Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C Concert Ukulele - REVIEW

27 Sep 2020

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C Concert Ukulele - REVIEW

I really like ukuleles (and reviews for that matter) that have the capacity to cause people to do a 'double take'. As you will discover I think this falls firmly into that category. This week I am looking at the Kahuna CLU-42C Concert ukulele from Harley Benton.

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C ukulele

Harley Benton will be known to many people as the 'house brand' range of instruments of the global 'big box' shippers, Thomann. They put that name on everything from electric guitars to drums, and naturally, the popular ukulele features in their range too. I actually featured a Harley Benton back when this site started out and it was pretty rotten, so I don't mind admitting that when I clicked on the order for this one, I was not expecting great things. Was I surprised though?

The 'oh so stereotypically Hawaiian' sounding 'Kahuna' CLU-42C is a concert scale ukulele, made in China and built from all laminate tone woods. (Note: there is no connection to the Canadian Kahuna brand I reviewed earlier this year - this is very much just a case of Thomann choosing something 'island' sounding in the name). It's a traditional double bout shape, but the first 'double take' will come from the quite startling looks. In fact I cheekily put a shot of this one up on social media last week and asked people to try to guess whether it was high or low end. The majority got it wrong. Sure, this is laminate, but that outer veneer is very nicely book-matched flamed mahogany with a deep reddish brown stain. Sometimes called 'fiddleback mahogany' I can attest to the fact that I gasped a little when I first opened the box. I think it's genuinely rather beautiful. This has two pieces on the top, sides and very slightly curved back and whilst some who saw the picture suggested they were not book-matched, they actually are - the effect of splitting flamed wood to book match it means that the flaming shimmer works in opposites on the two halves giving an alternating striped effect. And those stripes will change and swap around with a shift in light angle. It's very well done here and I love how the flame stripe dips to a V shape on the lower bout.

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C ukulele body

The bridge is a tie bar style in a kind of reverse moustache / 'batman logo' shape and looks rather nice if far too large for the uke body in proportions. It's tidy enough, but I think it really lets down the overall look due to those wings. The saddle is not specified, but looks to be plastic and straight topped. Confusion reigns in the product description as Thomann list this as 'Blackwood'. They then put the latin 'Pinus Radiata' in brackets, which is Monterey Pine. Blackwood is actually a confusing wood name as it can apply to several woods including some that are not black in the acacia family, as well as things like Grenadilla wood. Anyway, the fact they use that 'Pine' addition persuades me that this IS actually pine, but pine that has been chemically ebonised to harden it and turn it jet black. That's a good thing as you wouldn't want to use a regular pine for a bridge as it's so soft, but it's far from clear.  String spacing here is 44mm.

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C ukulele bridge


There is no other body decoration (and with this flamed wood, do you really need any?) other than a gloss finish which again surprised me for how well done it is.  OK, there is a bit of pooling around the end of the fingerboard and a touch of scruffiness around the soundhole edge, but i'm struggling to find any other flaws, bubbles or thin patches. I've seen worse on ukuleles costing hundreds of pounds and the gloss here really helps the flaming shimmer.

Inside is reasonably tidy and whilst the linings are notched, the braces are actually on the chunky side. There is also quite a bit of glue seepage on the top braces.  You may also spy that the top is extremely thin - something that is always pleasing to see in laminates. This looks to be far removed from the usual chunky 'plywood'. That bodes well.

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C Concert inside

The neck is made of mahogany and is also glossed. It's made from three pieces but the joints at the heel and headstock are next to invisible. Sadly the profile at the nut, whilst squashed (only slightly), is too chunky for my tastes. It's also only an average 35mm with a narrow 26mm G to A. I'd like that wider too. It's a bit too 'broom-handle' for me. 

It's topped with more 'blackwood' (dyed pine) for the fingerboard and this is a whole lot scruffier than the rest of the instrument and also lets down the looks. It looks very dry in uneven patches, has some polish build up around frets that is screaming for wire wool and some fretboard oil. Such things can be easily sorted, but it also has a couple of tooling gouges in the face which will be permanent. Clearly this didn't have quite the QC that the gloss finish did. Thankfully the sides are edge stained which mostly hide the ends of the 18 frets joined at the 14th. They are dressed reasonably well and whilst it would be wrong of me to call them sharp, they are not far off! I may have got lucky here. It's close! Pearloid position dots face out at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th and they also have corresponding dots on the side.  All in all, a very average far eastern neck really, but not an absolute disaster I suppose.

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C ukulele neck

Beyond the plastic looking nut is a headstock with a pleasingly different asymmetric top shape that sparks some interest for me. It's different and not run of the mill. The Harley Benton logo is a silver screen print under the gloss and works well with the look of the instrument too and doesn't have the 'greeting card sticker' effect to it.

