Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

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13 Jan 2019

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

It's not often ukulele reviews make me nervous, but today I find myself looking at another ukulele from Epiphone. This time in the form of their brand new Hummingbird Tenor ukulele. Hold on to your hats folks.. this could be a long one.

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele


Why that opening line? Well, regular readers of Got A Ukulele will remember my review of the Epiphone Les Paul ukulele from some years back. That review went on to be one of the most divisive ukulele articles I ever wrote. I merely thought the instrument was pretty average myself (not terrible, just average), but oh boy did some of the commenters on social media disagree. Endless messages (that still come in and went through another wave during the last Christmas break..) telling me I had it 'all wrong', that I was out to 'destroy Epiphone' with some evil master plan of my own design, or that I was merely a ukulele snob. Why does such an insignificant thing cause so much consternation with people? Whatever the reason, none of those comments are true. The first (I just didn't like it) is just my opinion. On the second point, I have OWNED several Epiphone guitars and adored them. Epiphone also previously made a Masterbilt ukulele which, by all accounts, was a terrific instrument. I love them as a brand! In the case of their Les Paul offering though, I think they missed the mark by a country mile by going all out for looks over substance and not actually delivering a workable ukulele. It was pretty enough to look at I suppose, but it played very poorly in comparison to much else in the price bracket.  So it was with a certain trepidation that I arranged to review this new model.... yet another one based on a guitar...

First up with some background for those who don't know the brand. Epiphone today are effectively the 'value wing' of the Gibson guitar company, one of the most famous guitar brands on the planet. Epiphone actually started out as an independent builder in their own right, in Turkey of all places, but they are best known today for the Gibson connection which has been in place for many years. And they make really great instruments, usually lower priced versions of their eye wateringly expensive USA counterparts, but still, great instruments.  They really do. And that lower price comes down to the fact that they are made, in the main, in the far east. Now, a guitar maker is then perfectly at liberty to make a ukulele, and on occasion they may get it right. More often than not though they apply guitar building techniques to a uke build (heavy build construction, focus on looks etc etc) and get it very wrong indeed. That was certainly my opinion of the Les Paul. Surely Epiphone were aware that one wasn't so great? Who knows. They are still flogging them!

This model takes another famous and much loved heritage guitar model and turns it into ukulele form. In this case it's based on the Epiphone Hummingbird guitar, itself a value variant of the Gibson version that first appeared in the 1960s and was played by a raft of guitar megastars. Did you know for example that Keith Richards is believed to have written Satisfaction and Sympathy For The Devil on a Gibson Hummingbird? Kudos indeed. If it's not immediately obvious, the name comes from the hummingbird motif on the scratch plate, which is repeated here on the ukulele version. Guitar nuts may also be interested to note that the Hummingbird was the first square shouldered Dreadnought made by Gibson, giving it that distinctive flat top to the body either side of the neck.

Like the original Hummingbird guitars, this one has a solid Sitka Spruce top which is nice to see here and indicates that, unlike the Les Paul, Epiphone are at least trying to make a decent sounding musical instrument rather than just mere eye candy. It's made of two pieces for the top, back and sides. Also like the originals the back and sides are made of mahogany, but in this case laminate mahogany that Epiphone have chosen to dress up as something special calling it 'select'. Select laminate... I ask you... It's pretty standard looking mahogany laminate to me... Still, it's nice to see that solid top though.

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele body


And it's put together in that trademark straight shouldered dreadnought shape. It's a very different shape for a ukulele without the more usual curvy bouts and narrower waists, but despite there being many people who don't like ukuleles that look like guitars, I actually like this shape a lot. In fact I am a proud owner of another dreadnought in the form of my KM Ukuleles Concert made by Kevin Mulcock in the UK. I like the fact that the shape is not so common and in the case of that one made by Kev, I found the fatter waist really gave a breadth to the tone in the way a pineapple shape does. It works.

The top is rubbed into a sunburst finish, created by adding a dark stain to the pale spruce then buffing out the central section. This one is called Tobacco Sunburst, but they also offer the same model in Faded Cherry Burst, where the darker areas are a bright red colour. I prefer this style and think it looks classier myself, and in fact own a couple of guitars with this finish too. Saying that, purists may say that a Hummingbird should be in cherry burst or plain spruce, so there you go. Choices I guess. The back and sides are straight up mahogany finish and look nice and even in colour if unremarkable. The whole body is then finished in gloss which helps make the colours pop and shine. The finish wasn't my issue with the Les Paul, as it was very good and the same applies here.

