I'm pleased again to be rallying the troops in the Baritone regiment with this ukulele review, with the Clearwater UCW7B/PU Roundback Baritone. (Lets just call it a roundback baritone from here on in!)
The Clearwater Roundback series are a range of value instruments of various scales, made in China and most likely available in other badged variants around the world. In fact this Baritone looks identical to me to the previously available Ohana BK70RB Baritone... coincidence? Whatever the heritage, this is a standard baritone scale ukulele (scale length is about 19.5 inches) made with a solid spruce top applied to a polycarbonate round or bowl back body.
Construction wise, this one is extremely sound and the solid spruce top (made of two bookmatched pieces) is flawless and finished in a pleasing satin coat. There really are no issues, glue spots, bubbles - just smooth nice wood. Where it meets the rounded back of the ukulele we have some black / white / black edge binding that adds to the quality feel. Some people dont like pale spruce tops and I am one of them I suppose. I think it would look much better with a darker top, but that is minor and very personal complaint.
Sound hole decoration is by way of an inlaid mother of pearl rosette (no transfers here!), and we have a fairly standard looking rosewood tie bar bridge with attractive white edge detailing. The saddle appears to be made of plastic and is not compensated.
But it's the rounded back that really makes this ukulele stand out, made as it is from a moulded single piece of black polycarbonate. You may say 'oh, just like a Flea then' - but really this is more reminiscent of the backs of Ovation Balladeer guitars which used the same technique. What it allows for is a light weight, thin instrument with a distinctive projection. It's a tried and tested design in guitars so I was interested to see how it would stand up on a baritone ukulele.
The moulded back is actually a little bit shiny for my liking and I would have preferred a textured grain finish like on the Flea. As it is, I'd say this is a difficult instrument to hold against clothing because it's very slippy. Thankfully, it comes pre-fitted with a strap button which is probably the only sensible way you would hold this one standing up. Other than that though, the curve of the back is really tactile and pleasing and certainly will give you a ukulele that looks 'different' to the norm. I love the way the white edge binding contrasts against the jet black of the plastic and how thin it is at the tail end of the instrument.
Also as part of the body, we have a cutaway to allow upper fret access, which I think adds to the classy look. It's a double bout design with quite a large square lower portion. I think I would prefer it looking a bit curvier at the base, but that's just personal preference.
Looking inside reveals very little other than a black sound chamber. Naturally there is no kerfing or back bracing to see as the moulded back is providing the strength. All I can report is the Clearwater manufacturers label!
Moving up the ukulele we have a hardwood (unspecified) neck made from three pieces with a joint at the heel and one at the headstock. It's finished in a satin coat too and has a darker rosewood looking veneer piece on the heel cap.
Topping the neck is a rosewood fingerboard which looks to be in good condition and is nicely even in colour. We have 21 nickel silver frets in total with 14 to the body join and all are finished nicely with no sharp edges.
Clearwater are a little mean on the fret marker front, with outward facing pearloid dots at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th, with no side fret markers at all.
Unlike the saddle, the nut appears to be made of bone and possibly removeable too.
We have a fairly generic shaped headstock which is nicely edge bound like the top of the body and faced in what appears to be rosewood. The Clearwater logo (quite a classy logo, I must say) looks to be pearloid but it might actually be a transfer under the satin coat - it's hard to say. Either way I think the headstock looks really smart.
Tuning is provided by unbranded silver closed geared tuners. They are common on ukuleles and these ones work and turn just fine. Yes, they are essentially guitar tuners, but being a large scale like a baritone means that they dont give the instrument a 'mickey mouse ears' look.
I'm not entirely sure what strings the instrument comes with, but the B and E look like nylgut and the D and G strings are wound. They are for low DGBE tuning.
And, to top the whole deal off, you may have noticed in the pictures that there is an offset jack socket on the bottom of the instrument. That's right - it comes with a pickup too, and a passive one at that (meaning no unnecessary controls, battery compartments and the like - just how I like them!).
So quite a bit on offer here I am sure you will agree. A solid top, edge bound instrument with a moulded back AND a pickup... What might surprise you is that these can be found online quite easily for about £100 - £120. You read that right. That is a complete bargain of a price for a baritone regardless of the build. And when you bear in mind it has a solid top and a pickup, well that price is frankly incredible.
OK, there is no carry case - you may have spotted the Clearwater bag in the photographs, but that is an extra - but still, it's a bargain and you can hardly complain for the price I suppose.
And in fact at that sort of price, I'd forgive it for quite a lot in the playing stakes. And that's where I continue to shake my head... in disbelief... in a good way. You see, it's really rather good.
First of all it's really nice to hold. Aside from that slippy back meaning you will want a strap, the instrument is light, nice to touch and nicely balanced in weight. And it really is a tactile thing. As review instruments on this site go, this one has had more of that 'go on, pick me up one more time' about it than many others have. That thin body may also asssist you in storage and travelling as compared to many standard baritones, this one is really thin!
Setup was just fine for me, no complaints at all with the saddle or the nut and intonation is acceptable all over the neck. In fact the nut is particularly nicely done with strings sitting on grooves rather in deep channels.
Sound wise, it has a nice strong projection, good sustain and tons of bass. That plastic back will be helping it here, although strummed hard it can boom and echo a little, but it's a minor complaint. I suppose it's very slightly on the muddy side, but I find that quite a lot with baritones and think a string change could easily sort that I think. In fact I find that changing the strum position to the back of the soundhole opposed to the end of the neck as is more traditional with a ukulele brightens it up significantly. At the end of the day, I suppose this is closer to a guitar than a soprano ukulele so I guess that figures!
Strummed or fingerpicked it's pleasing either way and I am really rather taken with it!
It's not a high end classy bell like tone, but then its a £100 ukulele with a plastic back... But lets just clear this price thing up. Yes, it is an incredibly good value instrument, but cheap does not mean nasty in this case. In fact two musicians I know who have played the biggest ukulele stages in the UK (Ian Emmerson and Zoë Bestel) have BOTH performed on stage with one of these Clearwaters. And I think that is the point. It doesn't matter what name it says on the headstock or what it costs if it sounds good. And it does sound good!
Oh, and the pickup? Perfectly useable and balanced. OK, it will benefit from a pre-amp to shape the tone, but that's the way I prefer them myself so no complaints from me on that score. Unlike certain other pickups I have seen pre-installed in instruments recently - this one just works. Each string rings out and no muddy tone. As is should be! All I would say is I can't tell if it is a soundboard transducer or under saddle. There is very little body noise though, so I dont suppose it matters much.
In summary though - at this price, seriously, can you afford NOT to get one! It's a small price to pay if you want to take a step into baritone ukuleles and you would be getting a brilliantly functional instrument that far exceeds it's price. I've got much more expensive baritones, and really would like to keep this one. Just experiment with the strings!
Classy looks from pearl and edge binding
UKULELE CONSSlippery back
No side fret markers
Gig bag is extra
UKULELE SCORESLooks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 8.5 out of 10
Value for money - 9.5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.8 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz