Time for something extremely special on the Got A Ukulele reviews page. A ukulele like no other I have seen or played before in close to 10 years of writing reviews of musical instruments. With many thanks to Blackbird Guitars and Southern Ukulele Store, I have had a chance to take a Clara Concert ukulele for a spin.
And I will say this from the off, this has been an extremely difficult review to write. The simple reason for that is because the Clara is so unlike anything else I have reviewed, so the benchmarking and scoring was a real challenge to get right. It was however a joy to get to know. I love brands who dare to push boundaries. Mainly because I think it is a healthy part of developing musical instruments, but also because I think it's equally healthy to shake up the traditionalists for whom 'change' can send them apoplectic. But hey, come on, if people hadn't taken the opportunity to develop the guitar, there would never have been a Telecaster or a Les Paul. As such, any arguments to the contrary are clearly invalid...
Ahem... Moving on... the Clara is the brainchild of San Francisco based Blackbird Guitars, founded by Joe Luttwak and Kyle Wolfe. You may have heard of them in ukulele circles before because Blackbird were the people behind the strangely shaped, but critically acclaimed carbon fibre ukuleles. The Clara is a 'fairly' new departure for them and isn't made of carbon fibre, but instead is a ukulele that is still designed to be extremely resilient but, contains no wood whatsoever... (Purists, take a minute or two to get up off the floor and grab your blood pressure medicine..) Yet that isn't to say it's a just 'another' synthetic ukulele. Far from it.
The Clara is a pineapple / boat paddle shaped, concert scale ukulele with some unusual and quite unique features. I love the boat paddle shape myself, so this one immediately appealed to me from the moment I opened the gig bag. The back, sides, neck and headstock of this instrument are all a single moulded piece, and laid on top of that is a separate top creating the sound chamber. So that's essentially a ukulele made from just two main pieces. It's the technique used by many makers of plastic ukuleles, but what is unusual here though is the material it's made from.
The Clara is constucted in the main (body, neck, headstock) from a material called 'Ekoa', a linen based composite that is both light and incredibly strong. I said this wasn't a synthetic uke, and that's because this isn't a petrochemical plastic - its actually plant based, made from flax based linen cloth hardened with a bio based resin. The point here is that it's still essentially a natural product, but also an extremely eco-friendly one. No trees were harmed in the making of this instrument! In fact flax is considered to be a highly sustainable natural product. The aim was to create a material that is stiffer than fiberglass, but with a lower density than carbon fibre. In other words - stiff but light. On a musical footing, the claim from Blackbird is that this creates an instrument that is light, yet incredibly durable and strong, together with being resilient to things like moisture and humidity. Such things are important to instrument buyers. They also claim that it has the characteristics of vintage tone woods. We shall see.
The material is made up of layers of the ekoa composite that is laid into ukulele shaped moulds by hand and then pressed.
Visually it's a mix of looks, but both with a kind of mid-brown colouring. The back 'ekoa' differs visually from the top, but it's essentially the same material. The back has an outward appearance of a kind of woven checkerboard, rather reminicent of carbon fibre, whereas the top looks more like a cloth finish in which you can see the criss crossed plant fibres in the resin. It's truly unlike anything I have seen before, yet intriguing and, I think, rather pretty. Very pretty in fact. It's not a wood grain look, obviously, but equally it isn't a flat plain brown either. Whatever you think of it, this is without a doubt a ukulele that will draw questions from those around you. It's just that different.
The back is shaped into a wonderful tactile bowl, and almost looks like an armadillo shell. The way it sweeps into the integral neck with no harsh joints or angles is, quite simply, beautiful. It's one of the first ukuleles I've had on test where I have drooled as much over the back as anything else.
The top edges are unbound, but then there is no need for any binding considering the materials used and nor is there any back to bind. Sited on the top side is an off centre, long thin sound hole which is certainly different. Blackbird desribe the top as being a 'double top', which I think means it's two pieces sandwiched with the grain running perpendicular to each other, thus giving it a stiffness in two directions (or something like that..). I like how you can see the individual plant fibres in the construction and for this reason, every Clara will look very slightly different. In fact on this one, whilst predominantly brown in colour has some variances with hints of pinks and green here and there in the fibres. It's hard to comment on the internal construction as it's impossible to see inside. What I can see is the makers label and I am led to believe that there are internal bracing plates inside the body made from carbon fibre to give it extra strength and also mellow out the sound a touch.
The whole body is finished in a kind of matte gloss - not mirror shiny, but not dull either. You can see the difference when you look in the sound hole and see the unfinished composite inside. It comes across as 'just enough' finishing and I like that. That soundhole appears small although issues of sound projection are not a concern with this one as you will see further on.
The bridge is extremely pretty and glossy black. You could be forgiven for thinking it is made from plastic, but as I said - it's 'all natural products' in this ukulele! The material is actually called Richlite, another eco-friendly composite, but this time made from re-cycled paper. The result is a product that acts like a very dense hardwood, hence it's use in the bridge on this ukulele. In fact it is so hard and non-porous, it has been used as a stone substitute in bar and kitchen worktops. Incidentally, it's not the first time this material has been used in musical instruments either. It has increasingly been used by Gibson as an ebony substitute on some of their electric guitar fretboards. That isn't a bad pedigree I am sure you will agree. It's a very pretty shaped bridge, making the most of the Richlite properties as I think it would be extremely unlikely you could carve a bridge like this from wood. Sitting in the bridge is a saddle made from Graphtech. And as you can see, it's a tie bar style.
Moving up the ukulele, the C shaped neck is supremely smooth and nice to hold. Sitting on top of this is a fretboard made from the same Richlite material. It's absolutely jet black, and again has that hardwood quality which makes it perfect for a fretboard and the need for resilience. My only gripe is that I am not a fan of the glossy, shiny look that it has. It attracts fingerprints, and dust and I think I would prefer it looking matte. I appreciate this isn't a wooden ukulele, but this is the one area where I wished it looked more like wood. This is a minor gripe I suppose.
Set in the fretboard are 17 nickel silver frets with 12 to the body. They are all finished extremely smoothly and are quite thin in style. The edges of the fretboard are not bound so you do see the fret edges, but it's all very tidy. There are no outward facing fret markers at all, but thankfully we do have side markers for the player at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th spaces. The nut width is a generous 1.4" - not the widest nut around, but wider than most Chinese import ukuleles.
Up to the headstock and the first thing that jumps out at you is the oblong hole in the outer face. What could that be? Truss rod access? Nope. This ukulele doesn't need a truss rod. What it actually is though is extremely interesting. As I said, the neck and body of the ukulele are a single piece, but that neck is also hollow. The hole in the headsock is actually another sound hole. You read that right. Becuse the vibrating chamber of this instrument is not just the body, but also the neck, you get another sound hole at the headstock!
The front of the headstock uses the same Ekoa finish as the top of the body, whereas the back is the same as the back and neck of the instrument. The Blackbird logo is screen printed, looks classy and suits the instrument. Like the saddle the nut is made of Graphtech Tusq. Shape wise, the headstock is really simple, but hey, when you have a ukulele that looks this different, you don't need to fuss with fancy headstocks!
Flipping the Clara over and we have rear facing tuners (thank you thank you thank you!!). But these are not just your common junky tuners, they are Gotoh UPT's with black buttons and gun metal black posts and bolts on the front - quite sublime instrument tuners to be honest. They are the best of both worlds, as despite them being rear facing (and therefore looking GREAT), they actually contain helical gears and work like geared tuners. Just superb.
Completing the deal are Oasis Fluorocarbon strings, a padded and branded 'Gator Cases' gig bag and a strap button installed on the base of the uke. Those strings come with a low G, which is what Blackbird recommend for this model, but they can provide a high G if you prefer. And for all of that, the Clara will set you back the not inconsiderable sum of $1,295 in standard spec. They can also offer it with extras like a MiSi pickup, custom inlays, fret markers or in left handed spec for an extra price. Personally at this sort of standard price I would expect a hard case and outward fret markers to be standard, but there you go. Incidentally, the gig bag came with a little clip on the zip which holds a Blackbird logo plectrum. Just another thing to annoy the traditionalists!
So, let's re-cap... Clearly this is a serious intrument with a very serious price. But then it employs some pretty radical ideas too, and something would be drastically wrong (and hugely disappointing) if those things didn't come together to justify that price. Let's get to the playing.
To hold, not only is it light (just over one pound in weight), but it's perfectly balanced in the hand. It feels like a regular wooden uke and only the fact that it doesn't look like wood is the giveaway. What I mean to say is, it doesn't feel like a plastic ukulele, or as some people call them, 'a lunchbox with a neck glued on'. This feels like a high quality instrument. It's very comfortable to play, even without a strap and is no more 'slippery' than any other gloss ukulele. It's certainly easier to hold than something like the Flea or Fluke ukulele. If you do struggle though, there is of course the strap button. It's also immaculately put together and feels very solid in every aspect.
