Something of a revisit I didn't expect to make this week. This time it's Clearwater ukuleles again but this time with their roundback concert scale ukulele.
It was quite some time ago now that I first looked at a roundback from Clearwater in the form of their UCW7B baritone ukulele. And what a terrific instrument it was for very little money. Liked by enthusiasts and professional performers alike, that really was a superb instrument. My readers and I did have a couple of issues though. Firstly, they were really only stocked by one dealer in the UK (The Really Useful Music Company) and went in and out of stock rather rapidly (as they still do), but also at that time I think it really was only the baritone scale that was even available. From memory those started out as a much cheaper re-badge of a round back baritone made by Ohana in the form of the BK-70RB (which is near enough identical) which probably explains why it was only baritones about. Saying that though, I see there are specs for an Ohana CK-70RB Concert which looks near enough identical to this one, so there are others being made.
I therefore regularly check to see if others come up and I recently spied some new Clearwaters in tenor and concert flavours. I assume that they have come to arrangement with the original factory line (as these are made in China) and made some more. How could I resist taking a look?
Anyway, I should probably pause here as there will be new readers, perhaps unaware of that baritone who don't know what I (or Clearwater) mean by a 'roundback'. Well that is to say these are traditional ukuleles on the top, but that is about it. The back and sides are made from a one piece mould of black plastic (whether it is ABS or polycarbonate I am afraid I do not know). The concept is probably most recognisable in the Flukes and Fleas, but these backs which have a more curved, uke shaped concept are actually more of a hark back to the original Balladeer Guitars made by Ovation which used the same technique. So like the baritone, this is the same deal only in concert scale. A rounded plastic back and sides in one piece with a wooden top dropped onto it. And like the baritone, that's a solid spruce top in a grade they call 'AA'. I never really see much difference in grades in spruce because it's pretty standard looking however it comes. If it means it has straight grain and no knots, then I would agree this is AA... Anyway, don't get diverted by this, what matters is that it's good quality solid wood made of two book-matched pieces. It's nice and thin too. It's very nice if you like pale woods.
Like the baritone that plastic back would benefit from having a more textured finish to help it grip you when holding it, because as it is it's somewhat and slippy. You will want to be using the strap buttons which thankfully come pre-fitted. Saying that, it does feel more grippy than the baritone, but that might be because the bari is so much bigger.
Also like the baritone is same edge decoration in white and black 'purfling and a faux abalone sound hole rosette. Again - classy looks.
It also has a tie bar bridge too, made of rosewood and holding a bone straight saddle. Unlike the baritone version this has no cutaway in the top, a design feature I thought set that model off nicely. The whole of the top is then finished in a nicely done satin which has a great feel on the hands and looks tidy.
There is not much to say about the innards, because it's a dark plastic cavity but what I can see is neat enough, and that the top is (thankfully) braced. I can also spy some notched kerfing where the top meets the bowl back sides.
The neck is made of (I think) mahogany in three pieces with well hidden joints at the heel and headstock. It is finished in satin and is nicely done. It's a generically round-ish profile. At the nut we are a very average 35mm wide but it's pleasingly about 27mm from G to A. Roomy enough and certainly doesn't feel cramped for my large hands.
Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard holding a very generous 19 nickel silver frets in total with 14 to the body top. You get an excess of outward position dots in white pearloid at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th, but very sadly there are no side dots at all.
Beyond the bone nut the headstock is similarly shaped to the baritone but a much plainer affair. Whilst the Bari had some dark facing and purfling on the edges this is simply dark faced with nothing else. The pearly Clearwater logo is classy looking though and the whole headstock is certainly not unattractive.
The tuners are very generic open gears with small cream plastic buttons. I don't have much more to say other than they work ok and don't have excess play. I still think friction pegs would look better though.
And the final addition that was also a bit of a boon on the baritone, being the inclusion of a passive pickup running to a jack socket on the bottom side. No excess wiring, no heavy control boxes and batteries that are just not needed - just a pickup to a jack that you amplify and EQ off the uke. I rant about this all the time, so I am pleased to see a simple passive system. And if it's anything like the pickup in the baritone (which I have seen professional performers like Ian Emmerson and Zoë Bestel use on large stages to great effect) it will be a very useable pickup with a bit of EQ tweaking.
The strings are not specified but look Aquila-ish. Sadly there is no gig bag, which would be nice. One of the big draws of the baritone was the price which were around £100-£120 - remarkable value really for a solid top uke with a pickup and such great finishing and tone. This one does not disappoint either as you can pick these up for about £80. Bear in mind that the Ohana CK-70RB I mention above as looking absolutely identical has an RRP of $280.... This is a steal in comparison.
The build on this is excellent everywhere I look. Nothing is loose, there are no gaps and the finish is just great. It's relatively light too, and nicely balanced if a bit tricky to hold freehand due to that slippy back. Setup though is excellent and that coupled with very diminutive frets makes for a very comfortable instrument on the fretting hand.
When it comes to the sound I had a real worry with this one that the baritone was something of a 'one off' that worked just because it was so big on the back. Would this one be nothing more than a tinny quiet box? Not a bit of it! First up, the volume on this model is absolutely terrific and it has a real punch and projection that will in no way let you down. Sustain is really very good too for a small instrument. And to top it off, the tone is extremely pleasing as well. What's not to like? For an instrument that is a mix of plastic and naturally bright sounding spruce, I was worried that it would sound thin and overly zingy, but it's actually nicely balanced and far warmer than I expected. I can't choose between strumming or picking being my preference here as both are equally fun. To be totally honest, yes, it does have that somewhat one dimensional tone you'd expect from a plastic back, but really no different to the way Fleas sound and I love those. Not earth shattering, but still very good. Let's put it another way - this is one of those review models that I have played far more than I usually do. I just keep picking this one up!
And yes, the pickup, at least on this model works great. I am not sure what brand they have used, but it won't be a brand name system at this money. Still, the volume is even across the strings and whilst, like all piezos, it is a bit quacky on the mids, that is easily dialled out with an EQ tweak. This would work great on stage I have no doubt.
So.. nope.. the baritone was not a one off. And that really pleases me.
Finally though, I know readers will be asking themselves a question. Why buy this when you can get the Flight Travel for half the price? Well the differences are obvious - a solid top, a wooden fingerboard and a pickup system. Perhaps the more pressing question they should ask is probably why buy a Fluke or a Flea when you can have this instead? They don't have solid tops either or wooden fingerboards as standard, and nor do they have pickups. And yet they will cost you 2-3 times as much to bag one. And that's where this shows just how attractive it really is for the money. A great build, good tone and a killer price. Terrific really. And considering the price of the identical alternative with a bigger brand name, once again we realise that all is not what it seems when it comes to ukulele pricing.
Highly recommended.... if you can find one. And there's the rub... I just wish they were more widely available!
Really Useful Music Company
Solid top with neat grain
Good build quality throughout
Good loud and characterful tone
No side markers
Less eye catching than the baritone
Looks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 8.5 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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