Staying in the more affordable part of the ukulele spectrum this week, and another first for a uke brand on the site. This is the RFU11Z Concert Ukulele from Ortega Guitars.
Ortega are German musical instrument brand with more than ukuleles to their name. As well as ukes you will find Ortega guitars, basses, mandolins, banjos and accessories. I say a 'German' brand, but that's really just the HQ. What they oversee though are ranges of far eastern produced, good value instruments. Nothing wrong with that at all. But together with having a range of instruments, this one comes from only one of a large range of ukulele product lines that they offer. Honestly, I gave up counting how many there are. You can go for the Raven series, the Eclipse series, the Lizard series, the Bonfire series.... and so on, and so on. This one forms part of their 'Friends Series' which appears to comprise a range of scales made from either laminate mahogany or laminate zebrawood. This one is, obviously, the zebrawood variant. I'm not entirely sure what the 'friends series' relevance is.
It's a standard concert scale ukulele with a traditional double bout shape made from that laminate zebrawood on the top back and sides. I've made my views known on this wood before, and that is that I don't really like it. But not only that, I think it's a wood that has been totally over-exposed. A quick search on Amazon for ukuleles will show you what I mean. Zebrawood laminates are ten a penny at the cheap end. The first thing this reminded me was the Caramel ukulele I reviewed some time ago. That one still gives me nightmares, so this does not bode well. I know some of you will like it but sorry it's not for me. And yes, I guess mahogany is just as ubiquitous in the ukulele world, but mahogany is not so, well, 'in your face'.
Thankfully though, the finising on this is better throughout than the Caramel with no flaws, bare patches or mess in the satin outer coat. It's nicely put together, despite me not liking the look. It's an open pore satin so the thing actually feels like wood too which I always prefer. The top, back and sides are all made from pairs of woods and the back has a slight arch.
The bridge is made from walnut and is a tie bar design with a curved plate. Ortega call it their 'Ortega Bridge for easy string change and perfect tune'. That makes it sound like it's something they specially designed, but it really isn't. It's just a regular tie bar bridge. I wouldn't say that was the easiest style to string change at all, and as for 'perfect tuning', I have no idea what they are on about. Never mind, it's a pale bridge and holds a straight top plastic saddle. It really didn't need 'bigging up'.
There is no other decoration on the body which is a good thing. The last thing a wood as gaudy as zebrawood needs is an abalone strip on the top. What you do get, curiously, is a black painted edging to the sound hole. That used to be a 'trick' used by brands to hide the fact that the wood is laminate, but that can't be the case here. Ortega clearly state that the wood is laminate, plus you can see it is because the outer edges are not bound (another trick to hide it). So I'm not sure what it's for, but I think it looks a little weird and out of place.
Inside is tidy, and tidier than many I see at this price. Fairly chunky braces, notched kerfing but no mess or glue drops. Interestingly you see a veneer of zebrawood on the inside of the ukulele too, so the laminate part is the unspecified sandwich wood in the middle between two thin sheets of zebrawood. That doesn't stop it being laminate by the way, as certain other unscrupulous brands have started suggesting in their marketing. But again - fair play to Ortega. It's made quite clear what it is on their website.
The neck is extremely pale mahogany with a joint at the heel and one at the base of the headstock. It's finished in satin too, and whilst it has a typical far eastern rounded back profile, at least the nut width is a more 'standard' concert of just under 35mm with 28mm between the G and A strings. Oddly, the Ortega website specifies the nut width as 36mm, which is patently incorrect. I'd prefer 36mm, and this is a touch narrow for me.
It's topped with a walnut fingerboard holding a concert standard 18 frets with 14 to the body joint. The edges of the board are stained / bound black which still isn't helping the fact that most of the fret ends are sharp on this review model. Badly so too. That's a shame. We get outward dot markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 14th (14th??) and they are repeated on the side in white. An unremarkable neck let down by poor finishing.
Beyond the plastic nut we have a distinctive headstock shape also faced in zebrawood. The Ortega logo is a thick screen print in silver which was scraped off a little before I even opened it. Examining it further tells me there is absolutely no way this will stand up to a clip on tuner. It's just not very permanently applied.
Tuners are unbranded sealed chrome gears with small black buttons. They work ok, but are otherwise unremarkable.
Also in the package are Aquila strings and a really rather nice padded gig bag with strong zips and a very well padded handle. Certainly one of the better gig bags I've seen come as standard. And these can be picked up in the UK at least for just under £100 or about $145 in the USA. That's a keen price and one that will surely attract a lot of buyers.
In the hands it feels nice enough (apart from the sharp fret ends) and it's balanced ok too. Setup is a touch high at the saddle, but that is easily remedied and the nut looks just fine to me. Not bad really.
And the sound has impressed me too. Yes, you can tell it's a laminate instrument, but the volume is very good and the sustain reasonably so. It has a very direct and clear sound with the individual notes coming through clearly. It's a bright tone that is quite snappy, and I like it for that. Strumming gives me a bright jangly sound, and picking has a bell like clarity which makes that very enjoyable. Not top end but far from a bottom end sound, and for only a hunded quid. For a player looking to get a first sensible ukulele or a second step up from the likes of cheap Mahalo's, then this would not disgrace you at all.
It's really surprised me as I don't mind admitting that the first look led me to believe that I wouldn't like this ukulele very much at all. It has some issues, but I suppose they are not hugely major - just annoying, and still sounds and plays ok. The looks are not for me, but many will like them. Not a bad ukulele at all really if a little generic. Fair play Ortega.
Generally well built
Great gig bag
Decent enough sound for the price
Not personally a fan of zebrawood
Poor fret finishing and setup
Badly applied headstock logo
Would prefer slightly wider nut as per their website description!
Looks - 7.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8 out of 10
Sound - 8 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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