Setup on this review model was perfect with absolutely no adjustment needed at nut or saddle giving it a nice low action. If it did need any adjustment there is enough play at either end to have a meddle.
To actually play it though was truly a pleasant, glorious surprise. You could be forgiven for thinking that because there is no wood in the instrument that it would end up with an artificial sound. Seriously, you couldn't be more wrong. In fact, the way this sounds immediately left me worried that my own playing standard just simply isn't good enough to get the most out of the instrument on my review video. You just KNOW this is high end when you first play it.
I am not sure how Blackbird have done it, but it just delivers an extremely bright, sweet and natural sounding tone from all over the neck. The clarity between the strings is piercingly clear and the sustain is simply remarkable. In fact this is one of the longest sustaining ukuleles I can recall playing. It just shimmers and sings when you play it and notes flow into each other. For me it really excels the most when fingerpicked, but it's no slouch with any style I threw at it, even with my shonky playing. I believe Blackbird recommend the low G as it balances off that brightness and I can see what they mean. You kind of 'need' that low G in the mix. If you love 'bright' you will love this.
And as for those soundholes? Well this is without a doubt one of the punchiest ukuleles I have EVER played. It really is astoundingly strident, but without any muddiness or loss of clarity no matter how hard you play it. It kind of feels like your whole chest and arms are projecting tone. Some brands go for power, but are found wanting when you strum them with some power - they kind of lose their way, get muddy and just sound like a mad jangle. Not this one though - it just responds no matter how hard you go at it. That isn't to say that it is over-bearing , because when you ease off your attack it just still delivers a bell like sound with minimal effort from your picking hand. In fact it's incredibly pleasing to play softly too. I hate to use the 'it almost plays itself' cliché but it works... The effect of the extra sound hole in the headstock is subtle, but it does work. To my ears - you get more bass and resonance from the body sound hole, but the headstock provides a little extra treble. Think of it like a woofer and tweeter in a hi-fi speaker. Trying to sum it up I suppose I could say this - whilst it is in concert scale, and tuned in standard concert pitch, it has the resonance and power of a baritone ukulele.
But it's the dynamic response that really stands out. It's hard to describe, but it kind of feels like it would make a noise just by looking at the frets! Lively as you like!
Does it sound like a wooden ukulele? Well, remarkably, yes it does a bit. Not exactly like one I must say, but certainly a far cry from a plastic bodied instrument. And I don't mean that to sound non committal - I will stick my neck out - this sounds fantastic.
As I said in the introduction, I have a fondness for people who create things that are a bit different in the ukulele world and this certainly fits that bill with bells on. Ultra traditionalists may not like it, but I think there is room for both in the uke world. And yes, the price is very serious and some people may say 'but I can get a Kamaka for that money'. Well, yes, you could, but then I tend to judge my ukuleles on sound and playability and not just based on what badge is on the headstock. On this front, I think the Clara delivers what you would expect for the price. And at the end of the day, innovation, new materials and being made in San Francisco (and not on a production line in a Chinese factory) costs money, but this isn't about expensive materials for the sake of it. It plays wonderfully too.
And, of course, a word should also be said for the bravery in developing a product that doesn't use wood. The planet is getting ever more crowded and the pressure on resources is at an all time high. Yes, there are many responsible wooden uke brands out there, but the number of new Chinese brands appearing every year is dizzying. All those ukes streaming out of the far east use a lot of timber!
Add to all of that the strong durable build, the humidity resistance and I think this is an instrument that deserves a lot of praise. With a pickup, this would represent a superb, resilient gigging instrument. Saying that, I think this would be an impeccable recording instrument as well as the clarity is that good. Koa vs Ekoa? Meh.. what does it matter if it sounds good and is wonderfully playable?
Highly recommended. Can somebody now please ask Jake Shimabukuro to come over and record a better video than I can?
Innovative build materials and eco friendly credentials
Stellar projection and sustain
Bright and supremely clear tone
Would prefer a matte fingerboard
Would like a hard case and fret markers included at this price
Looks - 9.5 out of 10
Fit and Finish - 9 out of 10
Sound - 9.5 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.3 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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