GOT A UKULELE - Ukulele reviews and beginners tips

27 May 2017

Martin 0X Uke Bamboo Soprano Ukulele - Review

Here's a ukulele review that has been intriguing (and, if I'm honest, worrying me) for quite a while. It's the Martin 0X Uke Bamboo Soprano Ukulele... Hold on to your hats folks.

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele

So why all the fuss? Well the 0X series ukuleles from Martin have actually been around for quite some years now, and in that time if there is one series that has put the cat amongst the pigeons, it's this one. There has been division amongst Martin owners, fallouts and a whole lot of information about them of very mixed accuracy too... And then Martin expanded the range with this 'Bamboo' version in 2016... I will come on to the details in a moment, but let me just say that this has been one of the hardest ukulele reviews to write I've ever done... It's also going to be lengthy but there are a number of misconceptions about these I wanted to address to give it proper balance.

So, sorry to be a bore, but we need to cover some basics first. Depending on who you listen to the Martin 'X series' ukuleles and guitars are either 'genius', 'ethical' and 'eco-friendly' or they are a 'travesty' 'awful' and 'not real Martins'. And the reason for that division lies mainly in the materials they are made from. The main focus of concern is on the body material which is made from something called HPL or 'High Pressure Laminate'. And this is one of the first misconceptions  that people point out in their reviews and complaints. You see, laminate in the ukulele world usually refers to sandwiched layers of wood in a plywood with an outer veneer that looks more flashy.  This Martin, despite endless comments saying it's 'laminate' (and even has the word laminate in the HPL name) is NOT a laminate in the same sense as most ukulele players would normally understand it.  In fact it's not even made from wood... You heard me right...

You see the HPL Martin use for this is made from layers of paper in a resin built up to create a material that is extremely strong, and (they claim) similar to wood. But it ISN'T laminate in the sense you might expect from a laminate ukulele, in that it has no layers of actual wood in the sandwich.  To be fair, I suppose it IS a laminate of paper and glue, but wood laminate it is not. Another common name for this material is Formica.. Yep the counter top material..  It's essentially the same thing...

So what about the 'Bamboo' element? Isn't that wood? Well here comes another misconception. That is not actually bamboo either... It's a photograph. A graphic. An image of bamboo that is applied to the outer face to make it look like something it isn't. And there's my first gripe as every single product description, including that on the Martin site lead you to believe that this is something that it isn't. There are just too many references to bamboo that make you think that it contains some when it actually doesn't. It's made of laminated paper with an outer image of wood. To be fair, there is nothing new there either I guess. The first OX ukuleles did exactly the same thing in 2010 but the outer image wasn't bamboo rather it was another wood grain image (Koa). More on my thoughts on that later though.

OK, back to basics..  This one is a double bout soprano made in Mexico and looking very like a Martin S1 ukulele in shape and dimensions. The OX bamboo ukuleles are available in four colours, either minty green, pale blue like this one, natural or red. They also do a more expensive 0XK version in which the outer pattern is Hawaiian Koa, but for this review we are looking at the bamboo models. I will come on to my views on the colours later, as I have mixed opinions on them, but for reasons you might not expect. Anyway, that bamboo graphic DOES look like actual bamboo. I can see why people think it's a veneer.

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele body

And that HPL material is extremely strong and hard, and it must be said, put together extremely well by Martin. It's very typical of Martin construction and quality control regardless of what it's made of. Very clean, very precise and feels very solid and stable in the hands. It's also said to be resilient to humidity and temperature changes, so potentially this is a rugged instrument (though as you'll see because there IS some wood in other parts of the instrument, the possibility of it being waterproof is gone). Anyway, despite this not being made from wood in the body, the instrument still oozes high levels of quality all over its construction. It really is very well done.

We have minimal decoration apart from some black edging to the top and back and a simple soundhole rosette transfer. Incidentally, that black edging isn't binding at all, rather that's the natural colour of the HPL in cross section. The edges are also chamfered off giving it a nice feel with no sharp edges, and I really like that. The soundhole rosette whilst white like the S1 doesn't look anywhere near as stark against the pale blue. I kind of like it. In fact I like most things about the body. You know it's not wood when you touch it but it has a kind of matte coating so it doesnt feel synthetic either.

The top back and sides are each made from single pieces of HPL and the back is very slightly arched. The depth of the body is identical to the Martin S1 too. Incidentally - the thickness of the top is noticeably thinner than the wooden top on the Martin S1. I assume that because of the strength of HPL it can afford to be.

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele back

The bridge is an 'as expected' Martin style slotted bridge. The store this came from lists this as rosewood, but the Martin site explains that they have now switched these to Sipo wood. That's an African hardwood sometimes called Utile or Sipo Mahogany. Sipo actually looks rather nice and is presumably a response from Martin since the tightened CITES regulations of early 2017 made it extremely difficult to ship rosewoods around the globe. Maybe we will be seeing a lot more Sipo on ukuleles going forward. I suspect this one is 2016 stock so if you buy from last years vintage you get Rosewood, this year onwards you get Sipo. Understandable. The saddle is compensated and made from white Tusq - a synthetic ivory substitute. The whole thing is much nicer in finish than the bridge on the S1 soprano I reviewed too - just cleaner all round but identical in dimensions.

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele bridge

It's interesting to look inside and see the use of spruce bracing in the instrument. I would have thought that if HPL was as strong as they claim that they would need minimal or no bracing, but there you are. Whilst I found it impossible to check inside fully I am told that Martin have used their trademark bracing pattern on these, so I assume the braces are to create the 'voice' they wanted. There is a tail block in there too so there should be no issue in attaching a strap button. We also have notched spruce kerfing around the top and back joints.  So it seems that the only thing that differ in this from a wooden uke is the material used to make the top, back and sides. Aside from that we have the numbered makers label and you get to see more of the natural colour of the HPL which is a very dark grey and pretty bland. It too seems to have something of a bamboo image applied to it but in dark grey. You can see why it needs an outer image that's more interesting!

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele label

Up to the neck and things continue to be somewhat unconventional. It's attached to the body with a secure dovetail joint which is normal for Martin, but that's about the only thing that is normal. It's made from several strips of birch ply running the full length of the neck in a laminate sandwich. It's claimed that it gives the instrument an extremely strong neck that is impossible to warp and gives it a very stripy look. Martin call it 'Stratabond' and it's been used by them on some guitars for quite some time. Profile wise it's identical to the Martin S1 ukulele neck, but that stripe will be an either love it or hate it look. It's finished in a nice rubbed satin coat which is very comfortable and never 'grippy'. I also read some commenters suggesting it is heavy, but I can't say I notice that myself. I'll stick my head out here and say, I actually really like the look of it... For those interested, the width at the nut seems identical to the Martin S1 at 36mm so that gets a thumbs up from me too.

