ukestuff

Ukulele in secondary music education

Jowoom Smart Tuner Update

This summer I managed to get a hold of a SmartTuner, and the company was willing to sell me two for the price of one.  I posted about that device, and also created a video.  I was contacted by the company shortly thereafter, and was sent yet a third device which had been updated to tune faster, as they felt their product didn’t compare well in speed to the Roadie 2.  The tuner works as they hoped; it has all the benefits of the existing device but comes to pitch even faster.

While I have been using that updated version at home, I took both of the “old” Smart Tuners to school and have been using them with our new ukuleles, for which there is still no storage system, and the KIDS strings are still stretching like crazy.  In other words, students have not used them yet, and I try to go through and tune all of them in a storage area about once a week.  I have been using the Smart Tuners exclusively for this over the past eight weeks of school, and while I am tuning at least 71 ukuleles in a row (sometimes as many as 90), I have not had to recharge the tuners this year.  That’s pretty amazing, particularly considering how far the C and E strings go out of tune every day (they take the longest to settle, and what these ukuleles need is to simply be played and to put the strings into played and stretched condition).  On a rare occasion a C string has stretched so much that I need to use the “up arrow” to move the pitch up before the Smart Tuner can lock on to the closest note…but this is NOT a big deal.

I have not pulled out our Roadie 2 tuners at all, because dealing with selecting the instrument is a pain.  It is such a joy to simply turn on the Smart Tuner, put it on a string, and let it tune.  You have to be somewhat near the right pitch for it to work–but that’s it.  At this point, I can simply let the device tune all of the strings without having to worry about what pitch each string is going to.  It’s brilliant, and a time saver.  And if you remember, I have been experiencing rear button failures on Roadie 2 models.  That won’t happen with the Smart Tuner.

Jowoom wanted me to demonstrate the semi-auto mode that is similar to the Roadie 2, where you tell the device what string is to be tuned…but to be honest, the automatic mode is much better.  I will show this in a future video, but I prefer the automatic tuning.

And at home, I realized a past statement of mine was flawed.  I said that I couldn’t use the SmartTuner for my eight string ukuleles.  This was wrong.  There is a chromatic mode on the SmartTuner (pretty easy to get to–just hit the power key to change the mode from guitar to ukulele to chromatic) which tunes your instrument to the closest pitch.  This has been working flawlessly for me on my Baton Rouge eight string tenor and my Ohana taropatch.

The only instruments I cannot use the SmartTuner on are those instruments with friction tuners or Gotoh tuners.  All the other geared tuners work great.

The other day, someone asked about buying a string changing tool, and at one point I bought an Ernie Ball Pro Winder for school and home.  The battery died on my home Ernie Ball, and I don’t think I’d buy another one.  The SmartTuner, while more expensive, serves as a fast winder for string changes, as well as a great tuner for all of my geared instruments.  It’s brilliant, and I highly recommend it–and yes, over the Roadie 2.  The only two advantages the Roadie 2 has over the SmartTuner are customized  tunings and firmware updates.  I also like the Roadie 2’s flashing light and vibration that let you know the string is in tune (useful in noisy environments).  Sadly, the SmartTuner is not upgradeable–but it is cheaper, and in a classroom setting, so much better with the automatic feature.

Again, I bought one SmartTuner and received two models free of charge, and bought two Roadie 2 models which were replaced under warranty for faulty buttons, and one of the replacements has already started to fail.

Want to buy one?  They are currently $79 and you can purchase yours at: https://www.jowoom.com/smart-tuner-t2

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Update!

Hello!  I just wanted to let everyone know that I’m still here.  I have been waiting to post until we are back to playing ukuleles at my school.  We just opened a new school, and we have 71 Outdoor Ukuleles on hand.  The problem is that my room is still not finished, and we might be a couple of months from having our ukulele hanging system installed.

As such, I haven’t done any ukulele “diversions” this year, and we’ve been doing “straight” traditional choir this year.  Over the last two years, I like sneaking in some ukulele time once about every five classes (what would be once a week, but we meet every-other-day).

I have been slowly working on some additional play alongs, which take longer as I am now also trying to create a Baritone version for every “standard” version that I make.

Don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel at YouTube.com/ukuleletenor, and I will soon be adding some more resources as rewards for my Patreon sponsors!


