4.4.12

Magic Fluke Firefly Banjo Ukulele - REVIEW

Well it is here, and i've been playing it non stop for the last day, so here is my initial review of the new Firefly Banjo Ukulele from the Magic Fluke Company.


firefly ukulele
Firefly Banjo Ukulele


Firstly some housekeeping - you may have seen that this is my second delivery, as the first one was damaged in transit. Being in the UK, I have spoken highly of two shops for buying ukes, the Southern Ukulele Store in the UK and Musique 83 in France. I needed the banjo for a gig this week (ideally) and at the time of ordering SUS were out of stock. I therefore ordered from France, and want to point out that there service dealing with the broken one was SUPERB. Sadly, they didn't have stock for a replacement, and therefore SUS sorted me out with more SUPERB next day service. So, therefore a big shout of thanks to both stores!

Right, on to the instrument itself. The Firefly is a banjo ukulele designed by the Magic Fluke Company in the USA. I am a fan of their Flea and Fluke ukuleles so it was really only a matter of time until I completed the family. It is essentially nothing more than a Flea ukulele neck with the distinctive headstock bolted through a Remo 8 inch hand drum. As such - at over £200 that seems a lot for something so simple. It's more than that though, as I will explain.

firefly ukulele logo
Firefly logo label inside the rim of the pot


The uke is essentially soprano scaled, but is actually slightly longer than my 14 fret Flea, as this one squeezes in 16 frets. It actually feels more Concert to me. It comes in a variety of 'flavours' from the Company - with a moulded plastic fingerboard or wooden (this one is wooden), in Walnut or Maple finish (this one is Maple) and with the optional upgrade to Peghed tuners, though I am happy enough with the stock frictions.

Looking at the pot first of all, as I say, it's just a hand drum, nothing more, with a synthetic Remo Fiberskyn head. As such, unlike other banjo ukes, there are no J hook tensioners around the rim holding the head in place, just a braided band of fabric. That has raised eyebrows with many as it means, naturally, that the head cannot be tuned or replaced in the event of damage. Fluke advised that the head is pre-tuned, but I suppose as a new instrument nobody really knows what years of playing will do to it. The pot is also unusual as it is not wooden, it's made of a synthetic composite material which actually looks like High Pressure Laminate - essentially a very tough cardboard - they call it an Acousticon Pot. The outer of the rim is finished with a faux wood effect label. Now all of this is sounding a bit ropey as I type it out - but there is a reason that Fluke went this route, and it's also the reason that I was keen to buy it.  Weight and comfort.   I already own a banjo uke in the Ozark 2035. I like that uke, but I find it really heavy and uncomfortable to hold and play. The hooks dig in my arm and lightweight it is not. The Ozark isn't even a heavy banjolele and if you grab one of the really traditional looking ones, they are heavier still. The Firefly on the other hand - light as a feather, really easy to hold without a strap - no discomfort. What Fluke set out to achieve on that front they have succeeded with very, very well. This is a really easy uke to 'get along with'. To add to that, I am, personally, not a huge fan of the trad banjo uke 'look' (should I duck?) and therefore the Firefly ticks that box for me too - I think the minimal look is just great.

firefly ukulele head
Firefly ukulele head and pot - essentially just a hand drum


Turning the uke over we see how the neck is attached to the pot. The traditional Fluke neck has had an extra piece of wood added to it (the neck is a two piece) which runs through a hole in the top of the pot and is bolted to the inside of the bottom. This is the dowel rod arrangement seen on most banjos and is very nifty. I also adore the engraved Firefly logo on the rod, a bug composed of a neck for a body, notes for the legs, a banjo head for its butt and a Fluke headstock!  The way the rod is attached is clever in terms of its ability to be adjusted. The connection on the bottom is stacked with small rubber washers and removing or adding these allows you to adjust the action high or low. As it is, my Firefly arrived with action just as I like it, but it's nice to be able to adjust it.

firefly ukulele dowel rod
Inside the Firefly pot


The bolt that holds the dowel rod to the pot runs through the uke into the small but nicely formed tailpiece for holding the strings. To attach the strings, they simply need a knot that you hook into the gaps.

firefly ukulele tailpiece
Firefly tailpiece and braided rim


On to the walnut neck, and this is where I knew that the Firefly would be a winner. I really like the Fluke and Flea necks - they are superbly accurate and for someone with biggish hands, they are wider than the average uke and chunkier in profile. My Fluke and Flea have plastic fingerboards, and I was keen to try a wooden one this time. The wood used on the fingerboard is not specified (just a hardwood)  but is a nice piece and, like any other Fluke instrument, is supremely accurate. The 16 frets are nickel (all dressed and finished very well), and the uke also benefits from a 'zero fret' - that is to say, the nut is not the end point of the vibrating string, it is only there to hold the spacing. At the very top of the neck is a fret that the string sits on - this too helps with accuracy / intonation.

firefly ukulele headstock
The classic Fluke headstock - note the zero fret


The headstock is standard Flea / Fluke shape which I love, and the tuners are Grover 2b frictions which I think work just fine. The buttons on this one are black, but if you order the maple version of the firefly, the buttons are white.  I know some people despise friction tuners, and I have blogged about that before. I personally find the tuners that Fluke use are just fine.