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele neck

Topping this is a fingerboard made of rosewood, (though again for 2017 models this will be replaced with Sipo) with 17 nickel silver frets with 12 to the body. It's the same sort of fingerboard layout as on the S1 with the same end shaping. We have position markers at the 5th, 7th and 12th spaces with the 7th being a double spot. They are made from small cream plastic dots. Like the S1 they are repeated on the side where you also get a couple of extras at the 3rd, 12th and 15th. The ends of the frets on this are dressed far better than those on the Martin S1 I reviewed also. In fact the fingerboard on this is flawless.

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele fingerboard

Beyond the Tusq nut we have the traditionally shaped Martin headstock with a three pointed crown. It's faced in the same blue bamboo HPL but the Martin logo on these doesn't use the gaudy Chistmas card sticker, rather a black ink print - much nicer. I like the taper on these headstocks as it gives you plenty of room to fret first position chords without your hand bumping the nut or the tuners. I also like the contrast between the blue HPL and the pale neck and once again you get a black edging from the cross section of the HPL.

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele headstock

Tuners are entry level Grovers seen on the Martin S1. Not bad, but not the best. Looking at the Martin site it appears they don't mention the Grover brand any longer so it may be that as well as the fingerboard woods changing in 2017, that you might get a more generic peg. I wouldn't worry about that too much though as the Grovers on this one are not the best either so I can't see them being a downgrade in any way. One thing that does concern me if you wanted to swap these out is I have no idea how well HPL or that birch laminate cuts if you needed to widen the holes. I usually widen holes with a luthiers reamer (by hand) and know how it will cut the most common woods in a headstock neatly and easily. I have no idea with this one...

Martin OX Bamboo Soprano Ukulele tuners

And completing the package are a set of Martin M600 fluorocarbon strings and the same blue padded gig bag that comes with the S1. I know I suggested with the S1 that they should ditch the bag as most buyers would get a hard case anyway, but that was a solid wood instrument in need of protection. With this one I totally undertand the addition and it's nice to see. And for that you are looking at a retail price of $449. Gasp indeed! Thankfully these seem to be at retailers at more like $299 these days or about £350 in the UK, but I still gasped at the street price (followed by my usual groan that the UK always seem to pay inflated prices). Bear in mind that retail price is only about £50 less than the all solid wood Martin S1.. 

Before we get into the ins and out of the concept and price, let's first see how it plays.

As I say, construction is wonderful and the instrument is light in the hands and balanced at the 12th despite those reports of heavy necks. It isn't off balance at all. It's a touch heavier than the wooden S1 ukulele but when you are playing it you don't notice it, and the S1 is a supremely light instrument anyway. And here's a weird thing... It smells like a Martin ukulele. That smell of woodshop that is always so strong with Martins is in there. It can only be coming from the braces and linings as the rest is HPL! Very odd!

Setup was is absolutely perfect on this one at both nut and saddle. In fact taking a measurement it's exactly the same action height at the 12th as on my Martin S1.

And then I started to play it.... Wow. It's quite remarkable really for a synthetic ukulele. I do not know how they did it, but this instrument sounds startlingly good. Excellent in fact. And guess what? It sounds like wood too. If you were expecting boxy plastic lunchbox type tone, that's just not there. OK it doesn't quite have that Martin jangle but it has a really rich rounded tone of it's own, with plenty of soprano bite when needed. Volume is great as is sustain (on a par with the S1 on both counts) and is right up there with some of the better ukuleles I have reviewed. Sound is subjective of course, so I wouldn't say it is 'better' than 'this' or 'that' ukulele - only that it is still very good in it's own right. VERY good. It really did surprise me.

Whether strummed or picked it's a real joy to play. It's easy to play too with fast comfortable neck, light weight and skinny frets. It's also dead accurate on the intonation all over the neck. A typical 'plastic' uke this is not.

The dynamic range is excellent, the note clarity is great. In fact, I am struggling to find bad things in the sound. I suppose my only gripe is that I like my sopranos a touch brighter, and this can sound a little dark and a bit too warm, but I'm being really picky when I say that. But of course, you are not going to get individual tonewood characteristics when there is no tonewood! I suppose in the same respect, there will be no aging or opening up of the HPL over time. It will always sound like this.

To help you listen to it (as YouTube compression can ruin tone in videos) there are a couple of Soundcloud clips at the foot of this review - the same chord progression on the 0X and on the S1 so you can listen to them side by side. I think there is a distinct difference - both nice sounding in their own right. The S1 is clearly brighter in tone though.

So what's troubling me? Well there are a few things in my mind that I can't quite shift or square up.

Firstly, when it comes to the choice of materials I'm really in two minds here. Perhaps the reduction in the use of wood should actually be applauded as an eco friendly innovation. Pressure on global natural resources are a real problem these days, and the introduction of the tightened CITES regulations shows that countries are waking up to that fact. Who knows, perhaps in the future we will see that the majority of ukuleles are made from non-wood substitutes like this due to ever increasing restrictions on the shipping of timber. If that's the case, perhaps Martin are ahead of the curve here in the way that Blackbird have shown with their marvellous Clara ukulele. However...  if that is going to be the case then why not go completely wood free? Why the use of Rosewood / Sipo wood instead of Richlite? Why not a composite non-wood neck instead of birch? I feel that I would 'buy into' the concept more if Martin had been bolder and offered a totally eco friendly model like Blackbird did. As it is, it's neither one nor the other really. They just took the wood out of the body.

And I have a similar gripe with the outer wood graphic. I've nothing against ukuleles that are not made from wood.  In fact the current boom in popularity of plastic models is actually nothing new and original plastic ukes like Macaferri Islanders are much sought after collectors items now.  So why did they apply a graphic to the outer that looks like wood? Why not accept it for what it is and use the opportunity to put something completely unique on the outside? It's not wood, so why try to make it look like it is? As I undertand it, that outer graphic could be anything at all, so why not be creative? Pete Mai of Bonanza ukuleles makes instruments out of the same stuff and chooses dazzling non-wood patterns on his, and they look great! Heck, even flat colour would be an option and I can't be the only one who would like the idea of a jet black Martin uke? Yet the product descriptions seem to suggest that Martin is almost 'ashamed' that it's not wood and are going out of their way to make you feel that it is. I personally find that very odd. The Clara for example makes no such claims - it's not wood and doesn't try to look like wood either. Why not do the same here?

And of course we have to talk about that price.  Sure, it IS expensive for what it is I suppose, but then Martin ukes full stop are a bit expensive for what they are in my view. On the one hand I think that the assumption that a 'laminate' instrument should automatically be cheap is more borne out of market expectation and conditioning that 'laminates must be cheaper than solid woods'. However, something like the Clara which is totally synthetic will cost you significantly more than this. Something like the Kiwaya KS5 which is all laminate wood is in the same ballpark at about £300. So pitched against quality instruments like those perhaps it's actually a reasonable price for a highly rated brand with such excellent construction? Unfortunately, I think market expectation IS important and I think a lot of people (not all) will struggle to part with this sort of money for a synthetic ukulele when for only a touch more they can get an all solid mahogany Martin. Flipping my opinion back 180 degrees (again!), bear in mind that the bill of materials cost in a ukulele is not necessarily the biggest part of the price, labour comes into it hugely. So if you ignore that this is HPL and simply take it for what it is - a very well made and great sounding instrument, perhaps the price is just right. In other words, what does it matter what it is made of?

