Fender Venice Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

14 Oct 2018

Fender Venice Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

It was many, many years until I first managed to feature a Fender ukulele on the Got A Ukulele reviews page, and then like buses, another one comes along fairly soon after. This week I am looking at the Fender Venice Soprano.

Fender Venice Sopano Ukulele


That first Fender ukulele to feature was the top of their current line in the form of the Montecito Tenor, and it surprised me a little. Prior to reviewing that model, I had actually played quite a few Fender ukes and they had always completely underwhelmed me for being over built and very bland on tone. Whilst the Montecito was somewhat on the quiet side, it was very well put together and had a pretty tone to be fair. I couldn't have personally lived with it due to that lack of response, but it wasn't a wholly bad ukulele at all. The Venice goes to the other end of their new-ish range of ukuleles named after Californian beaches and is their entry level soprano. You probably saw it last year in the endless press spots of Grace VanDerWaal who 'apparently' is now a Fender player and for whom they are releasing a line of 'signature models'... (groan..)

But Fender have troubled me in other ways when it comes to ukuleles too. As an electric guitar player I hold them in the highest regard (and have owned several, and still do own a lush American deluxe Stratocaster I would run into a burning building to save!), but I have never been totally taken with them as acoustic builders. As such I just don't consider them a true ukulele maker either. That is compounded by the fact that whilst you will find their ukes in the big name high street music stores (who, it must be said, in many cases stock ukuleles just to be 'on the bandwagon'), you just don't really see Fender ukes in the real ukulele specialist ukulele stores. I am told that a big part of that is down to how Fender work with dealers, and that they may expect them to carry big stocks and their full lines, guitars and basses included. Small specialists just can't carry all that stock.  That may be the reason (and I am happy to be corrected) but for us mere consumers it just looks really odd and from what I am told, most of the uke specialists probably wouldn't carry them even if they could because uke fans don't tend to want them anyway...  For me it leaves Fender completely outside the ukulele community and you would have thought they would be knocking down doors to be on the racks alongside the other true great names in the ukulele world. But they don't. They just sponsor an America's Got Talent person instead....

Let's move on. This is a standard shaped and rather plain looking soprano made of all laminate wood. At first glance it doesn't really stand out against the many other coloured cheaper laminate ukuleles that fill the lower priced market, but it is reasonably well put together I suppose. An Ashton or a Mahalo it is not! Saying that though there are a heck of a lot of tooling marks,  scuffs and scratches on this example which would trouble me, regardless of the price.  Fender specify this as 'basswood', so that's a pretty generic plywood description. More precisely, it's a term used for Linden wood (The Lime tree) and is very cheap, light and, well, utterly unremarkable as a tone wood! This one is stained in a cherry red colour, but is also available in black and 'natural'. Natural plywood... The finish is very uneven with darker patches in places and plenty of bubbles and flaws. The finish also makes it hard to tell how it is constucted, but I think the top and dead flat back are single pieces, whilst the sides are a pair.

Fender Venice Sopano Ukulele body

Decoration is limited to a cream plastic binding around the top edge with some black purfling which does contrast nicely with the darker body and sets it off well to be fair. It would look extremely basic without it.

The bridge is made from a dark 'laminated' hardwood (their description, meaning it' looks solid on the face but is made of a stack of thinner pieces of wood..) and is what Fender have taken it upon themselves to call a 'no tie bridge' as if they have stumbled across something special and invented the concept. I call it a slotted bridge and it's nothing new in the ukulele world and makes for simple string changes... It's identical in shape to the bridge on the Montecito and I like that it is minimal and not taking up too much space on the top. The saddle is plastic and uncompensated.

Fender Venice Sopano Ukulele bridge

Looking inside and things are reasonably tidy. Notched linings and very fat braces, but the real howler for me is just how thick that laminate top is.

