SOUTHCOAST UKULELE REENTRANT SETS: OUR REVIEW

Page 1: Overview 

                                                                                                   
When the Portuguese first came to Hawaii, they brought with them a couple of small wood bodied plucked instruments that immediately caught the attention of the islanders.  The Machete was strung as a lead/melody instrument in an open style very close to a linear alignment, while the larger 5-string Rajao was the rhythm instrument.  The Hawaiians main interest was in song, not in the sort of parlour instrumental arrangements the Portuguese had composed for their string duos and trios (with guitar in the latter).  But the Hawaiians also favoured the smaller Machete and its brighter tone.  An adaptation quickly took place, resulting in what we now know as the Ukulele. The Rajão tuning, one that worked beautifully for vocal accompaniment, was moved to the smaller Machete/Ukulele.  The 5 th  string went away, and the 4 strings left served as what we have known ever since as a uniquely Ukulele form of reentrant tuning.  The notes are aligned in 4ths, but unlike in a traditional linear arrangement, the 4th string goes up an octave. Plain string material, first gut and later nylon were used in the beginning; fluorocarbon is now probably used more than anything.  Regardless of the material, however, all these sets have one thing in common: a tendency toward an imbalance in tone and response among the strings; one that grows more pronounced as the gauges get heavier.  It’s an inevitable consequence of a plain string single material set in the Ukulele Reentrant form. What happens is that there are two high bright notes – the thinnest strings - on the outsides, an intermediate tone 2 nd  string, and a heavy, somewhat dull 3 rd  string.  We address that problem with our “Mixed Materials” approach (see the Our Materials page for more).  Strings of varying higher density in the middle produce much more balanced tone.  For the Ukulele’s common use, rhythm accompaniment for vocals, we feel this mixed material plain string approach produces the finest traditional Ukulele sets available.  And yet reentrant tunings are wonderful options for somewhat non-traditional use as well.  Instrumental playing, both single note and chord melody are excellent with reentrant tunings.  But in these styles a player more often goes up the neck, and in those higher positions, even our higher density centre strings begin to lose clarity.  One common solution is to add a wound 3rd string.  In the past we have tried to compromise, by offering sets with an option for a plain or wound 3rd string; sets where the transitions from either 3rd string wouldn’t be too jarring.  Offering this sort of 3rd string option is obviously an economical approach.  And yet with a bit of reflection you realize that strings which transition well to and from a plain 3rd, won’t transition as well with a wound 3rd.  As a matter of fact, a “set” of strings is ideally matched as a whole.  Changing one component, when the sound is as different as it is in this instance, is simply too much of a compromise, even with all the materials we have to pick from.  And one thing we have come to realize is that compromise based on economy is what other string companies do with the Ukulele – that’s not really us. So in the end, in spite of considerable inventory and management cost, we now offer not two, but three distinct types of strings for the Medium and Heavy Gauge Ukulele sets along with the two formulae we have always had for the Medium and Light Gauges.  The all plain sets will be balanced around their 3 rd  string, while the wound sets will be balanced around the wound 3 rd Sets may share one, possibly even two strings between them, but in the majority of cases, all 4 strings in, for example, a Light Medium NW (no wound) set will be different than those in an Light Medium W3 (wound 3rd) set.  In spite of our best efforts, we have come to the conclusion that simply slapping a wound 3 rd  string into a plain string set is often just as bad as slapping a wound 4 th  onto a group of reentrant strings to create a linear set-up. So Wound 3 rd  sets are now offered from Light Medium Gauges upward.  And while Light and Extra Light Gauges have no need of wound strings, the warmer sounding “Soft” sets continue from Medium Gauges on down.  Finally, we’ve added another uniquely Ukulele reentrant form to the mix.  This is what we call Lili’u tuning.  It gives the advantages of a reentrant form (it’s double reentrant) for strumming and chord melody, while providing the deep tone of a linear set- up.  ************************************* But before going into the differences to expect among these three groups we want to make a few remarks on a common error in string set selection.  Folks have the idea that smaller instruments should have lighter gauge sets.  There is very slight justification for that belief from two factors.  First, a string needs a bit more tension to maintain its height above the fretboard as scale length increases.  This is a relatively minor factor, however.  Secondly, a smaller soundboard needs less energy to drive it than a larger one.  This deserves a bit more consideration, but Ukulele players have distorted that idea way out of all proportion. There is no reason strings for a Soprano can’t have a relatively high tension (on a normally constructed modern instrument) or that strings on a lightly built Tenor can’t be low tension.  