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 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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Looks - 8.5
Fit and finish - 10
Sound - 7.5
Value for money - 6
OVERALL - 8