The whole thing is finished off with a standard uke banjo ebony topped bridge which you simply slide into place to the pencil marks helpfully provided. The strings on this one are made by La Bella, and unusually come with a wound C string. I must say, I am not totally in love with them, as I find that wound string is giving an overly sharp sound to it (a very banjo sound!) and suspect I will be changing to Aquila all nylgut strings in due course.

Lastly, the uke arrived in a normal Flea shaped soft gig back, made of denim, and screen printed with the Magic Fluke logo. Nice.

firefly ukulele bag
Denim Firefly gig bag

So how do I get on with it? Well, as I say above, the lightness and comfort are absolutely superb, and that is a huge plus point for me. This is a uke that is easy and quick to pick up and play, easy to play standing or sitting, and just feels great in the hand. I may offend some banjo uke fans in saying that, because it isn't traditional looking, but that weight and comfort thing is something that has put me off banjo ukes. I also love the design of it, which, being a Fluke, is not surprising - this one will have people asking questions. It's a supremely playable looker!

The action is nice and low, with no buzzing - it's a fast and very easy neck to play. I would say that those who only play banjo ukuleles may find the action too low for their liking, but if you are coming to this from a standard ukulele you will find it a dream (all Fluke instruments  fall into that category in my opinion). Intonation all over the neck is perfect too, and with the adjustable bridge, that is the only thing you need to worry about for accuracy in tuning.

Sound wise, it's not as full toned or as loud as other banjo ukuleles I have played, but I like that fact - it's mellower, and I suspect when I fit Aquilas, will be a little mellower still in getting rid of that wound string. There are a few 'ghost' notes as is common with banjos, and you will see that I have solved that in the pictures above in the normal way - sticking a small cloth in wedged between the rod and the underside of the head. Being open backed, I can control the tone and volume depending on whether I play the uke close to my chest or with the back opened away slightly. But I like the sound a lot, kind of not quite banjo, not quite uke. Whilst I say that other banjos are louder, this is not a quiet uke - certainly louder than a standard wooden ukulele!

Turning back to my earlier observation - is a neck bolted on to a drum that costs £20 worth £200? Well, I think so - this uke is more than the sum of it's parts. You know you are buying the quality that Fluke deliver - you KNOW it will be well made, you KNOW it will be accurate, and you KNOW it will be different.  Gripes wise, I could moan about the fact the head is not replaceable, but if it was, it would lose the minimalist look. I suppose that synthetic pot accounts for the fact that the sound is not that fully toned, but again, changing that would make the uke heavier so it's about balance.

I therefore think it's likely to be a love it or loath it instrument for people - I personally like it a lot - the looks and the playability are the key for me and I would highly recommend you try one out.

SCORES

Looks - 8.5
Fit and finish - 10
Sound - 7.5
Value for money - 6

OVERALL - 8




19 comments:

Stephen said...

Thanks Bary, interesting and thorough review, I've ordered the same but with maple and white tuners. Don't know about ghost notes and that cloth trick though? I see how it sounds when I get it, but this review is very encouraging!

barefootgypsy said...

I have to say, it does not look £200s-worth, in fact it looks extremely cheap. I think they are making good hay while the sun shines, "proper" banjo-ukes being in very short supply - it just cannot be worth that sort of money! I know I've just stuck my head above the parapet, and no doubt someone will take a pot-shot......

Barry Maz said...

You are entitled to you opinion, no potshots from me! The hand drum aside though, there is a lot of design work that went into this, fluke necks are extremely well made and the dowell, tail etc is bespoke. The tuners are also Grovers.

But for comparison, the stock Fluke ukulele with plastic fretboard is 170 UKP. Not sure on uk price for the fluke with wooden fingerboard but think its about the same as the Firefly, so that seems sensible pricing to me.

Also bear in mind that the Flukes are made in the USA, therefore higher labour costs than ukes made in the far east.

barefootgypsy said...

Import duties put the price up, also... you mention the weight of traditional banjo-ukes - open-back ones are much, much lighter! And the "cloth-trick" to dampen the sound, is much-used, I believe!

Geoff said...

I had similar feelings to barefootgypsy about the Fluke/Flea but ended up buying a Flea and fell in love with it. Great tone, spot on intonation and the construction makes it a carry anywhere uke. It's the one I play most now.

If I was looking for a banjo uke - which I may well be when funds once again permit, I would seriously consider the Firefly, though for that real banjo uke sound you can't beat a vintage closed back one - like a friend of mine has. As you say, though, they are not exactly light nor the most comfortable to play.

Barry Maz said...

Fluke products are somewhat pricy, but it needs to be remembered where they come from to make a fair comparison.

Many of the cheap ukes that are all over the market (and in this bracket I include many banjoleles) are made in the far east in mass produced factories paying very very low wages. Accordingly that is why you can buy a uke for about £20 even though it's been shipped half way around the world to get to you. That really highlights just how cheap the actual product is to make. £20 uke, retailer cut, shipping round world, wages power materials at factory. It's frightening.

