As I start to write this something tells me this review may serve to create some debate or divide opinions. You see I bought myself a Martin T1K tenor ukulele recently - that is to say a NEW Martin uke, and not a uke made in Pennsylvania USA, but in Mexico - ie - one of their entry level models.
So why the debate? Well I read a lot online about the new Martin range and what I read certainly shows a division of opinion. The biggest point of debate seems to be the "are they as good as original vintage Martin" arguments. Well, at the top of this review, I thought it worth me getting my position straight. I have only ever played one vintage Martin, and that was very briefly and it was a soprano. It was lovely and all, but I write this blog mainly for beginners and like to review instruments that can be bought today. Of course, you can buy vintage Martins, but you are buying them used and a host of issues can creep in to that process. I wanted a Martin just to try one out (as despite the debates online, the consensus did seem to be positive), but don't really have any desire to buy a vintage. As such, this review will draw no comparison to older Martins, because I can't make that comparison. What it is however is a review of an instrument that anyone can buy, brand new (mine was imported from a German store - price €498). So that makes it a fairly seriously priced instrument, though way below the prices of the Hawaiian K Brands in tenor size.
As a comparison for this uke, I am writing this conscious of my review of my other Tenor - the Kanile'a K1 which costs several hundred pounds more.
|The Martin T1K (note, strap button added by me!)|
The T1K is a couple of steps up from the entry level models in the Martin Ukulele range (the OXK models) and is part of their 'One' Series. To put the price above in perspective, the series runs to series five, which retail for over $5,000 dollars, so in Martin stakes, that makes this pretty cheap... It also makes their five series a daft price in my opinion, but there you go. It's made more cheaply because it is not made in the USA, but takes advantage of cheaper labour in Mexico. That isn't to say however that this makes it an equivalent of a far eastern line instrument - the Mexican factory (much as Fender and Taylor guitars do the same) is just over the border and run by Martin directly. The K in the model name sets this uke apart from the standard T1, as this is made of all solid Koa wood.
Starting with the body and overall looks, it's a standard shaped Tenor with a wider lower bout. The wood does look very nice, and the example I bought has quite a light coloured Koa. For this money don't expect any curl or flame in the wood, but I do have a nice example here I think. The top is book matched as is the back, and the grain is nicely straight on the sides. The finish is a handrubbed satin (possibly an oil finish) which means the Koa doesn't exactly shimmer but it does show some colour change when looked at from different angles, much like the Kanile'a. The construction is flawless (not a mark on it) and it feels very smooth and tactile, particularly around the edges where the top and back meet the sides. The shape feels good and it is extremely light. Looking at the back it is slightly curved to help sound projection, but nowhere near as much as my Kanile'a.
The bridge is a nice and simple tie bridge with a very low profile, finished with a compensated saddle made of Tusq (bone substitute). The bridge is specced as being either Morado or Rosewood - I think this is the latter and it is very nicely applied and finished.
|Nice stripe on the sides|
The soundhole is finished with black/white/black simple circle which sets the otherwise bling free ukulele off nicely.
Looking inside the uke more closely and I note something very clearly. I am not normally a soundhole sniffer, but boy oh boy - this ukulele smells good. Full on woodshop smell! In fact, it is so strong I can smell the ukulele when I play it! The kerfling inside is nicely applied and notched, with no glue spots, and the bracing looks fairly standard and also nicely finished. The inside is finished with a Martin label and serial number, (also making it clear it is made in Mexico!)
|soundhole and Martin label|
Moving on to the neck, we have a single piece of wood (nice to see), specced as being of a 'select hardwood' (search me!), and is also satin finished. The 20 nickel frets (14 to the body) are set in to a morado fingerboard which has a delightful stripe in it which I think looks great. The edges of the fingerboard are not bound so you see the fret ends, but each one is set and finished perfectly without a single rough fret edge. Fret markers are provided on the fifth, seventh, tenth, twelfth and fifteenth as well as on the side of the neck. But please please - why are they so small? I personally don't mind if ukes have the fretboard markers at all (though I do insist on side markers), but these fretboard markers are so tiny I think they look a bit silly. Martin say they are made of white ABS, but to be honest I wouldn't have a clue what they were as they are so small.
|Lovely stripe, silly fret markers|
Another interesting note about the neck - Martin do not employ a standard joint between neck and body rather a dovetail arrangement. Basically, the body is finished then a dovetail channel cut out of the top into which the corresponding joint piece cut on to the heel of the neck is slotted. It certainly makes for a clean joint with no gaps whatsoever.