Fender Venice Sopano Ukulele top

The neck is made of Nato (another generic term for any wood from the Mora family and is another giveaway on a cheap ukulele) and is made of three pieces with a heel and headstock joint. The profile is rounded C shape that I don't like on a soprano though the nut width is a reasonable 35mm. Fender say the C shape gives it 'comfort', but I personally disagree with a small ukulele. A flatter profile and wider nut would make it more comfortable for me and such a profile never did Kamaka or Martin any harm. Marketing speak doesn't half annoy me. It's rounded like this because that's the way they make them in the Far East on vast production lines - no other reason. What I will also say is that the finishing is pretty scruffy in several places on the neck too. Scuffs, knot holes and uneven finish abound.

It's topped with a dark fingerboard that Fender specify as 'laminated hardwood'. That could be anything then, and like the bridge when you look closely is made up of lots of thin woods sandwiched together across the face. Still, it's nicely dark and evenly coloured I suppose and has a touch of shaping at the end. It is however really scruffy on the edge finishing with scuffs everywhere and even some sizeable chunks taken out in places. I suspect too that if you sanded it (not that you would) you would find pale wood underneath though as I think that outer is stained. This is quite a common technique these days at the cheap end of the market and whilst this is a cheap model, I still find it surprisingly devaluing for a brand like Fender. We have a very standard soprano 12 frets to the body joint and they are dressed only fairly well. By that I mean they are on the edge of feeling sharp to the point of them being uncomfortable.  Outward circular position dots are provided in pearloid inlays at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th and are repeated on the side.

Fender Venice Sopano Ukulele fingerboard

Beyond the plastic nut is the traditional Telecaster shaped headstock. I talked about this on the Montecito as I simply don't like it on a ukulele one bit. And boy didn't that comment illicit several 'Mr Angry of Tunbridge Wells' types to take to their keyboards to tell me I was wrong...  Yes, I know the reason for them is that it keeps the strings straight, and yes I know it's trademark Fender but, for me, it belongs on an electric guitar not a ukulele. This is NOT a Telecaster! I think it looks completely odd myself and smacks of Fender trying too hard to be, well,  Fender. Or, to look at it another way, is it Fender appealing to  players trying too hard to scream from the rooftops that they are playing a Fender? And the 'keeping strings straight' thing... Clearly Kamaka need to go back to the drawing board then do they?.... The traditional Fender  logo is screen printed in gold together with some swirly flourishes either side. Nope, still don't like it. It doesn't help that it comes with the scuffs and wood marks that seem to adorn most other places on the ukulele either.

Fender Venice Sopano Ukulele headstock

Tuners are naturally inline on the top edge of the tele headstock and are chrome open gears that look pretty generic.  Just looking at them you see they are very much budget tuners, with seam marks in the castings and a general air of scruffiness. Worse still they are all different tensions too with the A and C string tuners feeling so loose it feels like they are coming apart. I see this a lot with cheap tuners and mention it when I do, but these are honestly some of the worst I have seen for this issue.

Fender Venice Sopano Ukulele tuners

The strings are specified as 'standard soprano uke' strings by Fender, whatever that means. They look like Aquilas, but the fact that Aquila are not mentioned in the literature suggests to me they are a copy of them. Something white and opaque... And the ukulele can be yours for the princely sum of about £52 RRP.  So it's not a serious price in any way which may suggest it's not a wholly serious ukulele. Fender are a serious musical instrument company though, so we shall see. It's all in the playing though.

It's light enough to hold and balanced too. There isn't a huge amount of resonance though on account of that thick top. Setup is very mixed, being reasonable at the saddle but far too low at three of the nut slots, the A being too high. Getting the thing in tune was fun and games too on account of those woeful tuners. When you back off the tension they wobble like crazy and feel like they are going to fall apart. Not good at all. Then I noticed something else going on. A distinct and massiely annoying rattle when strummed. At first I thought it was typical string buzz on account of the low nut, but it sounds somewhat different. And for the life of me I have not been able to pin it down. If I tap the side of the headstock I get the same rattle - which rules out the string buzz theory fully. So I started working through isolating the likely culprits. Loose nut? Nope. Holding each tuner peg? Nope, still there. Holding each tuner gear? Nope still there. Loose brace? Not that I can feel. Weirdly it sounds like the wood of the neck itself is rattling. Very odd indeed.

