Here is an interesting one. About a year ago, the venerable ukulele maker from Hawaii, Kanile'a decided to embark on a new line of business that some of their counterparts have chosen - making a budget version of their famous ukuleles in the far east. That range is called the Islander , and I have got my hands on their solid wood tenor model - the MST-4.
|The Islander MST-4 Tenor ukulele|
The Islander range of ukuleles come in two main flavours, either the cheaper laminate wood bodied versions, or the pricier all solid models like this one, each in soprano, concert and tenor scales. Their range offers those wanting the traditional looks of the Kanile'a brand at a more affordable price. The difference between my Kanile'a K1 Tenor and this is several hundred pounds. This was bought for £250 (thanks to Southern Ukulele Store who I bought it from).
Kanile'a control the quality of these ukes, and they are made to their own design - just not in Hawaii, but in China. They certainly look quite similar at first glance, with the same shaped headstock and distinctive Kanile'a bridge - but how do they really match up? Read on.
|Twins? Kanile'a K1 next to Islander MST-4|
The Islander MST-4 is an all solid Mahogany tenor uke, built to a similar style and shape as the Kanile'a tenor. As the picture shows, they are kind of similar, but there are some obvious differences. The body shape is actually not quite the same, with the Islander having a deeper waist and slightly less flat tail.
A first look over the instrument shows that it has been very well put together. There are no marks on it at all, no glue drops or dodgy joints. It feels solid and secure in the hands. The body is finished in a satin coat, through which the mahogany grains can be seen clearly. It's a nice enough finish, but looks a little cheap to my eyes, though that is perhaps because it is also rather strikingly orange in colour. I suppose it is actually just rather plain with very little dark grain or anything to catch the eye - there is certainly no curl or flame in this wood! The Kanile'a finish is also satin, but is Koa, and is smooth as you like. The top and back of the body are a single piece, so no book matching, but the grain is straight and runs vertically on both pieces. The back and sides are in two pieces joined at the neck and butt, and again, the grain is nice and straight in line with the back.
The body of the uke is bound with a nice looking faux tortoiseshell finish which I like. Where the sides join on the butt there is also some binding trim (note - the strap button was added by me and does not come as standard!).
|Islander tail and body binding|
Inside the uke is nice and tidy, with an Islander label proclaiming it is made by Kanile'a. The kerfling is notched and neatly done and there are no glue drops at all. One point to note is that the bracing system in this is stock ukulele bracing and not the clever TRU bracing used on the Kanile'a instruments. Interestingly, there also appears to be side braces fitted attached to the inside of the sides on the upper and lower bouts - I have not seen that before.
|Sides and tortoiseshell binding|
The back of the ukulele has a very slight bow to assist with sound projection, but nowhere near as prominent a curve as on the Kanile'a. On to the top of the instrument and we have a very nicely finished soundhole in abalone. The bridge looks at first glance to be identical to Kanile'as but actually the shaping and the saddle are quite different. There is nothing wrong with it (though the saddle doesn't have much left on it for sanding if I want to take action down any more), but it is just different. The saddle material is nubone, like the Kanile'a. The strings are held by four black plastic bridge pins rather than a tie system. More on that later also.
|Abalone soundhole decor|
On to the neck and we have a four piece (count them, four!) mahogany neck topped with a rosewood fingerboard. I don't expect cheaper ukes to have a single piece neck but this is made of three pieces at the heel and another joint at the headstock. No idea if they all come like that but it seemed excessive to me. The joints though are well hidden at the heel, though not at the headstock where the grain pattern changes noticeably. The end of the heel is capped in the same tortoiseshell as on the body binding.
|Neck heel and back of the Islander|
The rosewood on the fingerboard is nicely finished and smooth, though does have some colour variation. The edges of the fingerboard are not bound, so fret ends can be seen - again, not surprising at this price point. The uke has 18 nickel frets, with 14 to the body. They are all set well and there are no sharp ends to any of them. Fret position markers appear on the fingerboard in white pearloid at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th, and dots are repeated on the side of the neck. A note about the pearloid... This is, to me, one mixed up looking uke. We have tortoiseshell body binding, abalone soundhole decoration and white fret markers. To me it gives the uke a confused jumbled look and would be far better if they stuck to just one or two material types.
The neck profile is slightly chunky, though not as deep as the Kanile'a. It does share the Kanile'a fat nut width which I adore on a tenor. The nut is nubone again, and nicely set.
