Well it was a little time coming over to UK shores for this blogger, but the much awaited Makala Waterman plastic soprano has finally launched in the UK. It was officially released this last weekend, but I have been lucky to have had a trio of Waterman ukuleles on test for the last week. Are they worth all the hype?
The Makala Waterman is the latest in what seems to be an endless stream of plastic ukuleles that are hitting the market (and I have reviewed three or four others already!). A couple of bits of housekeeping from the off:
1. People suggest that I dislike plastic ukuleles. I don't at all, I merely review instruments honestly and haven't yet found one that ticks all the boxes for me.
2. If you are one of those players who thinks that the concept of plastic ukuleles is a 'new' abomination that should be removed from the surface of the earth, then do some reading of your ukulele history. These are not new.
And in fact that is an important point when it comes to the Waterman. Kala have never made any bones about this instrument being anything other than a 'nod' or a tribute to the original Maccaferri plastic ukuleles (such as the Islander and TV Pals) that were hugely popular in the 1950's. Whilst some other brands seem to like to claim they have invented something new, they have not, and Kala know this. In fact the history of the plastic ukulele is written on the box that these things come in. Going even further, the Waterman even looks like the original plastic ukuleles. I like that.
The Waterman comes in a range of colour combinations that fall into three main flavours. Firstly the solid colour versions (with different top and back colours), secondly the swirly patterned back models (very much a nod back to the 1950's) and thirdly the clear plastic models. I was sent one of each and can tell you now that they all sound identical, so your colour choice is purely one of aesthetics. Incidentally there is also rumoured to be a totally clear model coming later in the year too. The plain colour models come in at just under £30 and the clears and patterned models at just over £30. Either way a very reasonable price for any instrument. (I still shudder at the concept of paying over £100 to get an Outdoor brand ukulele to the UK..)
So we have a very robust little instrument, and like most plastics I have played, consist of one piece of moulded plastic making up the back, sides, back of the neck and back of the headstock. On to that is dropped a plastic top, a plastic fingerboard (with plastic frets) and a plastic cover plate for the headstock.
I must say that whatever colour combination you go for, they all look both traditionally Maccaferri and all look striking.
The finish is an a glossy plastic, rather like the Korala Explore is, and far shinier than the Bugsgear and Woodi alternatives. On the top we have a plastic slotted bridge (for ease of string changing) with integral moulded saddle. That may make adjusting action a touch difficult, but to be honest, all plastic ukuleles I have tested have saddles like this. The top is otherwise unadorned, save for a kind of strengthening ring around the sound hole. This too is a nod back to the Maccaferri style, but I think these days is more about looks than function. Incidentally, I recall one chap saying online that these are identical to the Woodi ukuleles. They really are not, and only that sound hole ring is similar. They are different in feel and have a completely different neck.
The clear backed model allows me to see the construction inside and note that the back and sides are unbraced, leaving the natural strength of plastic to do the work. The top however employs some moulded fan bracing, similar to that on the Korala Explore.
Moving on to the neck, we have a pleasant profile that is far more playable than the Woodi or the Outdoor - a very typical soprano neck that I had no issues with. It too is braced internally, and whilst with a bit of force I can make it bend, it bends nowhere near as much as that on the Korala. On to the neck is dropped a plastic fingerboard with a fairly standard soprano twelve frets moulded into the plastic. It also employs a zero nut to set the action at that end (rather than relying on the nut slots that now just guide the strings. It's a system used on the Flea and means that it would be a pain to adjust it. It is actually a little high at the nut for my liking, but still playable and not affecting intonation at the lower frets. We have fret markers at the 5th 7th and 10th in silver paint and these are repeated on the side. In a nice touch the side markers appear on both sides of the instrument meaning that anyone swapping this for a left hander will still get the markers too. In a less nice touch, the side markers rubbed of within about 10 minutes of playing rendering them rather useless!
Another word on the silver paint. This is also used to top the frets themselves. I had seen reports online from people showing that the fret paint had worn off totally in a couple of days of playing. I have been playing this pretty much constantly for a week and the paint is starting to wear on a couple of frets. Certainly not as severely as I have seen on others, so maybe Kala changed the paint recipe. But they are still wearing. Is that a major problem? Some may see it like that, but personally my view is more relaxed. In fact, if I was designing it, I would probably leave the paint off altogether. The Flea uses a plastic fingerboard and doesn't use paint so I certainly wouldn't miss it or mark it down for them being unpainted. Going through the wearing off phase is going to make it look a bit scruffy though.
