Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele - REVIEW

20 Jul 2020

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele - REVIEW

It was with much fanfare that Fender announced their new 'Fullerton' series of ukuleles at NAMM 2020. It's taken a while for them to finally appear in the UK, but it stood to reason that Got A Ukulele needed to take a look.

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele
And, no doubt, this will be one of those reviews where regular readers will have pre-conceived ideas of what I am going to think (mainly because I've never yet come across a Fender ukulele I thought was all that good, and I am really not a fan of acoustic ukuleles that are built to look like guitars either).  But.. I always look to give any model a fair crack of the whip. Hey, even the last Epiphone I looked at I kind of liked! (No, really!).  It's also one of those where Fender fans will be offended if I say anything at all negative. Where those comments really get me down are when people say I am 'anti Fender' (or 'anti Epiphone')..  The reality is that, just three yards from me as I type this is my much adored USA made Fender Strat that I would run into a burning building to save. No, I am not 'anti Fender' at all. I love 'em. But I do also try to be completely impartial with reviews. Just because I like their guitars doesn't mean I have to automatically think all of their ukes are great.. We shall see with this one.

(As an aside I also find it very odd how some people get so upset with a 'subjective' review - when the very nature of a personal review can ONLY be subjective. The trick here is, if you disagree with my personal likes and dislikes - just ignore them. It is allowed. I'm not the final arbiter!).

Let's crack on. As I say, it was with much noise that the Fullerton series (named after the California town in which Leo Fender founded the company back in 1946) were launched. They are a series of three ukuleles each in the shape of an iconic Fender electric guitar. They each come in multiple colour options and you get a choice of the Stratocaster, the Jazzmaster or, this one - the Telecaster. Acoustic ukes that look like guitars.....  Even the idea isn't new - Mahalo have been making a telecaster-alike for years now and Kiwaya used to make something very similar. Heck.. even Fender have done it before with the 52 Tele of some years back!!

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele body

These are all laminate topped instruments, and aside from the shape differences, they are all identical in construction. That is to say the bodies have mahogany back and sides and a laminate spruce top. I am initially assuming that the mahogany is laminate too as they don't use the term 'solid', but do bear in mind my comments below regarding internal construction. If it is laminate, considering most laminate woods tend to sound largely the same to me, and the fact that the bodies are painted such that you don't get any outer wood difference that you can see, I am not sure why they chose different types of laminate but there you go. And they are indeed shaped exactly like their guitar counterparts, which stands to reason considering they are Fender made. I say 'exactly', you don't get the contoured shaping on the back of the Strat or the Jazzmaster, but I guess that would be difficult with a laminate acoustic construction. Because of the colouring, I can't tell you how many pieces are in the top, back and sides, but can confirm that the body depth is slim and the back has a very slight arch. Incidentally, despite Fender not using the scale name in the product description, these are all concert ukuleles at 15 inch scale length. It's also worth pointing out that these are not constructed like the Epiphone Les Paul ukulele, which had a tiny sound chamber that worked very much against the acoustic tone and volume. These are built like a regular wooden uke which is more pleasing to see. And despite me still not liking ukes that look like guitars, I have to say this does look quite attractive at a glance. Maybe that's because I'm a Telecaster fan.

The bridge is a slot style made from walnut and holds an unspecified, but bone looking, straight topped saddle.  The wooden bridge is screwed in place. It's all very tidy in finishing though this is still what they bill as the 'Fender no tie bridge' like they invented the concept... (they didn't). I do like the shape and simplicity of it though.

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele bridge

Decoration comes in the form of plastic cream edge binding to the top and back which works well with the body colour (if a little generic and cheap looking) a black pick-guard (which is stuck on and  extremely thin and cheap looking) and the outer body colouring itself. This example is 'Butterscotch Blonde' (a registered Fender colour), but it also comes in black with a white pick guard. The other ukes come in a variety of other options too. That is then all glossed which has been (largely) well done. That is to say that I can't spot any runs or pooling, but the back does show some very small pits and 'orange peel' rippling which are irritating. The colour does look very authentic Fender I have to agree.

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele pick guard

Inside is tidy enough but very simple. The braces are very thick and chunky and you get no kerfing at all which makes me wonder how thick the sides are to create a decent joint with the top and back. The top edge on the sound hole looks seriously thick and you will also spot a mass of wiring for the onboard Fender branded pre-amp. You may spot what 'appears' to be a tail block, but I am foxed by the construction. I had a much closer look with the interior camera and you may notice the grain running around what appears to be a block. It looks like there 'may' be a block there, but the side  sheets seem to wrap around it rather than the block (if it IS a block) being a distinct piece. The alternative is that the side pieces are a single ring routed out of a piece mahogany and this is part of the routing. That would explain the likely thick sides and lack of kerfing. Either way, Fender don't make it clear. Very odd!

