Call me a glutton for uke punishment, but I felt it was only fair to take a look at a third ukulele from the Fender brand as part of their new California Beach series. This time it's the Fender Zuma Concert Ukulele.
Having fairly recently been utterly and totally disappointed by their entry level model, the Venice Soprano Ukulele I had a few messages from people asking me to look at the middle ground offering in the line up. The Venice was indeed very much entry level but I had also looked previously at their top of the line model in the form of the Montecito Tenor ukulele which, whilst not perfect, was not half bad really. So, with 'utterly dreadful' at one end of the scale and 'not half bad' at the other, one does wonder how the middle ground fares with Fender? Well, it would only be fair to have a look. Step right up the Zuma!
The Zuma is another in their range of ukes named after west coast US beaches, with Zuma being in Malibu, California. Unlike the other two, this one also sits in the middle ground on scale length too, being a concert model.
The specs are kind of a halfway house too. It's made of all laminate wood, but it's not plywood / basswood like the Venice, this is laminate sapele. Yes, it's still a cheaper laminate in the big scheme of things, but it's a far cry from the cheap plywood box that was the Venice. When the Zuma model was first released it came as a satin coated instrument in a plain wood wrapper, but I note they have recently updated their models and the Zuma now comes in one of three colour variants, pink, blue or red like this one. It's the same Candy Apple Red Fender use on a range of their instruments and like the other Zuma models is only applied to the top and the headstock face. The other colours also get Fender names with the pink being 'Burgundy Mist' and the blue being 'Lake Placid Blue'. The back and sides are finished in the raw laminate sapele, a wood that looks very much like mahogany and is attractive enough. The back is made from two pieces, so are the sides and whilst I can't tell on the top due to the colour coating, I presume that is too. If I am honest I preferred the all wood look of the original Zuma, but the newer coloured versions also give you a full gloss finish that the original didn't have and I rather like the two tone effect. So plusses and minuses I guess. Whilst it's the same colour as the Venice, the gloss really gives it a boost and removes the rather ugly matte feel of that model. It has a much deeper and richer colour and an almost sparkly finish in the varnish. I would still prefer to see some of the wood grain through the red though if I am honest, but I admit that this looks quite nice for what it is and it's growing on me.
Like the Venice, this model is complimented by cream binding with black purfling around the top which helps pull the design together. It also comes with faux abalone in a ring around the sound hole and some additional cream binding on the back edge. That inclusion of both gloss and abalone is more of a nod to the Montecito than the Venice. Like I say - a halfway house.
The bridge is made of dark walnut and unlike the Venice, appears to be an actual piece of wood rather than a shaped block of laminate pieces. Fender, who seem to be unable to decide how to describe their bridges, now bill this style as a 'pull through bridge' rather than a 'no tie design' as they did on the Venice - once again giving the impression that they have invented something special or different... Yet I am still confused.. To me a 'pull through bridge' sees the strings knotted inside the body and pulled through holes in the top of the bridge. This is still just a very standard slotted bridge that works the way as every other slot bridge. So why not just call it that?!
Inside the build is tidy but very basic. It's un-notched kerfing on the linings, though the braces are thin enough and shaped at the ends. The Fender label though looks like a poor print from an ink-jet running low on ink and tells you the instrument is made in Indonesia. Still, there's no glue seepage or other mess.
Like the Venice, the neck is made from Nato wood and is in three pieces with extremely obvious joints on show. Fender don't give the neck any marketing spin this time, but it's the same generic rounded profile as on the Venice but with more of a flat D shaped back. At the nut it's very standard for a concert at 35mm wide, but it's a generous string spacing at about 29mm between the G and A strings. Where it does improve over the Venice (depending on your outlook) is that the fingerboard is edge bound in cream giving it a classier look, and the neck back is glossed (something people either love or hate). You also get a cream plastic heel plate adding a touch more decoration to the instrument. It's a much tidier affair all round than the Venice and topped with a walnut fingerboard which is evenly dark and in good condition. It has an average 16 nickel silver frets joined at the 12th and they are dressed very well, helped of course by the edge binding. Concerts joined at the 12th are a much more traditional affair, though I prefer them joined at the 14th as the 12th fret join kind of makes them feel like a soprano to me. But that is just personal preference, and Martin tend to join their concert necks at the 12th so it's no biggie.
