Back with another ukulele review, and one that many readers have been keen to have a look at since I first announced it was being built. A custom build this time by Tinguitar.com in the shape of a solid body tenor uke.My readers may have seen my earlier posts introducing Robert Collins, the luthier from Hebden Bridge behind the Tinguitar brand, and know that the roots of this went back to a visit to his workshop in late summer 2014 to talk details. You see, that is part of the Tinguitar process - having a look at wood selections, talking through options and agreeing a final specification with Rob on the build that I then waited patiently for.
My choice was for a solid body electric, principally for stage use, as something reliable, tough and that would be resistant to feedback regardless of whether I was playing something soft or throwing it through effects and performing on the more rock end of what I like to play. Solid body electrics remain to be popular and I do get a lot of questions on my recommendations. Sadly, unless at the high end, I find many of them lacking and often question the quality of the likes of Staggs and Eleukes. They may have attractive prices, but when they don't cost much more than a good quality pickup, something tends to give in the end result (usually the electrified sound, which is, after all, their key point).
So knowing the sort of quality that Rob builds having played many of his acoustics, I couldn't resist placing the order and around Christmas time it was ready.
I will just say from the off that this will not be a 'review' in the normal sense and I felt the need to stop short on the scoring system. My reviews all work the same way and impartiality is key, so it felt strange to score this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Rob is a friend, and I didn't want calls of sycophancy, but more importantly, I specified the build in detailwith him. If, therefore, there is anything missing or not up to scratch (there isn't incidentally) it would be as much my fault as anyones for not asking for it. It's an odd one, but in placing the order you kind of expect with Rob to get what you asked for. I would say this though, he has exceeded expectations and has delivered to me one of the best instruments I have played and I say that with no word of a lie. If there was a score here it would be a straight ten out of ten, but I trust you understand how that may be inappropriate to put in writing. Trust me, he makes very fine instruments!
So, we settled on a tenor scale (my preferred stage choice) and understood this would be made to his standard tenor shape mould though with a cutaway (more on that later). Looking through his wood choices I knew I wanted something more understated and simple (no bling) and settled on a main body and neck made from sustainably sourced (re-used) Brazilian Mahogany with an Indian Rosewood top. There were of course many other details we talked about which will come through in this write up, but everything was covered with Rob, even down to the nut width and profile of the neck. Told you it was a detailed spec!
The body construction may look like a solid block of wood but both the body and top are made of two book matched pieces, and the mahogany body is actually first drilled to create a honeycomb of chambers in it before the rosewood top is applied. Not only does this reduce weight, but adds some sustain without creating huge swimming pool holes that will lead to amplified feedback problems. Very clever.
The body is otherwise unadorned and I chose no binding or inlays, letting the rather pretty woods do the talking. And nice woods they are as I absolutely adore the grains, particularly on the Rosewood top. When they are complimented by the hand applied French Polish finish that Rob gave the instrument they really sing. It's a nice choice of finish (and actually essential to Rosewood in any case) but Rob does not use a spray bay (so no plastic spray finishes on these instruments). It just exudes hand made quality and presents itself as much as a high end piece of furniture as it does a musical instrument!
The bridge is made from Ebony and is as tie bar style with a nut cut from Corian. It looks superb and neat as I expected it would. Under this sits a simple Artec brand passive pickup strip on the advice of Rob himself.
Otherwise on the body the only additions are the off centre jack socket on the base and a couple of jumbo strap buttons (no straps coming loose!) on the butt and top shoulder. I think the overall look is superb, but back to that cutaway. I think this really sets the uke of perfectly and balances the look. It's a lovely curve and looks and feels very tactile and natural. I love the way it naturally kind of joins the neck.
Up to the neck this is in effect a single piece neck, but was sawed down the middle and a strip of maple wood added running through the whole piece in a skunk stripe. I think it looks the business and runs from the heel right to the headstock. The neck is jointed into the body with a dovetail so no unsightly neck screws and is all finished off very neatly. Its a fairly chunky heel on account of the otherwise thin body, but it never feels like it gets in the way and works on the eye in relation to the rest of the instrument.
As I say above, I specified quite some detail on the neck with Rob, taking measurements from a couple of ukes I really like the feel of as guides (Kanile'a K1 tenor and the Godin Multiuke). As such it has a wider nut than Rob normally builds but a slightly deeper 'flattened D' shaped profile too for my big hands. Even better the fingerboard, in Ebony, is also cut with a radius for ease of playing. That is to say the fingerboard has a very slight curve to it over the width, as do the frets (12 inch radius for those interested) and on top of that he has curved / rolled the edges of the fingerboard to remove any straight edges. It is otherwise unbound but those build features have provided one hell of a comfortable neck on the fingers. It just aches to be played!
