Barnes and Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele - REVIEW

20 Jun 2021

Barnes and Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele - REVIEW

If there is one style of ukulele I don't have enough reviews of on Got A Ukulele, it's ukulele banjos. To help redress the balance this week I'm looking at the UBJ2 from Barnes and Mullins.

Barnes Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele

Ukulele banjos, banjoleles, banjo ukes - call them what you like, but they are a key part of ukulele history and, despite dividing players quite vociferously (as a sneak peek social media post I put up recently showed to very miserable effect) are enormously popular with some players. They are essentially small regular banjos with four strings and the usual nylon style ukulele strings. Aside from the scale and strings though they share everything else with a regular banjo. This UBJ2 is one of two banjo ukes made by British instrument brand Barnes and Mullins, the other being a slightly bigger potted version with a resonator called the UBJ1. It's made in China like much else from B and M.

Barnes Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele pot

This model is in soprano scale, and that itself is a more unusual* offering in the uke banjo world. What's also shrunk down here is the size of the pot which is a mere six inches compared to the more normal eight or more. The diminutive scaling means it immediately struck me as looking 'cute' and a lot of fun. It really is pretty tiny! 

*I say unusual in today's market as I recall seeing quite a few historic banjo ukes with tiny pots made in the mid 20th Century.

The pot here is made of laminated maple which is heated and bent into the six inch ring. It's actually a ring of two halves and you can quite obviously see the two joints on the inside. It's stained in a darker brown and finished in a satin. In what always seems to be a theme with Barnes and Mullins instruments the finishing is a little scruffy here and there. That's not to say their are scuffs or scratches, but rather some ugly colour stains on the pot where it looks like someone was a bit too liberal with the staining brush. Purely cosmetic of course. There is no back resonator here, but this model seems to be more about simplicity and, if I am honest, I prefer it for being open backed.

The head is an artificial vellum made by Remo (a standard bearer in banjo heads) and is held in place by a and aluminium tension hoop topped with a more decorative chrome rim and ten adjustable tension hooks in the usual fashion. My OCD alarm is in overdrive because they didn't fit the head on this one so that the logo is straight. Talk about irritating, and to straighten it would be a real hassle akin to fitting a new drum head. Of course, this may be a one off and it doesn't affect the sound at all, but it still speaks volume about attention to detail in the quality control department.  Argghh!

Barnes Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele tail piece

The bridge is the usual three footed maple banjo bridge with a notched ovangkol cap holding the strings at a spacing of around 40mm. The strings run over this and terminate to a chrome tail piece where they are tied off in holes in the metal.

Barnes Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele bridge

The neck is made of maple stained the same colour as the pot and is attached using a metal dowel pole running to the tail. There is also a second bolt at the top of the pot which means that I don't think the neck is adjustable for height like many banjo's are. (ADDENDUM - I believe this CAN be adjusted - but only slightly. Another reason I keep away from banjos..)  There is a very thin stack at the extremely chunky heel and also a well hidden joint in the headstock. The profile is extremely round like a broom handle, though that does tend to be the way of things with uke banjos. It's also narrow at only 34mm at the nut and 27mm G to A. Not for me, though your mileage may vary.

That is topped with an ovangkol fingerboard which also displays the usual Barnes and Mullins scruffiness as it's both dry and has some sort of muck surrounding some of the frets. It desperately needs a scour with wire wool and oiling! It comes with a generous 19 frets and has no sharp ends on account of the attractive cream edge binding down each side. Position dots face out at the 5th, 7th, 10th, double 12th and 15th and thankfully these are repeated with black dots on the side.

Barnes Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele neck

Beyond the bone looking nut is an interesting shaped headstock that has a kind of zig zag top profile. The Barnes and Mullins logo is a white screen print and looks 'old timey' to match the looks of the instrument. Sadly once again there are some finishing 'stains' in the wood up here too which detract. It also looks overly large to me with the tuning post collars looking very sparse and lost. I think a headstock like used on the Bowley would look even better here.

Barnes Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele headstock

The tuners are unbranded open gears with chrome buttons. Looking at the gear mechanisms more closely they are clearly not ultra cheap, they work well and are smooth.

Barnes Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele tuners

Finishing the deal are an unspecified string set that look like clear nylon to me, a spanner to adjust the drum tension, and these come in with an RRP of about £199. You will, however, regularly see these discounted down a little to about £180 or even less, so do shop around. That's a pretty decent price for a banjo uke to be fair.

Let's have a play and first I will point out that it nice to hold. A lot of people who are anti-banjo cite reasons of comfort as being a problem and largely I agree with them. This is not anywhere near as light as a wooden soprano at 1.04kg of course, but it's actually rather comfortable to hold on account of the small size. In fact I can play this standing without a strap with no problem. It's balanced well too and feels solid in the hands. Sadly the out of the box setup at the nut is far too high meaning first position chords and notes tend to play sharp. That should have been sorted out by the brand or the dealer before despatch. Add in the naturally softer nylon strings and cramped string spacing and I actually found it hard to play and NOT squeeze the strings sharp.