Beyond the bone nut we have the same Fender Telecaster headstock which I have written about to death now. Yes I KNOW it's personal choice, but I simply don't like it on a ukukele. Guitars? Absolutely, but not on ukes. That's all i'm saying this time around and you can read my other Fender reviews for my thoughts on that point! It's a much nicer finish than the Venice though on account of the gloss and the coloured facing, and despite the shape is rather attractive and well finished.
Because of the headstock shape, the tuners are, naturally, inline. They are more akin to the tuners on the Montecito meaning that on the plus side they are not the horrid, loose cheap things that were frankly useless on the Venice, but it does mean you get the massive, overly large cover plates which just look ugly as sin. Ugh.. Come on.. it's not a guitar! Totally out of place.
The strings are unspecified, and there is no included gig bag like with the Montecito. It should fit many standard cases, but I would double check. I say that because the Venice, despite being very standard in size for a soprano came up a touch tight in some of my hard cases because of the long headstock. (Another reason I dislike the headstock!).
So this one brings many design cues and finish elements from the Montecito but it is considerably less money with a UK RRP of about £120 or less. It's leagues above the Venice in build quality and finishing in every department and that's not a huge amount of cash for a ukulele with gloss and appointments like binding. By way of comparison, a very plain Baton Rouge laminate concert with no binding or gloss will cost you not far off the same sort of money, so it won't get marked down on that score.
As I say, it's very well put together (and well above the Venice), and headstock shape aside, I do rather like the looks. I doubt i'd go for the pink version myself, but each to their own. It's a nicely enough applied finish too and whilst I found rough spots and flaws all over the Venice, this Zuma is not too bad at all. If I have one gripe its' that the top finish looks a little over done which you can see in some pooling and build up around the edge of the fingerboard and around the sound hole, but i've seen much worse.
In the hands it feels well put together and not heavy. It's balanced too and the finish makes you feel like you are holding something well made, which is much more than I could say for the Venice. Setup out of the box was also just fine and nothing I would need to adjust. Nice looking and feeling then. And whilst it's not the widest neck on the block, the string spacing makes it comfortable to play too.
Tone wise, this is leagues above the Venice too, with a quite pleasant chimey, rich tone that harks more towards the sound of the Montecito. Fair play to Fender here as it's a very attractive tone. Pretty you could call it, and that matters to a lot of people. Fingerpicked or strummed it's characterful and not too boxy sounding for a laminate. But there had to be something negative, and i'm afraid that yet again, like SO many Fender ukes I have played, it's just not loud and punchy enough for me. Sure, there is some reasonable sustain going on here, but it's sustaining from a very low starting point. I found myself really hammering it trying to get a bit more life out of it, but it's just not coming. I wouldn't say it sounds strangled so much, or muffled, just subdued. Just like the Montecito I think that's a shame. The character of the tone tells you what it might have been...
The cause is probably a combination of things. The gloss is patently too thick on the top for a start, and whilst the top wood seems thin enough, I suspect that it's over braced inside - quite common with ukuleles made by guitar makers. A shame, because I think this could quite easily be made into something with a bigger sound. Fine for home picking on the sofa or in the garden, but take this to a ukulele club and play alongside 20 or so others and you will just be lost.
Still - this aint a 'bad' ukulele at all, and it's certainly well above the halfway point between Venice and Montecito that the price would suggest. For playing at home, for fun or into a microphone this will suit a lot of people down to the ground. It's certainly attractive and well made and has a very pretty sound to boot.. Oh how I wish it had a bit more bark though...
Nice looks that are really growing on me
Good overall build
Light and balanced
Yes.. that headstock
Chunky guitar style tuners
Finish is over done in places
Looks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8 out of 10
Sound - 7.5 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.3 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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