Islander MST-4 Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

9 Aug 2012

Islander MST-4 Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

Here is an interesting one. About a year ago, the venerable ukulele maker from Hawaii, Kanile'a decided to embark on a new line of business that some of their counterparts have chosen - making a budget version of their famous ukuleles in the far east. That range is called the Islander , and I have got my hands on their solid wood tenor model - the MST-4.

Islander MST-4 Ukulele
The Islander MST-4 Tenor ukulele

The Islander range of ukuleles come in two main flavours, either the cheaper laminate wood bodied versions, or the pricier all solid models like this one, each in soprano, concert and tenor scales. Their range offers those wanting the traditional looks of the Kanile'a brand at a more affordable price. The difference between my Kanile'a K1 Tenor and this is several hundred pounds. This was bought for £250 (thanks to Southern Ukulele Store who I bought it from).

Kanile'a control the quality of these ukes, and they are made to their own design - just not in Hawaii, but in China. They certainly look quite similar at first glance, with the same shaped headstock and distinctive Kanile'a bridge - but how do they really match up? Read on.

Islander MST-4 next to Kanile'a K1 ukulele
Twins? Kanile'a K1 next to Islander MST-4

The Islander MST-4 is an all solid Mahogany tenor uke, built to a similar style and shape as the Kanile'a tenor. As the picture shows, they are kind of similar, but there are some obvious differences. The body shape is actually not quite the same, with the Islander having a deeper waist and slightly less flat tail.

A first look over the instrument shows that it has been very well put together. There are no marks on it at all, no glue drops or dodgy joints. It feels solid and secure in the hands. The body is finished in a satin coat, through which the mahogany grains can be seen clearly. It's a nice enough finish, but looks a little cheap to my eyes, though that is perhaps because it is also rather strikingly orange in colour. I suppose it is actually just rather plain with very little dark grain or anything to catch the eye - there is certainly no curl or flame in this wood! The Kanile'a finish is also satin, but is Koa, and is smooth as you like. The top and back of the body are a single piece, so no book matching, but the grain is straight and runs vertically on both pieces. The back and sides are in two pieces joined at the neck and butt, and again, the grain is nice and straight in line with the back.

The body of the uke is bound with a nice looking faux tortoiseshell finish which I like. Where the sides join on the butt there is also some binding trim (note - the strap button was added by me and does not come as standard!).

Islander MST-4 ukulele tail and binding
Islander tail and body binding

Inside the uke is nice and tidy, with an Islander label proclaiming it is made by Kanile'a. The kerfling is notched and neatly done and there are no glue drops at all. One point to note is that the bracing system in this is stock ukulele bracing and not the clever TRU bracing used on the Kanile'a instruments. Interestingly, there also appears to be side braces fitted attached to the inside of the sides on the upper and lower bouts - I have not seen that before.

Islander MST-4 ukulele sides and binding
Sides and tortoiseshell binding

The back of the ukulele has a very slight bow to assist with sound projection, but nowhere near as prominent a curve as on the Kanile'a. On to the top of the instrument and we have a  very nicely finished soundhole in abalone. The bridge looks at first glance to be identical to Kanile'as but actually the shaping and the saddle are quite different. There is nothing wrong with it (though the saddle doesn't have much left on it for sanding if I want to take action down any more), but it is just different. The saddle material is nubone, like the Kanile'a. The strings are held by four black plastic bridge pins rather than a tie system. More on that later also.

Islander MST-4 ukulele soundhole decoration
Abalone soundhole decor

On to the neck and we have a four piece (count them, four!) mahogany neck topped with a rosewood fingerboard. I don't expect cheaper ukes to have a single piece neck but this is made of three pieces at the heel and another joint at the headstock. No idea if they all come like that but it seemed excessive to me. The joints though are well hidden at the heel, though not at the headstock where the grain pattern changes noticeably. The end of the heel is capped in the same tortoiseshell as on the body binding.

