On occasion I get a couple of more common criticisms about Got A Ukulele, and I thought it would be good to address them with a brand new review.The first is that my reviews are skewed towards more expensive instruments. Well there are certainly some higher end ukes in there, but I have done some cheapies too. Secondly, people have said I am unfair on Mahalo ukes, as I have been quite vocal about their poor sound and quality control. So, to address both of those I grabbed a Mahalo Flying V ukulele for the princely sum of £30.... (Video review at the end of the article!)
I figured I would approach this like many beginners do in a way that contravenes the advice I give to new buyers, so I bought it from Amazon. As such it arrived with me as it would arrive from the factory - pretty much unchecked or setup. Whilst I can do a uke setup, I have deliberately not done that with this instrument to show you what a beginner will face. The only change I have made is put a set of Aquila brand strings on it, as that seems to be a common change a new player will consider. Otherwise though the uke is 'as is'.
The first thing that hits you with this uke is clearly the look of it. I have to admit having a bit of a soft spot for the flying V shaped guitar, so for me a uke that is built this way is naturally a cool thing. The Mahalo is built from laminate (top back and sides) and is finished in gloss black paint. Rawk!!
The shape is certainly flying V, no mistaking that, and looks the part. As a bonus, because of that shape it also stands up unaided. On closer inspection though, the finish is pretty poorly (or rather, liberally) applied, with lots of pooling and surface flaws on the sharp edges and where the body meets the neck.
The bridge appears to be rosewood and is a notched affair, meaning you tie a knot in one end of the string and just hook it in. A great bridge for a first time player as changing strings is really easy. It's shaped to compliment the instrument and its nice to see something a bit different. The saddle is plastic and is shaped and compensated which I think is total overkill on an instrument like this. My biggest gripe however is that the bridge is set in the wrong place. Not just the saddle, the whole thing. It is actually fitted on a slight angle and not quite in line with the neck either. It's a minor misplacing but this kind of thing can lead to tuning issues that are pretty much impossible to fix. Something of a cardinal sin.
There is no other bling on the instrument body, and the sound hole is unadorned. Looking at the edge of the sound hole though shows you just how thing this laminate wood is - its over 2mm thick and that is pretty awful. Good laminates are half this thickness or less. Why does that matter? Well the top of the instrument needs to vibrate to create tone and project volume. I think you would need to hit this with a hammer to get any character out of it.
Inside the uke shows a very messy build. There is black paint overspray on the interior wood, glue seepage all over the place, and wood shavings stuck to the inside.
Moving on to the neck, the first observation is that the fingerboard fits the body flush. That is to say, unlike many ukes the fingerboard is not raised above the top of the body - it kind of runs directly into the body. Some older ukuleles used this build, usually because they set the frets directly into the neck. That is not the case here though as there is a fingerboard topped on to the neck, it is just deliberately set flush. For theatrics, some players like this because it allows you to fret strings beyond the neck directly onto the top of the body, although I doubt Mahalo introduced this design for that kind of player!
|note the string angle and thickness of the top|
I cannot tell how the neck is built as it is covered in thick paint, but it has a fairly standard, chunky C shaped profile which is pretty comfortable to hold. There are 14 nickel plated frets, and I know they are plated as it looks like some finish is coming off the lower ones and they are turning a brass colour. In fact one of the frets is showing signs of rust, so who knows how long this was sitting in a damp warehouse!
The fingerboard 'appears' to be rosewood, but I actually suspect it's something more generic as a glance at the (unbound) fingerboard edges shows that it has been stained with a rosewood coloured paint. We have pearloid looking fret markets at the third, fifth and seventh frets, and it is good to see they are repeated on the side of the neck. I don't understand why the fingerboard markers are differing sizes and think they look odd. I also prefer fret markers higher up as I have no issue finding the third and fifth frets, but I suppose this is a beginner uke.
The nut is cut from plastic, neatly applied yet the slots are far too high (more on that later)
The headstock mimics the headstock on the Gibson Flying V guitar in shape and looks kind of cool. It too is finished in black gloss paint. The Mahalo logo is applied by way of a transfer in a gold colour, but it is totally uninspiring and looks like it uses a very basic font and was applied as an afterthought.
The tuners are open geared, finished in gold plating and the mountings are shaped like dolphins (a dig to their rivals Makala perhaps?). The gold finish is tarnished, particularly on the string posts and they look much older than they should be. They are not quite set in line with the headstock, and the large black plastic buttons are FAR too big and look silly. They hold tuning ok though, but do grind and go from slack to firm on turning which is a sign of ultra cheap gears. A drop of chain oil 'may' help here.
Completing the package was a set of the most awful nylon strings I have ever encountered (now changed to Aquilas) and an extremely cool gig bag. Not quite sure how they include a bag like this for £30, but its white, leatherette finished with a really rather fabulous plush blue interior. A really nice addition.
So - some nice looks, but sadly let down with the finish and a fundamental error in the build. How does that translate into playing it?
Firstly, it is uncomfortable. To play without a strap, those V fins dig sharply into the arm, and I am not even sure where or how you would attach a strap button. Because of those angled sides the Mahalo is also uncomfortable to play sitting down as the neck of the instrument constantly wants to fall to the floor. If you are a beginner there are far more comfortable ukuleles to hold. It is also quite heavy on account of that overly thick laminate construction.
Setup wise, things are not great. The action at the saddle is not too high, but the nut needs cutting down a bit. Asking a beginner to lower a saddle is not a big job, but lowering nut slots is a more delicate affair. The string height here is too high, and the result of that is when fretting notes at the first and second frets, the tuning goes sharp on account of the string being pulled down too far. Looking at it side on though, whilst the saddle action is ok at the higher frets, that is on account of the build being wrong as the strings approach the neck on far to steep an angle, as the body seems tilted back a little. That is to do with that flush fingerboard fitting to the body. All bad for intonation and accuracy.
But that misplaced bridge really doesn't help things and intonation down the neck goes off fairly badly. The only fix for that is removing the bridge and re applying it, which is really not an option that a beginner is going to consider worth it on a £30 instrument.
The sound is pretty dead and one dimensional. A friend likened it to rubber bands on a margarine tub, and I know what they mean! It has a thin sound with very little sustain or character. And this is with Aquila strings, it was really dreadful with the stock strings. Volume is very low, and even with the power of Aquila strings, even the most vigourous strumming doesn't get a lot of noise out of it. All in all, pretty awful.
For me it is a novelty only, but actually that saddens me. The uke struggles enough at times to rise above the 'toy guitar' moniker, and Mahalo are doing nothing with this to help its cause. Further, I have played many entry level Mahalos that suffer from similar build issues and those ukes are (on account of their price) the ones that many beginners start out with. And that has always been my issue with Mahalo - when a new player starts on one of these I think they are capable of putting them off the instrument for life, or at best, re-enforcing the 'toy guitar' stereotype. For me, I would always suggest beginners spend a little more, but if £30 is indeed your budget I remain of the view that the Makala line is a far better bet.
|nice gig bag though!|
The rock shape
Wonderful gig bag
Looks - 7
Fit and Finish - 1
Sound - 2
Value For Money - 6
OVERALL - 4