Upcycled music: Neil McHardy ukulele review

Guitars & Gear

Last year, I commissioned another custom-built instrument. I was in the market for a ukulele I could take out to gigs, as my existing concert sized one did not have a pickup or preamp attached. Knowing Neil McHardy in Cumbria has built a few ukes recently, I asked if he would consider making a tenor sized electro-acoustic model for me. McHardy guitars operate from a village in Cumbria, making acoustic instruments out of recycled wood. Some of you may remember built his first ever classical guitar at my request, mainly out of an old table (you can read the full review by clicking here).

This time around, I was happy to let Neil design it pretty much however he wished. I am a fan of his signature offset sound holes, and my only stipulation was to include a preamp so the ukulele could be used for concerts and recording. As always, Neil sent regular updates on how the build was progressing (see pictures) and was always happy to impart gems of guitar and uke building knowledge.

Size matters

So what is the difference between a concert and tenor sized ukulele? A tenor is larger than a concert, sometimes up to four inches longer, but they are tuned the same. In fact, soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles can all be tuned the same (G4, C4, E4, A4). The main difference is volume and depth of bass response which the larger bodied instruments benefit from.

An example of the size and scale differences between different types of ukulele

With tenor ukuleles, some players also use a G string which sounds an octave lower (G3), effectively making he open strings sound exactly the same as the highest four strings of a guitar at the fifth fret. I can see how some players might find this easier, especially if they are migrating to the ukulele from the guitar. Personally, if I needed that sound, I’d put a capo on one of my guitars, so I have opted for the more traditional uke tuning.

Specifications

The finished instrument is made from recycled Douglas Fir and Spanish Cedar. The face plate and scratchplate (or golpe) are made from fallen trees Neil found on a walk, and feature the most stunning grain, on which Neil has placed the tuning pegs in a line (rather than two per side, as is traditional).

With the addition of a good value preamp (powered by an easily removable 9 volt battery), this new uke was fitted with strings and Neil contacted me to collect it.

I love the look of the grain on the golpe and faceplate, and was impressed with the instrument’s volume when strumming it unplugged for the first time. Plugged in, it sounded the same as it did acoustically, just with the potential to go a lot louder – which is exactly what I would expect.

Family photo with my previous McHardy build, my gorgeous classical guitar

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to try it out onstage yet, but I plan to use it in an upcoming recording project (more details on that to follow). But when that material comes to the stage, this uke will be out on the road with me. I can’t wait.

Upcycled music: my custom-built, eco-friendly classical guitar

Guitars & Gear

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may be aware that I recently had a new classical guitar custom made for me by Neil McHardy Guitars in Cumbria. Here’s some details and a closer look…

McHardy’s eco-friendly mindset

Neil works alone and handbuilds his guitars to order. His offset sound hole design came from his father, who built guitars for the boys he used to teach, using old wood. Neil, a retired engineer, has kept the same overall design & philosophy, creating beautiful instruments out of old wood. Most of his guitars had previously been doors, floorboards or old workbenches. It goes against the mentality of many high-end luthiers, who prize certain ‘tonewoods’ over others. Believe me, these guitars sound brilliant & play as well (if not better) than their (considerably) more expensive rivals.

Unique in more ways than one

I first discovered Neil’s craftsmanship at the Sunbeams Music Centre in Penrith, which has a guitar donated by him amongst its collection. Intrigued by his philosophy of using recycled wood, I contacted him to ask if he had ever made a nylon-strung guitar. Neil told me he had not (all of his creations until then had been steel-strung acoustics), but was up for the challenge.

After lots of careful of research, Neil designed & built a guitar to my specifications. He also sent me regular work in progress pictures (below).

The finished product

Neil finished the guitar for me in late January, and it was great to finally have it in my hands to play. All of my requests & requirements had been met, from the thinner body depth to the input jack being placed separately from the bridge pin/end strap button. The offset soundhole does not effect volume, but rather allows for more vibration of the top. It also suits my more percussive style of playing better.

Specifications

Top: Red Cedar
Back & Sides: Spanish Cedar
Neck: Cherry, with a Beech stripe
Fretboard & Bridge: African Ebony
Head Facing & Golpe: American Walnut

Nut & Saddle: Camel Bone
Pickup: Fishman ‘Presys’

Depth: 90mm at bottom, tapering to 70mm at top
Width of lower bout: 370mm
Length: 1,000mm
Nut Width: 52mm (2″)

I’ve played this guitar for a couple of months now and still very pleased with it. The thinline body & offset soundhole create less conventional nylon-strung sound which is perfect for jazz and latin styles, while still retaining an intrinsic classical vibe.

Unplugged, it is loud enough to be heard, but the onboard mic/pickup combo is very versatile for both live performance and recording – I especially like being able to blend the ratio of microphone (just under the soundhole on the guitar’s upper bout) and pickup. Having a tuner on there means one less thing to forget to pack in my gigbag too!

I’m terms of how it looks, I think this guitar is a real stunner. To me, it mixes the best of classic Spanish guitar with elements of African design – particularly in the binding & rosette. Speaking of which, these are another feature unique to all McHardy Guitars, as they are pieced together from spare wood chippings. No two rosettes made by Neil look the same!

Playability

The action is low but clean, and the 52mm (2 inch) nut, the standard in classical guitar making, feels perfectly comfortable. Its thinline body make it easy to hold in the right position and the neck is well intonated. Big stretches aren’t a problem and full chords hold their tuning across the fretboard. In short, it feels as good to play as it sounds.

The electrics are simple to navigate and sound superb. I’ve already found two settings which will likely become my main voicings for this instrument.

One of a kind

When I first met Neil in his workshop, I noticed he had a collection of wooden circles on a string. These, he explained, were the cut-outs from the soundhole of every guitar he had ever made. He estimated there to be around 50 in total. All of them steel-strung six string acoustics, until mine.

However, it seems Neil continues to diversity and experiment. At time of writing, he was starting on his first ever twelve string, another requested build. I’m sure he’ll nail it as brilliantly ass he did with my nylon-strung axe.

In a follow up conversation, Neil mentioned one of his Facebook followers admiring photos of my finished guitar so much that he had started enquiring about his own. So perhaps this could be the start of a whole new range for Neil!

For more info…

If you asked about his work, Neil would tell you that he’s “just a man in a shed”. However, if you would like to see more of his guitars, or even discuss a future build of your own, then please do check him out via the Neil McHardy Guitars Facebook page – just don’t inundate the poor guy with requests for the Tim Higgins Signature Model!