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele inside

Readers will know my views on active pre-amps, and that I much prefer simpler passive systems, but do remember my comment on subjectivity above. If YOU like them, then that is absolutely fine! I even get how hassle free they are, allowing you to just plug in and go.  For me, I don't favour them as they add too much that can go wrong, too much weight and often can colour the tone with muddiness and noise as there are more paths in the signal chain. This is the usual sort of system powered by a button cell battery and comes with tone and volume control and an onboard tuner. That runs to an output which is offset on the base of the uke. Having seen more than one ukulele where a side mounted jack was yanked,  ripping a hole in the ukulele, I would rather it was mounted with an integral strap button jack in the middle on the tail block. Incidentally, Fender don't go to the trouble of giving you a strap button either.

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele pre-amp

The neck is made of maple (what else - duh.. Fender..) with an extremely chunky heel. I think though it had to be so in view of the body shape at the top and to be fair it matches the top contours very well and 'feels right'. It means you lose a certain Fender authenticity though as on the guitar this would be bolted in place. It looks like it's made from two pieces with a single joint in the heel and is glassy smooth and pale. The looks I like, but I absolutely despise the round, broom handle profile, particularly at the nut end. In fact, up there where it joins the headstock it's almost rectangular. It's horrid.  The width itself is an average 35mm and 28mm G to A. Not a good mix for my hands.

It's topped with a walnut fingerboard which looks a touch pale and dry. It comes fitted with 19 frets, joined at the 15th. They are bound on all edges with white cream plastic like some other Fender ukes i've looked at. Despite the edge binding the frets are only just on the edge of not being sharp. I hope their quality control is consistent! Position dots are inlaid in pearl on the face at the 5th, 7th, 10th, double 12th and 15th and you also get black dots on the side.  It's all neat enough but the neck profile and width combination is not for me and I find it most uncomfortable.

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele neck

Moving beyond that bone nut (which, incidentally is terribly shaped on the ends and very slightly too wide meaning it jabs into your hands on first position chords) is the trademark tele headstock (the Strat and Jazzmaster get Strat style). I have reviewed several Fender ukes with these before and readers know I don't like them on a ukulele. Again - just subjective, and yes, I KNOW that inline strings are better for the angle away from the nut.. but... They just look odd to me and if they were such a boon to tuning stability you have to wonder why Kamaka and Martin never used inline tuners..

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele headstock

But... I do get why it is employed here. This is meant to look like a telecaster. It looks less odd with this body pairing than it does on a traditional double bout. I could live with it, and think it would look odd without it. There. I said it! It IS a tele uke after all! Unlike the big brother guitar, the headstock dips back here to get the right break angle from the nut whereas the guitars achieve that with string trees to pull the string path down. It's glossed like the rest of the neck and also holds the usual Fender logo by way of a transfer under the gloss shine.

The tuners are largely the same as those I saw on the Fender Zuma, which is to say they use overly large rectangular covers on the gearing which are far too big for a uke. They look completely out of place to me. The metalwork doesn't look all that good quality either with obvious 'seams' on the buttons and casting marks on the stems of the pegs. They work ok I guess despite a bit of play, but I dislike the look.

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele tuners

Finishing it off are nothing more than a set of strings (no bag, no extras), and I note Fender have moved to using Aquila on their models. A good move I think as the previous Fender 'own brand' uke strings I found to be somewhat lifeless. And that can be yours for a street price of about £169 in the UK. Not a huge sum for an electro acoustic with gloss and bindings I suppose and a reachable price for many.

Let's have a play.

Generally speaking the build and finish here are ok and actually pretty good in a lot of departments (with some notable exceptions). To hold it's hardly a lightweight instrument. You know it's there. It is, also very much body heavy which I don't like and you DO notice that. Better than being neck heavy, but still annoying. Incidentally, the weight is 785g / 1.73lb.

A problem I have found with other Fender ukuleles I have looked at is that they were all a touch disappointing in the volume and sustain stakes - almost like they felt strangled by the build leaving them a little lifeless. To be fair, this isn't too bad on either of those points and it certainly has good volume. Sustain too is quite long and both of these things surprised me having seen the thick top and felt the heavy body.