The idea that the opposite should be true comes partially from the factors above, but more specifically from the recent practice of tuning all Ukuleles to the Key of C.  The most blatant example of poor tuning comes on the Soprano.  There, for years, the most commonly used sets have been “combination” Soprano/Concert sets – strings long enough to be used on either instrument.  But these sets were never meant to be tuned to C on both instruments.  Throughout most of its history, the Soprano was commonly in D tuning.  Take a Soprano/Concert set – tune it to C on the Concert, then to D on the Soprano, and the tensions are now similar.  As such, a combination set was both more economical for the string companies and their customers, and served its function well for both instruments. You can see at this point that if for some reason you needed to tune both instruments to the same tuning, then to maintain similar tension, the shorter scaled instrument would actually need heavier strings than the longer one.  Yet for the last 30 years, as a result of a new, lower pitched modern Soprano tuning without change in the old string set designs, people have been stringing Sopranos at the very low end of acceptable tension.  The idea has developed that companies like Martin must know what is appropriate, and influenced by this unintended tuning practice, the latest group of Ukulele players have become accustomed to the feel of Sopranos at the very bottom end of acceptable tension.  Martin does know what is appropriate, but in their adherence to a tradition now abandoned by current players, their original intent has been completely lost.  The resulting mistuned instruments give performance that is far less than ideal, and has played a major role in the Sopranos recent decline. The same sorts of distortions are found throughout the various sized Ukuleles when C tuning is always used.  Tenors, for example can sometimes have more tension than necessary and Baritones are seldom strung well.  We’ll deal with some of the specifics as we discuss individual sets or groups of sets below, but while there will always be some experimentation with a new instrument, your best bet is to rely on the Tension and Tuning charts that are outlined on the Strings Sets page, not the common distortions of what sort of tensions are appropriate on what sized instruments.  Remember that while materials play an undeniable part in string set sound  tension is usually even more important when it comes to bringing out the best in your instrument. This is why we stand almost alone in offering the sort of selection in tension that can mesh your preference in feel with your instruments best response.  More specific discussion of our Tension ratings, and some tricks on how to get the best out of the ratings system can be found here:                                      Southcoast Tension Ratings w/ String Selection Tips  And also remember, you can also avoid these contortions in tension and tone most effectively on instruments that are for solo play, where after all sound is most important.  Simply use traditional tuning practice.  The Tuning Your Ukulele series shows the ins and outs of that in detail.  Click here:                                                            Tuning Your Ukulele While specifics will be dealt with in individual reviews below, let’s now talk in a general way about the differences in the three Ukulele reentrant groups - the sorts of differences that will lead you to the string group best suited to your style of play. ************************************* First, the NW series.  These “no wound” sets are the traditional way to string the Ukulele - they incorporate no wound material.  With the introduction of these three series of reentrant strings, the NW sets have been tweaked to do what a no wound set can do best: offer a powerful, full, rich sound.  However, our sets are non-traditional in that we use mixed materials to accomplish this with better balance in tone and tension than can ever be obtained with the single material approach used by everyone else.  For more details on our “mixed materials” approach, click here:                                                               Our Materials In addition to this, in some of the lighter gauges, where sometimes on certain instruments, sets can give too bright and assertive a sound, you have a choice of two NW formulae, our standard formula, giving clear bright sound, or our “Soft” formula, giving a warmer sound and thicker feel to these light gauge sets and high tunings.  More detail on those differences can be found here:                                                   NW String Sets - Standard or Soft  ************************************* Next, the W3, or “wound 3rd” series.  These sets offer a sound profile the Ukulele has never seen before, and we are very proud to present them.  In the past, sets of this nature were put together with a traditional wound material 3rd string simply swapped for the 3rd string in a plain set.  That practice results in a far less than ideal set-up.  With our W3 series, we present a polished low density 3rd string that gives a feel not that much different than a plain 3rd.  First, it’s polished, so it’s not nearly as noisy as the older wound 3rd sets, and second, the low density means it’s much thicker than a traditional higher density wound 3rd would be.  