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The 2018 Los Angeles Ukulele Festival

As I did last year, I am heading out on Saturday to attend the Los Angeles Ukulele Festival. I fly out early morning and come back late at night, making for a long day, but not missing any school. The flight, via Spirit Airlines, is very affordable-and it will be a joy to attend various sessions by ukulele “superstars.”

If you are coming to the festival, look for me…I’ll be wearing a ukestuff.info t-shirt!

My “Renewed” 2004 KoAloha Concert Ukulele

Last Spring, I went to a local used music store to check out a Kamaka Tenor Ukulele that was selling for $800. I went to play it, because you generally don’t see Kamaka Ukuleles in our area (there is one vendor), and certainly not at an $800 price point.

It was interesting to play the Kamaka, but I didn’t fall in love with it…but on the wall was a KoAloha concert ukulele from 2004, marked as “Mahogany,” and it was selling for $385. While there have been KoAlana models made from Mahogany, and KoAloha Opio models made from Sapele (a related variety of Mahogany), and very recent (2018) KoAloha models in Mahogany, I couldn’t recall any early KoAloha ukuleles made of Mahogany–so I contacted the company and asked if they had made Mahogany ukuleles in 2004. They replied that they had not–and that not only would the ukulele itself be made of Koa, the neck and fretboard likely would, too.

So I went back the next day, with approval from my wife, asked if I could have an educator discount, and walked out the door with a Koa “vintage” KoAloha concert for $385. It was a bargain of a lifetime.

While it looked fine and played well, the 2004 had a slotted bridge which appeared to be pulling away from the body. KoAloha has a “better than the weather” warranty, so I contacted the company and asked if that was covered. Griz (in charge of warranty repairs) got back to me and said that some early models suffered from this problem, which is why they moved to a tie bar bridge, and invited me to send in my ukulele whenever I wanted.

So I sent it as cheaply as I could…$35 via USPS. While companies can get decent shipping rates, the average person cannot. UPS would have been over $120! That was in July, and I was in no hurry…and my ukulele came back to me today. I love the new tie bar (it says “KoAloha” like the new ones), and the finish is beautiful. The ukulele used to have an “orange” appearance with the old finish–the new finish is lighter, and the wood looks more like the Koa that it is.  The only disappointment (MINOR!) is that the bridge is now white instead of black.  No worries…I’ll take it!

I’m thrilled, and I’m very happy to report that KoAloha stands behind its products 100%. This won’t be my last KoAloha (I have 3 others). I had a mishap with a strap last spring, where the ukulele dropped and there was a small crack. KoAloha fixed that–and the ukulele looks like new.

The communication was awesome from the company–and I continually insisted that they take their time as I was in no hurry…and they sent it back to me (free of charge) better than when I bought it.

A great ukulele is an investment…and while I am pretty sure that the other K brands stand behind their instruments, I know that KoAloha does. I love the sound of a KoAloha, I love the spirit of the company, and I love the customer service. I cannot recommend them highly enough.


The Lunatic Cigar Box Ukulele

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This summer, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Ukester Brown, a local ukulele teacher/performer/enthusiast.  He loves the the songs of the 1920s, and has an extensive collection of Maccaferri ukuleles (the styrene ukuleles that were everywhere in the 1950s).  I had a chance to see his collection this summer (probably one of the best on the planet) and to see his two cigar box ukulele builds.  This encouraged me to try building one myself.

I took some time off from making ukulele play alongs, and decided to build my own cigar box ukulele.  My wife and I took a trip to Memphis this summer, partly as a vacation, but partly to visit the Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob.  One day, we traveled from the Civil Rights Museum towards the center of the city, and came across a cigar shop along the route—which had a lot of boxes in the windows for sale.  I went through the boxes, and my wife encouraged me to buy one box (I was going to buy a few), so I picked out a big mahogany box (laminate), and then dragged it along with me the rest of the day.

We went back to the hotel room and I ordered parts…and there was a neck/fretboard/tuner/bridge/nut/saddle combination that was for sale (concert scale), so I ordered it from eBay.  Sadly, the company contacted me 24 hours later and let me know they no longer had the item, so they refunded my money and I had to order everything separately.