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C ukulele headstock

The tuners are unbranded chrome open gears with vintage shaped buttons. They are pretty enough, but on closer inspection, the metalwork looks very cheap and they do grind a little when turned. One of the front bushings is also proud and won't seat properly as the peg hole is clearly not quite 'there'. But like all geared tuners, unless they are physically broken, they will not slip and will hold. Pretty average though really.

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C ukulele tuners

You get nothing else for the asking price bar the Aquila strings it comes fitted with and at the time of writing these will cost you £53 (plus a bit of shipping) to get into the UK and $58 in the USA. And there's your next 'double take'. Sure, one may expect laminates (albeit a very pretty laminate) to be at the cheaper end, but this is still an extremely low price when you consider that for similar money you will largely be getting very plain, satin, brown laminate mahogany or sapele instruments that look very dull and generic. You know the sort - the Amazon Kala-alikes with plain brown bodies, cream binding and laser etched sound-holes. This is exactly the reason I shared some sneak peek pictures which didn't give away the model. It genuinely looks much more expensive to me, and certainly stands out from the £50 crowd. Even the £100 plus crowd I would say, and maybe even higher than that!

Looks are not everything of course, but aside from one or two issues as mentioned above it's put together very well.  It's light at 585g and well balanced and clearly built  'right'. Even the out of the box setup has impressed me as I would do little to adjust either the nut or the saddle on this one. 

Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C ukulele back

The setup means the intonation here is good up the neck, but I still find it an uncomfortable playing experience personally on account of the profile and width. That's just me though.  The volume here is decent and the sustain is acceptable too. Not earth shattering, but also not something you can guarantee with a £50 laminate instrument on either front.

Tone wise it is somewhat one dimensional and has that trait of cheaper laminate of not so much ringing like a bell, but more echoing like a lunchbox. Still, when strummed it creates a fun jangly sound which I rather like and would fit in with many a club jam just fine. It's bouncy, it's peppy, it's what a ukulele is largely about. I've certainly heard worse at this price.  Fingerpicked the tone is more chimey and, dare I say it, even rather pretty as you get less of the echo. Where it does fall down a little for me though is that it requires quite a bit of 'digging in' to get it to project as much when played this way and the volume certainly goes off up the dusty end of the neck. Different strings could change things here, but I can only review what is on it.  Yet this makes it sound like I am looking for faults. It's really not too shabby at all and perfectly passable if not setting the world alight. It's a nice uke, and for the money the tone is more than acceptable for many people.

All in all, this has turned out to be quite the surprise. I know I majored on the look of the wood early in the review but they do matter if you are going to own and play the thing. Aside from the looks though the build here is not too shabby either really. Sure there is a bit of scruffiness, I don't like the neck and the tuners are cheap, but as I say above, I have seen much worse for more money. Yes it has a laminate boxy edge to the tone, but it's hardly offensive and projects well when strummed. Compared to many other generic ukuleles at this price point it matches them for tone (not a huge task to be fair) and dramatically beats them for looks.  I suppose my biggest worry in giving this the  decent enough score I give it below is the knowledge of where it comes from. Something is nagging the back of my mind that 'I got lucky' here as buying from Thomann means you will not get a check and setup. This is a £50 ukulele and I am certain that the QC will not be perfect on every example so the review has to come with that health warning. Like every other review though, I can only review what is front of me, and what I am seeing here is really not bad at all.  Well worth a gamble with your £50 i'd say.  



UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Model: Harley Benton Kahuna CLU-42C
Scale: Concert
Body: Laminate Flamed Mahogany
Bridge: Ebonised pine
Saddle: Plastic
Spacing at saddle: 44mm
Finish: Gloss
Neck: Mahogany
Fingerboard: Ebonised pine
Frets: 18 (14 to body)
Nut: Plastic
Nut width: 35mm (26mm G to A)
Tuners: Unbranded open gears
Strings: Aquila
Weight: 585g
Country of Origin: China
Price: £53 ex shipping (at time of review)

UKULELE PROS

No arguing with the look of the laminate
Thin laminate top
'Largely' a good build and finish
Good volume
Sustain 'not bad'
Fun strummed sound
Very low price


UKULELE CONS

Bridge is out of proportion to body which lets down the look
Scruffy fingerboard
Not my preferred neck profile or width
Cheap tuners
Needs a lot of 'digging in' for fingerpicking
Typical laminate boxiness to the tone
Beware the QC from a big box shipper


UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8 out of 10
Sound - 7.5 out of 10 
Value for money - 9.5 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.5 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW




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