Barnes Mullins UBJ2 Banjo Ukulele rim

The volume, like all banjo ukes is terrific - and being open backed you can vary the sound quite a bit based on how you hold it to your chest.  But that's hardly a revelation for a banjo, how could it not be loud? Sustain, also like all banjo ukes is poor, but that is not a criticism - that's just how they sound. It's a staccato short sharp attack of an instrument sound. No complaints with either so far.

When it comes to the sound, this is where I have to hold a hand up and admit to always feeling a little out of my depth when it comes to reviewing banjo ukes. I play lots and lots of wooden ukes and consider I have a good ear as to what a decent one sounds like, but when it comes to banjos I am never quite sure what the sign of quality actually is. So when you see the review video, do tell me your thoughts. One thing that will come through is the iffy intonation. That is partly down to the high nut without doubt, but I always find intonation a tough cookie on a banjo regardless. To set the bridge you need to move it yourself so the distance between the crown of the 12th and the bridge is the same as the distance from nut to the 12th. I have done that and also double checked it with a strobe tuner for the note at the octave - it is set BANG ON (or as close as it can ever be). Yet, to my ears it still sounds a little weird. Banjos always do to me. Am I missing something? Anyway - bear that in mind when you hear it as I am sure the nut can be adjusted.

Tone wise, yes it sounds like a banjo - sharp, shrill, noisy and in your face. On the upside I can see how this could be a lot of fun for percussive strumming and, I assume, some porch picking, though for me I find the sound overly thin and brittle. That is not merely me being sniffy at banjo's, I am saying that compared to larger pot banjo ukes I have reviewed or things like the Magic Fluke Firefly which I have a soft spot for. That last one in particular just sounds much warmer to my ears. Add on top of that the fact that you have the usual issue of echoey ghost note, although to be fair they can be easily calmed by putting a folded rag or cloth inside the uke. That all sounds very negative and I have to point out the unavoidable issue with my subjectivity here. The banjo uke sound is simply not my favoured tone. Objectively though, aside from the intonation issue requiring setup this works as expected and gives off that punchy bark that one would expect. I really do like the form factor too. It plainly works as a banjo uke, but I hardly think this model is the answer to heal the divide.

I get that banjo ukes are not for everyone so you are either IN the camp or you are not. For those that like them this is still something of another mixed bag, but I am still erring more on the positive than negative. Some of the finishing ugliness annoys me, but otherwise the whole thing is solid and put together well. I love the cute small look of the thing and it's surprisingly easy to hold. Volume is never an issue with banjos and certainly not here. It does have a thin tone though with lots of ghost notes. It's just not very warm. The setup is poor here too and I really wish Barnes and Mullins would get a grip on quality control as I always like their core instruments, just less so the final finishing.  Still, it's not a huge sum of money for a banjolele and suspect it is worth a look if this is your thing. Choose your dealer carefully though!




UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Model: Barnes and Mullins UBJ1 Banjo Ukulele
Scale: Soprano
Pot: Laminated Maple
Head: Remo, 6 inch
Bridge: Three footed maple with ovangkol cap
Spacing at bridge: 40mm
Neck: Maple
Fingerboard: Ovangkol
Frets: 19
Nut: Bone
Nut width: 34mm, 27mm G to A
Tuners: Unbranded open gears
Strings: Unspecified
Weight: 1.04kg
Country of Origin: China
Price: RRP £199

UKULELE PROS

Really cute small look
Generally put together well
Well dressed frets
Decent tuners
Good volume (well, duh...!)
Not a bad price

UKULELE CONS

Wood staining here and there detracts
Poor condition to the fingerboard
Chunky neck profile, narrow nut.
Wonky drum head is highly irritating!
Poor setup on this example
Rather thin, brittle sound, though is that normal?

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8 out of 10
Sound - 7.5 out of 10
Value for money - 8.5 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.3 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW






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5 comments :

  1. Hi.
    Thank you for your review.
    Do you prefer this ukulele banjo to the Gold Tone Little Gem or vice versa?

    Pete

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not at all impressed with this instrument. I play a cheap Kmise banjo uke which is miles better. Maybe some filing work on the nut might improve it. Not keen on not being able to adjust the neck either.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I don't think this would replace my Gold Tone Little Gem but I do like the traditional look on this one. Just over a year ago I bought a Rocket banjo uke for the middle grandson which sounded better than this and to my mind it was constructed better. The price at Lamberts Music was around £100 which I thought was about right for what may have been a kids whim he now is worthy of a better instrument !!

    ReplyDelete
  4. this type of banjolele is easy to adjust. you don't adjust the neck but you adjust the body

    ReplyDelete
  5. My tenor banjolele, also made in China, sounded similarly bad. I even tried two sets of regular tenor ukulele strings. I then researched, purchased and installed special LaBella's No. 13 banjolele strings. Big, big improvement. I'm of the opinion that the unwound nylon strings most banjoleles come equipped from the factory with do not have enough mass to properly transmit vibrations accurately through the bridge and onto the head. And regular tenor ukulele strings didn't either. As a result the instrument was difficult to tune and sounded somewhat sour. The new set of banjolele strings made a huge difference in the tuning, the sound and also in the playing.

    ReplyDelete

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