But I have to play it, rattle and buzz and all, as given more time I suspect I could isolate it. Yet sadly it's not delivering for me here either. Whilst the volume is reaonable for such a thick top, sustain is extremely poor and gives it a boxy thin one dimensional tone. You know the people who say ukuleles sound 'plinky plonky' but have never actually played a decent model? This is the sound they are talking about. Thin, generic and lifeless. As a final kick in the shins, that high A string nut slot is also throwing intonation off badly at the lower fret positions on that string. A note here regarding the video below. Would you believe that people have claimed I deliberately record videos with the ukuleles out of tune to make them look bad (honestly, I am not joking..). In the video below you will hear the tuning issue despite the ukulele being in tune at the nut as bang on as it can get with a strobe tuner. What you are hearing is a setup issue at the nut. Again, not good and something that should have been adjusted. Overall, it's pretty uninspiring to the point I don't really have much more to say!

I am not deliberately trying to find things wrong here, it is really doing that for me by itself and I had hoped that wouldn't be the case. And yes, if you buy one of these from a reputable ukulele specialist they will sort out the setup and possibly weed this one out from sale altogether. But there lies the problem. You don't get these in ukulele specialists and the vast majority of them will be bought online or from big box stores who won't even open the box before sale. In fact that is what I did - purchased it from a common or garden big box UK music store by mail order. They clearly hadn't checked it over, as this should never had been shipped like this. And that is a big problem for a new player as that is exactly how they are most likely to buy one. I hope you are now getting why I bang on about the importance of uke specialists, and weeding out the wheat from the chaff. This is a prime example of why I advise you to choose your sellers carefully. And before the comments stream goes into overdrive, yes, I KNOW that you might have the same model WITHOUT  the scruffiness or issues. Yours may be tip top. I'm pleased for you. I can only review the one I have in front of me out of a random sample though. The question you need to ask yourself is - do you want the model you receive to be quite so random?

Fender Venice Sopano Ukulele back

All in all, having been rather uplifted by the pretty Montecito, this one takes me back to what I had always thought about Fender ukuleles. Very bland and just not great with some poor finishing and quality control. The price is keen, I will give them that, but it will still have a ton of competition at this price point that leave the factories in far better shape. In fact I am seriously troubled how a brand like Fender are happy to have their name go out on something quite so scruffy and poorly checked over. This really should never have reached the dealer never mind me! Yes, the finishing marks are not life and death, I am sure I can get to the bottom of that buzz, and you could also swap the tuners I suppose. Still, why would you? It's a pretty generic sounding ukulele underneath and not worth throwing more time and money at in my opinion.

Of course many kids will go with it BECAUSE it was played by Grace van der whatsit. I get that totally, kids want to be like their idols. I just think it's a shame that those kids can easily do much better with something from a host of other brands that solely make ukuleles. So all I can say is, if you are aboslutely dead set on mimicing your favourite AGT star - go for your life but make sure you consider paying for a setup if buying blind or try as many examples as you can in the store. Everyone else? Shop around, go to a ukulele specialist and get more for your money with something else. Not good.

** STOP PRESS **

As I can't avoid a challenge, I had to look further into the buzz. It seems to be a combination of three things. A loose screw on G string tuner peg, a loose screw or two on the mount for the C string tuner, and a bit of string buzz on the E string. With screws tightened it's now better than it was, but the nut slot needs raising...

UKULELE PROS

Price
Generally good core construction

UKULELE CONS

That headstock..
Chunky neck profile
Dont like the laminate fingerboard
Scruffy finishing in pretty much every area
Cheap loose tuners
Fairly bland one dimensional tone
Unidentified rattle!
Desperately in need of a set up

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 7 out of 10
Fit and finish - 5 out of 10
Sound - 6 out of 10
Value for money - 7.5 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 6.4 out of 10

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3 comments :

  1. I think the cheap tuners would have held better if the strings didn't run a straight line through the nut. ;-)

    Also, with that giant headstock you're gonna need some massive plywood in the body to balance it, so I'll give them that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The tuners are not slipping when in tune. That’s not the issue.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm with you, I don't like the headstock at all. It looks almost as big as the body

    ReplyDelete

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