So as I said, a really difficult one to write this, and I am still not sure I have come to a total conclusion. We've got an instrument that sounds truly great and is built extremely well. On the one hand it could be considered innovative and eco friendly, but on the other seems priced wrongly for many people and is trying to hide what it actually is. I can't help feeling that Martin had an opportunity here to be totally innovative and could have gone for something completely 'green', but instead felt compelled to create something of a halfway house.

Yet here's another final thought. Would these ukuleles be dividing opinions quite so strongly if they didn't have the Martin name on the headstock? What if Blackbird had released this model, would they be getting plaudits instead? It's something to think about and I suspect a lot of the sniffiness may be a case of the vintage Martin fans making their views known. There are people who simply don't like the wooden Mexican Martins, so it stands to reason they won't like these either I guess. For me personally, I don't care a jot where they are made, only what they play and sound like for the price.

So I suspect these will create different reactions with different people. Still, it does sound tremendously good though and I'm actually rather attached to it for what it is.  I'd still say 'have a play'. Does it matter what it's made of (or where it's made) if you like the way it sounds? You might  actually be surprised.






https://www.martinguitar.com/guitars/ukulele/

UKULELE PROS

Excellent build quality
Innovation in materials (though not actually that 'new')
Light weight and balanced
Surprisingly good tone and sustain that sounds in no way artificial
Volume and sustain on a par with the Martin S1

UKULELE CONS

Not as eco friendly as it might have been
Outer bamboo graphic misses an opportunity for something more creative
Price for many  people will be hard to justify
Would like better tuners


UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 8 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9.5 out of 10
Sound - 9.5 out of 10
Value for money - 8 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.8 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW


26 May 2017

Ukulele Basics by Lorraine Bow and Alex Davies - REVIEW

Kids and ukuleles. They are a match made in heaven. So I was delighted when Faber Music recently asked me to take a look at one of their ukulele books for teaching children called 'Ukulele Basics'

Ukulele Basics Book cover

There are a couple of reasons I can say with some authority that kids like ukuleles. Firstly, I have a young child of my own (seven years old) who is currently looking at progressing her ukulele beyond just bashing on it for fun. But also, kids just love the sound they make and I think it's a wonderful thing for parents to do with a small child. Other parents must think that too as this page of Nursery Rhymes for ukulele on this very site is consistently one of the most vistied on the whole page.

So for me a book aimed at young kids was something I was keen to look at. It's written by ukulele friend of mine Lorraine Bow (who set up Ukulele Wednesdays and runs the Learn To Uke school in London) and Alex Davies, a multi instrumentalist teacher, performer , arranger and editor. Now I've seen a number of books aimed at children before and often I found them confusing, and more importantly a bit boring for kids. A childs learning book needs to engage the child to keep them interested. Make it feel like learning and they will give up. So what better way for me to truly review this book than to sit down with my 7 year old and start working through it.

The book starts with absolute basics, a bit of uke history, a bit of how to hold the instrument, parts of the uke and then we are in to basic strumming and plucking. The making a noise bit that kids will be itching to do. Then we are immediately on to singing and making more noise before we have even got to chords and notes. This to me is a good thing as it immediately sparked my daughters imagination and she felt like she was achieving something by only page three.

Ukulele Basics Book sample
Credit Faber Music


We then move on to that most basic of chords, the C major (what else) and we have more songs. I was also impressed that the authors chose to introduce the concepts of timing and rest marks so early on. My daughter got them immediately, and I became the one who was thrilled. Not to put too fine a point on it, there are enough adult ukulele players out there who raced through learning without too much regard to timing, so full marks to the authors for bringing this in early!

Each section is filled with little cartoons, fun facts, quiz questions to test the childs knowledge so far  and 'hot tips' and the excellent 'Dead String Alert' warnings to ensure the child keeps an eye on finger placement and accurate fretting.

Moving through the book is slowly introduces other simple chords and more useful basics that even some adults overlook like rhythm signatures, the musical scale and even basic 12 bar blues. It also comes with a CD with over 60 sound samples to accompany the various sections of the book so even if the adult helping the child is confused, they can listen to what it's supposed to sound like.

Ukulele Basics Book cover inside

Overall we thoroughly enjoyed working through it because I think the authors got the balance right between a couple of important elements. It makes the process feel fun and not like traditional learning, and scatters it with some important basics that are the sort of thing you should be instilling in a beginner player early on. Sure, the songs are basic, and so are the chords, but this is written for 6 year olds and over, so I think the difficulty is just right. Putting it another way, my daughter, like most 7 year olds can easily get turned off something if she feels bored. With this, after we had run through each section she was immediately running off next door, ukulele in hand, to show her Mum what she had just done. I can't ask for much more!

If you have a young child of this sort of age I can totally recommend checking this one out. It's available now from Faber Music, and as an added bonus there is currently 15% off all their music books through the website which is available until 30 June 2017.

Ukulele Basics retails at £8.99 but is currently available for £7.64. That's the price of a pack of strings!

http://www.fabermusicstore.com/6/Guitar-Ukulele-Banjo.aspx?InstrumentsFilter=ukulele


22 May 2017

A Word of Support For The Humble Soprano Ukulele

Whilst it hasn't been deliberate, you may have noticed an increase in ukulele reviews for Soprano scale ukuleles on this site lately. And looking at the review schedule going forward there are even more to come.

Ohana soprano ukulele

And because there have been so many, i've noticed something of a pattern forming in terms of the reaction they create in readers. I think it was brought into sharp focus for me with the last review I wrote of the Kiwaya KTS-5 ukulele. Now I have been reviewing instruments for approaching ten years, and because of that I have a pretty good idea of what the market is thinking based on comparing reactions (comments, likes, page views and the like) for individual models. And the Kiwaya review foxed me. Whilst there were a few people commenting about how nice they are, the level of interest was noticeably lower than I would have seen for any other scale ukulele. And bear in mind this Kiwaya is one of the VERY best I have ever played in all my years. So what's going on here? Well actually, some of the comments I received spell it out quite clearly to me. There are a mass of myths around the soprano that people just don't seem to be able to let go of.

I've always liked the soprano scale ukulele, and in fact mainly only play either sopranos or tenors as they are distinctly 'different' enough for me to enjoy both in different ways. But as I have always said, I never consider one particular scale of instrument to be 'better' than any other. They all have their place and all have their own distinct voices. Yet there is no doubt that my reviews of soprano instruments get less interest than if I review a concert or a tenor. Below I paraphrase some absolutely genuine responses I have seen regarding the soprano together with my counter views. I think it's time we did some sticking up for the soprano!

mainland soprano ukulele


'I don't like them because they sound too high / too tinny'...