Up to the Tusq nut and we have a 1 and 11/32 inch width nut (significantly narrower than the Kanile'a, but then, the Kanile'a is noted to be wide at the nut). The slots are cut well and are not too deep which is good to see.
The headboard employs a traditional Martin shape (though a little exaggerated to my eyes perhaps) and is faced in Koa wood. The tuners are the same excellent open geared Grover models as found on the Kanile'a K1, but finished with cream plastic buttons not metal. These are excellent tuners. And then there is the logo... really not sure what Martin were thinking of here, but the logo is a raised gold sticker stuck on to the headstock. It reminds me of those gold stickers that kids use to make their own greetings cards that say 'Happy Birthday' or 'Seasons Greetings'. To me it looks cheap, nasty and totally out of place. I appreciate that costs are cut on this model, but surely a screen print would have been just as cheap. I mean, I am not expecting detailed abalone inlay, but this is just kitschy. Yuk.
|Grover tuners - quality|
The whole package is finished off with some Martin flouro tenor strings and a Martin branded gig bag. A few words about the bag. As gig bags go, this is about the best quality I have yet seen - it's made by TKL. The material is thick, the logo is stitched, the zips are sturdy and everything about it screams quality. Inside the finish is plush and it even has a neck strap to keep the uke steady. All good stuff, however.... surely if you are spending this much money on a ukulele, made of beautiful solid koa wood, you really are going to then invest (like I did) in a solid case, or at least a pod case? As such I find the gig bag a little confusing. Sure it's very nice, but for me, if they are on a cost cutting drive I would have been in no way offended not to receive a bag, and for them to spend the money on a better headstock logo, on binding the edge of the fretboard or better fret markers, though perhaps that is just me.
|The gig bag - not convinced.|
So on to the proper test and playing the thing. As I say it is comfortable and light and also nicely balanced. Initial play of the uke tells me that the setup is pretty darn reasonable, though the action at the saddle a touch high. I remedied that very by removing the saddle (no easy feat - dang Martin, it's almost as if you glue these in) and it's now perfect for me. Action at the nut is spot on and needed no tinkering. Tuning is helped by the wonderful Grovers, and intonation all over the neck is pretty much perfect. In fact the harmonic chimes I can get on this at the 12th fret beat any other uke I own, though perhaps that is down to loudness - more on that below.
|Slightly arched back|
So my first strum in anger and.... blimey.. this is a LOUD ukulele - extremely bright and powerfully loud. I always thought Koalohas were the seriously loud ukes out there, but with the Martin strings this matches them. In fact I took this to our local group practice session, and some players said they could hear nothing else! That loudness is good news in my book up to a point, but was not totally happy with the brightness of the tone. Some claim Koa is naturally bright, but I would ask those to play a Kanile'a K1 which is earthy and woody in tone - this Martin could not be more different to the K1, with a tone bordering on a soprano tone at times. I wasn't too concerned as with all my instruments I then experiment with strings to find the right match. Sorry Martin, but whilst I like your flouro strings, I don't like them on this, and four brand changes later I have settled on Fremont Blackline flouros which have toned the brightness down, kept the best of the volume and just rounded the sound of all over. I love it now.
That volume does not come at the expense of a muddy sound however and the strings are crystal clear and evenly matched. It doesn't quite have the richness of the Kanile'a but then not only is that instrument much more expensive, but it naturally has a very different voice so it is hard to compare. I have heard better sounding ukes, but not many - and this really does have a great tone. The Martin has good sustain, but more bite and attack to the sound. If I am pushed I would say this uke suits picking more than strumming, but honestly, strumming is an absolute hoot on it on account of that volume.
In terms of living with it, that satin finish is extremely thin, and much like the Kanile'a shows finger scratches and dings with ease. After a first proper jam with friends I have already marked it and the slightest of knocks on the table dinged the butt. I personally don't mind these things, as they show the uke has been loved and played, but if you have an aversion to ukes that show marks, you may be frustrated. (I don't mean that as a criticism - as I say, I don't mind knocks - I just know that some do). I suppose it is also a rather plain looking ukulele, but regular readers of Got A Ukulele will know that I don't go in for that much bling myself, so it suits me fine.
In summary I am really rather pleased with it. It has a wonderful sound, and provides me with a nice alternative to the woody Kanile'a when I want more bight or volume. There are some niggles with the finish and detailing, but I suppose it's a price you pay for a cheaper end factory uke (though in my book, the higher end Martin prices are just plain crazy). Perhaps a vintage would be even better - who knows - but that is not what this review is about!
Looks - 8.5
Fit and Finish - 9.5
Sound - 9
Value for money - 8.5
OVERALL - 8.9
© Barry Maz