An interesting ukulele this week and one that has been creating quite a buzz around the world. This is the 'Little Gem' banjo ukulele from Gold Tone.
That buzz comes partly from the fact that that these won the 'Best In Show' award for NAMM 2018 (some accolade!), and also because, well, they just look so damn funky! And despite 'little gem' being the name of a type of lettuce in the UK, I honestly didn't expect to ever be describing a banjo as 'funky'...
Gold Tone are a USA brand who specialise in banjos, including regular models and ukulele banjos. They are renowned for putting out some decent quality instruments, which, whilst not the highest end, are still rather good quality far eastern made models. I hear a lot of good things about their regular ukulele banjos, but until now I had never tried one out. And then when I saw 'the funky' of the Little Gem, I knew I just had to make this the first Gold Tone to feature.
The Little Gems are a range of four 15" concert scale banjo ukuleles with a mix of the traditional and not so traditional design elements. They are designed in the USA, but for price reasons are made in China. Obviously the 'not so traditional' here comes down to the coloured but clear acryclic rim and resonator that the completely clear banjo head and drum sits on to. The rim and the resonator are the parts of a banjo that are usually made of wood, but here we move to that clear acyrlic, available in four colours - clear, blue, purple and red.. But being a Little GEM, that is actually Diamond, Sapphire, Amethyst and Ruby. See what they did there? And I must say, they all look utterly fabulous. Staid and boring banjos these are not.
The Little Gem comes with a resonator fitted (the flat back bit screwed on to a banjo to help push volume forwards), but it appears that it's removable if you find the volume is waking up the neighbours in the next town... I always prefer uke banjos without resonators to be honest. Removing it also allows access inside to do what I ALWAYS seem to do with banjos (stick a sock or sponge under the head to dull ghost notes / overtones / calm it down). We shall see if this needs that.
Fitted on to the rim is a flat bar tension hoop holding the clear plastic eight inch drum head, held and tensioned by twelve brackets in regular banjo style. You also get a tension wrench for adjusting these and tuning the head which you can only do having taken off the resonator first
The bridge is very standard looking three footed maple bridge with an ebony cap that, like all banjos, you fit and set yourself for scale length and intonation. It's also grooved to hold the string spacing - like all banjos. Helpfully, Gold Tone supply these with a scale measure 'thingy' (a technical term) to allow you to get the bridge in exactly the right place without going through the tune / play / shift / repeat process you normally follow with banjos. Basically a measuring tool for scale length. That's handy enough, but it's not really that hard to measure the distance from nut to the 12th and then make sure the bridge is the same difference away at the other end. At the base you get a standard looking tail piece over which the strings run and are tied through small holes in the chrome metalwork.
Up to the neck and we are now firmly in more traditional territory. It's made of wonderful looking maple and connected in a regular banjo fashion with a rod running through the rim from the lower part of the neck heel. Interestingly the neck is also attached by another bolt above the rod. I've looked it over and it would appear that the neck is not adjustable for action / height as on many other banjos so it really is what it is. It looks great though and is very reminisccent of the Deering and Fluke necks. It's made of two pieces, jointed at the heel, and is comfortably profiled but a little narrow for my tastes at just under 35mm at the nut. There isn't a separate fingerboard applied so the 18 frets are set directly into the maple which I like. The edges of the neck are bound though in black ABS to hide the ends and avoid sharpness. I find the black strips a little jarring in colour against the pale neck, and think these would have been better in cream or white, or perhaps removed altogether. They do mean that you don't get any sharp fret edges though. You get outward position markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, 15th and 17th, with the 5th being a star and the 12th being a double for the octave. You also get white side dots in the same places. Cool.
Beyond the nut (a material they don't specify, but looks like plastic) we have the traditional looking headstock. It's very similar to the Deering, but that isn't to say it's a copy of anything as this is just an old style banjo headstock shape. The Gold Tone logo is laser etched into the face and I think looks a little lost and plain and could be bigger. What you will also spy on the headstock is a plastic cover with a gemstone logo. This gives you access to the truss rod adjustment bolt to put relief into (or remove relief from) the neck. A nice touch on the face of it and something that is critical on guitars due to string tension pulling at the neck, but I've never saw the need for them on ukuleles. Kamaka's don't have them.. You just don't get that much tension to need them I find.
