Another welcome return for a brand I have featured before on Got A Ukulele. This time we look at the UKT-528 Tenor ukulele from Snail.
You may recall me reviewing the Snail Rosewood Soprano before on the site, and reviewing it quite positively too. Since then, I have been keen to feature this brand again, and thanks to their UK distributor, Red Chilli Audio, I've been lucky enough to have this one on test for a few weeks.
The UKT-528 is a Chinese made tenor ukulele made from all laminate woods, but those laminate pieces are veneered in striking zebrawood. Snail are actually a line of instruments from parent brand Amahi Ukuleles.
It's a standard double bout tenor shaped instrument with a prominently curved base. That curve on the butt of the instrument is something I am seeing more and more and is a look I really do like. It's just subtly different enough to make the ukulele stand out a little I think. The zebrawood is naturally pretty and is veneered in two bookmatched pieces on both the top and the back. The sides of the instrument are also in two pieces and the back is slightly arched. The whole body is finished in a satin coat that allows some of the wood pores to show through avoiding the 'artificial' look of so many ukes at this price point.
A more detailed word about this laminate though, as I really am quite impressed. A glance at the edge of the soundhole will show you that this laminate is really thin. This is a very good thing! You see, most budget manufacturers tend to use laminate which is little more than plywood and is usually overly thick which just kills the tone and volume. I have said it many times before though - I would take good thin laminate over cheap thick solid wood every day of the week. I understand why cheaper brands have to make their solid woods thick - it's because solid wood is fragile and if you are building to a low budget it's frankly easier (read - lazier) to just make them thick to stop them splitting. With laminate though, it's much, much stronger than solid wood so there is really no excuse to not make them thin and resonant. Snail have certainly done this here, and rap on the top with your knuckles shows you how resonant this one is. Top marks.
In fact that top is so thin, looking at the sound hole edge you could be forgiven for thinking it was solid wood. The use of zebrawood veneer on the inside of the instrument too may confuse some people. It really IS laminate though - just good laminate!
Adding to that distinctive zebrawood grain pattern, we have cream edge binding where the top and back meet the sides, and this is complimented on the top with some black and white inlaid edging. We also have a black/white/black sound hole rosette, but I cannot tell if this is inlaid or a transfer under the satin coat. Either way, it looks neat and tidy.
Elsewhere on the top we have a standard shaped rosewood bridge plate in a tie bar style, holding an uncompensated bone saddle.
A look inside the instrument is pleasing too. We have the makers logo on a wooden plate glued to the back, notched kerfing and really delicate looking thin bracing adding to that light touch on the build and hopefully the resonance. There is no mess, no glue drips and no wood shavings. Good quality control in evidence.
Moving up to the neck, this is made from mahogany and in three pieces with a joint at the heel and one at the headstock. It is similarly finished in satin and I love the exaggerated shaping to the heel which is satisfying to touch.
Topping this is an evenly coloured rosewood fingerboard which is nice and dark but does have a couple of finish marks in the face at the body end. Fitted to this are 18 nickel silver frets with 14 to the body joint. They are generally well finished, but the upper frets down the dusty end of the neck could do with a little more tidying. They are not the sharpest fret ends i've ever seen on a ukulele, but worth mentioning. The fretboard edges are not bound, so you do see the fret ends, but they are partially hidden by some wood stain.
Fret markers are provided on the face of the fingerboard in pearloid inlays at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th spaces, with the 12th being a double spot. Sadly there are no side position markers. An easy fix for Snail to consider I think.
The other thing I would point out on the neck is that it is slightly wider at the nut than most Chinese ukuleles at this price point. It's about 36.5mm across, so whilst not the widest nut out there, it's certainly wider. A more standard Chinese nut width is about 35mm. Believe me - if you find your fingers get cramped on certain chords, you WILL notice this extra width and be thankful for it.
We have a bone nut before the attractively shaped Snail headstock. It's little things like the shaping of that headstock, the curved base and the shaping of the neck heel that I like and makes you think that this isn't just a generic cheap ukulele that came off the same production line as so many others. The headstock is faced in more zebrawood veneer and the Snail logo is engraved.
Flipping it over we have another smaller Snail logo engraved in the back, together with a serial number. The tuners are unbranded sealed gears, with all the hardware treated to a gold finish. They work ok, and they have a satisfying stiffness to them with no play. Sadly one of themseems to have a bit of corrosion or staining starting around the cover plate and on the front washers. No biggie though.
Finishing the package is a decent padded gig bag with front pocket, shoulder strap and an embroidered Snail logo. The strings provided are Aquila. And for that, the package will set you back between about £110 and £120 depending where you shop. That is a really attractive price.
Construction feels solid and well made all over the instrument with no issues that I can see. But that thin top and delicate bracing means that it feels anything but over built. This is lightweight, and perfectly balanced at the 12th fret when in the hands without a strap. A very nice ukulele to hold.
The setup on this review model was just as I would like it, particularly at the nut which is the more difficult one to fix. No complaints here.
The first two things that struck me about it on playing was the great volume / projection and the pretty decent sustain. This is definitely one of those instruments that gives you a nice vibration into your chest when you play it. This is of course all down to that choice to use thin woods in the construction and I wish more entry level brands would do it.
It's also very clear across the strings. At first you think it is all brightness and zing (and it certainly has does have a punch to it), but there is bass coming through too creating a satisfying mix of tones. It feels comfortable and suited to both strumming as to picking, although slightly more on the side of strumming for me. Whatever I throw at it, it always sounds crisp and never muddy. Trust me, this is a very satisfying ukulele sound.
Of course it isn't a first class tone that you would get from a professional level instrument, as it lacks that sort of character and shimmer, but this is leagues above most other instruments at this cheaper laminate end of the market. And for a shade over £100 that is pretty remarkable.
I think this Snail is one of those nice things from China that occasionally appear - an instrument maker that knows that laminate doesn't need to be thick and cheaply put together and can sound great with a bit of care an attention. I'd take this one over a host of solid wood ukuleles that are marketed at the same sort of price. In fact I'd take this over a host of solid wood ukes marketed at quite a bit more than this.
I think this makes an excellent first ukulele (and yes, this is the sort of price you should be considering for a first instrument that is serious), and certainly a step up for those of you getting frustrated with your cheap Mahalos and the like.
It's an attactive, well made, punchy, light instrument and deserves your attention. This one really pleased me and I'd buy one!
Overall build quality
Nice body shape, and headstock shape
Thin delicate build
Excellent resonance, volume and sustain
No side fret markers
Check on fret dressing if you are buying
Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 9 out of 10
Value for money - 9.5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.0 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz