Bill Collings master ukulele builder interviewed in Austin

“You’ve got to care, you’ve got to say I’m going to make a ukulele that makes the difference, and I’m not going to make one that’s going to be the 35 dollar uke!”

                                                                                                                                                                                Bill Collings

Bill Collings
The very first ukulele I bought was a Bill Collings UC1 prototype concert ukulele from New York, which has just sounded better and better over time. I knew that Bill has a terrific global reputation for building superb electric and acoustic instruments for many years, but many people were surprised at his foray into building ukuleles. I also have on very good authority from music industry insiders that many named artists have numerous Collings instruments which have become the gold standard when it comes to build quality. I was therefore really looking forward to finally meeting Bill in person in Austin this September.
Before I met Bill he spotted me walking across to his unit, carrying my treasured Collings UC1 , and the first words I hear from him are “Ukuleles suck!” This is the start of a wonderful hour’s conversation with a master instrument builder, with a mischievous sense of humour and a very sharp eye on both the quality and business aspect of instrument building.
NC
I never intended to be even remotely interested in ukuleles, I was mostly interested in guitars, and it was Zeke in Mat Umanov in Bleecker street New York, who came back from the Namm  show with Mat Umanov with one of your pre-production UC1 concerts  ukes, and I thought -”What the hell is that?” I’ve never seen any Collings ukes so I bought this pre-production one and loved it and used it extensively on The Small Change Diaries album.
BC
Really nice! Ukuleles are a lot of work-that’s the stupid part; you wouldn’t think that would you?
NC
As I was saying to Alex, (Bill’s right hand man  who was kind enough to show us all around the facility at Collings)I’ve been all around the world, New York ,Japan and everywhere ,and I’ve never played any of your instruments which don’t sound great, and I can’t say that for any other builder.
BC
Yeah well that’s what we try to do, so we’re supposed to care!
The other day I heard from a dealer about electric guitars, that nobody cares about fit and finish in an electric guitar ,and I thought “you know, well I guess the world is done” I mean to say that  if you don’t care about something like that ,you’ve given up, you know?
NC
Well I don’t think that is the universal accepted view
BC
I hope not
NC
I was saying to Alex that I was talking to Doug Chandler (European distributor for Collings)who I’ve known from years back, and he was saying “Nick, every artist I know that is a name has at least one Collings guitar and Pete Townsend has six of them…”
BC
Yes and probably 10 ukes- did you know that?
NC
What made you first think about building ukes and when was this?
BC
There are many times when I’ve thought about this. When I start to see some really nice ukes, like some Martin ukes, any time I would see a nice, a well-made uke ,and think “Wow that’s neat !”You know, you’d always want to go “I’d like to do that,” The last time we actually did start to make ukes,a lot of people had been asking us to make ukes ,and I think it was 2007. Back then the economy was slow, and we thought let’s just go ahead and do what ukes did for a lot of companies through the years-they would fill in in the bad times -so let’s just use this as an excuse and try it-well it didn’t fill in anything but it did make some ukes! I think we made about 600 ukes or something like that!
NC
Ok, was that the first Namm show around 2007?
BC
Somewhere around there
NC
That must be when I bought my first one
BC
Yes somewhere in there, might have been 2007 2008 yeah and I think the uke boom was going on at that time
NC
it’s still pretty busy in the UK, it’s like some cult -you know people are really, same thing with guitars, you have different price points , some people just go” how much?” and  if we were sax or violin players we wouldn’t even be starting until it were a fair bit –
BC
Right
NC
So I think there is still a lot of interest in the UK, there are a lot of big festivals, same in Japan
BC
Oh here too, but I don’t know , it was almost frantic at one point ,we could not supply the need for the ukes, we’re just too slow at it ,and nothing we made ever made any money by any means , we put more in it than we should have ,but that’s what we wanted to do!
NC
Well they all sound great
BC
Good that’s the fun part
NC
From your point of view what are the key ingredients for making a really good uke
BC
The main one is care, you’ve got to care, you’ve got to say I’m going to make a uke that makes the difference, I’m not going to make one that’s going to be the 35 dollar uke! Then it would be craftsmanship of course and materials, the right materials, not too heavy, not too light, the right thicknesses, the right everything, the right finishes, playability, I mean everything making a uke great is what makes a guitar great. The problem is they’re smaller, so it’s hard to get all that work in. You can overbuild a uke really easy, you can under build a uke too
NC
From what I see you use mahogany and koa as primary materials
BC
Yeah, I think one tradition was koa, when they started making ukes in Hawaii they used a lot of koa, and then mahogany was the other. Mahogany is a great wood it’s a great guitar wood, it’s a great uke wood, mahogany sings, koa a little less, koa is a little drier, so mahogany is a great, great, uke wood
NC
I saw you also had some walnut
BC
We’ve done walnut, we’ve done rosewood, we’ve done maple, and we’ve done a lotNC
Do you have a favourite?
DC
Mahogany is probably all around my favourite overall.
NC
I keep coming back to my favourite of yours ,the concert straight mahogany UC1BC
There you go
NC
So were your ukes inspired from the Martin tradition?
BC
Basically from Martins, and from all the ukes ever made, whenever we saw a nice looking uke, we just kept looking at them, and then styled them, made our own shapes, smoothed out the edges, similar to other shapes and sizes ,and there’s a uke!
NC
I was talking to Alex about Plek technology (Plek is cutting edge technology used in calibrating instruments). I remember being in San Francisco when the first pleks started to appear. Gary Brawer had one of the first ones in San Francisco. How much has that technology assisted in your overall build of ukes?
BC
With ukes?
NC
Yeah
NC
None at all, not a bit ,but good question! We have never been able to fit it on the plek! We do mandolins on the plek, but with the softer strings they need  a little more relief, but knowing what the proper shape is ,and we see it every day, we can do it
NC
So far it’s been tenors and concerts, have you been tempted to go down the baritone or soprano route?
BC
Yeah some people in Japan want the soprano, and like I say, and it’s always been one of those things, that it’s not like we could run the company on making ukuleles, we like making them.  It runs in the back ground, we have a couple of guys making them now and then, we are not interested in making millions of them, just fine ukuleles . If you add up all the numbers in a year we get from making them, it’s not like it pays much electric bill, but we like making them ,it’s fun!
NC
We like having them! We appreciate it! I speak on behalf of the uke playing population and say all power to you, because everyone I’ve ever played sounds good
BC
Great thank you!
NC
What’s the time scale for a concert and a tenor?
BC
In terms of hours you mean?
NC
Yes
BC
The problem was when we first started making them it would be a couple of weeks to make one, cos we didn’t have the fixtures, and it took making really good fixtures accurately to speed it up enough, but it never sped it up enough to make sense out of it!
When we started it would have been 50 hours, ok, when we finish if we had 20 hours we’d be really happy ok, but that was the problem, you’d never really quite get there, so it’s never been one of those things that financially works out. You could make them quicker, I mean obviously some people make them for 35 dollars, but I don’t get it
Bill Collings
NC
Well it’s really a uke shaped object…
BC
There’s a lot to it, just keeping the neck straight, everything right on, the right space, the right heights of everything, knowing the woods going to move so much, and you don’t have an overset, those things take more time, and you can’t really put an hour on it, so could you add it up and say it works? I could just say it doesn’t ok! and if the guys, say Donovan makes one, or I make one, it may work out, if the right guys on it ,ok ,but I can unfortunately  just say, he’s got other jobs to do!
Did Alex say how many orders we have?
BC
Yeah you have a bunch waiting to be made!
Don’t tell anyone, but we put too much time in it-shhh! We’re kind of dumb that way.
That is our problem and well reputation is everything
NC
I looked up ,and picked up from your website your  recommendation for the Macintyre  feather pick up, which I put in this concert ukulele, and then was so impressed I swapped out all the Baggs from everything  else and just put Macintyre’s in.
BC
It’s all about how you pre amp it,  how I think all those could work if everything’s coupled correctly, that’s the hard part ,that’s a different deal, that’s more than we do you know,
I wish I could say I made ukuleles in 5 hours; hey we would be making the crap out of them!
NC
“Bill says you can make a uke in 60 minutes!”
BC (laughs)
It’d be great , no you just can’t, by the time you mess with stuff it just doesn’t happen, you can make it properly and all of a sudden somebodies fitting properly and centring properly and it just takes longer than you want ,you have  a couple of good days followed by a couple of slower days…
You know we have a lot of help ,assistance we say ,so we do rough parts out on a c and c ,that would be profile a top, or a laser which has not been soft cut ,and it has been accurately cut ,those things help, but we still to make it!
How long does it take to cut a perimeter out, not that long, and a band saw it takes about the same time on a laser, but its more accurate, we don’t have to mess with it afterwards, those things we can make up some time over strictly a hand builder, but there’s nothing else that’s done on it that makes it ,you know our c and c are fancy band saws you know, and slow ,but they are accurate
NC
One of the things I was so impressed about when I came out here a couple of years ago was the combination of the best technology and with an army of hand finishers.
BC
Oh my god yes that’s the problem, that army is expensive
NC
But the end result is that reputation wise everyone goes “Bills stuff’s way way beyond everyone else”
BC
That’s the thing, we use the technology to make our parts, and then we put all our time that we originally would have into the end product, so it’s better, so the time is all there on the tail end of it ,rather than in the front end of it
NC
So you’ve gone with acoustics, into electrics, and I know people at the time were thinking “what’s happening here?” then ukuleles, so what’s next for Collings?
BC
Well anything we like, I like cheaper guitars that were made in the 30s, that’s my Waterloo style guitar, and there will be lots of those that will catch the eye of many, and we will try to eliminate some steps to make them cheaper, we won’t eliminate craftsmanship, we will just eliminate frills, so the basic guitar is there, playable, great sound, not a lot of fancy stuff
NC
Well I totally applaud that
BC
Good
 NC
At the  end of the day it’s all about the sound, and wherever I’ve have been ,whether it be in Mandolin Brothers in Staten island , or in Tokyo, every one I’ve ever picked up ,whether guitar or ukulele , sounds great
BC
That’s good, that’s what we want!
NC
It’s great work, and long may it continue, and I really thank you for doing the interview
BC
Thank you
 Bill Collings
Photos courtesy of Susan Elton
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