Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sandor’s Baritone Ukuleles

I have known Sandor (it's Hungarian and pronounced "Shawn-door") for about 5 years now. He is one of the original triumvirate of leaders of the World Famous Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz and is one of those rare individuals that makes everyone feel very welcomed. Sandor always has a great intensity for this fine instrument and will engage all inquiring minds with enthusiastic vigor. At the club meetings he wears many hats: greeter, M.C., teacher, techmeister, recorder, sound man, dancer, and of course, musician...

His love for woodworking, as well as his having written more than a dozen books in the past 20 years (quite a few are now, sadly, out of print) and he's written literally hundreds of magazine articles on woodworking, tools, and DIY topics. He was Senior Editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, West Coast Editor of American Woodworker, and is currently a Contributing Editor to the Woodworker's Journal magazine. His business travels gave him many opportunities to explore the country in search of the humble ukulele. He also has his own author page on Amazon were you can see his books

I had the opportunity to visit Sandor's home recently and he shared his treasures with me. Now here is your chance to see some of his baritone ukuleles and get a taste of his eloquent writing. I am honored to be able to share this with you...

I’ve been playing ukulele for more than 35 years, and collecting ukes for nearly 30 of those years. In addition to the many soprano and concert sized ukes in my collection, are a number of baritone instruments (as well as a handful of tenor guitars). My favorite baritones are the ones shown in the photograph: Standing on the far left is a Favilla B-2 baritone, built by the company who’s founder, Herk Favilla, likely invented the baritone-sized ukulele. The B-2 is a real “bomber” of a instrument, with a deep mahogany body and a very loud, full tone. It’s a well constructed uke with good intonation and it’s a pleasure to play. Because it’s loud and hearty, I really like to use when performing at outdoor venues, like around the campfire at “Burning Uke” (the annual campout of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz).

Standing next to the Favilla is the odd Arthur Godfrey baritone. The uke’s manufacturer Vega chose to call this instrument a “Solo Lute,” probably to distinguish it from the two lesser-model baris that the company made back then. The Solo Lute is a dream to play on jazzier songs, as it’s neck joins the body all the way up at the 17th fret! This allows easy access to the upper register, great for soloing and playing more complex chord melodies. It has a spruce top, so it’s quite a loud instrument which has a decent voice that’s different from other mahogany or koa baris that I’ve played. The shaded (sunburst) finish applied to the top, back, sides and even the neck of the Solo Lute make it look like a real jazz instrument (think of a vintage Gibson L-5).

On a stand at the right of the photo is my trusty Martin style 51 baritone uke—the first bari I ever purchased (I think I paid $250. for it back in the late 80s) It’s an all-solid-mahogany instrument, with celluloid tortoiseshell purfling, probably built in the 60s. The Martin was my “go-to” instrument for most of the 10 years that I performed with the “UkeAholics,” a vintage rock trio that featured myself on bari or bass, well-known crooner Ukulele Dick on soprano uke and Eric Conly on tenor. We all sang as well. The 51 Martin has a very even tone—not too bassy or trebly—and thus is a terrific instrument to record with. In fact, I used this bari on several cuts on the UkeAholic’s 2009 CD: “Vintage Rock ‘N Roll with a Twist.” It’s also got great intonation—which is more than I can say for the Harmony baritone that’s laying on the case in the lower part of the photo.

Also probably of 60s vintage, the Harmony is, by far, the cheapest bari I own, both in terms of its purchase price and construction integrity. Since it’s made out of mahogany plywood, it sounds pretty cheap too—no rich harmonics from this beast. But it’s a sturdy, serviceable uke and I’m glad I own it. It’s the uke to take on any excursion where my uke might take a beating or get a soaking (beach soirees; canoe trips, drunken picnics, etc.). I actually had two of these Harmonies, one of which was given to me as a gift. I re-gifted that bari to a friend for his young son. My friend wanted to start his son out on an “easy to play” instrument that would allow him to transition to guitar as he got older—which is exactly what happened.

A real jewel in my ukulele quiver is the baritone that I’m holding: A custom-made Tony Graziano instrument. Acquired as part of a trade deal (I photograph all of Tony’s instruments for his website, portfolio, and promotional materials), this uke has a creamy German-spruce top with sides and back made from precious Brazilian rosewood that has a stunningly beautiful grain figure. Its 14-fret neck is carved out of mahogany and capped with an ebony fret board. The uke’s tone is graceful and lovely: bright without being tinny; deep without being boomy. It also records very well, and it’s slightly-wide fret board makes it a great finger picking instrument; I used it for the Flamenco introduction to “California Dreaming” on the UkeAholic’s CD. My only complaint in recording this instrument is that the spruce top gives this bari a tone that sounds too much like classical guitar. In fact, quite a few people who heard “California Dreaming” thought it was played on a guitar!

I’m happy to have acquired quite a few other baritone ukes over the years, including three different Mastro “Islander” models, all made from injection-molded styron plastic by none other than Mario Maccaferri (he designed the famous Selmer jazz guitars popularized by Django Reinhardt). I also own several “electric” baritones, including a custom Graziano that’s designed after the famous Hofner violin-bodied “Beatle Bass.” (More on these other baritones in a later installment).


  1. I am so happy t have found this site. At 58, I have only just started playing uke after a life time of believing I would never play an instrument.

    I love it and can't believe how happy it makes me feel.

    Thank you and so many of your contemporaries for nurturing this wonderful instrument!


    1. Paula:

      Isn't it wonderful? I started at 45, and it's a joy to be able to express oneself musically and to play music with others.

      Jeff / Humble Uker

    2. Joyful is certainly the feeling.

      I can't stop buying them now! 16 years go I spent $1000 on a Maton acoustic guitar. I tried to master it but found it just too hard. It sits in its beautiful hard case und my bed. My nephew who is very talented plays it once in a blue moon when he come to visit. I have 1 soprano and 3 tenors now!. I won't rest until I get my first baritone! I know absolutely nothing about music theory! It is embarrassing really. But I like to make a noise and so fluff along anyway!


  2. It is interesting reading about your baritones. I can relate somewhat. I've played guitar for 50 years. Several years ago I got into ukes, baritones first. I got three Harmonys, serviceable but somewhat crude. I had a Martin but sold it. I like my two Favillas much better. Someone said Favillas were considered the "poor man's Martin". I like their feel and sound better. I recently acquired an old Gibson. The vertict is still out on that one. Seems fine so far. ... jim

  3. I'm 50 now and have been playing guitar since my teens. About 5 years ago I got a long service award from work and used it to buy a baritone uke. I love it to bits and it suits me so much better than a guitar. Would love a solid body electric one now. Maybe a flying V :-)