A trio of Northern ukulelesHeadstock of a Northern ukeNorthern ukeNorthern fretboard3 Northern ukesNorthern headChinese-made knock-off of Northern ukuleleTriumph - another Northern knock-off.

Northern ukuleles

Back in the 1970s, J. Chalmers Doane started a program in Canada called "Ukuleles in the Classroom." It sprang from his success as a teacher using ukes in his Halifax classrooms in the late 1960s, and it spread across Canada.

Ukes were affordable, small, non-intimidating, easy to handle - the perfect instrument for kids just starting to learn music. Kids loved them, Parents and teachers liked them because they were affordable.

Doane also started the "Ukuleles Yes!" organization and created several student-based ukulele orchestras (their music is available for a free download on his website).

He designed a special ukulele for his classroom program: the Northern JCD-2. It was a concert-size uke made in Japan, with an odd triangular body and an even more bizarre through-the-neck stringing system (see below).

He also had soprano size ukes made in this design (see photo, left) and, I've been told, a traditional figure-eight style concert uke (which I have never seen except in pictures online).

The ukes seem to have laminate tops, but may also be solid mahogany (if so, it's a trifle thicker than one would expect for a soundboard). There may be other variations, too (for example, the soprano I found had a plastic fretboard, but this may be a later addition).

It's hard to find details about the make and manufacturing. If you have any, please let me know.

Thousands of these ukes, I've been told, were sold to and played by students across Canada whiles his music program ran in schools. School boards, as is their parsimonious nature, cut the music programs, including Doane's, and ended this very successful method of teaching children music. No doubt the boards wanted to use the money for raises to superintendents and school board reps at the time.

Doane's Northern ukes now rest in attics and basements all over Canada. They occasionally pop up in hock shops and yard sales in varying condition from well-kept to greatly-abused. Prices are usually modest to low - that reflects the original "everyman's" nature of the model. Sometimes you may end up with a case too - I have collected two, one more padded than the other. Case seem to take even more beating than the bodies.

These don't seem to have caught the fancy of uke collectors like some other models of the same era have. In part it might be due to the number produced, but also to it being a predominantly Canadian instrument and most of the big collectors are in Japan or the USA. They pop up now and then on eBay and ukulele forums, but seldom sell for more than $50 US although some have been priced much higher (and don't seem to sell, either).

Caveat emptor: you don't have to pay a lot for one of these, but the average condition seems to be less than pristine!

That may change as collectors realize these instruments are worth paying attention to, but for now they're accessible to a wide range of neophyte collectors. But given that most of the original owners were young students, it may not be easy to find many in good condition. Most, I expect, will show some wear and tear.

I like it for its Canadian connection, hence my interest in collecting them. But I also like oddities and the Northern fits that bill.

The instrument has a rosewood fretboard and a rosewood saddle. There is no bridge - the string ends are secured with guitar pegs right in the body. There are three small sound holes in the centre, under the strings. Nut is also wood but may be plastic on some. The body is triangular, with an oblique cut that makes the uke lean the to left when stood on its end.

It uses friction tuners and has another oblique cut on its head. The triangular shape seems to make the body volume and topboard area smaller than the traditional design.

Soundwise, the Northern doesn't have great depth or sustain (in part because there is no single large sound hole), but has reasonable volume. It's not bad, given what it was designed for, but not in the same class as most of the ukes I've reviewed here. They play reasonably well too - intonation and action are beyond reproach.

It's a bit awkward to hold, but sure is easy to stand upright. With no strap button or soundhole, most strap solutions won't work, except for the Uke Leash.

The Northern has generated some modern knock-offs, mostly made in China. The photo second from last on the left, below, shows one commonly sold on eBay. It's a bit more ornate than the JCD-2, uses geared tuners, and has a traditional bridge rather than string pegs. The head also looks more traditional. It sells for around $55-$60 US, which in today's money is probably equivalent to what the Northern sold for in its day. It is a laminate top. Another brand,

The Triumph (see picture at left, below) is another Northern clone. This is less ornate, and more visually similar to the Doane uke, but with a smaller bridge and saddle, as well as geared tuners. Neither of these wannabes have any great reputation for sound or quality in the ukiverse. They are definitely not collectibles like the Northern.

Would I purchase another Northern? Although I seem to have become a collector of sorts, I need to focus on other ukes, so if I do, it probably will not be to keep.
Would I recommend them to others? To collectors and Canadians, yes, but there are better, more modern ukes for newcomers.
Rating (0-5): **1/2 for sound, *** for funkiness.
Status: All three are sold.

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