Islander MST-4 ukulele neck and heel
Neck heel and back of the Islander

The rosewood on the fingerboard is nicely finished and smooth, though does have some colour variation. The edges of the fingerboard are not bound, so fret ends can be seen - again, not surprising at this price point. The uke has 18 nickel frets, with 14 to the body. They are all set well and there are no sharp ends to any of them. Fret position markers appear on the fingerboard in white pearloid at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th, and dots are repeated on the side of the neck. A note about the pearloid... This is, to me, one mixed up looking uke. We have tortoiseshell body binding, abalone soundhole decoration and white fret markers. To me it gives the uke a confused jumbled look and would be far better if they stuck to just one or two material types.

The neck profile is slightly chunky, though not as deep as the Kanile'a. It does share the Kanile'a fat nut width which I adore on a tenor. The nut is nubone again, and nicely set.

On to the headstock and we have have a Kanile'a shaped head, faced with a very thin veneer of mahogany. Full marks to Kanile'a on the logo, as it would appear they are listening to customers. Earlier models of the Islander came with a bright white and HUGE logo that looked, frankly, horrible. Some people even said they could not bring themselves to buy one with that logo. They have toned things down wonderfully with a simple, understated Islander logo in pale gold with black edging. The tuners are unbranded, sealed geared tuners with black buttons (in contrast to the open geared Grovers on the Kanile'a). They look decent enough though and dont stick out too much on the uke. Again though - another choice of material makes an appearance - black buttons to go with the tortoiseshell binding, abalone sound hole and white fret markers.... Make your minds up!

Islander MST-4 ukulele headstock and logo
Headstock - note the subtle logo

Islander MST-4 ukulele tuners
Sealed geared tuners

Finally the uke arrived with Aquila strings. ARRRGHHHHHH!!!!! I know how some of you love Aquila strings, and I suppose full marks to the company for doing the deals but they now seem to come on EVERYTHING! On a sweeter solid wood uke I personally find them overkill and was disappointed to see them on this. Heck they arrived on my Kanile'a too, so what can you do? Well I changed them - it is now fitted with Living Water fluorocarbon Tenor strings.

So we have looked over the uke, but how about it's set up and sound? Well, as I say, it gets great marks for the build and the finish. Really nicely done and looks the part if you pass by the excessive choice of materials. Setup however was less impressive. As I suppose can be normal for a ukulele of this price, the action was way too high for my liking (nearly 2/8 of an inch at the crown of the 12th fret, and I prefer about 1/8). Out came the saddle for some sanding and it is now OK (though the saddle really has very little left on it now - which says something for the way the neck is set). The nut slots also were a little high (not much but a little), so I needed to take them down a touch.  This is not a major gripe, and every uke owner should be prepared to make such adjustments, but it is still a little annoying when you just want to get on and play it.

And on to that bridge. Yes it looks like a Kanile'a bridge, but it really isn't - as I found out on the string change.... ....The Kanile'a bridge has slots within the holes that are plugged by the bridge pin. When you put a new string on, you tie a knot in the string and hook it in that hole and secure it with the pin. I find that fiddly enough to be honest, but the Islander takes it to another level. On removing the pin I noted that there are no slots, and on removing the old string, I saw that it came with a small metal ball end ring threaded on to the string. This acts to hold the string in the body which is then wedged by the pin. Yet more hassle. I love the look of bridge pins but the Kanile'a is fiddly enough thank you very much and I don't want the extra hassle of threading rings on to my strings on a change.

It gets worse though. Having re threaded the microscopic washer on to the new string, and seated the pin I started to tune up. All strings were fine, and then the A string - PING!! snapped at the bridge pin when approaching A. I fished out the washer and thankfully having enough string left, tried again. PING!! Snapped again at the bridge before I could get the string to A. I figured it may have been a bad string, so got a brand new A string from another pack. PING!!. This was now extremely frustrating. I grabbed a torch and had a look inside the hole where the string is meant to seat and think I found the culprit. The inside edge that the string would then be wedged against was really rough and must have been cutting the string. Out with a file and I smoothed it all down and thankfully the next string stayed put. That is the sort of niggle that a new player just does not need, and frankly there is no way I or the shop could have spotted it. It was just badly made in that zone at the factory. The slots on the Kanile'a seems a better system and are much smoother inside meaning no sharp edges.

