Bonanza Ukuleles Bonanzalele - REVIEW

16 Jun 2019

Bonanza Ukuleles Bonanzalele - REVIEW

Oh I do like a ukulele brand that pushes the boundaries. And so it has been so far with the Bonanza Ukuleles company from Big Falls, Minnesota. I'm therefore rather pleased to be looking at their latest development in the form of the Bonanzalele ukulele.

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele

Bonanza are a husband and wife team, Pete and Shelley Mai from the USA who have sent me over a couple of ukuleles to test before. Both fell into a category if 'nahhh, that's not going to work... oh... hang on... yes it DOES work, and rather well!'. Quite unlike much else you will see in the ukulele world their HPL ukuleles and the gorgeously different Oreo ukulele both knocked me sideways for showing how you can bend the normal rules and still make a great musical instrument. But on thing they have never made is a banjo ukulele. Well until now that is... Or is it? I'm not entirely sure!

The Bonanzalele is a concert scale instrument that at first glance looks like a banjo, and works like a banjo only it differs quite dramatically in the way it is constructed. That's Pete Mai for you! Whilst a typical banjo works by stretching a skin (synthetic or actual animal skin) taught over a ring to create a drum, the Bonanzalele looks like that only... well... only ISN'T the same.

Where it is similar to a banjo is in the main body construction. So we have a hard wood ring of wood, commonly called the pot making up the guts of the body. This is formed from black walnut with an aspen stripe which sets it off beautifully. Like most other Bonanza offerings though, Pete offers a range of wood combinations so you get some choice here. Also like a regular banjo there is a back resonator to help amplify the tone which looks to be removeable if you want it open backed.

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele pot

And then the similarities end. Where are the head tension hooks? Where is the tone ring? Nope, none of that here. Instead Pete has fitted what looks to be a very thin sheet of HPL (Formica High Pressure Laminate - the counter top material he has made whole ukuleles from in his standard models) to replace the drum skin head seen on normal banjos.  This one is in a pale grain colour that kind of looks like skin, only it's a paper compisite. I suspect that if you asked Pete you could have any pattern of HPL you like here, but I like this because it looks like a banjo head. It's a really neat idea and something I have not seen before.

Transferring vibrations down into the drum head is a standard maple banjo bridge made by Grover with the usual three feet. Pete helpfully marks the correct scale length position so you can set this right because, like a regular banjo, these are moveable to set intonation.

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele bridge

The strings run over that bridge in normal banjo style to a wooden tail piece where they terminate. The tail also extends into an arm rest to take away the sharp edge pressing into the inside of the forearm. This whole piece is nicely carved and superbly finished (as is all the wood on this instrument). Pete is a woodworker by trade after all!

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele tail

Decoration is down to the buyer as Pete offers to engrave whatever designs you like with his CNC laser cutter - direct into the wood. This example comes with a cartoon fella in a Bonanza hat and the logo Lil' Jo, but you could totally personalise this if you wanted. Talking of etching - I really like the Bonanza etching on the back telling you the build number and date. Nice touch.

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele decoration

Up to the neck and this is made from two pieces of black walnut and is nice and slim on the profile. The fingerboard too is black walnut and has a really attractive grain to it. Comfort is going to be good too as we are at 38mm at the nut and about 28mm from G to A. We have 18 frets to the top of the drum, all dressed nicely. Outward position dots are fitted at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th and thankfully you also get side dots too.

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele neck

Beyond the corian nut is what I guess is the 'standard' Bonanza headstock. It's a simple shape I like, faced in more HPL to match the drum head and the laser etched Bonanza logo.

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele headstock

For tuning you get something of a choice. This example comes with the new Graphtec Ratio Tune-a-lele planetary tuners, but Pete can also offer you regular gears or indeed Gotoh UPT's for a surcharge. This is the first time i've seen these tuners in the flesh, but have been vocal about them online based on their looks. They look like doorknobs to me, but we shall see how they perform. I will make it clear from this point that these tuners will not affect my scoring for the simple reason that Pete offers a choice of several tuners - get what you like!

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele tuners

The standard deal is finished off with a set of Aquila strings in re-entrant tuning, a couple of strap buttons to go with the leather strap it comes with and starts at $329. That's extremely reasonable for a banjo ukulele. You have the option of the Gotoh UPT's as I say above for another $65 and if you want a hard fitted case that would be another $55.

