Ukulele review time! Next up, a brand that has created quite a buzz on ukulele social media. A musical instrument all the way to me on test from Nicaragua, take a look at the Cocobolo Tenor ukulele.
Taking its name from the wood all their instruments are made from the Cocobolo brand is a hand made offering and brainchild of US graduate Kevin Keith who set up the new Cocobolo instrument business in Nicaragua. Just the way they look has generated a lot of interest, so I was delighted to borrow one to take a look.
This tenor model is one of a range of instruments from Cocobolo, from soprano to baritone, 6 strings and custom order options, and arrived with me in standard spec to give you an idea of what you automatically get. Lots of elements can be changed, but this is what you get if you click buy on the standard tenor model. It retails at $399 US too which is a great price I think.
So lets take a look. We have a traditional double bout shaped instrument hand made from all solid Nicaraguan cocobolo wood. cocobolo is a tropical hardwood renowned for its striking colour and grain patterns. And those grains are used to great effect by Cocobolo.
It is finished in satin (thumbs up from me) and is indeed striking. The swirl in the wood on the top and sides makes it look like it has been painted. When your realise that it is actually the wood, you realise what a nice material it is. It kind of glows red / orange in the light with black and yellow swirls. Quite beautiful really.
The sides follow this pattern, and are particularly swirly on this model at the base.
The back is slightly arched and trimmed down the middle join with some lighter coloured wood strips. It's a nice touch that sets it off.
At the base we have a similar trim strip on the butt and it comes fitted with a silver strap button as standard. Nice.
One thing I would mention at this point is that this example is not book matched. That is to say the two pieces of wood that join on the top (and on the back) are not mirrors of each other as you normally find. I think it was done like this on my example to exaggerate the huge swirls on the front, but a look on the Cocobolo website seems to show that a majority of their instruments are book matched, with some using the striking lighter sap woods to great effect. Purely personal choice but if I was buying one of these, I would specify a book matched model myself. That is not a criticism, just personal taste.
Saying all that, the swirls on this are hard not to like.
A look inside shows a reasonably tidy build. The kerfing is notched and the bracing is nice and minimal. The interior bracing is made of Honduran mahogany. There are glue spots however if that sort of thing bothers you. Otherwise the body of the instrument is extremely nicely put together with no finish flaws, gaps or odd bows or buckles. I'd also just point out that it has a wonderful wood shop smell!
The bridge is made of cocobolo also and is a fairly standard designed tie bar affair with a solid bone saddle. The saddle is slightly arched to match the fingerboard (a feature I will come on to!).
The neck wood is Honduran mahogany and made of three pieces, with a joint at the heel and in the headstock. The heel of the neck is capped with more cocobolo.
Topping the neck is a fingerboard also made of cocobolo. I've not seen a fingerboard made of this wood before, but it does work with the body. Like the body, it too is a deep red and full of swirly grains. Some of the grains and knots in the fingerboard do have a slightly rough finish to them though. Nothing major, but I know some people are particular that their fingerboards are as smooth as glass.
One thing that did please me was to see that the fingerboard has a radius. That is to say it is not dead flat like most ukuleles but is very slightly curved. It's a 12" radius and I do like those on instruments as I find they feel incredibly natural in the fretting hand. Nice to see and it explains that arched top to the saddle I mentioned earlier!
The frets are steel and we have 17 in total with 13 to the body. That's an unusual join point but Cocobolo explain that they find this gives the ukulele a sweet balance. We shall see. One thing that did surprise me a little was that the frets are bar style without domed crowns. That is an extremely traditional fret wire style seen on the oldest Hawaiian ukuleles, but personally I find them uncomfortable on sliding up and down the neck as they jar on the fingers a little. I would personally spec more standard crowned frets myself. Incidentally the fret edges are smooth as you would wish and the fretboard edges are unbound.
I am also told that inside the mahogany neck, they employ a strip of cocobolo wood to add to the strength of the neck. Kind of a non adjustable truss rod. Whether that is really necessary I cannot say (I don't tend to think ukuleles need truss rods) but I am not complaining. The whole of the neck, like the body is finished in the same satin coat.
We have fret markers in mother of pearl dots at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th fret spaces and thankfully these are repeated on the side too.
The nut, like the saddle, is bone and sits below a crown shaped headstock. The headstock is faced with a cocobolo piece complete with a central trim to match the back. There is no makers logo on the headstock and I think the ukulele suits not having one. In fact I think it would spoil it. Unusually the back of the headstock is also faced in the same cocobolo wood. I have never seen a facing on the back of the headstock before, but I think it looks great and adds an unusual touch to the instrument.
Tuning is provided by the ever reliable and top quality open geared Grover brand tuners with silver buttons. No complaints from me here, as these are my tenor tuners of choice.
Completing the $399 deal is a set of Aquila strings. What else?
So I will say this before we get into the real nitty gritty. This is certainly one of the most unusually pretty instruments I have had the pleasure of reviewing on this site. I really mean that. Yes, I would prefer a book matched top, but know they offer that for the same price. But irrespective of that, I just adore the red glow and swirls that adorn almost all of the instrument. I kind of find myself staring at it.
To hold it is nicely balanced, and not overly heavy, in fact just about right for a tenor. Comfort is assisted by that nice satin finish and the rather wonderful fretboard radius which makes fretting so natural. I suppose the only thing I would change to compliment that radius would be to make the nut a little wider, but I have big hands so that is more a personal view.
But pretty woods and comfort mean nothing at all if the instrument is a dead duck to play. I tend to partly judge instruments based on my reaction when I first hit a chord on them. With nice instruments I tend to smile. With really nice instruments I often say 'wow!". I can honestly say that I did both with this Cocobolo.
The first thing that grabbed me was the sustain. It rings and rings and rings and you can feel the vibrations transferring through to your ribcage from the back of the body (always a good sign). In fact I can feel the vibrations in the crook of my fretting hand. It feels like the instrument is alive! Couple this with decent volume too and you are off to a good start.
But aside from those elements, it has a really interesting clarity of mixed tones. It's a warm sound, but each string stands out and doesn't sound confused or muddy. It really took me aback to be honest as I freely admit I wasn't sure what to expect. Fingerpicked and it turns bell like with the high A really cutting through and giving it a shimmer. It's all good really and a joy to play.
Certainly not a case of style over substance, this Cocobolo has a lovely substantial tone that is hard to dislike. Couple that with striking pretty looks and a good build quality and I think this is a winner. And that price - really, that is a great deal for what you are getting I think. I'd need to change those bar frets though..
Be sure to read all my other ukulele reviews here
UKULELE PROSStriking looks
Good build quality
Clear tone with wonderful sustain
Just that bit 'different'
UKULELE CONSSlightly messy interior
Would prefer a book matched model
Not a fan of bar style frets
UKULELE SCORESLooks - 9 out of 10
Fit and Finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 9 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.9 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz