This week, another brand makes their debut on Got A Ukulele. It's a brand I have heard much about but only until now have played one. This is the Freshman UKWAL C Concert Ukulele.
Freshman are a fairly well known name in the UK, and a very well known name in acoustic guitars for which they are very well received in the 'good value / good quality' market. They fairly recently moved into ukuleles and sent me this one to look at. It's a brand that I've also had several people who's views on instruments I very much respect telling me to get hold of one. Phrases like 'terrific for the price' were used. High praise.
The UKWAL C model is a standard concert scaled ukulele made from laminate walnut. It's certainly striking and has a stripe to it that is reminiscent of the zebrawood that I really don't like. But it's not as severe or stark as zebrawood and I think works well to give the instrument a 'different and interesting' look. I raather like it. We have a couple of pieces of the laminate on the top, sides and back, and the back has a very attractive and pronounced arch.
Decoration is a confused affair I'm afraid. Firstly we have a paler wood binding to the top and back with a thin black edge. On the top this is coupled with some black and white rope style inlay around the top edge and around the sound hole. Added to that is a comfort edge armrest in a paler wood that might be maple. The edge is applied very well, but the pale wood looks stark against the darker walnut and doesn't work for me aesthetically. I think a darker chamfer would have worked much better. Then for some reason they added yet more inlay to the edge of that, but this time in abalone. Why they didn't continue the rope marquetry used elsewhere confuses me. This stands out and looks odd.
The bridge wood isn't specified but may be rosewood, or a stained hardwood. The dots are pearloid inlays hiding the screws holding it down, a feature some people scoff at, but you would be surprised at some of the very high end brands that screw bridges down. It's secure! It's a slot style holding a straight topped bone bridge. It's tidy enough and shaped nicely though.
The body is finished in an open pore satin which in places has some flaws and a touch of pooling. Not the best finish I have ever seen, but far from the worst I suppose.
Inside is a little scruffy too with plenty of glue in evidence around the notched kerfing. The poor top finish is also in evidence on the edge of the sound hole which has dried finish almost dripping off it and really should have been tidied up. On the more positive side I can see that the top laminate is nice and thin which, together with the curved back, should help projection.
They don't specify the neck wood, but I suspect it is mahogany. It's in the usual three pieces (heel and headstock) and is generic Chinese in that it has a curved rounded back and a fairly average 35mm at the nut. There's not much more to say here, other than once again pointing out that I WISH the Chinese ukulele factories would make the profiles flattter and the nuts a little wider. Take note from the Hawaiian builders please!
The neck is topped with a dark fingerboard which is only in reasonable condition. It has one or two pits and grains showing which I don't like in a fingerboard, and it's also really dry looking and in need of conditioning. The edges are bound extra strips of black wood and they serve to ensure the frets (18 in total, 14 to the body) are nice and smooth. We get dot markers facing out at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, 15th and 17th and these are repeated with dots on the side.
Beyond the bone nut is a generic crown shaped headstock faced in walnut which looks ok if unremarkable. The Freshman logo is laser etched in the top.
This is fitted with unbranded, sealed chrome geared tuners which work ok, but are fitted with huge black plastic buttons which look plain ugly. Ugh... To add to my OCD woes, one of the tuners is attached out of line with the other three.. Oh - and for the people who repeatedly point out that those white stickers on the cover plates are meant to be removed.. yes... I know that. But this is a loan instrument and is going back to Freshman. I always like to send ukuleles back in the same condition they arrived to me in!
Completing the package are Aquila strings and a very simple padded bag. The price is around £129 in the UK so it squares up directly to the likes of Kala, Snail and Baton Rouge.
On the whole, despite some scruffy finishing and design cues I don't like the instrument is put together very well. It's light and balanced and the setup out of the box is spot on too. If anything the saddle is probably a bit too low, but it's not causing buzzing or sapping the volume. And that thin laminate and curvy back are doing their jobs well too because a rap on the back or the top shows that this is a very resonant little box. That bodes well.
It has a wonderfully bright, music box like tone which is very pleasant on the ear. And with that resonance comes very decent volume and sustain too. Fingerpicking it produces clear chimes, whilst strumming doesn't see it get muddy or confused. It packs a punch when strummed too that veers more to the soprano type sound with some jangle and snap. All in all it plays very well and sounds good too. I like this.
This is the point in a review of this sort of priced ukulele where I point out that it's 'not a high end tone', and of course, for £129, it isn't. But you know what? It's really not far away from significantly higher priced instruments I have played, and I find that quite remarkable.
So it remains a review of two halves. Some of the scruffyness in finish just annoys me as it is so easy to weed that out in QC, but admittedly it's not end of the world stuff. The mix of styles in the inlay just messes with my OCD, but again, your mileage may vary. Oh, and you can throw those tuner buttons in a fire please... But.... as a musical instrument i've found this one a lot of fun to play and review. The sound and playability far exceeds it's price and just pushes it into the recommended category on Got A Ukulele. It's a congested price point they are pitched at which means players will consider lots of other brands alongside this one. A few tweaks though and this brand could wipe the floor with the others.
Great volume and sustain
Very clear chiming tone
Not confused when strummed
Some rough finishing here and there
Confused mix of decoration styles and looks
Comfort edge looks totally out of place
Horrible tuner buttons
Looks - 7.5 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 - 8.1 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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