HOW TO IDENTIFY A GOOD OUD
If one isn't familiar with an instrument, then one doesn't know what one is buying. I will attempt to identify what to look for when purchasing an oud.
1. The action: The action is the height of the strings from the fingerboard where the neck meets the body. At first, the action may appear proper; however, when the strings are stretched for proper tuning, it may surprise you to see that the neck is tilting and the action is increasing in height. If the setting of the junction of the neck with the body is good, then the action should not exceed 3mm.
2. The tuning pegs: These are the biggest headache that an oudist will confront, often slipping or getting stuck. The pegs are conical in shape and the holes in the peg box should match that shape for a secure fit. If the holes in the peg box are improperly cut or are cylindrical in shape, the pegs will not fit well, resulting in sticking and/or slipping, usually at the worst possible moments.
3. The bridge: Often the bridge will detach from the body under normal pressure. This is because the underside of the bridge where it is joined to the body is not flush with the body, resulting in a weak connection. Look for spaces around the bridge where it is glued to the body. If you can see any spaces where the bridge is not in contact with the body, then it is poorly joined. Also, look at the holes for the strings—they should be even in height and spacing. The strings should be 9-12mm from the body.
4. The Soundboard: Often you will find buckling in the middle or sinking of the soundboard where it joins the body. This is due to bad internal bracing. The internal bracing consists of a series of beams that reinforce the soundboard and join it to the body. Try tapping the sound board gently with your knuckles around the edges and in the middle to check for loose beams—they will rattle or buzz a little bit. Be warned that this method is not always revealing with a new instrument, as weak joints may not be apparent until the instrument has been played for some time. Further, some slight sagging or warping of the soundboard in front of the bridge is not harmful.
5. The nut: The strings should be 1mm from the soundboard; the space between strings should be 1mm within a course and 3-4mm from one course to the next.
6. Buzzing of the strings:
Buzzing of the strings is the result of the following:
2-warping of the fingerboard
4-buckling/warping of the sound board between the neck and the large rosette
7. Clarity of Tone/Issues of sound
Good sound is the result of:
1-use of proper wood for the sound board and beams
2-thickness of wood, both for the sound board and for the beams/internal bracing
3-spacing of the beams
4-the back of the oud is not so much of an issue for sound
I have worked with one of the finest violin makers in NYC, and have seen many violins and cellos for which, like the oud, the three most important elements are (1) the wood (2) craftsmanship (must be clean), and (3) simplicity—excessive decoration is not my thing.
Do not be fooled by decoration unless you want a “Mona Lisa” oud to hang on the wall. “I think that the oud is probably the most perfect instrument: it's earthy, it's closest to nature.”
—Najib Shaheen from Newsday, 10/16/02
RESTORATION: THE ALTERNATIVE TO BUYING A NEW OUD
The oud is a fragile instrument, requiring 50% humidity for optimal performance. With all of its peculiarities, simply purchasing one at a premium price may not relieve you from all the above concerns.
If you already have an oud, let the Oudman put his hands to it. Najib can fix, restore and modify your oud, transforming it into a world-class performance instrument which will last beyond your lifetime. Custom string sets are also available.
Some of the available restorations include:
1. re-aligning the neck
2. building a new soundboard out of straight-grain sprucewood
3. installing a rosewood or ebony fingerboard
4. replacing the bridge
For more information and prices, please contact
Najib Shaheen at 212.260.1434.