On to the headstock and we have have a Kanile'a shaped head, faced with a very thin veneer of mahogany. Full marks to Kanile'a on the logo, as it would appear they are listening to customers. Earlier models of the Islander came with a bright white and HUGE logo that looked, frankly, horrible. Some people even said they could not bring themselves to buy one with that logo. They have toned things down wonderfully with a simple, understated Islander logo in pale gold with black edging. The tuners are unbranded, sealed geared tuners with black buttons (in contrast to the open geared Grovers on the Kanile'a). They look decent enough though and dont stick out too much on the uke. Again though - another choice of material makes an appearance - black buttons to go with the tortoiseshell binding, abalone sound hole and white fret markers.... Make your minds up!
|Headstock - note the subtle logo|
|Sealed geared tuners|
Finally the uke arrived with Aquila strings. ARRRGHHHHHH!!!!! I know how some of you love Aquila strings, and I suppose full marks to the company for doing the deals but they now seem to come on EVERYTHING! On a sweeter solid wood uke I personally find them overkill and was disappointed to see them on this. Heck they arrived on my Kanile'a too, so what can you do? Well I changed them - it is now fitted with Living Water fluorocarbon Tenor strings.
So we have looked over the uke, but how about it's set up and sound? Well, as I say, it gets great marks for the build and the finish. Really nicely done and looks the part if you pass by the excessive choice of materials. Setup however was less impressive. As I suppose can be normal for a ukulele of this price, the action was way too high for my liking (nearly 2/8 of an inch at the crown of the 12th fret, and I prefer about 1/8). Out came the saddle for some sanding and it is now OK (though the saddle really has very little left on it now - which says something for the way the neck is set). The nut slots also were a little high (not much but a little), so I needed to take them down a touch. This is not a major gripe, and every uke owner should be prepared to make such adjustments, but it is still a little annoying when you just want to get on and play it.
And on to that bridge. Yes it looks like a Kanile'a bridge, but it really isn't - as I found out on the string change.... ....The Kanile'a bridge has slots within the holes that are plugged by the bridge pin. When you put a new string on, you tie a knot in the string and hook it in that hole and secure it with the pin. I find that fiddly enough to be honest, but the Islander takes it to another level. On removing the pin I noted that there are no slots, and on removing the old string, I saw that it came with a small metal ball end ring threaded on to the string. This acts to hold the string in the body which is then wedged by the pin. Yet more hassle. I love the look of bridge pins but the Kanile'a is fiddly enough thank you very much and I don't want the extra hassle of threading rings on to my strings on a change.
It gets worse though. Having re threaded the microscopic washer on to the new string, and seated the pin I started to tune up. All strings were fine, and then the A string - PING!! snapped at the bridge pin when approaching A. I fished out the washer and thankfully having enough string left, tried again. PING!! Snapped again at the bridge before I could get the string to A. I figured it may have been a bad string, so got a brand new A string from another pack. PING!!. This was now extremely frustrating. I grabbed a torch and had a look inside the hole where the string is meant to seat and think I found the culprit. The inside edge that the string would then be wedged against was really rough and must have been cutting the string. Out with a file and I smoothed it all down and thankfully the next string stayed put. That is the sort of niggle that a new player just does not need, and frankly there is no way I or the shop could have spotted it. It was just badly made in that zone at the factory. The slots on the Kanile'a seems a better system and are much smoother inside meaning no sharp edges.
|That blasted bridge...|
I am pleased to report though that once the setup had been tinkered with, the ukulele is really, really nice to play. It feels very comfortable and balanced, and the neck is great to hold and play - almost on a par with my Kanile'a.
The sound is... loud! - there is a great volume from this uke and it is pretty much as loud as my Kanile'a so a great uke to play in the company of others without getting lost. It has a nice voice too. It is not as sweet or as complex as the Kanile'a and lacks some of the sustain and harmonics, but it is right up there with some of my better ukuleles. It is rich and I like that. The tone is balanced across the strings and it really does sing. It is much brighter than the Kanile'a in tone, but that is no critisism - the Kanile'a is renowned to be earthy sounding - this more 'chimey'. Intontation all over the neck is great. Not bang on at the lower frets, but perfectly acceptable. Strummed, it sounds great to me, and it is a joy to pick also with nice clear notes coming from all over the neck.
I will likely experiment with some other strings also to find the voice I prefer, but for now the Living Water strings are doing a fine job.
In summary it's a uke that, when sorted out, is a great player that I am sure most players will love and find very rewarding. I find the looks a bit mixed and confused, but I suppose that is just personal opinion on cosmetics (one wonders why they didn't go the whole hog and choose two more different materials for the nut and saddle...). The setup issues, particularly that bridge were a let down. I know that others may not have that problem, but this one did, and that is an issue as far as I am concerned. I know they wanted to keep the bridge pin look of the big daddy, but unless they can improve the holes to re-create the Kanile'a bridge more closely, I think they should revert to a tie or slot bridge.
But it is a £250 ukulele not a £700 instrument. And as such, the value for money is, I think, pretty decent. It beats other solid mahogany ukes of this price point and higher in my opinion for the loudness, finish, and quality of tone alone. The setup issues were a shame, because otherwise it is very well put together and feels good. Some like me may raise an eyebrow at the confused mixed design, but that is just subjective.
For me it's a keeper with a great voice and I would suggest you give one a try, though try it in the flesh first.
Looks - 8
Fit and Finish - 7
Sound - 9
Value for Money - 9.5
OVERALL - 8.4
Video review below!