First up, in standard tuning the soprano is tuned EXACTLY the same way as a concert and a tenor ukulele. Exactly the same. Exactly the same register, the same C tuning. The differeces between their sounds are not in terms of pitch, but in terms of resonance. A very different thing. I accept that a tenor sounds different to a soprano, but it is in no way 'deeper'. What is happening here is the bigger body and sound box of larger ukuleles creates a more resonant sound than on a soprano. And that's the way it's supposed to be. The soprano is really the original ukulele. The most traditional in sound, and that sound is very much of a more rhythmical instrument, almost staccato if you will. At the other end of the GCEA scale the tenor tends to have a more rounded fuller tone. But that doesn't mean that a soprano has no tone.

I think those suggesting the soprano is thin are basing that on the massive numbers of dreadful Chinese entry level brightly coloured instruments, that indeed DO sound thin. That is your typical 'plinky plonky' soprano sound. But like anything, that is just a very small example of the worst type of ukulele that doesn't represent everything. Play a well made Hawaiian Koa soprano or a decent mahogany soprano and tell me again that the sound isn't rich and warm. In fact I could present to you many great sopranos that have more rich sustain and character in their tone than many cheap end tenors. Don't lump all sopranos in the same boat as cheap Mahalo's..

Kiwaya soprano ukulele


'Sopranos don't have enough frets'..

Another misconception, and again, it depends what you buy. The most standard sopranos tend to have 12 frets that stop at the body joint. That is what people are referring to. But as buyers you really are not restricted to fingerboards like this. Most of my sopranos have between 15 and 17 frets and this is on exactly the same scale length. It absolutely can be done. Add on top of that the long necked or 'super-sopranos' which have the same body size but longer necks and there really is a lot of choice out there.

Bruko soprano ukulele


'I have big hands, soprano ukuleles don't have enough space'...

Ah yes, this old chestnut that the media just keep churning out. Whilst it is true that as the scale length of the ukulele increases so does the space between the frets, that is not actually increasing the space where you need it (and if anything is making some chords more of a stretch). Think about playing a chord like a D with three fingers, or even a G chord for that matter. Chords that require three fingers to be in very close proximity to each other across the fingerboard. THIS is what beginners with larger hands struggle with - actually fitting them all in. And increasing the scale of the ukulele does nothing to change that space across the neck. It's string spacing that does that, and that is in turn dictated by the width of the nut. Put simply, many sopranos are available with wider nuts than most generic Chinese concert scale instruments. The difference is not huge, say 36mm across as opposed to 34mm, but trust me. This IS where you notice the space.

Flight Soprano Ukulele


'I'm too big for a soprano generally / they are difficult to hold'..

This one is I suppose more personal as everybody is a different body shape and size. But some things to think about here. The ukulele is most notably connected to Hawaii, and (putting this as politely as I can!), there are a fair few Hawaiians who are on the larger side of the scale. How on earth did the ukulele take off in popularity if they were too big to play them? The answer is, they weren't. And they didn't develop larger ukuleles because of human body size, they did that to create changes in sound. I am six foot four, large build and I actually find the soprano the easiest scale to hold standing up without a strap. Now perhaps there is the issue... Most people I see these days with larger scale ukuleles use a strap, and whilst it's not wrong to put a strap on a soprano, you simply don't see it as much. Perhaps people are confusing 'difficult to hold' with 'I never learned to play a ukulele without a strap'. I personally find them light and the perfect size really.

Ohana SK25 ukulele


'Sopranos are the instruments for beginners / where you start out'..

Probably the one that gets me angry the most this one. I actually did read this on a music website not so long ago. A statement that sopranos are for beginners but as you progress you 'upgrade' to a larger scale. A larger scale ukulele is only and upgrade if it's a better quality instrument. Buying a Koaloha soprano is also an 'upgrade' if you currently have a Mahalo tenor.  The actual truth is as I say above. The soprano is the traditional ukulele, the original, and is revered in Hawaii for that reason. Just because you don't see Jake playing one very often doesn't mean they are not a serious scale... And really, when a Martin 3K soprano will set you back over £2,000... tell me again how this is a beginner instrument...

And yet I think these incorrect perceptions continue to pervade. I am not writing this to tell you that you MUST play a soprano ukulele. Like I said, no one scale is 'best'. But I will pick you up if you publicly tell other people any of the things above. Don't help repeat the myths just because others do!

20 May 2017

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano - REVIEW

I do like it when I get to review a second ukulele from a less common brand on Got A Ukulele. And I particularly like it when it follows a very highly scored instrument the first time around. Say hello to the Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano.

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano Ukulele

That first Kiwaya ukulele I reviewed goes back a few years in the form of the KS-5, and as you may recall that one was scored very highly. In fact it remains to be the best laminate bodied ukulele I have ever played - seriously. Like that one, this too is made in Japan, and is the same line of instruments that are branded with the name 'Famous' for their domestic market. The addition of the letter T in the name of this one differentiates if from the KS-5 in that this one is made from all solid tonewoods.

In fact, it's made of all solid mahogany, and is very clearly modelled on a vintage Martin Soprano in virtually every way. We have a traditional double bout shape, standard scale with a single piece top and back and two piece sides. In fact it is very similar in all departments to my recently reviewed Martin S1 soprano.

Compared to the woods on the Martin S1 though, this just looks to be higher quality in virtually every respect. The grain is straighter up and down the body and the rubbed semi gloss finish just feels a little more 'complete' than it does on the Martin. Otherwise it's the same sort of construction, same wood type, same slightly arched back, same lack of edge binding, same sort of colour.

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano Ukulele body

It also has the same sort of bridge, with a rosewood bridge mounting of the slotted style. It's more nicely finished though, the wood is paler and seems less rough than the Martin. Seated in this is a compensated bone saddle.

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano Ukulele bridge

We have a transfer soundhole rosette under the gloss, but unlike the stark white ring on the S1, this one is gold and looks more aged and in keeping with the style of the instrument. The more I look back on that Martin rosette the more I don't like it at all. Oddly, I was critisised recently for mentioning such things as someone didn't think they were relevant and purely subjective. Of course they are subjective, but these ARE personal reviews! If such things that bother me don't bother you then that's fine!

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano Ukulele rosette

Inside we have an impeccable build, with delicate bracing, notched kerfing and no mess at all. Absolutely zero complaints from me in here. Extremely tidy.

The neck is made from a single piece of mahogany and is very shallow and traditional in profile at the nut end. Incidentally that nut is 36mm wide, adding to playability for someone with big hands like me.

