Teeny Tiny

I am the first to admit that I like tiny little musical instruments.  I play a number of them, from the ukulele and the piccolo to the harmonica and the pennywhistle.  I also play some particularly huge and ungainly instruments, such as the piano and the accordion, but there’s a certain appeal about being able to stick an instrument in your purse or sling it over your shoulder and carry it around all day without suffering major back pain.  Portability means greater ease of access.  In the case of instruments, it does sometimes have its drawbacks.  Playing the piccolo is fun, but people tend to run away whenever you get it out.  I am happy to argue that the ukulele is a viable musical instrument capable of complexity and beauty (take it away, Jake Shimabaukuro), but I’ll also admit that it has much less sustain and resonance than a guitar, and the fact that it has a short scale and four strings instead of six can be seen to limit it as well.  Devotees of tiny instruments love them because of what they can do; others shun them because of what they can’t do.

However, a trend that sometimes rather baffles me involves an apparently endless series of attempts to make already small instruments even smaller.

Let’s stick just with the ukulele for now, simply because it offers us so very many example.  The ukulele comes in four standard sizes:  soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.  The soprano is the size most people think of when they think of the ukulele; the larger sizes are tuned more or less the same (except, occasionally, for the baritone), but they offer longer scales and larger, more resonant bodies.  A typical soprano is about 21 inches long and weighs so little that it can easily be balanced on a single finger.  Even a tenor uke, at around 26 inches, is small enough to treat as carry-on luggage.

And yet there are compact “travel versions” of even the soprano ukulele.  Kala makes a thinline travel uke that simply reduces the depth of the body, making the instrument easier to stow in a bag.  Ohana has a sopranino size that is about 19 inches long and is generally tuned a bit higher than the soprano.  I own one of these, and it’s fun and kind of cute, but it is really just taking something that’s already very small and making it even smaller.  Kala has gone Ohana–and itself–one better and produced a pocket ukulele, which is 16 inches long and tuned even higher than the sopranino.  The KoAloha Noah is 3/4 the size of an ordinary soprano.  The Kala pocket uke is usually considered the smallest playable ukulele, but there are smaller ones out there; Tangi makes a tiny model that is supposed to be mostly decorative (though some do try to play it), and a few independent makers, such as this guy, make miniature ukes that are meant to be played.  A few higher-end uke makers also do sopranino, sopranissimo, and miniature ukuleles.

But that’s just the beginning.  Eleuke, which makes electric ukuleles, has the Peanut, a soprano-scale solid-bodied instrument that is much slenderer than a standard uke.  Risa also has a tiny electric uke.  An independent maker sells kits for making foldable ukuleles; they sound pretty terrible, but they do fold up quite small. Another independent maker has come up with a very small and not very nice-sounding travel ukulele made from scrap lumber.

I could go on.  Over and over, people are taking an instrument that is already about the length of a grown woman’s arm (hand not included) and making it even smaller.  Sometimes, it becomes so small that the sound quality is entirely compromised.  Sometimes, it sounds okay.  But the impulse to force the instrument into teenier and teenier packages remains.

My personal theory, which I have expressed before, is that ukuleles and other small instruments are a bit like puppies; they have the “awww” factor on their sides.  This does not detract from the fact that they can sound absolutely gorgeous at times, but it does make some people take them less seriously.  We try to compensate, in a way, by accentuating the convenience.  You laugh at my tiny instrument?  Look how easy it is to carry around!  How do you feel about your double bass now?

I do enjoy my sopranino, though if I want the best possible sound, it’s not the instrument I pick up first.  I don’t think I’ll ever own one of the Kala pocket ukes.  They remind me too much of those little wee dogs rich women carry around in their purses.

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