It was as long ago as 2010 when I first featured a Mainland Ukulele on the Got A Ukulele reviews page. In fact it was also one of the first reviews I ever wrote and started the bug that got me carrying on doing them for the last seven years. I am therefore delighted to be giving them a long overdue look again in the form of this Red Cedar Gloss Soprano.
My first Mainland was a Mahogany slothead concert, and was, like for many people, one of the first 'better' instruments I bought for myself. It was also a joyous instrument, and despite it since being sold on, still holds a place in my heart. In fact it also featured on the cover of one of my ukulele beginners books! Now, thanks to Mike Hater at Mainland, and the good folks at the UK's only Mainland dealer, Eagle Music in Huddersfield I've been lucky enough to have this soprano on loan for a little while.
A quick recap of the back story to Mainland. Mike Hater is the chap behind them, a guy who had previously been with Bushman Ukuleles and some years ago went it alone with the Mainland brand out of Nashville Indiana. He's also the chap who's principally behind the Ukulele World Congress in Indiana each year. It's a small family business and I like that aspect. The Mainland concept was a smart one - to specify a range of Chinese made instruments (to keep them good value) but to ensure all the final finishing, setting up etc is done in the USA (to keep a high quality control standard as well as good value). They first arrived at a time when the current ukulele boom was still finding it's feet and there were only a small fraction of the number of instruments available that there are today. It proved a good time to launch as they were lauded for their quality, tone and value, as they still are today.
I've played many of them since, but strangely, never a soprano, so I've been looking forward to this one. This is a standard double bout soprano scale instument made from all solid tone woods, with gorgeously deep orange red cedar on the top and all solid rosewood back and sides. The contrast between the two of them is wonderful and it looks incredibly classy. The top is made of two pieces pieces as is the back, but the sides are as single bent piece. On the top we have dead straight cedar grain and the back and sides are rich and chocolately striped. The back is nicely bookmatched too, but not arched.
Decorating the top edge binding is the look that has become traditionally Mainland in inlaid wooden 'rope' marquetry in black and cream woods. It looks very 'western', very 'rancher' and, I think, very effective. It's also repeated around the soundhole and I do prefer it when instruments are consistent in decoration! Next to this inlay is a binding of what I think is mahogany, and this is repeated on the back too.
For the bridge we have a rosewood slotted bridge with a bone saddle which suits a soprano perfectly I think. It's also really tidily made, with the saddle carved on the edges to match the line of the bridge mounting.
The whole body is finished in gloss. They also do each model in a matte finish for those who prefer them, but I can report that in the last seven years the quality of Mainland glosses has not diminished one bit. It's lovely with no bubbles or issues at all. Quality control is pretty good inside, notched kerfing, delicate braces and a woodshop smell. There are a few glue spots though for those that look for such things.
Up to the neck, this is made from three pieces of mahogany (joints in the usual places) and also finished in gloss. The profile is slim and the nut width is a generic 35 mm. Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard in great condition set with a generous 15 nickel silver frets with 12 to the body joint. We have pearloid position markers as the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces, but strangely no marker at the octave. Sadly, we have no side position markers which I would certainly want and really expect to see these days. The edges of the fretboard are however bound with mahogany strips which both hide the fret ends and ensure no sharp edges.
Beyond the bone nut we have an attractive shaped headstock faced in rosewood and gloss finished. This also has more or the rope marquetry inlaid around it together with the Mainland logo which if you look closely is a stylised cowboy rope making up the letters and therefore matching the bindings. Neat.
Tuners on this one are sealed gears with gold metal parts and small black wood effect buttons. I would certainly prefer friction pegs myself, but in no way will these reduce the score on this review for the reason that you can get those if you want (see below!). As geared pegs go however, these are decent quality and all move evenly and smoothly. I freely admit that many will prefer these, but it's a soprano!!
Completing the package are a set of Aquila Nylgut strings and this will set you back a penny under £190 in the UK, or just under $250 in the US. That's pretty good value I think for an instrument with this level of trim and all solid woods. If you buy them from Mike direct you can also specify changes to the colour of your tuner buttons, whether they are gears or friction pegs, and, I believe, the fitting of under saddle pickups (for which Mike prefers, wisely, the MiSi trio). So on the tuner front, it really is a system that suits all. Like friction pegs? They do them with pegs... and for no change in the price either. Can't say fairer than that really.
So there you have the details, and it really is nicely put together in every aspect. It's also a nice weight for a soprano, nicely balanced and feels good in the hands. Setup wise, there are no horror stories or anything fatal. The saddle is just where I would want it for action at the 12th, though the nut is a little too high. It's not affecting intonation much, but you can feel it's a bit high on the fingers.
Tonally it took me straight back to how I felt when I first played a Mainland. It's got a great character and a zingy jangle to it that I really like. It's not the loudest or punchiest soprano I have ever played, but the Aquila strings may have something to do with that. As I recall, I got great brightess from my mahogany concert when I put a set of Martin M600's on it, but of course you will do your own experimentation. Just would like it to have a bit more bite, but it's still not a bad tone for what it is. It actually reminds me more of a concert than a soprano strangely.
The cedar imparts a very rich edge to the tone that I really like, and certainly has it punching above the weight that the price would suggest. Fingerpicked I would like a bit more sustain, but on a soprano I think you really do need to spend quite a bit more money to get into that territory.
So only very minor gripes on a very well made and certainly a great looking instrument. And those things come together into an instrument that get's a strong recommendation from me. At a time when the market is being flooded with very 'samey', bland Chinese instruments it's nice to know that brands like this one are still responsible for a very much loved and decent product.
Thanks again to Mike and Eagle Music for helping to get this review off the ground. Nice to go back to a brand that started all my reviews off and find that I still like them just as much.
Great looks and build quality
Very nicely done gloss
Consistent style with trademark edge binding
Rich and jangly tone
I'd swap the tuners myself (but you can at no cost)
No side position markers
Would like a touch more volume and sustain or more 'bite'
Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 8 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.6 out of 10
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© Barry Maz
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