Bonanza Wood and HPL Combo Concert Ukulele - REVIEW

18 Apr 2021

Bonanza Wood and HPL Combo Concert Ukulele - REVIEW

Back again this week with another review of a Bonanza Ukulele. This time i'm looking at the wood and HPL 'combo' concert.


Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele

Over the years I have reviewed a number of ukuleles from this USA based brand, hand built by Pete Mai in Minnesota. He's a builder who certainly goes with the more unconventional in construction and looks and many times has had me thinking 'how is that going to work?' - only to find that it works very well indeed! I've looked at his full HPL (high pressure laminate) ukuleles, his all wood ukuleles such as the famous 'Oreo ukulele', and heck, he even made one that was leaning towards the ukulele banjo! This one is, I suppose, a final part of the collection I had not looked at as it's a hybrid. This is made from a mix of HPL and solid wood.

As I've said in reviews of Bonanza ukes many times before, the key word to bear in mind is 'choice'. Pretty much everything in his line up can be customised to your liking, whether that be HPL patterns, wood choices, colours, engravings, tuners.. These are not merely 'off the peg' ukuleles. And that's an important point to note as when I shared some early pictures of this one it certainly divided my readers on looks between the 'I love it' and the 'No thanks'... This one was actually specced for a UK player who this is going on to after this review, but remember that you could get hold of one of these with a completely different 'look' if this is not to your taste. It's also why my scoring on the 'Looks' element in this review only takes account of the shape and overall look of the thing rather than the pattern! Incidentally, this is the same HPL pattern and blue top as a ukulele Pete gifted to Pete McCarty as a thank you for his remarkable 'As The Uke Turns' daily videos done since the pandemic hit us.

Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele body


The back and sides here are made from Wilsonart HPL sheets whereas the top in this one is made from Aspen, stained in a deep blue. The HPL pattern here, called 'Tutti Frutti' would not be my choice I must say, but remember that you get a lot of options on looks with this material, all of which can be seen on the Bonanza website. You also get a choice with the top too and can select other wood types although it's only the Aspen wood that comes with the choice of colour stains. You'll note that this is also a thinline body, though Pete can also make these in regular ukulele body depths. And to increase your 'choice' conundrum yet further, these are also available in all the other scales too, including baritone, and you can also have a cutaway as well... Phew!

The bridge is a through body style made from walnut and uses his trademark star engravings around the holes where the strings run inside where they are tied off with beads. The bridge is a carved top piece of Corian, and excellent substitute for bone that is as hard as stone (and even looks like it). String spacing here comes in at 37mm.

Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele bridge

Decoration also gives you choice. Aside from the ability to go crazy with your HPL pattern choice and colour on the top, Pete can engrave these with pretty much anything you like. I've seen Bonanza ukes out there with names, memorable dates, quotes, in fact anything you like laser etched in the tops. This one goes with the more simple laurel wreath type engraving around the sound hole. I'm not a fan of etchings as Pete knows and think it would be great if he offered inlays for decor. Still, you could specify no engraving at all if you are like me!

Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele decor

Inside is unconventional too, though not untidy. He uses pretty thick kerfing to keep the joints between the back secure and the top bracing is routed directly into the top wood in the same way he does it on the Oreo style ukes.

Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele inside



The neck is made of mahogany and comes with a very slight heel on account of the shallow body depth. I have no concerns about stability though as the neck is bolted in place so isn't going anywhere. It's made of three pieces with a joint in the heel and a well hidden one at the headstock end. It's glossed and more on the rounded side at the nut profile for my liking. It is, however, nice and roomy with a 37mm nut with just under 30mm from G to A.

This is then topped with more HPL for the fingerboard, which again you get a choice on, though you can also opt for a wooden fingerboard if you prefer it. I must say, whilst I would not go for the Tutti Frutti design on the body I think it looks great on the fingerboard! Whilst there is edge binding down the sides in wood, Pete sets the fret slots on his instruments so they don't extend to the ends. This means there is zero chance of sharp ends or 'fret sprout'. You get 18 of those with 14 to the body joint. Position dots in white face out at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th and these are repeated on the side. I must say, the outward dots tend to look a bit lost in the HPL design and might have been better in black.

Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele neck

Beyond the Corian nut is the usual simple Bonanza square topped headstock, with their logo etched in the top end. This too is faced in more Tutti Frutti HPL and looks great too particularly how it looks like an extension of the fingerboard.

Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele headstock

The pegs on this example are Der Jung sealed gears which are excellent tuners. Again you have choice here as he can also offer you other options like Gotoh or Graphtec planetary tuners if that is your preference. These work great.

Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele tuners

Completing the standard package are Seaguar fluorocarbon lines for the strings and a couple of strap buttons. In this spec the price comes it at $379 which, when you think about it, is entirely reasonable for a hand made instrument made in the USA and not the far east.

Like other Bonanza ukes I have looked at the build here is very sound and feels solid and re-assuring. OK, there are one or two minor finish and tooling marks here and there, but that's what I expect to see on an instrument made by hand and not a robot in a factory. Like other Bonanza ukuleles it feels substantial, especially for a thinline concert and comes in at 600g. It's not uncomfortable though and, whilst I felt the same with the first Bonanza I looked at leading me to think it would zap the volume projection, I was wrong... Is that the case here, particularly when you also bear in mind the shallow body depth?

Well, the volume here is quite startling for such a diminutive uke. It really throws the sound out with an extremely clear and pleasing punch. Sustain is not bad either - not out of the park, but certainly not too shabby. It's also really playable on account of the pleasing tactile feel of the fingerboard and roomy string spacing. Once again it's NOT what I was expecting at all and I find it quite remarkable how such a slight little thing can do that.

Bonanza Combo Concert Ukulele back

I freely admit to not knowing what a wood and HPL combo ukulele should sound like, let alone what Aspen sounds like as a tonewood, but I am really pleasantly surprised here. There is a real range of tone in this one when strummed with some obvious brightness that is mellowed out across the tonal range. It's not a bassy ukulele, and certainly more 'peppy', but I like it for that. I wouldn't say it has a 'signature' character tone that you could easily place, but it's certainly very pleasant and extremely clear. It harmonises with itself when strummed quickly creating a very nice jangle without muddiness. It's all rather pretty and bouncy to my ears. 

Fingerpicking is very pleasant too with a delicious chime all the way up the neck without a drop off in that punchy volume. No complaints here either and that comfortable neck feel makes playing it this way a real joy. I suspect the tenor version would be a great porch picker.

In trying to place the tone it reminds me very much of the sound of the Martin 0X HPL instruments. And you KNOW how I liked those.

I've said it before about Pete and will say it again.. he's bonkers. A genius bonkers that is.. His build techniques should not work, but every time I see one I am proved wrong. Sure, they are quirky and some traditionalists may gripe, but do bear in mind your choices if you don't want the funky looks.  They are certainly refreshingly different in a world where a lot of ukuleles just all look the same now. And of course - an extremely fair price for something hand made in the USA.  Another recommendation from me and certainly worth exploring his range.


UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Model: Bonanza Aspen and HPL
Scale: Concert (also available in other scales up to baritone)
Body: Stained solid Aspen top, HPL back and sides
Bridge: Walnut
Saddle: Corian
Spacing at saddle: 37mm
Neck: Mahogany
Fingerboard: HPL (Walnut an option)
Frets: 18, 14 to body
Nut: Corian
Nut width: 37mm, 30mm G to A
Tuners: Der Jung sealed gears (planetary by Gotoh or Graphtec and option)
Strings: Seaguar fluorocarbon
Extras: Strap buttons
Weight: 600g
Country of origin USA
Price: $379

UKULELE PROS

Great diminutive overall look
Good build throughout
Very comfortable neck
Terrific volume
Balanced tone with great clarity
Fair price

UKULELE CONS

One or two finishing marks
Outward position dots lost in the pattern

UKULELE SCORES

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

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW





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