Acoustically I admit that before playing it I found myself recalling my views of the utterly lifeless Epiphone Les Paul acoustic tone. I am pleased to say that it is leagues above the Epiphone. This actually works as an acoustic ukulele. Where I am less impressed is with the quality of tone when unplugged. To my ears it is far too thin sounding, too bright and brittle.  It's very one dimensional. The setup is ok and it plays accurately enough, but I found the sound irritating me after a while. It's almost shrill. Strummed it is a little more passable as the multiple string combinations ringing at once give it  something of a touch of fullness, but fingerpicking is just too much for me. I think this would stand out like a sore thumb at a ukulele jam. I'd normally suggest a string change could change the tone and mellow it, but I always tend to think Aquila strings will do that to an overly zingy sound. It has Aquila on already... It's certainly a laminate tone, but is just far too thin for me. You may like it of course, but I think you can get FAR better acoustic tone for this price elsewhere.

Fender Fullerton Tele Ukulele back

Of course you also have the plugged in option though and I do think that is the saving grace here. Yes, I know I don't like active systems, but the output here is actually clean. Unlike the Les Paul at least they fitted the pickup properly too as the volume balance across the strings is good too. Sure, it sounds a little quacky and certainly amplifies that bright tone, but then most cheaper piezo's do. Yet a lot of improvement can be dialled in with an EQ pedal and some tweaking and I don't mind a pickup needing that. Incidentally - the tone control on the uke itself is one of those 'either all or nothing' dials which doesn't give you much detailed control. I'd advise using the tone controls on your amplifier or a dedicated pedal.  But still, that's not an unusual issue either. I am happy to say that plugged in, this makes a lot more sense to me and it's not a howler at all. In fact, plugged in, it's completely passable. Fun even!

Though that brings me to a question. Fender make excellent electric guitars with steel strings. Why don't they use those skills to put out a real solid electric, steel strung tele - a model to take on the likes of Risa at their own game? Why go down the 'acoustic you can plug in' route at all - particularly if you can't make the acoustic sound all that good? An opportunity missed I'd say. That's really the bit I don't get.

Summing up, it's back to that subjectivity again.. You know I don't like acoustic ukuleles built to look like guitars. I just don't. When Fender launched these at NAMM I was massively disappointed for a simple reason - Fender ARE a good instrument maker and they have a prime opportunity to make a killer acoustic ukulele that shows what they can do. Instead they went this way. And as I say above - a true Fender steel strung solid would certainly get my attention.  But no..  Yet I have to accept, whilst it is not my cup of tea, they are clearly going after a very different market than me or even the traditional ukulele enthusiast.  Many people will enjoy the look because of what it represents and, whilst I couldn't live with it on acoustic tone at all, I can see the fun to be had plugged in using a bunch of effects. Aside from that neck and weight it's largely well made too. It's still not enough for me to really like it or buy it, but as an electro uke it works and I bet they will sell loads.

So.. I am not putting you off, and in the right situation can see this being a lot of fun for the right player. Just check your comfort with that neck and think twice about buying if acoustic sound is important to you.

(Note - the score on sound below was a tough one - I'd give it around 6.5 acoustically, but an 8.5 plugged in - so it's kind of a balance!)

https://shop.fender.com/en-GB/start





UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Model: Fender Fullerton Tele
Scale: Concert
Body: Laminate spruce top, mahogany back and sides
Bridge: Walnut - slot style
Saddle: Bone
Neck: Maple
Fingerboard: Walnut
Frets: 19, 15 to body
Nut: Bone
Nut width: 35mm, 28mm G to A
Tuners: Inline sealed gears
Extras: Pickup system
Strings: Aquila
Weight: 785g / 1.73lb
Price: £169


UKULELE PROS

Generally good build and finish
Decent  volume and sustain acoustically
Clean balanced output from the pickup
Lots of fun options with the right amp
Fair price

UKULELE CONS

Cheap looking pickguard
Horrid neck profile
Sharp nut
Body heavy
Thin acoustic tone
Silly looking tuners
Give us a real, solid, quality uke Fender.. Please!!

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 8 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 - 8.1 out of 10

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4 comments :

  1. Funny, I thought Fullerton referred to George Fullerton, designer of many legendary Fender guitar models. (Would seem appropriate)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. G&L Guitars (Leo Fender and George Fullerton’s final guitar building company) are based on Fender Avenue, Fullerton, CA. I imagine the naming of this model is based on the place rather than the man :-)

      Delete
  2. That would work, but saw some promo that mentioned their original founding. The label inside also makes reference to 1946 too when the first workshop in Fullerton was founded.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Baz, considering they offer the Telecaster Tenor guitar, the possibility of a solid body uke may not be too much of a hurdle for them, would be good to see Fender take on the likes of Risa at their own game.....here's hoping.

    ReplyDelete

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