Tuning is provided by unbranded sealed gears with small buttons. I'd dearly love to have seen rear facing pegs here which is a shame, but you can't have everything I suppose. Another product swayed by the misconception in players that all friction pegs are hard to use. No they aren't... Still they work ok if a little uneven in tension as they are not the most high end geared tuners out there. Not the best really. Adde to which, one is fitted a little wonky..
Finishing this off is a functional soft gig bag, embroidered with the Gold Tone logo and strings that look like Aquila. Saying that, Gold Tone don't specify what they are with the usual Aquila swing tag, so maybe not. And you also get that scale length gizmo, a tool for adjusting the truss rod if you need to (you won't) and the tools for removing the resonator and adjusting the head tension. And that is coming in at a price I had to do a double take with. In the UK you should find these at £160 or less if you shop around. I know the guts of this are plastic, but still, that's a great price and significantly less than models like the Duke 10, the Deering and the Fluke Firefly. And that is not for an uknown new Amazon only brand imported on the cheap - Gold Tone know their banjos.
Let's have a play and a closer look.
First up, this is not a lightweight ukulele but it is, of course, a banjo, not a wooden ukulele. You feel the heft of it when you pick it up. That surprised me a little when you consider the lack of wood in the body. This weighs 2.6lb, but putting that in perspective the tenor Fluke Firefly comes in at 2lb, and the Duke 10 at 2.2lb. It's heavier than both of those, but still much lighter than the 4lb Deering Goodtime. So it's not the lightest of the bunch, but it's not a bloater either. To be honest though, if you are in the market for a banjo you will KNOW that they are heavier - that's just what they are. It's no biggie and it doesn't feel uncomfortable either. I would also wager you won't notice the increase over the Duke 10, but you WILL notice it being lighter than the Deering, so that's likely a good thing.
The build is great in most areas, but my review model had a couple of scuffs on the otherwise pristine clear top which have annoyed me. I suppose with play that will only get worse, so I shouldn't be too concerned. I am really nitpicking though as nothing else seems out of place bar the tuners.
So, bridge fitted and the scale tool used to site it (which did an almost perfect job, but one that you will want to adjust more finely by ear or with a tuner really) and we are good to go. And yes, it sounds like a uke banjo. Loud, punchy, direct, though a rather pleasant tone to be honest when strummed. I'm surprised at the lack of ghost notes / overtones and it sounds quite clean in itself, but again, that's when it's strummed. Also with strumming I find some of the notes do get a bit muddy when played together though and it can get a touch confused. I saw online that some people thought they didn't sound like banjos. I can only put that down to how the sound they heard was recorded, as it certainly sounds 'banjoey' (another technical term you lucky people) to me. Fingerpicked though the tone sounds much more confused and the overtones come rattlling through. It certainly needs a sock in it!
It's surprisingly good up the neck and certainly up to around the 7th or 8th you are still getting good volume and attack. It does dip off dramatically when you go much higher than that though, but bear in mind that his is not a high priced instrument.
Banjo tones are not something that are quite my cup of tea, but I dig them for what they are, even if they can wake the dead. This one is a lot of fun to strum fast and get some real rhythm going with a snappy bouncy attack that is lots of fun. Picking is less pleasing for me, but that says more about my own playing style than the instrument as I don't tend to play anything in that style. I can't get past those echoey overtones though. Fans of old time and clawhammer will have a lot of fun with this one I think. If you dont like banjo sounds, you have probably stopped reading by now though.. No doubt about it being banjoey though.
In summary though, I adore the funky looks, and despite some people likely overlooking it as 'just another plastic uke', it's far from a plastic ukulele in the normal sense as in the majority of the instrument you are getting genuine banjo looks and sound. No it's not the best uke banjo on the block, but the price is superb of course. And whilst I normally advise people to go very carefully with banjo ukes at the cheap end, this seems to overcome the most of the niggles I usually see with cheap banjos. Most of all though it's the looks and a ticket price that probably lets most people who are 'banjo curious' dip a toe in the water. Recommended.
Good overall build quality
Excellent volume and controlled tone with little overtones
Still a little heavy for plastic
Narrow nut width
Mix of notes can get a little muddy
Rather echoey fingerpicked and needs calming
Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 8 out of 10
Value for money - 9.5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.8 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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