As a matter of fact, one slight bonus to using this set is that no alteration in set-up should be necessary when switching from a plain set - the low density 3rd has practically the exact same diameter as a plain 3rd string would have (please avoid the misinformation of online “string scientists” with their generalizations about string diameters). The resulting sound is something new as well.  The problem heard in varying degrees with wound 3rd sets is the same problem that comes from the common practice of simply slapping a wound 4th into a reentrant set to create linear set-ups.  The wound 4th tends to dominate the sound, droning over the other three strings.  While this is less noticeable in a wound 3rd reentrant set, where the wound 3rd is the root of most chords, the problem is the same.  But this low density 3rd doesn’t have much more volume or sustain than a plain 3rd, so the balance is tremendously better. Then we match the three plain strings to this low density wound 3rd string.  Occasionally two of these strings will be different than those used in an NW set.  More often all three will be different.  They are selected not for the volume and power we look for in the NW sets, but for clarity.  As such, in traditional strumming, do not look for what some people have come to expect from wound 3rd sets.  Don’t look for much more sustain.  In traditional strumming there’s a little difference - not much.  Don’t look for much more emphasis on the bottom end.  An NW set might actually have a bit more.  Don’t look for more volume.  The NW sets will have a slight advantage there as well. So why would anyone want a set with a touch lower volume and not much difference in the bass or in sustain?  Take the NW and W3 Medium Gauge sets and start to play up the neck and the main difference immediately jumps out at you.  The weakness of NW sets is when you start to go up the neck.  With the shorter scaled Ukuleles there is the famous “plinkiness” in the sound.  And with the longer scaled Ukuleles the sound up the neck is not so much plinky as dead.  These W3 sets maintain much of the same clarity they have in 1st position chords when you start to move up the scale. And this is also where we’d point out that projection and volume are two different things.  Where an NW set will have more volume in 1st position strums, up the fretboard, the W3 sets produce much greater projection, as NW sets start to go dead.  And our W3 sets, in contrast to what you may have experienced before, do all this without any droning from the wound string - they pull this off with picture perfect balance. With the Heavy Gauge sets you may even want a W3 set for 1st position strums, as with heavier gauges, the plain strings start to lose their advantage even in standard strumming.  So choosing between these two sets is a matter of picking the series that is best suited to your style of play or in some cases, your taste in sound.  For 1st position strumming in medium to high pitch tunings, the NW series, with their smooth power will be the favourite for most.  In heavier gauges, it will often come down to what sounds best on a given instrument, or the players preference in sound.  But for those players picking notes or playing chord melody up the neck the W3s  should always be a prime consideration. ************************************* And then we have the Lili’u series.  If what you had hoped for in a wound 3rd set was actually what the W3s don’t emphasize - long sustain and more bass, well, don’t despair.  We’ve got you covered there as well.  For that sort of sound profile our last Ukulele reentrant series, the Lili’u Series really delivers.  Once again, you’ll hear something you’ve likely never experienced from an Ukulele before. This is what is called a double reentrant set.  Compared to a Linear set, the 4th string goes up an octave, becoming a “high reentrant” string as is the case with traditional Ukulele sets.  But with Lili’u tuning now the 1st string also drops an octave, making it a “low reentrant” string. This set-up is best known in it’s 4 course 6-string form, the tuning invented by none other than Sam Kamaka Junior.  But it is played with 4 strings as well, most prominently by Dr. Byron Yasui. With these set-ups, we have double wound sets; the low density wound material we use in the W3 sets predominate in the two Medium Gauge sets, and higher density material is used exclusively in the two Heavy Gauges.  We mentioned that these typical higher density strings cause an imbalance in a traditional wound 3rd set, but with a Lili’u set, the 1st string, being an octave down, now requires wound material for best sound as well.   And so, as is so often the case with Linear strings, a double wound reentrant set does away with the overbearing drone of a traditional single wound reentrant set. The comparison to a double wound Linear set is apt in another respect as well.  A Lili’u set gives reentrant tuning much of the same character as a double wound linear set.  There is just as much sustain, the same sort of clarity, if not more, and if tuned to to same key, the 1st string will be only one note higher than a Linear 4th, meaning it will have much of the same depth as well. But with the deep note on the 1st string, there are important differences between a Lili’u set and a Linear set where the deep note is on the 4th.  The most important of these is in 1st position strumming.  Whereas a Linear set-up often sounds awkward in this setting, a Lili’u set up gives much better sounding 1st position strums.  While the deepest note is only one step higher, putting it on the 1st string means your ear won’t “hear” it as the bass note, as is the case with a Linear strum.  