On a more positive note I have experienced no fret wear (even trying to mark the frets with a screwdriver) like I have seen on some other plastic fingerboard instruments.
Up to the headstock and this is a typical three pointed crown affair. The Waterman logo is screen printed on and I must say, I really like the paddle board image that goes with the design.
The tuners look like typical open gears you would find on a Makala Dolphin and work just fine. All the models I have come with black buttons. Looking inside the headstock on the clear model and I see that there are plastic spacers surrounding the shafts of the tuners - presumably to give some strength to the joint. This may prove a useful addition if you wanted to try to fit friction pegs as it should stop the headstock crushing.
Completing the deal is a set of Aquila New Nylguts (the smooth and pearly variety) and a branded cloth drawstring carry bag. The bag is not going to provide huge protection, but then, this is a plastic ukulele - I think you could knock it down the stairs and it would survive. A nice touch is the satin inner lining making putting the ukulele inside a breeze. Still, it's a nice addition I guess.
So far so good, and the construction seems sound with no open joints, or rough finishing anywhere to be seen. That wasn't the case with the Bugsgear for example. One thing I did note was that the bridge does appear to be dipping into the top of the instrument. Kala explain that this is a natural consequence of using plastic and is accounted for in the build. Certainly it does not seem to be worsening and doesn't affect play that I can see. Interestingly, on the Korala Explore that I tested well over a year ago had the same issue when it arrived. I mentioned it in that review and looking at it today, it too is still dipping and hasn't got any worse. I mention this for completeness but in my view, it really doesn't seem to be something you should be concerned about (and certainly not at £30)...
My impressions from playing are generally good, but lets deal with looks first of all. I often say that one shouldn't judge instruments on looks alone (looks don't make tone!) but I have to admit that the looks of these have really got to me. I think they look superb, striking, vintage and yet modern. For me, they are without a doubt one of the nicest looking plastic instruments I have seen on the market today. That would of course be pointless if they played badly, but thankfully they play rather well.
Now clearly, these are NOT high end wooden ukuleles with killer tone, but they are not trying to be. They are plastic ukes and they sound like them. That isn't to say they sound like a lunchbox strung with rubber bands, far from it, but your expectations should not be for a high end solid Koa sound either.
They have a fun sound and testing this side by side against the Korala Explore with the same strings, the Waterman sounds brighter and 'more soprano' like to my ears. They are light to hold, look to be pretty much bombproof and are just fun.
They feel nice in the hands (far nicer than some of the rough edges Bugsgears and with a neck that is actually playable and feels like a ukulele neck (unlike the Outdoor and the Woodi). I much prefer the sound of them strummed rather than picked and think they can sound a little hollow and lacking in definition when played that way, but as a bouncy bright soprano tone for strumming they are lots of fun.
How do they compare to the original vintage Maccaferris that they are modelled on. Well I am not getting drawn into that debate as it could rage forever (fans of original plastics can get quite evangelical about them). But I think a comparison is pointless. These are new instruments for little money that are going to be bought, mainly, be people who will never see a Maccaferri. Add to that, the fact that you can only really buy a Maccaferri used (and it may need repair) I can't see how one can fairly compare the two.
I won't say that Kala have quite ticked every box for me, but I really rather like these. If you don't like plastic ukuleles, then there is perhaps not much I can say to change your mind, but if you approach these for what they are, for £30, what's not to like? I'd buy one. But a final comment - I don't think these are a replacement for a decent beginner ukulele like a Makala Dolphin - I kind of think they are a different market - more a ukulele for ukulele enthusiasts who want something more novelty. I don't think I'd recommend one of these as your ONLY ukulele, but if you already have the ukulele bug, then why not?
Why not see how the Waterman compares to many other ukuleles on my Ukulele Reviews page!
Available from all good Kala dealers and also on Amazon.com
Looks and branding
Paint coming off the fret markers
Difficulty in adjusting action at nut or saddle.
Looks - 9
Fit and Finish - 7.5
Sound - 8
Value For Money - 10
OVERALL UKULELE RATING- 8.6 out of 10
To understand my review scoring and see this result in context - visit my review page at
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
And for anyone who still doesn't think they can be played well. Here's Phil Doleman!