Time for another Got A Ukulele instrument review. For a while now I have been looking to plug the gap in my collection at the concert scale. That basically consists of my Mainland Mahogany and my wife's Pono MHC. Both of those are very nice ukes, but as I own Koa Hawaiian instruments in the tenor and soprano scale, I have developed a love for the richness of tone that wood brings. Enter the Big Island Koa Traditional Concert.
Now I do like to keep a balance on Got A Ukulele by reviewing both cheap and pricey instruments. Well this one falls in the middle, at the upper end of the intermediate level instruments (price £370). As tempted as I was to go for a Hawaiian or luthier built Koa, I wanted to look at something more affordable. This places this uke at a price considerably higher than the £180 Mainland uke, and only a bit higher than the £350 Pono model. For this review I will principally be comparing this uke to both of those. I was also intrigued by this instrument and suppose I took a bit of a chance with it - whilst there are several reviews online of their Honu line of instruments (pretty much the same save for different stylings on the bridge and headstock), I've not yet found a review of the standard Big Island models - surely there must be more of them out there?
So what gives this uke, an all solid Koa instrument a lower price point? Well, Big Island, despite being a Hawaiian based company (in Hilo) don't put these together on the Islands, rather they are built in Vietnam. Much like many other top brands, such as Kanile'a with their Islander range or Ko'olau with their Pono range, manufacturers have looked at creating more affordable instruments by outsourcing the building to the far east. What Big Island did was something different though. They outsourced all of their builds to the far east, but maintained control of the wood, growing, harvesting and shipping their own Koa for building. The finished instruments return to Hawaii for final checks before being shipped out. Can that compare to a pure Island brand?
The Big Island series comprise three options - this standard 'Traditional' model uke, their Tortoise Rope curly koa model, and a solid Hawaiian Mango model. When you look at the ukes I own, I don't go in for much bling, and the binding or fancy wood of the other two models didn't really appeal - for me its about how the wood looks and sounds mainly. The fact this is gloss is something of a concession for me too, but they don't offer a satin finish.
So what we have is a beautiful, yet plain instrument. The finish all over this uke is absolutely first class, and I gave a genuine gasp when I took it from it's case (thanks again to the guys at Southern Ukulele Store). In fact, I will stick my neck out and state that, Hawaiian ukes included, this is the nicest finished ukulele I own - it really is absolutely perfect all over. Not a glue drop or imperfection anywhere and the gloss is deep and even and really makes the wood shimmer.
Starting with the body we have a traditional uke shape with a wide butt. In fact the uke is actually what I would call a jumbo concert in the body department - it is considerably bigger than my Mainland or Pono, and in fact won't fit in either of their standard concert uke hard cases (something you should note if buying one). The top and back are book matched beautifully and the grain is really stripy with some nice dark patches. It's got a beautiful orange hue that looks so warm and I am very taken with it. It has that wonderful koa grain that if tilted in the right light has a kind of 3d effect to it with colours changing depending on how you look at it. The finish is sublime. It's a league above the finish of the Mainland, and ahead of the Pono (which is also beautiful). The grain on this though leaves the Pono in the shade, but that is koa wood for you.
I was very pleased to note that the wood pieces on the back (also book matched) match the top perfectly. The top and back wood grains are pretty straight, but there is a bit more curl in the wood used for the sides. The sides are in two pieces and don't quite match on the join at the butt, but this is a factory instrument away from premium prices so I can forgive it that.
As I say, all brilliantly put together. Standard slotted kerfling inside the ukulele assists with holding the top and back to the sides, and the bracing looks fairly standard issue but is nicely scalloped.
The bridge is a standard square tie bar affair made from East Indian Rosewood and looks well made. The saddle is made of bone, and is shaped in a compensated pattern to assist with intonation. For me, the jury is out on these as I don't consider the scale of a ukulele demands them (and my Kanilea Tenor doesn't have a compensated saddle and intonation on it is perfect) - but there you go - it can't do any harm I suppose. Incidentally, the uke came strung with the now ubiquitous Aquila strings. I like Aquilas, but this gets me down as they now seem to appear on absolutely everything. I actually tend to find them overkill and boomy on finer solid wood ukes, and think fluorocarbon strings suit these ukes much better. Anyway, I immediately swapped them out (yes, I did try them first - boomy!) and currently have Martin Flourocarbons on it. I also have some Worth Clear Dense on their way as they get good reviews on the Big Island Honu line of ukes. As I often say about strings - experiment!
