Here we go again with a “new” hybrid instrument. A ukutar is a guitar that wants to be a ukulele. It has four strings and it plays exactly like a ukulele, but it sounds rather like a guitar, with all that deep resonance that we love in the instrument. Read on to see how you can make one with a $30 budget. There’s also some sound samples.
I had reached an impasse my quest for the perfect accompaniment instrument. I had concluded that four strings were actually better than six, which pointed to the baritone ukulele as the ideal instrument, but I still didn’t quite like its sound. Compared to the guitar, it sounded tinny, hollow, like clapping coconut shells. None of that full-bodied resonance of the guitar (even without its top two strings). Then it dawned on me: it is the body, idiot! Thus was born the ukutar, which has the body of a (small) guitar, and the soul of a (baritone) ukulele. Another possible name was “guitalele,” but this has been taken already to mean a six-stringed instrument (hence, a guitar) the size of a ukulele. Because my instrument is exactly the inverse of that (a four-stringed instrument the size of a guitar), I chose the inverse name as well 😉
So I went online and found a $30 3/4 size classical guitar. Why 3/4 size? Because the full size guitar is a bit too big and unwieldy. The 3/4 guitar also has its strings closer together than a full size guitar, which came in handy for the purpose of repositioning the strings. The so-called 1/2 size guitar is the same as a guitalele, so making it four-string creates a pretty conventional ukulele.
I bought the cheapest instrument possible because I was going to perform invasive surgery on it right away. Since the original strings are too close together, I needed to separate them. This is done by making new grooves on the nut and drilling new holes in the bridge. The typical separation between strings in a ukulele (tenor or baritone) is 9 mm (sorry about not using inches; inch fractions confuse the heck out of me, so I always use metric at this scale). Making four grooves on the nut with this separation comes dangerously close to enlarging the original grooves, which is an obvious no-no, but if you take grooves 1 and 5 from the guitar and add a two more in-between so the spacing is even, you end up with a 10.5 mm separation between strings, which is pretty close to standard ukulele spacing and quite easy to adapt to. Here’s pictures of the nut with the new grooves, before and after repositioning the strings (only strings 1 to 4).
A similar thing happens with the holes in the bridge. I took holes 1 and 5 and added a couple holes at even intervals between them, resulting in a separation of 14 mm, pretty close to the ukulele-standard 13 mm. I used a small bit on a regular cordless drill with an extender, so I didn’t have to remove the bridge.
And then, just take strings 1 to 4 from the guitar and put them on. Skip the middle tuning pegs and use the other four. Tune to DGBE just like the bottom four strings of a guitar, which is what they are.
The result ends up looking pretty similar to a tenor guitar (in the picture at right), except that it has nylon strings rather than steel strings and a wider string spacing, to make it easier to play. It is a lot cheaper, too. You can also make a ukutar starting from a steel-string guitar, but it is likely that you will be able to reposition the strings only at the nut because of the way steel strings attach to the bridge.
After I published this, I ran into a ukutar you can buy. It is made by Pono, who calls it “baritone nui” ukulele (nui means great in Hawaiian). I don’t want to give you a link leading to a store (easy enough to find on Google), but here are some videos of the instrument in action. It has the same dimensions as my ukutar, only it costs at least twenty times as much. It uses regular baritone strings (two nylon, two wound), so they are tensioned rather taut for the longer scale, while my ukutar uses guitar strings (three nylon, one wound) with a much gentler tension.
Does it sound nice? Oh yeah. People who have heard it say that it sounds nicer than the full-bodied guitar, but definitely like a guitar, not tinny like a ukulele (although it plays like a ukulele, but they don’t know that) 😉 If ever I get tired of it and want add the other two strings back, I can do it because the grooves on the nut and the holes in the bridge are still there.
But don’t take my word for it. I’m giving you a couple sound samples so you can compare, playing these chords (twice): C – E7 – A7 – D7 – G7 – C7 – F – Bb – G – C.
Here’s the ukutar:
And here’s a regular baritone ukulele (the same that later got converted to cuatrolele):