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano Ukulele fingerboard

We have 17 nickel silver frets with 12 to the body joint. People often wrongly think that sopranos with more than 12 frets are 'long neck' sopranos, but that is a different thing altogether. The scale length on this nut to bridge is exactly the same as a standard soprano - it's just that the fingerboard extends further down over the top of the body to house the extra frets. Long neck sopranos have soprano sized bodies, but longer necks from the top of the body too and hence a longer scale length. The edges of the fingerboard on this are unbound but the fret edges are all dressed far better than on the Martin which was cutting it very fine towards having sharp ends. This one is smooth as silk. The fingerboard itself is a nice dark rosewood with some colour variation and is similarly shaped at the body end to that on the Martin. Where the fingerboard extends over the top it shows that it is extremely thin meaning you dont have a huge hunk of rosewood hanging over the top which I know worries some people about extended fingerboards. And for those that don't like sopranos with extended fingerboards like this, Kiwaya also make a KTS-4 model which is identical to this one, but with a more standard 12 frets in total that stop at the top of the body.  For me, I want extra frets so this suits.  We have fingerboard position markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th 12th and 15th with the markers at the 7th and 12th in attractive double dots. We also have side dots as you can see.

In comparison to the Martin S1 I much prefer the frets and fingerboard on this one, but I think the Martin has a nicer feel and grain to the actual neck wood on the back. It's more naturally finished and I prefer that to satin or gloss coated necks. Not that the neck on this one is in any way sticky, I just like the raw wood feel on the Martin more.

Beyond the bone nut we have a three pointed crown headstock with a really attractive chamfered top edge. The Kiwaya logo is screen printed in gold and looks a million times better than the Martin S1 for that reason. Yes I KNOW that I wrote about makers not having much imagination in headstock design, but I will let Kiwaya off with this one as they make no bones about this being a direct homage to Martin. If anything, it would look wrong without a crown headstock!

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano Ukulele headstock

Flipping it over and we have another Kiwaya logo, this time embossed in the back with a pyrographic stamp / branding. I really love that and something else that harks back to original Martins. Tuning wise we have Gotoh Deluxe friction pegs with cream buttons and chrome metalwork. They really are superb and turn like butter. Certainly better than the regular Grovers on the Martin S1. A reminder for new readers on this topic - cheap friction pegs are usually terrible and wrongly give all other friction pegs a bad name. GOOD friction pegs are a joy, and these are good pegs. More about friction pegs here.

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano Ukulele tuners

Completing the deal are the preferred strings of Kiwaya, in the form of Fremont Blackline fluorocarbons. There are very mixed opinions out there on these strings, and having played this one a while I think I may well be swapping them out. Don't get me wrong, they are very good strings, but I am struggling with them and explain that more below. That's just me though and strings are too personal to affect a ukulele review score, we all have our favourites... And for all of that you will be paying a not inconsiderable £560 or thereabouts in the UK. So that's a fair bit more than the Martin S1. Expensive? Yes, you could say so, there's simply no getting away from that.

But I think I have given enough hints in this review to suggest that for me it tops the Martin in virtually all areas. It's also just as light as the Martin, with a very thin resonant build, perfectly balanced and has great construction in all departments.

Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano Ukulele back

The body just feels nicer in the hands than the Martin too, on account of that finish - it's a similar satin, but just a nicer smoother overall finish on the touch. Small things, but this simply feels more nicely done. I put it down to it being another example of what the Japanese do so very well - impeccable fine craftsmanship.

It's also ultra resonant on account of that light weight and thin tone woods. It's an extremely lively little thing! And that really comes through in the sustain and volume power this one can project. It's got a real punch to it yet a much richer / less bright tone than the Martin. Now the strings may have something to do with that and as I say above, I am not totally taken with them. That said, my dislike of them is less to do with tone and more to do with the slightly lower tension and more slippery feel on the fingers that I don't care for.  Like I always say though, I don't mark ukuleles up or down based on strings (unless they are absolutely dreadful!). What I find with the low tension of these is that I find it too easy to throw them out of tuning by fretting them. Of course, that says more about MY technique that the strings themselves, so don't read too much into this comment. Generally, tone wise though, this is still much less zingy and bright than the Martin, but I don't say that like it's a bad thing. It's a much more complex, richer and more rounded tone and one that I am very, VERY taken with. I suppose we could say that the Martin does the bright soprano bark very well, but the Kiwaya adds much more depth and character to it. It doesn't quite have the Martin 'jangle' to the tone, but it's certainly got a great voice all of its own.

Yes, the price is on the high side I suppose, but Kiwaya certainly seem to have no trouble selling them at this point and they are always in high demand so what does that tell you?

So there you have it. It sounds traditional, it looks traditional and is, all round, a superb ukulele. Yes it's more expensive than some instruments of a  comparable style, not least the Martin S1, but like all good ukuleles, I can SEE exactly where that money has gone.  It's impeccably made and sounds sublime. Quite simply one of the best ukuleles I have ever played.

Very highly recommended!

http://takumiukulele.com/kiwayaukuleles.html

STOP PRESS!

I did change the strings to Martin Fluorocarbon - As requested - two files below of the Kiwaya recorded side by side with the Martin S1 fo you to compare the sounds. Same strings, same chords





UKULELE PROS

Looks
Great build quality
Excellent finish
Nice headstock detailing
Great tuners

UKULELE CONS

None really, but I will personally be changing the strings.. just me.. and it hasn't affected the score.
Bit expensive

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 9.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9.5 out of 10
Sound - 9.5 out of 10
Value for money - 8.5 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.3 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW



17 May 2017

iRig Acoustic Stage - REVIEW

I've been getting a number of emails asking about ukulele amplification lately. So hot on the heels of my last look at a ukulele pickup, I'm pleased to bring you another option in the form of the iRig Acoustic Stage.

irig acoustic stage

I suspect iRig will be known to a few of my readers as the people behind the digital interface for connecting an audio output from a ukulele (or guitar) and plugging it into a tablet or smartphone for recording in an app. It's produced by IK Multimedia, an Italian based company that make a wide range of music production and recording gizmos.

The Acoustic Stage is essentially a very small sound hole microphone and associated pre-amp box that works as a microphonic pickup to run to your amplifier, PA or mixing desk. Incidentally they also market the microphone part of this only with an adapter for use with a smartphone or tablet that comes without the pre-amp box. If you want to plug into an amp, mixing desk or PA, then this is the version you would need.

When it comes to amplifying a ukulele, you generally have two main options, the piezo pickup strip or pad or the use of a well placed microphone in front of you. The piezo systems have the benefits of allowing you to move around freely and can be more feedback resistant, but on the downside can often sound somewhat artificial and 'electric'. The microphone option gives a much more faithful airy acoustic tone reproduction, but of course it requires you to play facing the microphone at all times and can be a bother with feedback. The iRig Acoustic stage aims to offer the benefits of both. A microphone that doesn't require you to stay in the same place at all times. And it does that by attaching a small microphone to the sound hole of your instrument. Naturally it also means that you are not carrying around much bulkier microphones and mic stands either.

