likely to appreciate in value than a modern one, so it may be a better long term investment, but in my view it is never a good idea to buy an instrument as an investment; you should always buy an instrument because you like it. Some contemporary manufacturers copy the old designs of well respected vintage manufacturers and some do it very well indeed. What I don’t like is when some of them deliberately use the ‘Vintage’ name on the peghead, because in doing this they may mislead a prospective buyer into believing that an instrument is something which it patently isn’t. Many customers order contemporary copies of a particular vintage instrument that are very hard to find or which are far too expensive for most of us to be able to afford, and some of these copies are brilliant. So the question of ‘Vintage’ or ‘Modern’ is one for each of us to decide on an individual basis, and it is a question to which there is no right or wrong answer. Many cheaper instruments are now being imported from the far east and sold under a variety of different names. Whilst some are very good and great value for money, whilst others often look attractive and are marketed at a very attractive price, but some of them are poorly designed, made of soft wood, badly set up, as heavy as lead, difficult to play and they sound awful!!!

How much should I spend? Well, don’t ever spend more than you can afford. Look around and try some out them make up your mind, but make sure that you buy instruments in good condition that are properly set up and make sure that they are in playable condition when you receive them. A good instrument is likely to give you a lifetime of enjoyment. It is sometimes worth saving up for a few months (or even years) to buy the instrument that you would really like. I did, and never regretted it.


Condition. If you want an instrument in perfect, un-blemished condition, then buy a new one. Anything that you buy which is second-hand, ‘used’ or ‘vintage’, is bound to show signs of usage and wear commensurate with its age, and instruments are no exception. Some very popular and desirable instruments are at least fifty years old and many can be around 90 years old more, so some degree or other of wear to the frets and the fingerboard, replaced tuning pegs, one or two replaced hooks and nuts, maybe a replaced tailpiece and scratches and marks here or there, all of can be common. However, the better the overall condition and originality of an instrument the higher the price it will command. Old instruments in wonderful original condition with minimal signs of wear and their original cases and badges in great original condition will command the highest prices, but these are extremely rare. So, never reject an old instrument that isn’t perfect - few of them are. If you want to buy a second-hand, ‘used’ or ‘vintage’ instrument then perfection can never be expected, nevertheless, as with everything else, the best examples fetch the highest prices.


Well restored instruments also fetch high prices. A good restoration by a skilled craftsman prevents further deterioration, brings an instrument back into great condition and clearly enhances its value. However, restoration usually involves re-finishing, and re-finishing an instrument can sometimes (though by no means always) be detrimental to the sound that it subsequently produces.


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Web site founded in 2001


Over 45 years of Experience and Expertise with Ukuleles and Banjo Ukes

John Croft, Glan Tanat, Llanyblodwel, Oswestry, Shropshire, SY10 8NQ, England.

Tel: (+44) 01691 828850

Email: theukuleleman.com@gmail.com