I did so, and when we got back from Memphis, I ordered parts and started working on the ukulele.  I made a video of every step in the process, and that video appears below.  I share my thoughts—having no experience building a ukulele—along the way.  I made a lot of mistakes with the ukulele.  Examples?

  • The sound holes cut with a dremel tool faster than I thought, and I made mistakes.  I did my best to make the sound holes look okay…but close inspection shows the flaws.
  • I glued the bridge in the wrong space originally, even though I took a long time to measure and remeasure.  I think I measured at the top of the 12th fret (i.e. the 11th fret) originally, rather than at the bottom of the 12th fret…but I caught the mistake before the glue had completely set.  As a result, there is a sanded patch above the bridge that is visible…right now I am thinking of it as part of the charm rather than a major flaw.  I might stain it later…but probably not.
  • I cut the fretboard as it didn’t measure the same as other fretboards that I have.  That was a mistake, and I was able to glue it back together.

I knew—as soon as I saw the box—how I wanted to cut sound holes (f-holes), and many other details worked out as I built the ukulele.

If you are curious about parts, here is what I bought for this project…just under $90:

  • Box: $3.00
  • Concert Neck & Fretboard: $15.00
  • Bridge, Nut, and Saddle: $2.50
  • Box Corners: $7.00
  • Martin M600 Strings: $7.00
  • Interior Bracing: $5.00
  • Stain: $8.00
  • Tuners: $13.00
  • Music Nomad Octopus: $15
  • Small wood planer: $10
  • Titebond: $2.50

If you are going to buy tuners from China (eBay), be sure to buy 2 sets.   I would have been short tuners (there are left/right tuners) had I bought one set.  Some of these are tools that will be used for other projects, but I still bought them for this build.

The greatest surprise of all was how good the ukulele sounds, even though it is made of really thick laminate.  I was sure it would be a dead sounding box—as many cigar box ukuleles are.  I was okay with just hanging the ukulele on the wall as a conversation piece.  I think the giant box has a lot to do with its nice sound—I’m not sure a smaller build would sound better.  Cigar box ukuleles and guitars come from the depression, in a time period where many people couldn’t afford a real instrument—even an instrument as cheap as a ukulele—but they could fashion them out of other items.

I don’t consider myself an expert in the construction of cigar box ukuleles.  If I were to do this again, I might want to try using a CNC to create a neck/headstock and bridge.  I do want to look at starting a club at our school where students will paint and build their own ukulele (looking at Ohana kits), but that’s a different focus altogher (MUCH easier).  I would simply say that if you are interested in building your own cigar box ukulele, you can.


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Ukulele Video Play Along Podcast

The next episode is out today!


Video Play Along Lists Updated!

Today I went through the process of updating all of the play along lists…something I haven’t done since the end of June.  You can find the lists in the “Video Play Along” category of this blog.

Some interesting items…we are over 650 songs in the main list, and I have contributed over 300 songs myself to the project.  I also added a new category for Baritone Play Alongs–19 of those so far.

I will also let the owner of ukeability.org know that the database has been updated, and hopefully ukeability will soon reflect the added songs as well.

Don’t forget that I am offering a curriculum/organization of these videos as a Patreon reward.  The first five chords include more than ninety songs!


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Jowoom Smart Tuner T2

Last year, my friend Paul Marchese (find his awesome work at ukuleleforteachers.com) introduced me to the Roadie 2 automatic guitar/ukulele tuner. While many players have no need for such a device, if you start acquiring a large number of ukuleles, or if you work with a group (classroom or adult group), it might be very much to your advantage to have a smart tuner on hand. These devices act like a string winder that bring your ukulele to the correct pitch. This is brilliant, as you can tune without worrying about what you are doing–and chances are that the device will do a better job of fine tuning than you will. Truly–you can tune and hold a conversation, start class, or wander the room with an in-tune ukulele, swapping as you tune ukuleles for students during class. This is all pretty wonderful.

Please note that there are a number of purists that believe you should only tune by ear using a tuning fork. These are people that have not had to tune a classroom set of ukuleles or have had to try to tune in the middle of a ukulele jam session. They can have their tuning forks–I prefer my smart phone, clip on tuners, and smart tuners.