(An initial note here - because of how the microphone part attaches, this will require a ukulele with a traditional shaped sound hole. I suspect it 'could' fit on to F holes, but if your ukulele has odd slotted sound holes, or small soundholes (like on Applause ukes), I suspect you may be out of luck here. Likewise, I can't see how this would attach to a resonator either. Still, for the vast majority of ukuleles, this will work and I am merely mentioning this here as I know if I don't I WILL get asked)

irig acoustic stage microphone on ukulele

The microphone itself is mounted in the thin, plectrum shaped plastic housing that hooks on the edge of the soundhole. As these are made for guitars as well as ukuleles. I was a little worried that the thin top of a ukulele may make it too loose, but I personally didn't have an issue with my first test uke (an Omega Zedro with a very thin solid top). I tried another ukulele used for the photos, a thin topped Martin Soprano and that had no issue either though it was certainly a bit looser. Finally I attached it to a solid Pono gloss concert that I used in the sound test and video and that was about as loose as the Martin, but still useable and not rattly.  I suppose that 'some' ukuleles may cause an issue however as this is specifically mentioned in the instructions. The answer in the manual is to narrow the slot with some tape. I can see that working, but it might be nicer if they made it adjustable, or provided a rubber insert to slip inside it. Still, a minor gripe I suppose as it simply wasn't an issue for me on three very thin topped ukuleles!

The microphone itself is very small which is great as it really isn't very intrusive at all when playing. The larger triangular shaped part is actually just the mount and the thicker microphone part faces inside the ukulele and out of the way of your hands leaving literally only a millimetre or two above the top of the instrument. The outer mounting also has a kind of soft touch plastic to it, so I can also confirm that I don't see issues with it damaging the finish on your instrument.  It also weighs next to nothing, so you should have no worries about something heavy on the body of your ukulele. And the reason it is so slim is that it uses a MEMS microphone (MicroElectrical Mechanical System). A MEMS microphone uses acoustic sensors layered on silicon wafers making for a very light and small solution compared to a regular diaphragm mic.

irig acoustic stage clipped to ukulele

The microphone element is then connected to the main unit with an ultra mini jack lead from where you then output to your amplifier or other systems with a regular ¼ inch instrument cable. The other advantage of this system is you are not plugging your instrument lead into the ukulele, rather into the box on your belt. In the worst case, if you snag your lead it will pull on the main unit and not on the ukulele itself.

That main unit is powered by a couple of (included) AA batteries and has a host of features for us to look at.

irig acoustic stage main unit inputs

There are two main features on the front of the unit, the large 'Cancel Feeback' button and the 'Tone' section. Dealing with tone first, this gives you three subtly different options of Natural, Warm and Bright, and each option can be set for either steel or nylon strung instruments (so essentially six settings in total, though I think they expect you'd leave it on the three nylon options for a regular ukulele). It's more of a digital signal processor than an EQ as there are no other EQ settings on this box other than these factory set ones. You can calibrate and tweak the options if you wish, but the manual suggests this is not recommended for nylon strung instruments. It might be nice to have a basic EQ option on the box, but I suppose you can always EQ on your amplifier or run it into an EQ pedal first. Saying that, this is a microphone not a piezo, so if it is faithful in tone as promised, there shouldn't necessarily be much need for EQ tweaks like there usually is on a piezo.

irig acoustic stage main unit volume and controls

The Feedback section is the really interesting one for me. You know how I mentioned above that microphones can be problematic with feedback? Well this comes with a solution to that. Play your instrument, and when you hear the howl of feedback building, hit the big red button and it notches out that frequency and cuts the howl out of the signal. Feedback though is a tricky beast as it often occurs on mutiple frequencies, and this is where this gets very clever. If you hear another howl, you just hit the red button again and it adds that to the frequency cut on top. And you can do that up to 10 times. Very nifty and extremely handy for on stage use (which I suspect is why it's called the Acoustic 'Stage').

We also have another ¼ inch jack input socket on the unit which offers yet another clever feature. If your ukulele already has a piezo pickup, you can hook your regular pickup output into this and then blend your piezo signal with the microphone signal using the 'Mix' dial. That's a really clever feature as I know a lot of musicians who like to do that and play a mix of a piezo signal together with a microphone in front of them. It basically gives you a best of both worlds mixing the more artificial sound of the piezo with the more natural sound of the microphone. Basically it's giving you options and it's not essential but a nice addition.

And one of my favourite touches is the regular mini USB port on the unit. Using this and a USB cable you can hook the unit to your laptop  / desktop and use it as a recording interface allowing you to put your chops directly and digitally into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation programme) such as Audacity, GarageBand, Logic etc. That is a brilliant addition in my book and almost worth it for that feature alone when you consider that a half decent audio interface can cost you the best part of what this unit comes in at. It's also worth noting that when it is conncected to a computer in this way, it runs off USB power, so no batteries are required to do this. Heck, if you already have a uke with a piezo, you could run that into the aux socket on this, ignore the microphone and just use this as your USB audio interface!

Elsewhere on the unit we have a phase switch which is always handy with pedals and pre-amps. Basically it allows you to switch the wave form of your output signal about face by 180 degrees to avoid it being in or out of sync with your equipment that can create unwanted wobbles in your sound. We also have a master level output knob that pleasingly can be pushed in to the unit when set to stop you accidentally adjusting it.

irig acoustic stage main unit belt clip

On the back of the box is a belt clip that can also be attached to your instrument strap if you prefer. And it also comes with a nice quality zippered hard case to carry it around in with separate compartments insde for the unit and microphone. And all of that is going to set you back an RRP of £99.  I will say right now that I think that is a superb price when you consider you are getting a microphone, a pre-amp, and a digital interface all in one box.

irig acoustic stage carry case

A word about the construction to start with. First of all the packagaing and presentation I think is rather wonderful. It certainly doesn't feel cheap and it has an air of opening an Apple product about it. The main unit itself is nicely put together. Not overly heavy, but not deperately cheap feeling either despite being made of plastic rather than metal. The buttons and dials work well and feel 'solid' and smooth. That Feedback button being so large is rather inspired as if you start howling mid song, it really is as simply as reaching down to it. You can't miss it. It was however disappointing to see that the jack sockets (or at least their outer surrounds) are plastic and not metal. In my experience, pedals and pre-amps that use plastic sockets are usually prone to the socket mounts breaking after continued use. I don't see sockets like this as being gig proof in the long term.

Another element of the use of plastic that worries me a little is the plastic belt clip and how difficult it is to remove it, which you will need to do each time you access the battery compartment. It's kind of stiff and I suspect might crack over time with repeated use. Plastic does that.

The whole thing is devilishly simple to get set up though. It will take you literally 20 seconds to clip this to your belt, the microphone to the sound hole and the jack into the unit and you are good to go. No taping or gluing required.

The mini cable connecting the microphone to the unit is however extremely thin and I think great care will need to be taken with that over time to ensure it doesn't break. It really is super thin. Saying that, the zippered hard case is excellent quality so as long as you look after your gear and put it away properly after use, you shouldn't have any issues. Still, in the process of putting it away twice as part of this review, I still managed to get it very tangled! I do wonder how this would stand up to regular gigging use. Working musicians tend to want their gear bombproof.

