Mid-East caused quite a splash at NAMM 2010 with a range of ukuleles based on traditional instruments including a hippie’s wet dream – a sitar that’s small enough to carry in a backpack. So I caught up with Jay McDonald from Mid-East to discuss chikaris and sympathetic strings; and to get some extensive use out of superscript.
What made you decide to start making such unusual ukuleles?
Mid-East has been making ethnic instruments from around the world since 1973. I wanted a “crossover” instrument which was a more mainstream western instrument such as a guitar or ukulele but yet would let us capitalize on our world instrument expertise. I felt at least four of our existing instruments lent themselves to be made into 4-string ukuleles. Three of the four had to be re-designed to make them smaller but the Russian folk instrument, called a balalaika, already had the same string scale length as a tenor ukulele so it was a natural fit by adding one more string.
The Lute-kulele™ is based on a 16th century Renaissance lute. I felt it was important to maintain the bowl back, the bent-back peg box, the carved rosette and the wooden pegs.
The Baroq-ulele™ is based on the roundback guitar-lutes made popular in Germany in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. When I first saw the results of my design come into fruition at our overseas workshop, I just wanted to hug it and I’ve seen it have this same effect on many people. This is the most feature- rich instrument in our entire product line in that it is offered in 3 sizes (soprano, concert and tenor), 3 woods, and two tuners options. We are exploring a third tuner option with Pegheads(tm).
The fourth one, getting a lot of buzz (pun intended) is the sitar-based ukulele we call the Sitar-kulele™. Mid-East has been the largest provider of sitars in the USA for many years. We had a toy mini-sitar in the product line so I took that idea and made it into a real sitar using a different maker.
What challenges did you face designing and developing these instruments?
This Lute-kulele™ was a challenge in that Renaissance lutes normally have between 11 and 15 strings. I wanted to keep the peg box in proportion so I added two double strings to make it a 6-string ukulele but since they are double-strings, the instrument is still played like a normal 4-string uke. The nylon frets, typical on a Renaissance lute were a challenge too. Tied at the top of the neck, this is never and issue with a wide-neck lute but for the Lute-kulele™ these knots preclude fast thumb-over techniques. It is best suited for fingerpicking in the John King-style of music.
The Sitar-kulele™ has been the biggest challenge. It was a struggle to get the sitar makers to center the strings down the neck (sitars are offset). Regular sitars have very high action so the height of the arched frets can permit a wide degree of inconsistency. I wanted to achieve standard low action for the ukulele version, so leveling the arched frets was also something new for the sitar makers. I tried a nylon-string version but the sitar buzz that everyone knows and loves doesn’t work unless the strings are of steel or brass.
The instruments look great. Did you have to make compromises to the sound or the playability to get that? Which was your priority?
I wanted to keep the integrity of the original instruments as much as possible yet make these all truly playable instruments. These were not designed to be novelties or décor items.
Without a soundhole the small Sitar-kulele™ is really very quiet, so a pickup was added as standard. A strap is recommended for the Baroq-uleles™ with their round backs. Otherwise they tend to want to roll out. I could have flattened the back to prevent this but the instrument would lose its huggable personality for sure.
The Sitar-kulele looks very unconventional. What are the string and fret arrangements on it?
A typical sitar has 7 main strings with two of these called chikari strings that ride on posts along the edge of the neck. There wasn’t enough real estate to keep both these and the sympathetic strings on a ukulele-sized version. I converted the chikari tuning pegs into sympathetic string pegs enabling 6 sympathetic strings instead of only four. The sympathetic strings run underneath the frets and can be tuned chromatically or to a particular key. The frets are spaced like any standard ukulele except I eliminated the 9th and 13th frets in keeping more with the heritage of a true sitar. This also enabled one more sympathetic peg to be added where the ninth fret was removed. The instrument can be played normally as long as your tuning or key doesn’t require the notes omitted by the two absent frets. I would encourage alternative tunings on this ukulele. It’s a Sitar-kulele™ so keep in the spirit of “sitarness”.
Have you got plans for any more ukuleles in the future?
Absolutely! We are already planning a larger version (tenor or baritone) of the Sitar-kulele™. The Baroq-ulele™ has been such a hit we’re exploring a baritone version and we’re looking into other woods. Our very first ukulele, the Cumbus-ukulele (pronounced Joom’-bush) has been in our product line for several years and I will be visiting Turkey next month to make some changes to the fingerboard. We also have plans for 3 new ukuleles based other old-world instruments that we’re real excited about. I don’t want to say too much right now but Ukulele Hunt will be the first to learn about them later this year.
You-kulele™ can pre-order Mid-East’s new-kulele™ u-kulele™s on their website-kulele™.