A couple of months ago, Daniel Hulbert (circuitsandstrings.wordpress.com) did a review of the Jowoom Smart Tuner, and I had recently purchased two of the Roadie 2 models for our school. What was interesting to me was the price point–the Jowoom device was significantly cheaper, so I reached out to the company to try to acquire a device for review. We played e-mail tag for a few months, and they recently sent me two devices (one will be at school, the other at home as my personal device) at a reduced price. With this review, I need you to know that I did not pay full retail for the device, but that I did personally pay something ($79) for the tuners. The Roadie 2 tuners were bought for full price from Amazon by my school’s choir booster account.

As there is only one other smart tuner on the market (to my knowledge), the Roadie 2, I have to compare the two devices. Both are small devices that are meant to travel with you. Both are black, and both have LCD displays to let you know what is going on. From that point, they differ.

The Jowoom is shaped a bit more like a gun, and is a heavier piece of equipment, which I actually prefer. The Roadie 2 was 3.1oz, the Smart Tuner 7.5 oz. Neither is heavy, but the Jowoom feels more like a power tool. The Roadie 2 interacts with you using a single button and a dial, whereas the Jowoom interacts using a collection of 5 buttons. The Jowoom tuns traditional GCEA ukuleles (with the option for low G) as well as DGBE ukulele through the guitar setting, with customizable tunings on guitar. The Roadie 2 can be customized for any number of tunings through its companion app (Android or iOS). Simply put, I cannot create a tuning model for my 8 string tenor on the Jowoom, although I can do so with the Roadie 2.

In use, the Jowoom tunes in smaller increments, causing a bit of a “jerk” with each consecutive adjustment, whereas the Roadie 2 spins more rapidly and smoothly to pitch. Both get the job done. When the Roadie 2 reaches pitch, it flashes (both an LED in the front, and an LED that flashes green on the back), vibrates, and emits a beep. The Jowoom has a countdown to pitch (it shows the percent off-pitch) and beeps when it reaches pitch. The Roadie 2 jumps to the next pitch once reaching pitch (the main LED turning blue), whereas the Jowoom has two settings–an automatic setting that has worked consistently for me, tuning any string in the proximity to the right pitch. You can put the Jowoom on any closely mistuned string, and it automatically tunes to the right pitch. In such a case on the Roadie 2, you have to select a tuning, then select a string.

While the Jowoom may tune in a “jerky” motion, it seems to disern “pitch” faster than the Roadie 2…there is often a pause between the Roadie 2 indicating “in tune,” whereas the Jowoom beeps instantly upon reaching pitch; it just seems to read the pitch faster.

In the tuning process, each device has some challenges. As previously mentioned, the Roadie 2 requires you to select the instrument (the company, in e-mail, has suggested a separate profile for every instrument you own–not a reality in a school setting) and then tune or select a string for tuning. There have been a number of situations with the Roadie 2 where it begins to tune and then just keeps winding (this happens in the video), and I have to take the winder off before it breaks a string. I am sure that the company knows about the problem, and I do not know what they can do about it. The Jowoom has not exhibited this behavior, and other than the “jerky” nature of the tuning, I have used the tuner and missed the beep that says it is in tune. The vibration of the Roadie 2 really helps in that regard. There are LEDs on the side of the Jowoom, but these don’t face you at least half of the time.

In terms of construction, the Roadie 2 is dependent on that back button, and I have had 2 fail, and of our two Roadie 2 models, a third one is failing, too. I do not think there is a way to replace the button, and they were very accommodating to send two new units to me (again, one of them has a failing button, too). So that does concern me. I haven’t had the Jowoom long enough nor put it through its paces tuning at school (that’s coming…I have 71 ukuleles to string up with KIDS ukulele strings this week) .

The Roadie 2 has a “tune up” only feature that I have not enabled, as string players are generally taught to “only tune up, never down.” When you are tuning 60 ukuleles at a time, this convention can be saved for ideal situations. One of the things that I really like about the Jowoom is that it has two buttons that allow it to be used as a traditional string winder. I currently have an Eddie Ball String Winder, which I would recommend for any school setting–however, if the Jowoom replaces that, and the cost of the separate string winder can be deducted from the cost of the smart tuner–that’s even a better reason to buy one. The Roadie 2 can be set up to help wind or unwind strings–but requires a number of clicks to do so. When I’m stringing a ukulele, speed is a consideration.

