Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

31 May 2020

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

Back this week with another hand built ukulele. Once again we go over to Minnesota, USA to look at creation from Bonanza Ukuleles. This one is their 5 string tenor.

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele


I've featured many ukuleles from Bonanza, the brainchild of cabinet maker Pete Mai and his wife Shelley, and they have all been, without exception a joy to look at. They also always have that knack of making me think 'that won't' work and and then proving me wrong. And that's because they are unconventional in the build. Yet.. Pete knows how to to work with wood and he gets them right!

This 5 string is essentially an example of other options available on their standard ukes that Pete can offer when you are ordering. I'll come on to the 5 string concept later in the review, but it's otherwise a similar build to many of his others, not least the Oreo ukulele which was the first to use this construction concept. The body is made from two blocks of wood that are routed out, leaving some bracing behind to create two clamshell halves. They are then sealed together with a middle ring of a different wood to provide both a touch more depth, but also an attractive stripe. I've honestly not seen anything like this from anyone else, and as I say above, despite being convinced it couldn't work, it really does.

The woods on these instruments are your choice so you can mix and match what goes into your instrument. This particular example uses cherry on the front and back pieces and the central stripe is aspen. It's also slightly deeper in the body on this example, and that is a cost extra if you want it, though not a huge one.

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele body

Like other Bonanza ukes it employs a through body bridge where the strings go through star decorated holes into the body. It's made of walnut and uses a corian straight topped saddle. I like how it's not overly huge.

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele bridge


Decoration here is quite minimal for Pete (!!) though those who know his work know that you can specify all sorts of etchings and designs if you want them. Here though it's just a rope etching around the oval sound hole and I think it looks classsy and understated because of it. The body is then finished in a hand rubbed satin which is glassy smooth and wonderful on the fingers.

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele decor

Inside is very tidy as there is no 'construction' as such that can create a mess. That's because, as I say above, the braces and bridge plate are routed into the body woods themselves. It's therefore really clean inside.

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele inside

The neck is made of mahogany and is bolted on. I like the diminutive heel because the body is narrower in depth, and it's pleasingly flat all the way along the profile. It's made of three pieces though the joints at the heel and headstock are very well hidden. Being a 5 string it's naturally wider at the nut and this comes in at just over 38mm and 31mm G to A.

Topping the neck is a walnut fingerboard which is nice and even in colour. It uses Pete's self bound fret system, where the fret slots don't run to the edge of the fingerboard. This means the frets sit within it and give the impression that the edges are bound, but they are not. This hides the fret ends and means zero sharp ends. Excellent. You get 18 of those with 14 to the body joint.  Fret markers are possibly my favourite design element on this model. They are wooden inlaid shooting stars at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th offset to the side of fingerboard and look great. Even better, because they are inlays that run right to the end, you see the ends of them in profile on the side of the neck and they act as side markers! Clever!

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele neck

Beyond the corian nut is the usual flat topped Bonanza headstock which uses a veneer of woods to match the body and has the Bonanza logo etched in the top.

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele headstock

Tuners here are Graphtec Ratio planetary tuners, though Pete can offer you alternative brands if you want them.  They are not my favourites as I have said before, but that is really only down to the looks which I still think look like doorknobs. They do work well as tuners though and are extremely smooth.

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele tuners

Finishing it off are Seaguar fishing line strings on the high G, C, E and A with a LaBella classical guitar string on the low G. You also get a couple of strap buttons.  And in this spec, bearing in mind a price uplift for the 5thstring and deeper body, this comes in at $439. Not bad at all for a handmade ukulele, though naturally more than the standard Oreo price of $389.

Like all other Bonanza ukes I have seen it's extremely well made, yet you still know it's handmade. Very minor tool marks give it a feel that it was made by a person, not a factory line and I really like that. It feels re-assuring and solid too, while not feeling overly heavy or off balance. Just great in the hands really.

And despite me always expecting the opposite with the way these are built, the volume and sustain are both good, particularly the sustain.  The first Oreo I looked at was a touch quiet, but I know Pete since changed the bracing and that really improved things as I saw on the Saguaro. I sense it's a bit stronger again on this model, and that could be to do with the slightly deeper body and possibly the dreadnought shape. It's very good. Sustain is remarkable too considering how it is built. It really does ring!

But we need to get on to that 5th string for those who don't know what they do. A traditional 5 string ukulele doesn't mean you have an extra 'note' to play with, as some people assume. It still uses four courses and is therefore played exactly like any other 4 string ukulele. The two G strings (one re-entrant, one low G) are designed to be played at the same time as one string. It's the same concept as the paired strings on a mandolin or an eight string ukulele. Is it more difficult to play? I'd say yes, but only a little. You have to be a lot more precise in how you fret the G strings and how you pluck them. In fact I fluff that a little in the video, but that says more about the player than it does the ukulele! As for the benefits, the double string gives you the 'best of both worlds' of the traditional chime and brightness of the re-entrant string together with the added bass of the low G. They are not somehing I have ever hankered for myself, but I know a lot of people love them.

Bonanza 5 String Tenor Ukulele back

And it works well on this example. As I say we have good volume and sustain here, but, the extra string aside, I can hear that we have an extremely pretty sounding ukulele that is clear as a bell an has a good dynamic range. It's lovely to listen to whether fingerpicked or strummed, and strumming in particularly shows how well it harmonises with itself.  I think again that the dreadnought body and wider waist is allowing the mids to come through more than with a regular double bout and that's a good thing. It's a richer tone than I expected.

The added 5th string then adds more to that richness, bringing in a much fuller tone on the lows and really rounding the sound out. It does take more concentration to play to not make it clang a little, but as I say, that says more about me than the instrument. Is it 'needed'? Well, impossible to say, but I know people like them even if I have never hankered after one. It's a nice alternative, though I suppose I am happy enough with a regular 'one or the other' uke.

All in all though it's another example of a nice instrument from Bonanza and, for want of a better pun, one that shows another string to their bow... It's one of the things I like most about them, because you are working with the builder, he really can offer a lot of options. It would mean nothing if they were badly made of course, but i've never come across a bad one from Pete. So as always with Bonanza, very highly recommended.

https://www.bonanzaukuleles.com/default.asp

UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Name: Bonanza Ukuleles 5 String
Scale: Tenor
Body: Cherry Clamshell with Aspen strip
Bridge: Through body Walnut
Saddle: Corian
Neck: Mahogany
Fingerboard: Walnut
Frets: 18, 14 to the body, self bound
Nut: Corian
Nut Width: 38mm, 31mm G to A
Strings: Seaguar and LaBella low G
Tuners: Graphtech Planetary
Extras: Strap buttons
Price: $439

UKULELE PROS

Great understated look
Good volume and sustain
Clear tone
Wonderful fret marker concept
Nice feeling neck
Fair price

UKULELE CONS

None really!

UKULELE SCORES

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

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.3 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW








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