Islander MST-4 ukulele bridge
That blasted bridge...

I am pleased to report though that once the setup had been tinkered with, the ukulele is really, really nice to play. It feels very comfortable and balanced, and the neck is great to hold and play - almost on a par with my Kanile'a.

The sound is... loud! - there is a great volume from this uke and it is pretty much as loud as my Kanile'a so a great uke to play in the company of others without getting lost. It has a nice voice too. It is not as sweet or as complex as the Kanile'a and lacks some of the sustain and harmonics, but it is right up there with some of my better ukuleles. It is rich and I like that. The tone is balanced across the strings and it really does sing. It is much brighter than the Kanile'a in tone, but that is no critisism - the Kanile'a is renowned to be earthy sounding - this more 'chimey'. Intontation all over the neck is great. Not bang on at the lower frets, but perfectly acceptable. Strummed, it sounds great to me, and it is a joy to pick also with nice clear notes coming from all over the neck.

I will likely experiment with some other strings also to find the voice I prefer, but for now the Living Water strings are doing a fine job.

In summary it's a uke that, when sorted out, is a great player that I am sure most players will love and find very rewarding. I find the looks a bit mixed and confused, but I suppose that is just personal opinion on cosmetics (one wonders why they didn't go the whole hog and choose two more different materials for the nut and saddle...). The setup issues, particularly that bridge were a let down. I know that others may not have that problem, but this one did, and that is an issue as far as I am concerned. I know they wanted to keep the bridge pin look of the big daddy, but unless they can improve the holes to re-create the Kanile'a bridge more closely, I think they should revert to a tie or slot bridge.

But it is a £250 ukulele not a £700 instrument. And as such, the value for money is, I think, pretty decent. It beats other solid mahogany ukes of this price point and higher in my opinion for the loudness, finish, and quality of tone alone. The setup issues were a shame, because otherwise it is very well put together and feels good. Some like me may raise an eyebrow at the confused mixed design, but that is just subjective.

For me it's a keeper with a great voice and I would suggest you give one a try, though try it in the flesh first.


Looks - 8

Fit and Finish - 7

Sound - 9

Value for Money - 9.5


Video review below!


  1. I have the laminated version of this uke and quite like it but agree with you on some of the finishing. If I run a cotton ball over the sides of mine, it will pick up cotton, the finish is almost unbearably thin. I'm going to try some restoration wax at some point to see if I can "bury" that roughness a bit.

    Mostly though, I'm quite pleased with it. I love the feel of the neck and wider nut. Makes playing with my less-than-dainty fingers quite a bit easier. The sound is very much to my liking, though I plan to swap off the Aquilas soon for a set of D’Addario's. I'm using a Aquila Red Low-G.

    I waffled over getting the solid wood version, but eventually decided I wanted a pickup installed so put the money to that instead. I'm happy with that decision and am saving my pennies for a more "special" solid wood uke sometime next year (probably Mya-Moe).

    As always, excellent review, thank you!

  2. One other thing, thank goodness they redid that logo. I have the big, bright white logos. The text barely fits the width of the head, and has a large oval logo image below it as well. Gaudy stuff.

  3. Thanks Sporin - must say - finish on this isnt like yours - it's very smooth. Whilst I can see pores and grain they are not rough.

    I look back at my review and think maybe I was a bit harsh - but the setup things bothered me. The sound though is great!

  4. I really am quite happy with mine, it feels great in my hands and sounds perfect to me. It's my most-played Uke which drives my wife a bit crazy as I rarely play the Kala Concert she gifted me that started my whole Ukulele obsession.

  5. it looks very similar to the Kala SMHT uke. apart from the abalone round the sound hole. neck construction the same, arched back the same, and faux tortoiseshell trim,but yes the bridge is different. have a look on "highly strung " page , I'm satisfied with the Kala which is a bit cheaper and sounds great now I've fitted Worth clear strings

  6. Yeah, they do look similar. The binding doesn't have the white edge trim either, and of course this has the Kanile'a shaped headstock. Of course, the majority of far eastern ukes are made in the same factories!

