Amateur Ukulele Luthier Interview – John Colter

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“Instrument making is not a dark art, there is no great mystery to it.”

John Colter - Amateur Ukulele Luthier

Profession: Retired Local Government Officer

Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England

Tell me about your journey… Were you a player first? What inspired you to take the plunge and build?

When I started playing in the early 90’s I had a Japanese Mitubagakki soprano – a poor copy of a style 0 Martin. I wanted something better but the era of plentiful, good quality, oriental ukes had not yet arrived. I am an experienced aeromodeller, and thought the skills involved in making flying models would be applicable to ukes, so I decided to have a go at making one.

In the beginning what was the building process like? Were there any unforeseen events?

A neighbour was an accomplished folk and blues guitarist – and a skilled carpenter. He took an interest in my little project and let me use his workshop. He had a band saw, thicknesser, lathe, pillar drill, belt sander and loads of ancient hand tools. The fly in the ointment was that he was an alcoholic and a bit of a Jeckel and Hyde character.

My 5th uke - Maple back, sides, neck, Sitka spruce front

What choices were you faced with during the build process?

My “friendly” neighbour had a good supply of a timber called Sepetir. It is a mahogany substitute used in the furniture industry. I used that for the body, neck, fretboard and bridge. I knew my first effort would be a learning experience, so the choice of wood was not important. I used some small geared tuners from a broken twelve string guitar that a friend found in a hedgerow! Marking out the fret slots and cutting them by hand and eye – with no jigs or patterns – was tricky. I hated mathematics at school, but found working out the fret spacing to be really absorbing and interesting. As it turned out, Sepetir is quite a suitable material and that first uke was reasonably successful.

Built from a kit by Pete Howlett-Cuban Mahogany

What advice did you seek and where did you get it?

The internet was still in its infancy, and I did not have a computer, so I looked in Wolverhampton Public Library for information on instrument building. There was nothing specifically about ukuleles, but I borrowed a good book about guitar making. It proved to be very helpful, although it is important to note that a ukulele is NOT just a scaled down guitar. As I say, I had no internet to refer to and no books about ukes were available to me. I was working from basic principles, best guesses, and copying existing ukes. The only other ukulele player I knew at that time, was a very old chap who had a vintage Martin and a Gibson. He let me peer at them very closely, outside and in using a dentist’s mirror, this was a big help.

Wonky Uke, Look-no nut!

What about the results of your first attempts at building? Were you delighted or devastated?

I was very pleased with that first uke, even though it fell short of my aspirations in various ways, for an initial attempt it was a success. Most first time uke builders make the mistake of building too robustly, which kills the tone and volume. I did the opposite; the bracing was inadequate, I did not use a bridge patch and the end blocks were very thin. The uke sounded very good, with decent volume provided it was strummed or picked relatively gently. Giving it some welly produced a muddy, confused sound as though there was just too much uncontrolled vibration. My wife loved it and played it for a number of years, before the tension of the strings finally pulled it out of shape. I tried repairing it with bigger braces, but it never sounded any good after that.

Iroko wood-reclaimed from  an old shelf

How soon after did you do it again? What motivated you?

My second and third ukes followed on quite quickly, I used Maple for the bodies and necks. They looked quite striking in a very pale sort of way and sounded very loud and bright – a bit too bright for my tastes. As I mostly strum chords and sing, I like a bit of mellowness and sustain. A friend asked me if I could make him a CBU (Cigar Box Ukulele) using the neck from a broken Mexican Martin. He had ordered the Martin from a company in Germany and when it arrived it looked as though an elephant had stepped on the parcel. Another friend gave me a “La Paz” cigar box that his father used to keep nuts and washers in, so I was good to go. This time the results amazed me! I wasn’t expecting too much from it, but it played beautifully and sounded glorious. Since then I’ve made about a dozen CBUs and my total of all ukes made is more than thirty. At one stage I built a StewMac soprano kit. It was very good and several friends asked me to make them one. I called a halt after making seven and refused to make any more!

Wonky Uke-Wood from port wine box

Where are you now with your luthiery and what do you see for the future?

My uke making has stalled recently, with two incomplete projects and plans for another. My enthusiasm just seemed to dry up. I find that I can’t make myself get stuck in to building, if I don’t feel like it. I’ve tried, but it doesn’t work. If and when I get the urge again, I hope at least to finish off what I’ve started.

Iroko body, Mahogany neck, Ukulele Parts

How about an insight into your luthier’s philosophy? Do you have a message to aspiring ukulele luthiers?

One of the benefits of becoming a builder is that you learn how to set up a ukulele. Most commercially built ukes are set up very approximately and can be much improved. I’ve been able to help out countless folk who were struggling with ukes that were difficult to play, and had poor intonation. I met someone who was a classically trained viola player, but fell in love with the uke. She bought three: a soprano, a concert and a tenor. They were all high end ukes, but only the tenor was (by her standards) playable. The tenor was a KoAloha and one of the nicest instruments I have met. I sorted out the other two with basic adjustment of the nut and saddle and she thought I was a magician! Instrument making is not a dark art, there is no great mystery to it. I would recommend it to anyone who fancies having a go. However you do have to be realistic about your abilities. If you have a careful, patient approach, good eyesight and can work to very fine tolerances, you can make a ukulele. There is now an abundance of information available – probably too much!

Cigar Box Ukulele

 

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