Fingerboard fret markers are applied in mother of pearl, with a double dot at the 12th at my request, and these are repeated on the side (naturally!) at the 5th, 7th, 12th and 15th. They are really nicely applied and help with the understated look of the whole piece. Frets are in nickel silver with 14 to the body and 19 in total. All are superbly finished with no sharp edges.
Past the Corian nut (set and finished perfectly) the headstock is a plain affair though accentuated by the stripe on the rear and Indian Rosewood facing to match the body with some nice stripe to it. It's otherwise square, not only in line with some of Robs other tenors, but I hate the repeated use of the Martin crown on ukulele headstocks so it suits me too. You will note there is no logo, which Rob doesn't apply through choice. That is fine but seeing as the instrument has no sound hole where a label could go, I was keen to have something that told me (and others) this was a Tinguitar. Rob happily obliged with as small version of his brand logo on the side of the headstock with a pyrographic pen. I love that!
Tuning doesnt disappoint and we have silver open geared Grovers, pretty much exactly what are on my Kanile'a tenor (though with black buttons) and they just don't get much better on the geared front.
And there we have it. Aside from Robs own custom fluorocarbon strings in low G as I requested, he has delivered a hell of an instrument in my view. I think it looks the absolute business and was one of those few ukes where you open the case for the very first time and say 'wow'. I think he was waiting for me to play it but I actually spent the first time with it just drooling over the build. (Then again, I was in hospital at the time, but that is a whole other story).
The first thing that struck me was the weight - helped by that honeycomb inside no doubt, but it is lighter than you expect it to be, whilst still feeling solid in the hand. Nicely balanced too. And that finish is one that you just want to hold and stroke (ok, getting a bit weird now..?). But it is flawlessly applied and just a nice thing to have in the hands.
The neck in particular has exceeded my expectations and feels so nice in the hands and under the fingertips. Working with Rob at the outset does pay dividends as he clearly listens!.
But it is all about how it plays and sounds of course, and that presents me with another challenge in a review like this. You see, being a solid electric it makes little noise when unplugged of course and its all about the amplified tone. Some people have asked me in advance what the 'acoustic tone is like' and it's a question that confused me. It's not an acoustic uke and that is NOT what I wanted or specified. Its a solid! If you want an acoustic, Rob also makes fine ones, but we can't get in to comparing this to one of those - that would be like comparing a Stratocaster to a Martin Dreadnought guitar...
But it also presents a challenge as a big part of the tone comes from what you plug it in to. Plug any solid electric (this, or the Godin) into a crappy amplifier and you may be let down, and of course lots of people have different amps.
First test of this was through a Roland mobile cube - the handbag type and it was highly enjoyable, but plugging it into my Roland AC33 and my Marshall AS50R (both with very nice acoustic stages) it really shows it off. The sound is bell like clear and very nicely balanced across the strings (the plague of cheap electric mass market electrics)
There is one word that doesn't get mentioned with ukes that much and that is sustain. Whilst this is no Les Paul (its a ukulele...) the sustain REALLY impresses me - it sings out and makes playing it, particularly fingerpicked incredibly addictive. I find myself not wanting to put it down. It really feels responsive to the lightest touch (helped by that pickup which is giving a hotter output than any electro acoustic I have played), meaning the slightest bit of light fingering is registering well and clear as a bell.
Sure, it sounds like a piezo because that is what it is, but anyone used to setting an EQ on a piezo strip can easily manage the harsher tones that can sound a little overly electric. In fact just dropping the mids a touch was all it took to give me a delightful tone that I immediately liked. Clearly the build and the wood types help here with the overall 'flavour.
I may sound overly gushing but I can only tell you what I am finding with it. It is a joy to play and I think satisfaction with the build can only be part of that. Had I been given this as a completed uke having had no part in the build I can confidently say I would feel the same way. It just does what it says on the tin and exactly how I wanted it to if not better. I can't praise it enough.
He is a clever bloke that Mr Collins. As I have said before, I hope 2015 may be the year that many uke players start to reject the cheap rubbish flooding the market, but if you are serious about your instrument why not make it a custom?
Now, I haven't talked about price, but that is for good reason. This was my specification and in that sense the price was in my control. I could have easily made it much more expensive had I chosen to bling it up, but I didn't and in the end it cost me a very reasonable price, less than some of my other higher end instruments but the exact figure anybody else reaches will vary with their own choices. You may be surprised though. Put it this way his ukes start at just over £300 for tenors to give you an idea..
HIGHLY recommended. http://www.tinguitar.com
Have a look at the video review - but do remember - the amp is everything and this is a laptop microphone recording both my voice and the amp!
Also - be sure to check out my other ukulele reviews here!