A return for the Barnes and Mullins brand to the Got A Ukulele reviews pages with a look at their first (in 'recent' vintages) ukulele... the 'Bowley' Soprano.
I say 'recent vintage' as Barnes and Mullins are actually a very old brand name going back to the late 1800's in London, formed by Albert Mullins and Mr S 'Bowley' Barnes (who's nickname is used in the name of this ukulele). Back then they made a banjo ukulele called the Trumelo, which was technically their first uke not this one. The company then went through various changes to the business it is today as more of a UK distributor of various instrument brands (including the likes of Peavey, Faith Guitars and Hofner amongst others) based in Shropshire. As part of that business though they also have a line of banjos, mandolins and ukuleles that keep the Barnes and Mullins name alive. In fact I had reviewed their Calthorpe ukulele model quite favourably back in 2013. The Bowley was a uke I first saw all the way back in 2010 and since then I have wanted to feature it on the site. Seven years later, and here we are... Sometimes things take a bit of time!!
First up, the Bowley is clearly an attractive instrument with bags of old time charm about it. It's a traditionally shaped double bout soprano with a very curvy base which I always find attractive on a ukulele. It's made from all solid spruce wood, but you probably wouldn't know that when looking at it with a first glance. And that's because it's been finished in a hand rubbed 'antique' stain that gives it a deep mahogany colour all over. In fact people are often confused by what these are actually made from and I've seen several online references to them being mahogany. They are NOT mahogany.
The top and back are made of single pieces and the sides are made of a pair. Through that thin staining though you can see that this indeed spruce as it has the telltale dead straight lined grain of that wood on show. A more detailed word about the finish here. It's actually designed to look 'old' and to be a bit unfinished or worn. Some areas are a bit darker and some are lighter. It's a technique that is, 'on the whole', effective, but I know a few people who will look at these and think it looks a little scruffy. I will let you make your own minds up on that, but I take the point. One thing I will say for the finish is that it isn't particularly durable either. And with spruce being a soft wood that tends to show finger nail scratches easily, I can see this looking even more worn quite soon. And as the spruce is very pale compared to the finish, that's going to mean light patches showing through. In fact low durability finishes are not something new for B and M as my review of the Calthorpe mentioned above explains. Anyway, I still think it works ok. It's perhaps a little over done in places, but it does look aged and certainly looks very different to other instruments on the market. Putting that finish in perspective, I put a sneak peek image of this up on the Got A Ukulele Facebook page the other day and somebody commented that it looked like it needed a clean. I can't disagree with them!
We have no other decoration save for a very subtle black edge binding strip where the sides meet the top and the back which works well with the dark colour.
The bridge is a rosewood tie bar style that looks very standard and into this is set a dark wooden saddle. It's painfully pale though and in desperate need of an application of oil.
A look inside and we don't have the tidiest build in the world. The bracing looks ok, but the kerfing linings are made from straight un-notched wood and on the bends on the waist they are starting to split and crack on both sides. That's not a long term structural issue, but it is messy, not right and annoys me. The over-use of glue and the lack of finish on the edge of the sound hole is also messy! Not very nice really.
The neck is made from spruce which I thought an odd choice for a neck material (being a softer wood), but there you go. I can't tell if there is a joint at the heel as the finish is too dark, but I am guessing there is. There is clearly a joint at the headstock though and the whole thing is finished in the same antique coating. Whilst it looks scruffy on the body, I think it's particularly effective here as it gives the instrument a look of it having been played for decades and picked up grime and oils from the hands. And because it's satin it doesn't feel sticky or grippy either. The profile though is overly round for ultra traditionalists, and the nut is narrow at 34mm.
Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard that is nice and even in colour and has some attractive shaping at the end above the soundhole. It is however a little rough on the finish with some obvious gouges and scratches where some of the frets are set. Set into this are a pretty standard 12 nickel silver frets that are all dressed nicely and have their ends hidden by black edging. We have pearloid dot position markers at the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces and these are repeated on the side. They are however toned down a bit too much by the finish coating over the top of them, making them hard to distinguish.
Past the wooden nut and we have a really attractive, 'old timey' shaped headstock with a rounded top. It reminds me of very old banjos and I absolutely love it. It's also set off by the Barnes and Mullins logo transfer in black that looks really classy in itself. I think it looks wonderful myself.
But then, to my horror I see that they fitted it with open geared tuners with black buttons. I mean, come on... when you are trying to create an instrument that looks vintage / antique / classy, why would you then ruin it by giving it modern sticking out ears. I think it totally ruins the whole look of it. OK, the buttons are not the largest, and the gears are actually decent quality ones, but still... Worse, they use two mounting screws each so if you were to replace them with pegs you have eight drill holes in total to fill and hide. Just awful. I know some people will say 'oh get over it Barry, that's not such a big deal'.. but come on look at this ukulele and look at those ears!! The one thing I will say for them is this. They are pretty decent quality and work well enough. And there were gritted teeth typing that..
Completing the package is a set of Aquila strings and these are on streets for about £125 ish in the UK, occasionally cheaper if you shop around. I had heard that the Bowley had been discontinued, but it's still readily available and still listed on the Barnes and Mullins website. So back to the positives, for an all solid wood instrument that is an extremely attractive price, no question about it.
And despite the tuners, there is much to like about the design and the build. It's also really nice to touch with the hands. Not grippy or tacky like some finishes, but it kind of feels old too. And then there's the weight. Spruce isn't a particularly dense wood, and that coupled with the thin tone wood sheets used in construction means this is a super light soprano. It's really very light and that's a great thing. It's also nicely balanced and that adds up to an instrument that is very comfortable to play.
I can't get away from some of the scruffy finishing though, and if such things bother you... well, they will continue to bother you! I think it's one of those ukuleles that looks great at a distance, but less so when you get up close to it! And being a soft tonewood that finish bothers me in other ways too. There is a reason most spruce ukuleles and guitars are finished in a hard gloss. This wood marks really easily with fingernails. This WILL scuff up easily.
Set up was reasonably ok. Fine at the nut, but I would personally want to take the saddle down a touch myself. It doesn't seem to be massively affecting intonation though so my desire to take it down is more about playability on the strumming side. It's not beyond normal ranges, just very much on the high side.
But what really surprises for such an inexpensive instrument is the great tone, bark and projection. Being made from all spruce, means it's really bright, sharp and snappy, and on a soprano, I think that is a very good thing. It's that mix of staccato snappiness whilst also having sustain that I really like in a decent sounding soprano. All of a sudden, finishing looks aside you start to see the sense in the build. Super light spruce, very thin woods, very thin resonant body - bright and snappy!
This is not a ukulele you will be worried about volume with. It's huge fun to strum and we have nice clarity across the notes too. Clear and purposeful in it's voice you could say. And that is whether strummed or picked. What I am getting from it, is that as well as having very traditional looks, it has a very traditional old timey sound too. I don't quite know what that is I am describing, but its the sort of ukulele where you dont feel right wearing a pair of jeans and a t shirt to play it. It's a sound that demands you are in a three piece suit, with an undone bow tie and a pair of brogues...
I'd say it's more of a fast strummers instrument than anything, but honestly, the sustain does make fingerpicking enjoyable even if the 12 fret total will limit melody playing on some stuff.
Ultimately though, I like this one quite a lot. It certainly has a great sound and excellent projection and as a musical instrument works pleasingly well. I love the old time looks of most of it, but they are slightly let down by the scruffy finishing and mostly by the plain ugly tuners that do nothing at all for it. But, you know, perhaps I am making too much of those tuners that annoy me. They work ok and others won't be bothered with them. And £125 for an all solid wood instrument with this sort of volume and tone? Bit of a no-brainer perhaps? I would.
Very classy old time looks
Light as a feather
Generally good construction (on the outside)
Nice fret finishing
Good punchy clear sound
Old fashioned finish that is in places downright scruffy
Some rough finishing on fingerboard and inside the body
Impossible to see side dots
Those friction tuners on something so old fashioned? WHY OH WHY???
Looks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 7.5 out of 10
Sound - 8.5 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.4 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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