Time for a new ukulele brand for me, but one that has quite a bit of buzz about it - Barnes and Mullins, and their Calthorpe model concert with pickup - the BMUK3CE.
Barnes and Mullins is a trade name of a very old UK instrument manufacturer that has been brought back to life on a range of new instruments including ukuleles. That heritage does not however mean that the ukes are hand built in a dusty English factory, as their range are made in the far east like so many ukuleles today. The Calthorpe line replaces the popular Bowley range of ukes which I think are no longer made by the company, but received many decent reviews. How does this one stand up?
This Calthorpe was bought from Southern Ukulele Store for a little over £200, and is the concert model with an active pickup fitted. Out of it's case for the first time and it really is quite a looker, particularly on account of the woods and the colouring. This is a deep deep bright red and really rather pretty from all angles. The whole body is finished in gloss. The body shape is traditional uke with a double bout though as you read on you will note one or two elements which set the uke apart from others.
The top of the instrument is made from solid spruce and has been stained a deep red colour which I think looks just great. Bling wise the front of the ukulele is tasteful, with a simple soundhole rosette and standard looking black / white / black plastic edge binding. All very nice. The bridge mounting is made of rosewood with a nice thin pair of white inlays which make it look a little different. The bridge is a tie bar design and the saddle is plastic, though compensated.
But it is on to the back and sides where things start to get really pretty. The sides and back of the Calthorpe are laminate woods, not solid, but are faced with a flamed maple veneer which is really rather stunning to look at. It has a really shimmery stripe to it, and again is finished in a red stain which sets it off. I really like the back of this ukulele! The back is also slightly arched which is good to see and will help volume protection.
Inside the uke is fairly standard looking, with notched kerfling. The bracing looks a little rough with some wood curls hanging off them, and there are also spots and smears of the outer finish in the inside - a messy interior!
On to the neck and things remain really pretty. The neck too is also made of flamed maple and the stripes in the wood pattern continue here - really rather nice. In my reviews I will often mention whether the neck is made from a single piece of wood, or in several parts. It doesn't really affect the way a uke sounds or plays, but it is an indicator of the quality of the instrument (generally speaking), as a single piece neck takes more work and effort to produce. Well this appears to be a two piece neck, but not like one you often see. I think the neck is put together in two halves along its whole length and where they join is a very attractive black inlay which I think looks great. The neck profile is not too chunky but very comfortable to hold.
On to the fingerboard. This is topped with ebony which is nice to see at a ukulele of this price. It is dark and very nicely finished. It is also bound on the edges hiding the fret ends which is a nice touch. There are 16 nickel frets with 12 to the body and they are all seated and finished nicely with no sharp edges. Fret markers are inlays of mother of pearl in star shapes at the fifth, seventh, tenth and twelfth frets. There is also a single solitary side fret marker at the seventh. Honestly..... I often rally about why some makers fail to include side markers (being the markers that the player finds useful!), so come on Barnes and Mullins - if you chose to put one on the uke, why not put one on the other frets - I mean, it is only a dot!
Up to the headstock, and past the plastic nut and we see a quite unusual shaped headstock which I think brings a bit of relief from the scores of instruments that simply copy the Martin three pointed crown shape. It's rounded and faced in the same flamed maple. The Barnes and Mullins logo is screen printed in black under the gloss and looks classy. Tuning is provided by sealed, unbranded geared tuners with pearloid buttons. They work just fine, but I think they stick out a little too much and would have preferred friction tuners, particularly on a headstock of this shape (and with it being a concert).
The pickup system is unbranded, but is under saddle and is powered by a 9v battery housed in a compartment on the side. Treble bass and volume control are provided by sliders (I would prefer dials and find these fiddly) but they do the job. I am told that the pickup is actually a UK2000 system which are considered to be reasonable. Output for the instrument lead is provided by a jack socket on the base but off to the side, and as such this doesn't come with a strap button (the one in the picture I fitted myself). If you are building an electro ukulele and are drilling a hole in it for the jack socket, why not just put the jack squarely on the base and fit an integral strap button?
Finally, the instrument is strung with (what else....) Aquila brand strings.
So there you have it, a rather nice looking instrument. How does it play?
Unplugged the uke has a decent volume and a nice bouncy and bright sound as a good concert should. It has a nice voice that is comparable with other instruments in it's price range by the likes of Kala and Mainland. It won't win prized for a hugely complex tone with rich harmonics, but it has a very nice voice. It is comfortable enough to hold and nicely balanced, but I think it feels a little heavy, most likely on account of that chunky 9v battery. This could have been overcome by using a cell battery and a smaller pickup system. Perhaps this won't be as noticeable on a tenor version, but it is noticeable on this one.
Plugged in the pickup is reasonable sounding. Not particularly clean and airy, and can easily be a bit heavy on the bass (or perhaps a little unbalanced across the strings). Body noise is also easily picked up, but having had a tinker with the instrument played through a mixer and adjusting some of the eq there, a lot of this can be eliminated. Let us just say that the pickup does it's job in a workmanlike fashion.
But my main gripe... that finish. Earlier in the review I pointed out how pretty the uke looks, and it really does - it is a real looker. But that finish is not the toughest by any means. After two playing sessions I noted that the gloss was wearing on the top. Not just being scratched, but worn through to the light coloured spruce underneath. Now gloss does two things for a ukulele. Firstly it adds some bling, but it also serves to protect the instrument, or at least it should. I am frankly staggered that after only a couple of sessions, the gloss has started to wear, leaving me wondering just how the ukulele will look after a year. If you are going to gloss your instrument at least make the gloss tough enough to not start to wear through after two days! And that is a real shame as one of the key selling points of this instrument will be it's looks. Barnes and Mullins - you need to think about protecting those!
But all in all, it is a good little ukulele with a nice voice for a nice price (considering the pickup is added to the spec). The looks are really decent, and if you are a player who doesn't mind battle scars being picked up then it's definitely worth a look. If you like your ukes to stay in museum condition, then perhaps look elsewhere!
No strap button on jack socket
Looks - 9
Fit and finish - 6.5
Sound - 8
Value for money - 8.5
OVERALL - 8
To understand my review scoring and see this result in context - visit my review page at