Ukes are extremely guitarist-friendly—more so than a lot of fretted instruments. The tuning, G, C, e, A [fourth string to first], corresponds to the top four strings of a guitar if they were capoed at the fifth fret. The only difference is that the fourth-string G is tuned an octave higher than normal. That high string gives rise to some really neat effects. Aside from the chime it imparts to run-of-the-mill chords, it gives fingerpickers several options that wouldn’t normally be there. For instance, a simple Dmaj7 shape in the open position (which is actually a Gmaj7 in this tuning) takes on a much more scalar quality thanks to the minor second that the tuning provides between the second and the fourth strings. Even random plucking will generate passages that would require monster stretches on a 6-string. All this ukulele evangelism brings us to the two models from Lanikai that you see here.
This cute little Chinese-made instrument is a concert-sized member of the ukulele family. That means it’s bigger than a soprano uke, but smaller than a tenor. The CK-C ($299 retail/$240 street) comes dressed in curly koa on the top, back, and sides. It looks, well, very Hawaiian: smooth, relaxed, and kind of dreamy. The two-piece oval inlays on the rosewood fretboard are cool and the maple binding encapsulates the koa in a smart, natural fashion. The black nylon GHS Hawaiian strings look great against the rosewood and the chrome tuning machines.
Picking up the CK-C is interesting for a guitarist because it weighs nothing. It’s really quite amazing to experience notes without weight. Once I tuned it up to pitch, I played a couple of chords and was greeted by a bright, lilting sound that evoked classical guitar, mandolin, and harp all at the same time. I played some fingerstyle parts that sounded great and then I grabbed a pick and found the CK-C to be very plectrum friendly. Strummed chords sound nice and cross-picked lines just jump out of this little body.
I stuck a Neumann mic on the CK-C and did a little recording. I found it to sound a lot bigger than it looks on playback. It’s big and full and individual notes have a ton of body with the proper mic placement (which was pretty much right at the soundhole). The CK-C turned out to be a great secret weapon in the studio. It was Hawaiian if that’s what I needed, but it also had the ability to do faux-pizzicato violin parts, pseudo-harp sounds, or tones that you can’t identify but just dig. How cool is that?
The CK-TEQ ($449 retail/$389 street) takes things up a few notches. First off, this is a tenor uke. That gives you a longer scale length, more volume, and—in this case—a wound string for the third string. But that’s not all. You also get the Shadow pickup system to amplify your uke and a cutaway to provide access to the upper reaches of ukedom. Cosmetically, the TEQ features many of the same accoutrements as the CK-C, including curly koa for the top, back, and sides. The extended scale length brings with it a tighter string tension, which for me was a good thing. Whereas the CK-C felt a little dainty and delicate, the TEQ was stout and strong. I definitely felt like I could dig in more and it would hang right there with me.
Because of its onboard electronics, the TEQ provides greater flexibility onstage and in the studio. I got very musical results by running the Shadow pickup direct into the board for an intimate acoustic jam and I plugged it straight into a Pro Tools Mbox for easy-as-pie recording. Once again, the recorded tracks were impossibly cool. On a Brit-pop acoustic number, adding a uke track with the TEQ did things that a capoed guitar just couldn’t do. It’s hard to explain, but there’s an earthiness and an innocence to these uke tracks that I just can’t get any other way. I’m hooked.
The only issue I had with the TEQ concerned the intonation. Notes pitched slightly sharp as I went up the neck and I struggled to keep some voicings in tune, particularly when I incorporated open strings into the chord. This is a minor point, however—nothing kept me from playing it for hours.
For anyone who still views the ukulele as a novelty or a toy, all I can say is you need to try one. This is a beautiful instrument that is capable of much more than the stereotypical II7-V7-I ghetto the uke has been relegated to. Like all ukuleles, these two Lanikais certainly don’t have the range of a guitar. Once you let go of that need for bass, however, you’ll find an incredible freedom in the ukulele, and either the CK-C or the CK-TEQ would be a great place to start.