It's seems that the plastic fantastic revolution is gathering some pace as yet another crossed my path recently - the BugsGear Aqulele, sent to me to have a look at by Normans Music.
There is, as they say, nothing new under the sun, and the last ukulele boom saw its share of plastic instruments come along, such as TV Pals and Maccaferris which these days have become collectors items. The current surge in plastic seems to have been mainly pushed by the much hyped (though in my opinion much over-rated) 'Outdoor Uke' (discounting the plastic backed Fleas and Flukes of course), and more recently you may have seen my review of the Korala Explore - an instrument I really quite liked for the price, albeit one with some issues.
The BugsGear name may mean something to you as being the brand behind the Eleuke range of solid body electric ukes, and this plastic foray is something Philip at BG has been working on for some time. In other words, this is not an instrument they just grabbed from a Chinese factory and silk screened their name on, rather something they have been experimenting with and working on for some time. How does it stand up?
The Aqulele is based on the BugsGear range of entry level laminate wooden ukes, and whilst generally traditional in shape feature some rather eye catching design features we will come on to a little later. That Aqulele name comes from the fact that the uke is waterproof. Well, yes, insofar as wood is not really waterproof, it is, but a few dunks of the metal tuners in the drink will soon see those rust and deteriorate. But I will let that pass. Metal tuners are employed on the Korala too, and whilst Outdoor offered a totally waterproof peg design on the original uke, I have not yet found someone who thought they worked.
The whole uke apart from the tuners though is plastic, with the back sides and back of the neck made of one piece of plastic (or, more accurately, polycarbonate) with the top of the body, fingerboard and facing of the headstock applied as separate pieces. And that plastic is thick and also unexpectedly heavy. The Korala in comparison is thin and light as a feather, but that seemed to have come at a trade off with build stability with a dipping bridge and bendy neck. Not on the Aqulele - this thing is solid as a rock, and that solidity can be further seen inside where the inside of the instrument is braced with further strips of black plastic. It gives the instrument a nice solid feel in the hands, with more of a matte finish than the Korala, and I prefer that. That said - there are some rough spots where it has come out of the injection mould, leaving some sharp edges.
Generally speaking, the body shape is a traditional double bout shape, but things start to get freaky near the top of the body. We have a significant cutaway to the body (which I quite like, but more on that later) and an offset sound hole. I've stared at it from all angles and from all distances, and sorry, no. I don't like it at all. I get that it keeps in line with their wooden ukes, but I don't like those either. It seems that it is just to allow the large cutaway and strange end of the fingerboard arrangement and I think it just looks odd. Purely personal opinion of course, and I would have no issue with anyone liking it.
Apart from a black silk screened rosette around said sound hole, the body is otherwise unadorned over its orange (ish) finish. A word about the colour. This reviewer is extremely thankful that these also come in pink and purple as this orange colour is not to my tastes at all. Don't get me wrong, I like the colour orange, but if you are going to build a uke in such a standout colour, make it BRIGHT! This on the other hand looks muddy, as if something else got into the colouring pigment of the polycarbonate mix and made it go a little 'off'...
The bridge arrangement is interesting. Its a one piece affair, incorporating the saddle, and has some idiot proof notches for attaching the knotted string ends which I think is both different and clever. The fixed saddle would make taking down the action a little tricky. I think it could be sanded, but it could end up looking a little rough. Thankfully though, whilst the action at the 12th fret is a little high, its acceptable and I wouldn't bother tweaking this one.
Moving on to the neck, it has a nice profile, but is a little on the thin side at the nut width. The frets are moulded into the fretboard meaning intonation should be very accurate, and there are black painted fret markers at the fifth, seventh and tenth frets (with, sadly, no markers on the side for the player.
Things get a little odd, fret wise, further down the neck. There are around 11 or 12 frets to the body (hard to tell because of the cutaway, and a total of 14 full frets in all. There are however 18 frets in total, but frets 15-18 reduce in size quickly, with most of them only useable on the first string. I am sure it is just a design novelty, but I don't really like them. Further, such unnecessary detailing seems to be part of the reason the sound hole is off to one side. I would much rather see a central sound hole and get rid of the silly extra frets. One thing I will say about the neck though is, unlike the Korala, I suspect they have this strengthened in some was as it does not bend!
A look at the nut shows that it doesn't use a zero fret like the outdoor, and it is cut for the strings. The cuts though look horribly narrow to me, and on a couple of strings look like the slots will cut into the strings in no time at all. I would want to widen these a touch, and whilst I am at it, would take them down as the action at the nut is too high.
The headstock is square and simple, with the BugsGear logo silk screened in black. The tuners are unbranded geared tuners with rather nice pearloid buttons. They look, to my eyes, to be the same as those on a Makala Dolphin, complete with plastic cover rings on the outward face. So they are therefore extremely cheap, but actually the ones on this work just fine and do not grind or stick.
The whole package is completed by a thinly padded gig bag of quite nice quality, a clip on tuner and strings that look like Aquila but I don't think they are. I don't believe they are in stores at the present time, but the people who asked me to look at this are considering stocking them in the UK. They are however available direct from the BugsGear / Eleuke website for a price of $90 with a clip on tuner and strap, or $69 without. More on that later.
How does it play and sound? Well with any plastic ukulele, I am naturally not expecting pure solid wood tones, endless sustain and complex harmonics, and sure enough the Aqulele delivers none of those. It is pretty loud when strummed hard, but surprisingly short on sustain, even for a plastic. The Korala has quite a bit more, but otherwise the tone between the two is very similar. To my ears, the Korala is a touch sweeter. Another point I noted was the tightness of those nut slots seemed to be deadening notes at the lower frets. Perhaps that could be sorted by widening them a little, but that is how it came to me.
More positively it is solid and nice to hold, with no dipping or bending plastics. A check on intonation and accuracy shows that it is pretty much spot on right down the neck, as would be expected for a moulded fingerboard.
One other oddity though is back to that sound hole. I found it was playing the tone right into the palm of my hand due to its position. Sure, any sound hole ends up playing into the hand to some degree, but I found that this position exacerbated that. Perhaps that is just my strum technique though, and your mileage may vary.
But on the whole it has issues just as the Korala does, and the sum of the parts is still a good fun little instrument that would make a perfect camping / beach / trekking uke that you would not be overly worried about. Yet there is a final point. At $69 I think the uke is over priced. That is about £50, whereas the Korala is about £29. I appreciate that the UK pricing has not been set, but if they are thinking of stocking, then there is no way this should be priced at £50. Perhaps £20, plus £10 for the tuner and maybe £5 for the gig bag, but no more than that.
So in summary I would suggest that if you are thinking of getting the indestructible plastic uke into your collection, I would wait to see on pricing for these in main dealers, and if they launch at $70, then look elsewhere. Video review and scores below!
STOP PRESS - I had quite a lot of feedback on this review suggesting they were available for far lower prices. That may be true, yet they are still selling at $69 too - take a look!
Price (draft price!)
Badly cut nut
Unnecessary extra frets
Looks - 6
Fit and finish - 7.5
Sound - 7
Value For Money - 6 (based on draft pricing)
OVERALL - 6.6 out of 10