The bridge is a tie bar style made of Grenadillo wood, a dark exotic hardwood with properties similar to rosewood, in what Epiphone call a 'reverse belly' shape, again reminiscent of the guitar style. For a ukulele though I think there is too much wood going on here attached to the vibrating soundboard and would prefer it smaller side to side. Just because it works on a guitar doesn't mean it suits a ukulele. Putting 'stuff' on a uke top that is not needed is a bad idea. It's fitted with a saddle made of U-Rite material which, despite much Googling, I am still none the wiser! It looks like plastic to me.

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele bridge


Decoration wise you have cream top and back binding with black purfling on the top, and a classy looking simple soundhole ring which looks like a transfer.  You also get a cream heel cap too. And, of course, that scratchplate...  Shaped just like the guitar variant and with the same flowers and hummingbird motif, it had to be here really. No, I don't like scratch plates on ukuleles, don't really see the need for them and in fact don't really like anything on a ukulele top that will serve to dampen the resonance. It's the same as my comment on overly large bridges. Unlike a guitar, a uke doesn't have much wood to vibrate as it is, so please don't over do things to work against the resonance.

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele pick guard


Inside is tidy if very simple. The bracing doesn't appear to be too heavy, but the linings are not notched. Still it's tidy. What it does show me is that the soundboard top is rather thick. I hope that doesn't spell bad news for resonance and volume.

Up to the neck, this is made of mahogany and in three pieces (heel and headstock joints) but you would be hard pressed to spot them on account of the dark stain under the gloss. Unlike the Les Paul, it's a set neck, so not bolted on the back. Epiphone call it a 'Slim Taper C Profile' but I think it's just a generic far eastern overly rounded shape. It's finished in gloss too. At the nut it is a stingy (for a tenor) just under 37mm and about 26/27mm G to A. That's too narrow for my liking.

Topping this is a Grenadillo wood fingerboard with a slight radius of 12". That is nice to see. For those wondering, a radius on the fingerboard means it is slightly curved on the top a side to side making for a comfortable feel that the fingers tend to naturally form to. The 12" signifies the severity of the curve. If you imagine a 12" circle, then the fingerboard has a curve the same as the edge of that circle. A lower number means a more severe curve because of a narrower radius to the circle. 12" is comfortable on a ukulele and is the same as on the Godin Electros and Mya Moe ukes so i'm happy.  It's also cream edge bound which sets it off even more.  You also get the same parallelogram inlaid fret markers as you see on the guitar, placed at 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17 and 19. Sure, that's total overkill for a ukulele, but like the scratch plate it wouldn't be a Hummingbird without them I guess. Still, you also get side markers in the cream edging. It's fitted with 19 medium nickel silver frets which are comfortable on the ends on account of that binding.

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele fingerboard


Beyond the U-Rite nut, we have the typical Epiphone headstock shape which is near identical to the Les Paul Ukulele. I think it looks overly narrow because of the shape choice, and looks better when on a wider nut guitar but there you go. The Epiphone logo and fan motif are inlaid in pearl which is a nicer option than a screen print. You will also spy a cover plate over the truss rod socket holding the Hummingbird name. As I always say, I see no real need for a truss rod adjustment on a ukulele, but there might as well be nothing under the plate as, like the pick guard, you just need it to keep it authentic I suppose!

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele headstock


Tuners are open gears with vintage shaped chrome buttons very similar to those on the Les Paul. For total authenticity these really should have pearl buttons here. Why go to all the trouble of matching the pickguard, the fret markers and even the truss cover and then NOT get the tuner buttons right?

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele tuners


It comes with unnamed black and very cheap feeling strings, a decent enough gig bag and you will have spied an output jack on the lower bout. It's fitted with a passive piezo pickup letting you plug it in. And that all comes in at a price of around £170. That is a reasonable ticket price for a solid topped ukulele with a pickup and this level of decoration I must say. Yet, the Les Paul was also reasonably priced and, well, let's not go there again...

And like the Les Paul, to be fair is very good here. But the one obvious area this appeals to me more is it has a traditional ukulele body with a full sound chamber - an ACTUAL uke. I KNOW the Les Paul was a copy of an electric, but I never saw the point of why they put a sound hole on it for that reason. The sound chamber was tiny and the instrument lacked any resonance for acoustic play. This is completely different was we have a full solid top over a regular full sound chamber.

The gloss is however a bit over done for my liking and looking at edges and joints you can see that it is rather thick. Whilst that does wonders for the look of the wood, thick glosses are not great on ukuleles as they can sap the resonance and tone. Still, it is a pretty enough ukulele, even if it does look like a guitar.

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele jack socket

To hold it the instrument feels solid and well put together, but you can feel that there is a lot going on. Whilst I would not say it is uncomfortably heavy, it does have some weight to it, and that's a worry with a uke. In addition to that it is also slightly body heavy. Whilst that is far better than being neck heavy, it's still not right and annoying. That's usually down to a hefty active pickup system with battery gouged into the side of the body, but this is a passive system. As such, I think it's heavy down there for the simple reason that it is a touch over built. It's probably down to a mix of excessive bracing, the thick tone woods and the thick gloss. Light and snappy like a drum this is not. In playability terms I would also point out that I find the nut to be far too narrow for a tenor, at least for someone with hands as big as mine. Not for me at all, but, granted, for many of you it will be comfortable.

