Another new brand for Got A Ukulele with an instrument from Chinese brand Donner and their DUC-3 Concert ukulele.
It dazzles me these days just how many new brands are coming out of China, and I must say, whilst there are some gems hidden in all the noise, the majority are either pretty much all the same thing and one or two are rather dreadful. We shall see how the Donner stacks up! The brand itself is one of those that put their name to a bewildering array of musical instruments and accessories, so it's fair to say they are not ukulele specialists..
This is a standard concert scale instrument with a traditional double bout shape. Topping the instrument is laminate spruce, which looks ok to me, but, being spruce, is nothing dazzling. The back and sides are made from two pieces each and present me with my first gripe about the instrument, and that is one of misleading product descriptions. You see Donner bill this as having a body made from 'grade AAA Mahogany'. Not only is this mahogany laminate (ie plywood), there is absolutely nothing to my eyes that suggests there is anything whatsoever grade AAA about this wood. For me, that would involve some shimmer, some rich browns and oranges, not what this actually is, which is a very dull and very pale mahogany that is... boring. Ho hum. Why do they do that? Well, they do it to try to make a plain instrument sound more special than it actually is. The back is, incidentally, also very slightly arched and the whole body is finished in a thin satin coat. But I repeat, grade AAA this is not.
Decoration wise we have a dark brown edge binding around the top and back which is nice enough and works well to contrast the pale top. Around the soundhole we have a sun motif in laser etching. I'm not averse to this sort of decoration, and we saw it last week on the Baton Rouge I reviewed, but the motif on this one looks both far too large, and also has too much contrast against the pale top. I don't like it actually. You may beg to differ.
The bridge is made of rosewood and is a slotted style. It's also a nice shape, and I always find it pleasing when brands go a little different with the bridge plate rather than just using a generic 'parts bin' bridge. Set into this is a compensated saddle made from bone.
Looking inside and we have a reasonably tidy build with no glue drips present. There are a few wood shavings though. The bracing looks a little on the heavy side and the kerfed linings are notched.
Also fitted to the body is a strap button at the base which is nice to see when you consider that these days so many people want to fit them and are worried about doing it.
Up to the neck, this is also made from mahogany and is in 3 pieces with the usual joint at the heel and headstock. It's a nice enough profile, but generically Chinese at the nut, meaning a narrow width compared to many higher end instrument. The heel holds the second strap button, which if you like the presence of the first one makes sense. Personally I tend to only fit one and tie the strap to the headstock, but I am certainly not complaining. Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard which seems to be in good condition and is evenly dark. Inlaid into this is a wooden cloud pattern design which means that outward facing fret markers wouldn't work (so you don't get any). Some will like the design, but it's not really to my tastes. I do however like the wavy curve to the end of the fingerboard. I will come back to this design later though for reasons you might not expect.
The edges of the fingerboard are bound in black, hiding the fret ends and also holding the side position markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th in small white dots. Annoyingly, the marker for the 7th on this one is not set centrally and the OCD in me would be mighty annoyed by this! File this complaint in the 'how hard can it actually be?' box.
Frets wise, these are nickel silver, fairly chunky but with no sharp fret ends. There are 18 in total with 14 to the body.
Beyond the bone nut we have an attactive shaped headstock in the same pale mahogany. The Donner logo is inlaid into this in pearl. No complaints here.
Flipping it over and we have something I have never seen before. Unbranded generic geared tuners in chrome, but the back plates (which are normally chrome too) are clear plastic, meaning you can see the gear. I don't know why, but I really like the look of them. Of course it makes no difference to how they work and thankfully these work great anyway. Often at this sort of level of ukulele you get gears that grind or are all at different tensions to each other, but these are extremely smooth. The buttons are not overly large and are made of orange plastic, looking like faux amber.
It comes strung with Donner's own brand clear fluorocarbon strings (which I would put good money on are fishing line) and a host of bundled extras. You get a reasonable quality padded bag with shoulder straps and front pocket, a spare set of strings, a strap and a clip on tuner. I'm seeing this 'bundling' happening more and more from China and usually I am usually of the opinion that it puts the instrument into a 'too good to be true' category, often where the instrument itself is useless, but your head is turned by the 'amazing bundle'. We shall see how the Donner fairs when I play it... For all of that you will pay around £50 in the UK and $69 in the USA at the time of writing. That's a pretty cheap ukulele.
So, all in all, we have an instrument that presents a mix of things I do rather like and some things I don't. On the whole though the construction is good with no issues or marks I can see. It's light enough too, but sadly very slightly neck heavy meaning if you play without a strap, you can feel it trying to dive bomb a little.
Setup was mixed too. The nut, thankfully, is very well cut and would need no adjustment I think, but the saddle height is far too high. That is relatively easy to change, but it means that out of the box, this one has poor intonation at the 12th with every string reading consistently high.
On a more positive note the volume and sustain on this one really surprised me. It's got a bright bark typical of spruce, but a nice jangle to it as well. And it sustains far longer than most cheap laminates I have played. Very nice actually.
Fingerpicked it's nice and clear and very enjoyable, but it's the strumming that I liked the most. It's not the most complex tone in the world, but it was never going to be, but there is 'something' about it that made me feel it was punching above it's weight. Quite an enjoyable instrument to sit and play in the sunshine - as I did most of the day today!
One odd observation though - those markinsg on the fretboard I found to be really off putting during play. They are not position markers, but I found my eye being drawn to them as if they were and was playing some picked runs and fretting in the wrong spaces. Maybe that's just me, but I found it increasingly irritating.
So a mixed bag this one I think and perhaps it was a little 'too good to be true' but not totally. It's got a good build quality, a very pleasant tone, good sustain, but it's let down by some odd design choices and poor setup. And on that setup, considering I think you can ONLY purchase these via Amazon, that means you will need to get it sorted yourself.. at extra cost or hassle. With that done though, I guess it's not a bad ukulele for a very attractive price.
Generally good construction
Clear strident voice with good sustain
Pre-installed strap buttons
Poor bridge setup
Dislike the decorations, particularly the fingerboard
Misleading product descriptions
Very plain woods and certainly not AAA grade
Looks - 7 out of 10
Fit and finish - 7.5 out of 10
Sound - 8 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 7.9 out of 10
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© Barry Maz