12/31/2013

c.1920 Harmony-made "Mele" Soprano Ukulele



This is a customer's no-frills soprano uke, made by Harmony in the early 20s, and marketed under the "Mele" brand. The only way you can get closer to entry level from Harmony on a uke at this point was to remove the celluloid binding from the top edge and soundhole.

It's an all-birch instrument with an early Hawaiian-style neck (wider, thinner front to back, and lacking a fretboard) and stained a medium "walnut" color to approximate the look of mahogany, I imagine.

Work included a fret level/dress, reglue of the heel area of the neck (these guys have dowel joints and 9/10 times the dowel is glued tight but the heel is unglued at its base which means that the neck is unstable), cleaning, bridge reglue, and setup. New Golden Gate tuners were also installed and the end result is a nice-playing, sweet-sounding little thing that's unassuming to look at.



Solid birch was used by most big American manufacturers of instruments and in particular Harmony from the late 1800s all the way through the 1970s (when the company ceased to exist as an American-built product).


The extra ring of black binding around the soundhole pops it out a bit. I didn't take a photo of the label but there are any number of Mele-branded ukes posted on the blog in the past.


This came with its original wood friction pegs but these new Golden Gate friction pegs sure are easier to deal with for the novice.


There are no cracks on this uke which is fairly rare for an entry-level product. I imagine most of these have been left in closets and under beds and in garages and attics for the last 90 years.




The grain of the birch on this guy is pretty cool!

An interesting side-note on birch: there are lots of furniture companies from the same era (1900s-1930s) who used the term "Northern Maple" to describe birch in their catalogs. Cushman Furniture of Vermont was a pretty big abuser of this term.

What's cool about that, though, is that birch actually sounds a heck of a lot like maple in an instrument. Gibson even used it for most of their mandolin backs and sides before the 1930s. The key difference to my ears (I've heard examples of similar instruments in both woods) is that birch sounds slightly more compressed and "honky" in the mid-range. Otherwise the sustain and response seems pretty close to me.

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