Before I get into the sound I will also say that it's a somewhat difficult one to review based on the strings that come with it. As I always point out, my reviews are written based on the stock strings for a very simple reason - many people don't want to change strings, and those that do will change them to a variety of choices. It would therefore be impossible for me to re-string it with something impartial that would suit everybody. The Les Paul had the same problem, although I wasn't convinced that the strings were the only bad thing about it and wouldn't have tried to make a silk purse out of a sows ear by changing them, but here, considering the more standard body, I most certainly would. And I would because these are just as awful. Floppy, flabby sounding and very typical of cheap nylon. They really feel like they are strangling the voice of the instrument. It is absolutely beyond comprehension why a well regarded instrument brand would think that shipping a ukulele with strings like this would be a good idea. As such, my comments below (and, of course, the video!) are naturally swayed by the strings it comes with, although I have tried not to sway the scoring.

Epiphone Hummingbird Tenor Ukulele back

Strings aside though the volume is, surprisingly.... ok. Sure it's not a 'wake the dead' level of volume but considering that hefty body and awful strings it is still projecting ok and has a passable volume level. I have no doubt that a string change to something snappier could work wonders here. I suspect that the hefty build is being countered here by the shape of the body which is giving a breadth to the tone. No bad thing.

Sustain though is less impressive from the off, but it's not completely stone dead. Again, better strings will surely help here. As it is, this is where that 'strangled' feel comes through in the tone. It's definitely a ukulele working hard against it's own strings.

Still, the tone here is rather attractive to be fair. It has a chimey sound which I am quite liking. It's really refreshing to play this one after the Les Paul as they could not be more different. I have enjoyed playing this whether strummed or picked, although do find the narrower than average nut uncomfortable/

As for that pickup - sure, it's simple and very piezo sounding, but that's to be expected. The bonus with passives though is there are no other electronics going on which are colouring the sound so played into a decent EQ you will be able to shape it quite easily. Another plus over the Les Paul is the fact they fitted this one properly and the volume across the strings is even!

Ultimately though, a big part of my thoughts on this ukulele come back to the fact I find it confusing that people would want a ukulele that looked like a guitar in the first place. And not only does this look like one, but it also uses guitar features like the surfeit of fret markers, the scratch plate etc that are just not needed on a ukulele. Whilst I will not be alone in that view, I accept that it is wholly subjective, and know many people will be enthralled by the looks in the same way as the Les Paul drew them in. That's cool, but if you are going go for the guitar look, you really do need to make it work as a ukulele too. The Les Paul didn't. This one works differently though because it's built like an actual ukulele so there is something worth looking at with the Hummingbird. The strings may be poor but there is enough here in tone and volume to tell me that this has a nice enough voice too. It's a shame that certain build elements like the hefty body and narrower than average nut make it uncomfortable for me, but it's by no means a 'bad' ukulele, and certainly is no Les Paul uke.

Ultimately if you like the looks, the price is good value for what you are getting. It's pretty well made where it matters and has a pleasant voice. A few elements of the build trouble me, but they are not life and death I suppose. The passive pickup is a nice bonus and you shouldn't hang your head in shame if you grab one of these. Possibly worth a look i'd say.

Now.. where's that J-200 ukulele?

The Epiphone Hummingbird is now available in Epiphone dealers.

http://www.epiphone.com/products/acoustics/nylon/hummingbird-tenor-acoustic-electric-ukulele.aspx


UKULELE PROS

Totally subjective looks
Well put together
Nice sunburst finish and well applied bindings / decor
Thankfully only a passive pickup
Decent enough volume
Pretty tone despite the strings
Good price


UKULELE CONS

Totally subjective looks!!
Woeful strings
Body heavy
Gloss finish is over done
Narrow neck

UKULELE SCORES

Looks -8 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 - 8.3 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW





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2 comments :

  1. When they release the J-200, I'll be all over it. :) (Not sure what it'd be like in ukulele form, but it's my dream guitar.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just bought one, this being my 60th year in "The Business" and my 60's photo's had the Hummingbird 6 string on them I couldn't resist - although I play uke, nowadays it's an Emerald Synergy Harp Uke (well 2 actually one tenor tuning one baritone although both the same size body - good old carbon fibre) - so to be fair this one is more of a nostalgic trip and novelty - even so I think it's great value, and well finished - most impressed, haven't restrung it yet but will do as I favour low G (and low D on Barry) see how it sounds then ;)
    Fair review cheers

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