On to the neck and we have a neck made of mahogany and topped with an East Indian Rosewood fingerboard. I actually thought the neck was a one piece, but it isn't, it has a join at the heel - not that you would know as the join is so perfectly matched it's hard to spot. The neck has 20 nickel frets which are finished perfectly at the edges and incredibly small and low which should make for an easy playing experience. I love how the fingerboard comes down to the sound hole and is shaped around it.
The wood of the fingerboard is also nice and even and dark with very few lighter patches that can sometimes affect cheaper rosewood. Fret markers are provided in abalone at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th, and there are similar side markers too. The edges of the fingerboard are bound in a dark wood to hide the fret edges which is a nice touch - something missing from the Mainland uke. I adore the neck profile too - its very shallow, yet has a good width at the nut. I usually like chunkier necks, but find this ever so comfortable.
The tuners are unbranded, sealed, chrome geared with a 14:1 ratio. They are very nicely finished with small koa buttons which I think look absolutely great. They feel good too with the right amount of resistance and certainly not sloppy. Unfortunately, this is my first gripe with the instrument. I don't like geared tuners that stick out too much - makes a uke look like Mickey Mouse. These could benefit from being shrunk (the tuners, not the buttons) a touch, or attached on an angle to lessen the effect. The geared tuners on my Pono and Kanile'a stick out far less than these. A shame.
So, that is the uke described for you - but how does it play? Well firstly on to setup and tuning. The action, coupled with those low frets and thin profile neck make it a joy to play. Action is nice but I may well take it down a fraction, though that is no big job and certainly not a complaint. A check on intonation up the neck shows it's pretty damn good - not quite as accurate as my Kanile'a but certainly better than the Mainland, and on a par with the Pono. No complaints here - the uke plays well.
Sound wise - well, WOW it's rich! I had heard some reviews that these ukes were quiet. Well, it's not the loudest uke I own (that job goes to my Koaloha Soprano, but then that uke is louder than all my other ukes) but this is no slouch - its got a perfectly reasonable volume and when strummed hard a nice bark if you need it. I actually jammed with it on the second day of playing along with 9 other ukuleles in a crowded environment - it did take a little more effort to find it's place in the mix compared to, say, my Kanile'a or Koaloha, but it was there.
Fingerpicking makes it sound very sweet indeed. The tone is balanced across all the strings and when strummed the uke has an extremely rich chime sound to it. In fact its got a ring and a chime unlike any of my other ukes. Sure my Kanile'a Tenor beats it when picked, but I am not sure it does when strummed. It has almost a 3d sort of sound - in fact the best way I can describe it - it sounds like it has more strings on it than just four - a really rich shimmery sound that I adore. Whilst that may sound like the tone is confused or busy, it isn't - its very clear and you can hear every note being played in a strum. Sustain is superb too and after picking a string not only can I hear it ringing on, I can feel the wood of the body vibrating.
In fact, despite only playing this for a couple of days, first impressions are that this is probably the most balanced in tone and sound of all my ukes. Whilst it's not as loud as my Koaloha soprano, it beats it in strumming for richness of tone. Whilst it gets beaten by my Kanile'a Tenor in fingerpicking, I think it's up there with it in strumming richness - an altogether brighter and broader tone to my ears. And what about the other two concerts I mentioned? Well, compared to this, as much as I love my Mainland, the sound leaves the Mainland sounding rather thin and boxy. The finish on this also beats that one hands down. As for the Pono - the finish just edges that uke (though that is probably as much down to wood choice than anything else), but it certainly has a broader tone and better volume. I actually think this says more about the Pono than the Mainland - this is more than twice the price of the Mainland - it should sound better! But if you are in the market for a Pono at this sort of price I suppose what I am saying is, try this one out for size.
For a ukulele that doesn't seem to get written about very much, I would like to think that this review may help to change that and get a few more out there. In fact, with this sound I will have to question myself if I do choose to buy a K Brand Concert - I mean, why?
Wonderful construction, finish and setup
Beautiful wood choice
Nice neck profile and perfect frets
Rich broad sound
Tuners could be smaller
Can't makers ship with anything OTHER THAN Aquilas?
Body size may limit case choices
Looks - 9.5
Fit and finish - 10
Sound - 9
Value for money - 9
OVERALL - 9.3