The Jowoom generally has a more informative display, showing the amount that your string is out of tune! That said, the Jowoom only shows the amount of charge while charging, while the Roadie 2 shows the amount of charge as an icon at all times. The Jowoom has the opportunity to tune in a semi-automatic mode as well, forcing you to hit a button (“S”) to switch to the next string. This is the same button you hold to switch to low-G tuning. The Roadie 2 can use the “dial” to select the string you want to tune.

One negative of the Roadie 2 is that it requires a special charger (USB to Roadie 2), whereas the Jowoom simply uses a standard micro-USB charger.

The most significant aspect between the tuners, particularly if customized tunings are not important, is the price point. The Jowoom sells for just under $80, whereas the Roadie 2 sells for $120 (as I write this post, they are offering a $20 end-of-summer discount). I have also seen the Roadie 2 sell for $95 on Father’s Day. The price point alone might be the most important aspect.

I should note that neither device is made to tune bass ukuleles, nor can they be used to tune ukuleles with friction tuners. These are for geared tuners only.

Believe it or not, I like both units, and there might be benefits for a school to own both. The Jowoom is easier to use, feels more solid, hasn’t had failing buttons (so far), and can easily replace a string winder. The Roadie 2 is more compact, gives better feedback to you when a string is in tune, spins more freely while tuning, and offers customized tunings through the related app (again, Android or iOS). I’m happy recommending either device. At school, I think I’ll be more inclined to grab the Jowoom, as speed is an issue.

In the video below, I compare the two tuners.

Jowoom Smart Tuner T2 (https://www.jowoom.com/smart-tuner-t2)

  • $80 (as of 8/20/18), although occasionally on sale
  • 7.5 oz solid construction
  • Large LCD panel and five button interface
  • “Jerky” tuning
  • Very good “auto” mode
  • Recognized “pitch” very quickly
  • Standard micro USB charger
  • Can be used to easily replace a standard powered string winder
  • Tunes high or low G GCEA ukuleles; DGBE ukuleles via guitar
  • Customizable tunings for guitar only
  • Battery display only shows while charging
  • “Beeps” when in tune; side display often not visible for visual cues
  • My biggest concern: can’t customize tuning for an 8-string ukulele

Roadie 2 (https://www.roadietuner.com/roadie2)

  • $129, although occasionally on sale
  • 3.1 oz (light)
  • Single button functionality plus a “dial”
  • Tuning requires two button presses (power on, spin of dial to selected tuning, selected tuning)
  • Customizable for various tunings
  • Links with an Android/iOS app to create tunings and do firmware updates (Bluetooth)
  • Proprietary USB charger
  • Button indicates state: blue=ready to tune or not in tune, green=in tune, red=error
  • Smooth operation (spins quickly to find tuning)
  • Can be set for “tune-up only” tuning.
  • I have experienced button issues on 3 of four units
  • Tuner occasionally spin out of control and need to be taken off before breaking a string
  • The LED colors, beep, and vibration are helpful to know when your ukulele is in tune (hard to miss)
  • My biggest concern: failing button issues, particularly when you have to press the button at least once to tune any instrument

Note: while I was sold two Jowoom tuners at a discounted price, there are no referral links to these products in this post.


Carlo Robelli UKB 325 Acoustic-Electric Ukulele Bass

I have been intrigued by ukulele basses for quite some time. Before I began playing ukulele, my wife and I attended a wedding of one of her friends, and the band featured a ukulele bass. I had never seen such an instrument, and I remember being fascinated by an instrument that sounded like an upright/double bass but was smaller than a standard guitar (my wife wasn’t as amazed as I was). A couple of years later, as I introduced ukulele to my students and fell in love with the instrument myself, I realized what that instrument was–a ukulele bass. From what I’ve read, there was a company making these bass instruments which was found by Mike Upton, the owner/CEO of Kala, who is a bass player. I believe that I read that he bought out the company and started producing the U-Bass (Kala’s sub brand of basses), and other companies have copied the model since that time.

I’m not sure why we don’t say “bass ukulele.”