With Fluke however you are getting a product designed and built in the USA from a company with sustainable intentions. Unfortunately that costs money. Yes, the Firefly probably is much cheaper to build than £200, but that's what American wages, cost of living, taxes etc do to prices. It's also why American made full resonator banjos cost an eyewatering amout of money (certainly much MUCH more than £200, yet if you want you can get a chinese copy for very little.

Barry Maz said...

John M - didn't mean to delete your comment - hit the wrong button!

John M said...

Never mind :) I'll try again. I've had a listen to this instrument on YouTube and it certainly sounds great but I have reservations about its durability. As the head is not replaceable or its tension adjustable, once the bridge has sunk into the head it will be unplayable. So is the idea that you replace the whole pot and head assembly or simply throw the whole thing away? The manufacturer advises users to slacken the strings and remove the bridge when not playing the instrument, which may be good advice to any banjo player, but somewhat impractical. For a throw away item this is exceedingly expensive. I might have missed the point, in which case I'm happy to be enlightened, but I'd much rather pay twice or three times the price for an instrument that can be maintained and will last a lifetime.

Barry Maz said...

John. It's Certainly a marmite uke. Have to agree, the end of life options are a worry. That said, don't think it's expensive compared to other fleas and flukes (which are lunch boxes with necks) the money goes in to buying something from USA not Far East, and that's just the way of the world,

For me though I still like mine for a simple reason, albeit one that may sound strange, it doesn't sound that much like a banjolele. It's closer to a trad uke in sound and volume. As such for those not big on the Formby old style banjolele sound, it's another option. It also can accompany other standard ukes without taking over, something g you can't do with a Dallas with a resonator! Granted though, if traditional banjolele sound is what you like, then this probably won't be the uke for you.

I enjoy playing mine, and I suppose the price does make it a strange one. Personally wouldn't ever spend 600 on a banjolele, but that's because I'm not a huge fan of the trad banjolele in either looks or sound - but that's just me. I see this as an alternative option for trad uke players to get something different, not a step into the world of banjos proper

Also - as a banjo player of many years, I always take the bridge down when I've finished playing! Force of habit!

Really wish though that Fluke gave directions on changing pot in event of damage. Looking at it though, you could buy another hand drum and change it with only a minor bit of drilling

John M said...

In fact the GoldTone banjo ukelele series (it's available in soprano, concert, tenor and baritone) looks a much better proposition and it's not much more expensive than the Firefly. OK, so they're made in China, but to a very high standard using real wood, not cardboard, and finished and checked in the USA. In reviews on YouTube they also sound great. The concert size ("BUC") costs £245 from Andy Perkins (andybanjo.com), who further checks them and sets them up to the customer's requirements with a better bridge and strings. I would be very interested to see a comparison between this and the Firefly.

Barry Maz said...

Yeah, nice ukes those gold tones, but as I say, too loud to accompany other non banjo ukes and many (like me) don't like the trad styling.

I sound like I'm doing an advert for the firefly here - I'm not. I think it's expensive. I think it's questionable when it comes to repairs. But.... I do think it sounds and looks great.

John M said...

Fair enough, Barry. We seem to agree on the factual stuff and differ on the subjective stuff, so it's all good :) As you say, it's a "Marmite" uke so I think I'll pass on it (though I can't deny I like the sound it makes), but thank you for the discussion and also for the review - I didn't even know it existed until I saw it here. What it needs is some enterprising type to supply those replacement Remo hand drums pre-cut and drilled at a sensible price. Otherwise I fear that in a few years time eBay will be awash with Firefly necks for sale.

Russ Rentler, M.D. said...

Barry, what does the little wood shim do at the top of the dowel rod? I'd like to make a similar banjo and am trying to figure out how they attach the neck to the pot? Thanks

Barry Maz said...

not sure what you mean Russ - the thin piece of wood that is running through the rod? If so, that is a tapered piece that creates a tight grip between the rod and pot at that point

Russ Rentler, M.D. said...

Yes that's what I was referring to, so if you pull the little wedge out does the neck come loose? Assuming you unscrew the dowel rod at the tailpiece end? Thanks

Barry Maz said...

Yeah it loosens it a little allowing it to move if you change the height of the screwed and (adjusts action of neck)

Anonymous said...

Most playable ukuleles seem overpriced considering the small amount materials needed, vs say a Dreadnaught or Jumbo guitar. Lots of good ukes out there over $1,000 US even here in the USA. Fluke makes well made and durable products, though not my cup of tea.

Barry Maz said...

I actually disagree with much of this. - The materials are only part of the story - the real cost in high end instruments is in the skill and time taken to put them together. For those - not much different to a guitar.

florentineflathead said...

Regarding comments on what to do if the head should fail or be damaged, one could probably obtain an 8" drum online or contact the Fluke Co. for a replacement. I live in the area of their shop and have visited it a few times. They are very nice people.
I was impressed with the simplicity of this uke.

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