In other words, the awkward sounding inverted chords of Linear tuning go away.  You still hear the 3rd string as your “root” as it should be.  For more on this see Part 7 of the Tuning Your Ukulele series linked above. The other advantage is that the typical weakness of a Linear set - a 1st string that is either weak or overly tense is gone, and the set has a smoother, more focused sound. There’s always some sort of trade-off, however, and in the case of Lili’u tuning it comes with using it for melody playing.  The low 1st string means that typical melody picking, while not impossible, would require dedicated practice.  On the other hand, chord melody will require no adjustment at all; this is what Byron Yasui uses it for.  And clawhammer and bass/strum work, while needing some slight adjustment in technique, are excellent with this arrangement as well. So 1st position chords from a Lili’u set-up have the same sweet sounds that traditional Ukulele reentrant chords have always given, while producing them with almost as much depth and just as much sustain as a Linear arrangement.  It is a wonderfully effective set-up for those for those looking for greater depth for traditional Ukulele playing, and one that we are very pleased to present. Therefore the 4-string Lili’u set-ups should be prime consideration traditional playing styles where you want a sound with much of the depth of a Linear set-up and all the sustain.  We can almost hear the sigh of relief from players who have been looking for 1st position strumming with sweet sounding chords, a deep tone and long, lingering notes. ************************************* But what now if you’re just in love with the deeper Lili’u reentrant sound and while you mainly play traditional styles, you do some picking as well.  Isn’t there a way to pull this off without a major adjustment in your picking patterns?  Fortunately, the answer is yes!  But the answer also involves buying a new Ukulele, one that accommodates 6 strings. The 6-string Ukulele was invented for just this sort of all around playing.  In 1959, Hawaii was on the verge on becoming the 50 th  state, and the Islanders were in a celebratory mood.  Sam Kamaka Junior was then in charge of the Kamaka Ukulele enterprise, having taken over from his father, Sam Sr.  The elder Kamaka had started building Ukuleles almost from the creation of the instrument itself, and thus Sam Jr. learned the history of its inception from his father.  He had the idea to create a unique design in honour of Hawaii’s statehood, and looked back to that early history for inspiration.  The result was the modern 6-string Ukulele. The first models were apparently closer in size to the Rajão or Taropatch Fiddle, but rapidly grew to a body size more in line with a modern Tenor.  Most manufacturers today simply add two strings to their existing Tenor bodies.  But the tuning was something entirely new.  The 4 th  course was single, the 3 rd  course was doubled in octaves with the variant being an octave higher than standard, the 2 nd  course was again single and the 1 st  course was again doubled in octaves, this time with the variant being an octave down.  While D tuning was prominent on the Sopranos at that time, the 6-string took its cue from the old Rajão, and has always been formally tuned in C : g’ c’c” e’ a’a. Sam Junior called it the “Lili’u’” model, in honour of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani.  The name was an apt one, as the Queen was not only a renowned player of the Ukulele, but one of its foremost composers as well.  She had penned “Aloha Oe”, a song many interpret as a farewell to Hawaiian independence, while imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace following the overthrow of the monarchy.  The result was spectacular.  The 6-string Ukulele is probably the finest instrument in the Ukulele family when it comes to vocal accompaniment, having a full, rich chime which displays both depth from its octave 1 st  course, while keeping the flavour of the Ukulele reentrant sound and the advantages that arrangement gives in first position chords and strumming. And once again, folks like Sam Jr. and Byron Yasui understood that the choice of notes on any given set-up, and how the ear will interpret them are two different things.  We mentioned above that the 4-string Lili’u set-up doesn’t display the sort of 1st position improper chord inversions one hears from a Linear set because the 1st string note, even though only one step off from a linear 4th, is not “heard” as a bass note.  The same sort of effect comes into play with a 6-string.  Picking a 4-string Lili’u set-up does leave you with a low 1st string that falls outside of traditional picking patterns.  But with the 6-string, that low 1st is now paired with another 1st string an octave higher - one in the traditional octave.  And when picked together, the ear “hears” the higher, 1st in the common octave as the dominant note.  The low octave is simply “background depth”.  You can hear it illustrated here on this demo from Peter Moss.  You create your 6-string sets from the Lili’u page simply by using the Add-On option in the drop- down menu.  The high octave 1st and 3rd strings are added to the 4-string Lili’u set, then packed and shipped together. ************************************* And so with this background, let’s now go on to the reviews and tips for usage on specific sets.
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