So... is it a banjo? Is it a ukulele? Is it a camp ukulele styled like a banjo? I'm really not sure, and you know what, i'm not entirely sure I care either. What matters to me is whether something works as a MUSICAL INSTRUMENT and not what naming conventions are used. It's a hybrid for sure, and I am cool with that.

The next major departure from a regular banjo is the weight. Some of those banjo ukes can weigh a tonne and be rather uncomfortable for me. Even the Duke 10 banjo uke which prided itself on being light at 1kg is a heavyweight compared to this. The Bonanzalele comes in on my scales at about 690g (1.5lb). That's extremely comfortable.

The build too is typical Pete Mai in every department. He's a skilled woodworker so knows his stuff. You KNOW this is handmade, but it's wonderfully put together and finished everywhere I look. And those Graphtec tuners, despite me not liking the looks, work exceptionally well. And, in fact, just as good as Gotoh UPT's... so my view might have changed there a little! Everything is good so far!

Bonanza Ukulele Bonanzalele back resonator

So we have to come on to the playability. Firstly I am well aware that many people don't like the banjo uke sound. If I am totally honest, it's not my favourite ukulele sound, particularly the rather invasive volume, strident voice and, with cheaper instruments in particular, the ghost notes, overtones and ugly sounds that they can create. In fact, with every banjo uke I have owned I have ended up wedging a cloth under the head to calm them down. Sure... that is just me perhaps and I know many people like the 'melt your face' noise they make. Will the Bonanzalele change things?

Starting with the basics first, the playability is excellent. The combination of the light weight, the wide nut and the smooth walut fingerboard make it a joy to play. A really comfortable instrument. And being unconventional in build there are no nasty tension hoops to dig into the body, not that it would matter as the wooden armrest is also really comfortable. It does make me wonder why regular banjos make armrests out of cold metal, as wood seems a much more comfortable choice!

Volume is excellent too. No it's not banjo levels of volume, but some would say that is a good thing. To my ears it pitches above even the most punchy acoustic instruments I have played, but not in an ear-splitting way. You are neither going to drown out your jamming partners with this nor struggle to be heard. Good so far.

Tone wise, it's actually closer to a banjo sound than you would expect considering the construction. It has the staccato short sustain plucking sound in spades and sounds great to me. Ghost notes, overtones are minimal - sure they are there if you really listen but nothing at all like with any banjo ukulele I have played. All in all they sound a lot more controlled.  Maybe this is the sort of banjo sound that will really turn on the banjo curious out there. Will it annoy the real hardcore banjo nuts? Probably, but I don't really care - it is what it is.

Once again with Bonanza there is much to like here. Great build, great playability and an innovative approach for a fair price. Sure, not everyone likes the banjo sound, but I suspect his will turn a few more heads than a regular banjo would. Highly recommended!


Great build and finish
Very light
Good choice options for the buyer
Good price
Terrific volume
Less banjo nastiness


Not much I can think of!
Won't suit die hard banjo nuts


Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9 out of 10
Sound - 9 out of 10
Value for money - 9.5 out of 10






  1. Only one thing from me on behalf of lefty players of the world - why didn't Pete extend the armrest around to the same area on the other side to facilitate the instrument being played the other way around?

    1. Being a woodworker, I am almost certain that, if asked, Pete could make the same tail piece in mirror image for a lefty player

  2. I'd love to see a comparison with the Duke 10, especially the sound (and I guess playability). I know it's lighter, but for a banjo sound?

    1. Very different in a good way. Sorry. I no longer have a Duke to compare it

  3. Silly question from a novice: Is Barry making a D chord by Barre-ing the top GCE and leaving A open, all with his left pointer finger?

    1. Yes, that's how I play it - but requires a bendy finger joint to leave the a string open! Many play it with a straight barre - but that requires the pinky to go on the 1st string 5th fret to avoid putting a B in the chord.

    2. I'm a very new uke player w/ larger hands. I've a cheap and quite small soprano and have really been struggling to jam my fingers in there to make a D. Your hands look even larger than mine, and with just a few tries, I think this may be the ticket for me! Many thanks!

    3. The reviews of Bonanza instruments on this site had me doing some research. For those that didn't know, Bonanza has a youtube channel:

      On their channel, Shelley shows/demos finished instruments for their customers before they ship and this might be the most wholesome and adorable thing I've ever seen and I can't stop watching them.


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