As for the sound, well it really is rather nice. Before the audiophiles chip in and point out that a MEMS microphone will never beat a high end condenser or ribbon mic, no, of course it won't. It's not one of those things and it's not trying to be. But it is still remarkably clean, open, natural and airy for such a small device. Certainly far FAR more natural sounding than a piezo option. In fact, I would suspect that if you played to someone blindfold that most would not be able to tell you were not playing into a regular microphone.

The tone selector changes the sound very subtly, but it does change and it was fun rolling through the various offerings. Even the steel strung settings sound ok to my ears, so I think personal experimentation is the order of the day here. I personally found I liked the Nylon / Warm setting best, but I suspect it may change with different instruments and different people. Some of the settings had my output sound too trebly for my tastes. It's nice that you have the variatnts to find the one that sounds most natural to you though and I certainly liked some more than others. Your mileage may vary.

Some of the initial concerns I had before using it are simply not there. For example, being a microphone I was concerned about what else it would pick up, but there is virtually no noise created by moving the cable around unlike that recent Kremona review I wrote recently. Really none at all. Even body noise from the instrument seems fairly minimal or at least manageable. Being a microphone, if you tap or rub on the body it will pick it up. It's certainly not intrusive or all that difficult to avoid though. And that microphone is directional into the cavity so isn't picking up other things around or in front of you very much. And believe me I did try. With no ukulele playing, if I shouted it picked up my voice a little - but then, any microphone will do that. So it's really no different to a singing ukulele player singing into a dynamic mic and having another microphone pointing at the ukulele - that one pointing at the uke WILL pick up some of the voice and the one you are singing into WILL pick up some of the ukulele.

The feedback button is remarkably good. On first turning the review model on, I had the amplifier close by and the volume set far too high. Cue instant howling feedback but I just tapped the button and it was gone. Bear in mind this was after having the thing in my hands for about 2 minutes total, but it just seemed so intuitive to reach out and hit the button. It cuts the feedback with no fuss and glows red to show it was active. I shifted position and played a few chords and one started some more feedback. Again, one button tap and it was gone. Excellent! One thing I would say here is that notching out frequencies degrades overall tone. The better approach to feedback of couse is to try to avoid it in the first place, leaving your tone as natural as possible without cutting anything. But issues do happen, particularly in certain venues and layouts and it's great to be able to immediately kill it mid set I think. And of course, if you do change position and think your feedback will be gone more naturally, you just hold down the feedback button and all the cut frequencies are restored. Nice.

Turning it off to retreat to my computer to test the USB and BOOM! BANG! A huge audio click / snap in the speaker. Ouch! To be fair, the manual does say to turn the volume down before disconnecting, but naturally I forgot.... as you do... If you did this on stage into an expensive PA and forgot about that you will face the wrath of the sound engineer!! So if you are the sort of performer who stupidly forgets to mute an instrument before unplugging sending a thud to the house speakers... (you KNOW who you are...) beware a similar 'no no' with this one.

Anyway, computer on, and Logic Pro X loaded up. I was truly plug and play. My computer (a Macbook) instantly recognised it as a new device and it worked instantly. Then it was just a case of selecting that device in Logic and it was good to go. I'm not a Windows user, but the box tells me it's compatible with XP, Vista, 7, 8 and 10 using the free ASIO4ALL driver. For Mac it requires OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard) or newer. And no, you don't need to use Logic, it's just what I had on my machine. Running it into something free like Audacity works too. I'd also note that the output over USB is pretty hot and if anything I needed to level it down on the computer. No complaints there as there is nothing worse than a weak input signal that you have to apply gain to and degrade the tone. In fact it's so quick to setup and easy to use for recording that in the duration of writing this review up I have recorded several sound samples with it for future reviews that I will include in Soundcloud links.

And it works just great. A really nice clear sound into the recording software, so no complaints at all here. Again, you can control the tone settings in this method  and blend in your piezo output too. Naturally, the feedback button is somewhat redundant if you are monitoring on headphones, but I suppose if you are using regular monitors, it's still there if you need it.

All in all, I still like this little thing a lot and think it could be a great solution for those wanting to go down the route of amplifying or recording their ukulele but don't want to start drilling or taping gizmos to the instruments nor want to spend money on microphones and mic stands. It really does work, and provides a surprisingly clear and faithful tone. Throw in the feedback control and the ability to hook it to your computer and it really shows its versatility. I remain a little concerned at the build quality of parts of it for relentless gigging use, but if you are a careful musician or want one of these for home studio use you should have no issues in that regard.  I just don't see it standing up to endless gigging.

Rampant audiophiles may say that it doesn't beat a high quality condenser, but I think that is missing the point completely. These will suit those people wanting to dabble in recording and amplifying more than professionals I guess, and at this price point, it makes it very affordable. Not everyone is looking to go out and spend hundreds on a condsenser. Add in the fact this will allow you to move around on stage rather than be stuck in front of your mic, plus the other neat features it offers like working as a USB audio interface, and this gets a recommendation from me... so long as you understand the issues.

Take a look at the video below to have a look and listen, and bear in mind this is a recording of an amplifier, so bear that in mind! The video is really only to show you the features and the feedback function. For that reason, there is also a couple of direct sound recordings of it running in to a computer on the 'nylon warm' setting - no other audio manipulation on the DAW, so this is before any tweaking you would normally consider. No reverb, no effects. It really is comparable to the amplified tone and listening to the samples will give you a better idea than the sound on the video.

Thanks to IK Multimedia for helping to arrange this review.

http://www.ikmultimedia.com


VIDEO REVIEW



SOUND SAMPLES







13 May 2017

Duke 10 Tenor Banjo Ukulele - REVIEW

Here's a ukulele I've been looking forward to writing about. A follow up to a banjo ukulele that I really rather liked with a new, slightly larger model from Duke in the form of the new Duke 10 tenor.

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele

For those that don't recall, I looked at their last model, the Duke Banjouke some months ago and thought it was a well priced, funky and fun instrument. I had some minor gripes, but thought it was a lot of fun for not a lot of money. Duke (the brainchild of Ed Ackman from Russell in New Zealand) have responded to requests for a larger head version of their banjo and now have this new model available for pre-order through a Kickstater campaign. I can see the sense, as a larger head banjo like the Deering ukulele I looked at proved incredibly popular and I actually think is a better pairing for a tenor neck. Whilst this isn't quite the size of the Deering's eleven inch head this ten inch drum is larger than their previous eight inch offering. (Hang on, that sounds confusing. So to recap - the first one was 8 inch, this one is 10 inch, the Deering is 11 inch..)