As a classically trained musician, I gravitate towards instruments with f-holes, such as the Kala Jazz Archtop Tenor Ukulele, or my own Bruce Wei Acacia Concert (link to my post about the instrument). This last January, Kala introduced a journeyman U-Bass with f-holes, and while it is affordable (if you can find one) at $300, I didn’t know if I wanted to put that much into playing bass. You can find other brands of ukuleles basses, including inexpensive models by Donner ($150) and Rondo Music’s Hadean brand ($120-$179).

There was a thread on Ukulele Underground (web forums, not Facebook) discussing entry level basses, and someone posted about a great deal from Sam Ash–a Carlo Robelli ukulele bass for $99…and then someone else posted about a coupon from Sam Ash bringing the price down to $81. When you register with Sam Ash, they send you a coupon for 20% off a purchase of $100 or more. So you add something–I added a bottle of Dunlop 65 lemon oil–and get the ukulele for cheap, cheap, cheap. As shipped, my complete order was $83.98.

It took about three business days for my ukulele to arrive-which was well packed as a box within a box. I’m 100% certain that no one had unboxed the ukulele between the factory’s boxing of the instrument and my unboxing–but that’s okay. The ukulele is a laminate bass ukulele with Aquila Thundergut strings (think “surgical tubes,” and I recently heard Daniel Ward describe them as “Licorice Strings.”). The ukulele is cleanly built, has a arched back, and has incredibly low action, which could probably be raised a touch (I’m not going to bother with that at this time).

The only negative of this ukulele–like some of the Donner and Rondo/Hadean ukuleles–is that there is no “trap door” in the back to facilitate the changing of ukulele strings as there is on all modern Kala U-Bass ukuleles. This isn’t a deal killer.

I have a friend who plays a lot of bass ukulele, and he checked out my instrument in comparison to his own Kala ukuleles, and hooked it up to his bass amp (something that I need to buy–and will likely pay several times the value of the bass itself). It sounded good, and intonation on the Robelli was not much different than the intonation on his Kala. I have already mentioned that other companies copied the general idea of a Ukulele Bass (even Kala did this, although they did so by buying a company) so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see other companies matching not only the style of an instrument, but its flaws, too. And in truth, the only type of string instrument capable of playing every note in tune is a fretless instrument–and you can buy a fretless ukulele bass–but then you need to know where to put your fingers on the strings to make that happen (most causal players will be better off with the minimally out-of-tune frets).

We know that there are a number of companies in China that produce ukuleles for multiple suppliers, sometimes just putting on a different logo. While my Carlo Robelli is sold as a UKB 325, the label inside defines the instrument model as UB-20, which is almost the same number as the Rondo/Hadean brand UKB-20. I think they are made at the same factory, but the Robelli simply gets a logo on the headstock and a sticker on the inside.

Some other details about the ukulele…

It comes with seventeen frets, twelve to the body, large “key” tuners (pretty typical), Aquila Thundergut strings, a tuner/EQ, notched kerfings, a screened rosette, walnut fretboard and bridge, and operated with 2 CR2032 batteries. The back is nicely curved, and the back, sides, and fronts are all made with well-matched mahogany laminate material with a satin finish. To call it “acoustic-electric” is a bit of a joke. While you can play it without an amplifier, you can hardly hear it–you will need an amplifier, and I will say that when I heard it plugged into a decent amplifier, I was impressed (I only have a small portable guitar amp that does not do the instrument justice–even at the $81 price point). I added strap buttons to the ukulele myself, as it did not come with any. It also comes with a very basic gig bag.

All I can say is that I am extremely pleased with this ukulele at its price point. There are certainly better ukulele basses on the market. Daniel Ward recently suggested that one of the Ohana ukulele basses can be heard without amplification–and that might be a future purchase for me. Otherwise, I need to simply work on obtaining a decent portable (rechargeable) bass amp, as well as an input and preamp to do some recording to my iPad. I don’t know how long Sam Ash will be offering this ukulele at $99 and then offering a 20% discount for signing up/registering with them. If the instrument goes up in price, I’m pretty sure you get the same basic instrument from Rondo/Hadean for $129, which still doesn’t break the bank. If you are a professional bass player, these models probably are below you. If you’re a beginner and you just want to mess around with a ukulele bass–I’m not sure there is better option. Even used Kala U-Bass models sell for much of their original value.

One other note: I paid for this ukulele myself–so this review was not sponsored by Sam Ash or Carlo Robelli–nor are there any referral codes in this blog post.