  7. About the setup: Doesn't about every ukulele need a post-factory setup? The Southern Ukulele Store should have set it up properly before selling it. I think it's odd for a ukulele-dedicated store to drop points on that matter. My experiences with both Highly Strung and Courtney and Walker are far superior when it comes to setting up ukuleles.

  8. Uked - well yes and no. Very high end ukes do tend to come pretty close. With far eastern factory stuff it's hit and miss. I don't mean to say SUS sent it out unplayable - just high for my liking. I've seen much higher though. The setup and finish dropped points because of the string snapping. The G string went this morning and on inspection the inside of that hole was rough also. Shop could not have spotted that.

  9. used - Interesting to note that by set up "properly" you mean "low". A low action does not suit all playing styles!

  10. I have purchased an MST4 on the strength of your review.Its the first tenor I have owned and I must say its lived up to my expectation in every way.It can produce a true uke chiming sound or a soft mellow tone depending on how you play it.It has great sustain and volume.For a production line instrument it takes some beating..Your review was a great help cheers.

  11. I bought one of these 12 months ago on the basis of your review. It wasn't that my playing warranted a quality Uke, but I'd been given £250 as a gift and thought I'd treat myself to a solid wood Uke. Trouble was, to my untrained ear most of those I tried sounded no better than my excellent Ohana TK10 laminate - in fact many didn't sound as nice. The Islander MST-4 though does look different, sound different and feel different - I do like the wider nut. So I went for this and am very glad I did. Thanks for your very thorough review which helped me make a special purchase and one I'm very pleased with.

  12. I enjoy the Islander model very much. I have two concerts and one tenor. They seem to have become of much better quality over time. The bridge pins for the strings don't really require using the washers on other strings. I found that triple knotting the string and letting it set it's own tension under the bridge pin works much better than the stupid washers. I am pretty sure they were not meant to be reused. But if they were, then they should have been a bit larger to make it easier to reuse the washers for restringing. Anyway, though most people think Aquila strings are the s**t, I actually prefer either "Living Water" brand or "Guadalupe Custom" Ukulele strings. Both brands have a much more vibrant, classical sound in my opinion. It's always best to shop around and try different brands to see what works best on which size/style of Ukulele. Or, whichever sounds the most pleasing to your ears! Ukulele On PPL!

  13. I bought initially Lohanu Tenor package from Amazon for CAD $135, and then I bought Islander MST-4 from local specialized store Cosmo Music for CAD $380, and difference in provided values is *UNBELIEVABLE*!!!

    Lohanu: is not setup; nut is too high, simple F chord doesn't sound right, tuned 4th string to G4 and pressed 2nd fret: it is sharp A. Action is more than 6 millimetre. You need to send them Email and they will send you basic tools and links to video on how to properly file frets LOL :) Canadian company. Neither box nor ukulele indicate where it is made. I had hard time finding is it laminate or hard wood. It is really hard to press strings on it, even on first few frets. Aquila strings.

    Islander: out-of-the-box (correction: out-of-the-Cosmomusic!) it is properly setup, I played about ten beginners chords all sound wonderful, I don't need to do anything! Action is about 3 millimetre, very playable. Sounds really great! It has small sticker on headstock "Made in China". It has clear indication on manufacturer site: solid mahogany top, laminated body.

    In general I am exceptionally pleased with Islander MST-4: playability, intonation, sound.

    CosmoMusic pre-sales teams does great work; they have standard professional pre-sales QA and even more: within a year I can bring my Ukulele to them for fine tuning & lower action setup. Their prices in CAD$ are even cheaper than average USD$ prices from U.S. and you don't have to worry about import permits for wood & abalone items.


Please leave me a comment!

Help Support Got A Ukulele

Please Help Keep This Site Going!

If you enjoy this blog, donations are welcomed to allow me to invest more time in bringing you ukulele articles. Aside from the Google ads, I don't get paid to write this blog and for reasons of impartiality a not sponsored by brands or stores. Your donations all go back into the site to allow me to keep bringing you reviews, and in the end the ukuleles acquired are given to local schools and charities.