One of the key design aims of the previous Duke was to be as low a weight as possible. Whilst at about 1.8 kg (4 lb) the Deering is far from the heaviest banjo ukulele around, Duke wanted to repeat the low weight aspect to this one that they achieved with their last model. And surprisingly, whilst they have moved back to a wooden construction from the previous HDPE plastic, they still have kept the weight of this down to about 1 kg (2.2 lb). That's nothing for a banjo. Scale wise this one is a tenor whilst the Deering I looked at was a concert (though they do make a tenor which is a touch heavier again), but I never really think too much about normal ukulele scales when it comes to banjo ukes.

So we have a ten inch drum head on this model that appears to be made from a glossed marine maple ply, similar to the Deering. On to that is placed an aluminium tone ring topped with a black plastic covering and eight adjustable drum tensioners holding the polyvinyl head taught. Once again the drum head is branded with the Duke logo sticker with the number 10 underneath which is nice. And being a larger head it gives the instrument a much different, and in my opinion, better look than their earlier banjouke.  Whether it's the size or the more natural look of the wooden pot I can't say, but I like it more. It just looks a lot more serious as an instrument (not that the earlier one was in any way a toy I might add!).

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele head

Fitted at the base is Duke's own design smooth tail piece which the strings pass over before being threaded into small holes in the base of the pot.  I am also really pleased to see they have repeated the inclusion of an arm rest to stop the drum tensioners digging into your arm. On the previous model I pointed out that I thought the rest looked a little 'industrial' with its matte finish, and this one improves on that with a chrome finish that looks a lot more classy.

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele tail and bridge

We have a standard moveable three footed banjo saddle that you need to set yourself for correct intonation (not a huge job and actually something that will teach people about what intonation actually IS!) and flipping the instrument over I see that they have repeated the installation of the Schatten LP-15 pickup with an output jack on the base. Once again, I think you must be terribly sadistic if you want to make a banjo even louder, but there you are! (Seriously - it's actually a great option for stage use or recording - pickups are not just about making things louder for the sake of it..)

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele pole and pickup

The neck is made of mahogany and finished in satin with a joint at the headstock and a kind of stacked heel running to the pole piece. And as you can see from the photos the neck then runs right through the body pot in a single piece, bolted at each end for stability and strength. I believe that means that neck relief is unajustable, so action would be adjusted by sanding down the saddle itself.  I really like the feel of the back of the neck and the profile. It feels much nicer than their earlier instrument which was painted gloss and this one is much smoother and quicker.

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele neck heel

Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard which is in nice enough condition (possibly needs a bit of oil) and is evenly coloured. We have 17 nickel silver frets and the edges are smooth and dressed well. Like most banjo's (but not the Deering) the fingerboard stops at the edge of the pot on this one, but that does mean that all 17 fret spaces are easily accessible. We have mother of pearl position markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th and I am really pleased to see that they have added side dots which were missing from their earlier model. The fingerboard edges are unbound meaning you can see the fret ends.

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele fingerboard

They don't specify what that nut is made of, possibly cream plastic. What I can tell you though is it's a 35mm width and I would personally have liked that to be a bit wider. As I say though, the profile is still very comfortable.

Up to the headstock and I am pleased that they have repeated the funky staggered shaped look of the earlier model, and this one is topped in what looks like a maple looking facing plate. Banjo ukuleles are often (perhaps fairly) stereotyped as 'old fashioned' and I, for one, am glad to see a brand going for something a bit different. Come on, funky headstock, pickup... that's quite 'out there' for a banjo! The Duke logo this time is pyro embossed as opposed to the sticker application on the earlier one, which is nice to see. Much nicer.

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele headstock

I'm also pleased to see that they have repeated their tuner choice of planteary geared pegs with white plastic buttons. So you get the backwards peg look, but the advantages of the gearing system. They are not high end planetary pegs to be honest and vary in stiffness, but they work and hold just fine so i'm not complaining.

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele tuners

As part of the deal you are getting Aquila strings, a padded and branded gig bag (in the same fabric design as before that many people loved!) and some other extras including a strap, felt pick and wrench to adjust the drum head tensioners.

Duke 10 Banjo Ukulele accessories

As I say, this is currently in a Kickstarter programme, but the price is set at $389 or £312. I'd say that's pretty decent value for a lightweight banjo particularly with the various additions you are getting with it such as the bag, pickup and strap. And that is a delivered price to anywhere in the world too, which makes it even better value, especially to people like me on the other side of the globe to New Zealand. So a little more pricey than the last Duke, but still less than the Deering.

So how did I get on with it? Well first up it really IS light. Very light. I know it's a touch more than the earlier Duke, but I can't notice it, but do know it's noticeably lighter in the hands than the Deering. It really weighs nothing considering all that metalwork and the switch to wood, so it's been cleverly done I think. Setup at the nut was perfectly acceptable although I'd probably take the saddle down a little myself. Not a huge job on a banjo as they are so easy to remove.

And as I've said, I really LOVE the fact it looks less than traditional. Less 'stuffy' if you will, but the move to wood has added a class to it I think.

Sound wise, it's certainly 'very banjo'! Loud, snappy, barky and punchy.  But where the first Duke Banjouke I played was perhaps overly bright  this has a much richer and warmer tone that reminds me more of the Deering. It can certainly bark if you want it to, but it's just an all round nicer tone than their earlier one. The bigger head is doing what was intended I think.

There are still some ghost notes, but I find that with most banjoleles and it can be easily improved by putting a cloth or old sock wedged between the pole and the head.

I much prefer it for strumming, but some clawhammer style picking is very satisfying too. I think with these you need to get out of the 'traditional uke' or 'traditional banjolele' mould - it's neither of those things, rather it kind of is what it is. And it's a lot of fun.

I still don't think it's quite as loud as the Deering (which could wake the dead), but it's certainly not quiet either. And heck, if you want more volume, you've got a pickup too which works well after some EQ tweaks.

Like their earlier model too, it's really easy to play and hold. The combination of the low weight and smooth neck really work well together I found. The bigger head seems to be the right size and doesn't feel 'oversized' making for a very comfortable instrument. Being an open back that sound can be changed a fair bit depending on how you hold it to your body, but I quite like that. I actually believe some have had success with tone guards for mandolins fitted to the back that keeps the instrument a uniform distance from your chest if that worries you.

On the whole though, I was a very big fan of the earlier Duke Banjouke, but a couple of minor gripes on fit and finish pulled the overall score down for me. On this one though, it seems that they've addressed all of those, improved the tone and still kept the weight and price down. No, it's not a high end traditional Gibson, Abbott or Ludwig but then I don't think it would appeal to the players of that style regardless - this is more of a bluegrass instrument I suppose. You may argue it's not even a ukulele, but I tend not to be drawn on those debates - it's still a musical instrument and that doesn't make it invalid. And at three hundred quid for a funky electro banjo uke, with extras...  What's not to like? Highly recommended.

http://www.dukeuke.com

UKULELE PROS

Price
Low weight
General finish improvements all over
Funky looks
Planetary tuners

UKULELE CONS

Aside from possibly wanting better brand pegs, none that I can find.

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9 out of 10
Sound - 9 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW




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