Caramel Ukuleles–in the light of Got a Ukulele’s Review

A couple of weeks ago, Barry Maz (gotaukulele.com) posted his review of the Caramel Zebrawood Concert (of which I have overseen the purchase of 40 such instruments) and he truly disliked the instrument.  You can see the review here: http://www.gotaukulele.com/2017/04/caramel-cc102a-concert-ukulele-review.html.

If you chose not to access the article, here are Barry’s concerns:

  • Cheap price–ridiculously low
  • Straight from Amazon, eBay, or the factory (no set-up)
  • Long wait for delivery (4 weeks)
  • Zebrawood (Barry isn’t a fan) laminate
  • Thicker Zebrawood laminate at that
  • Sun motif around the rosette (overdone)
  • Overly chunky bracing
  • Messy interior: glue and wood shavings
  • Photocopied label that is illegible in the ukulele
  • Poorly finished satin coat
  • Scuffs and chips in binding and overall construction
  • Bridge and fretboard need oiling
  • Fretboard appears to dip into the soundboard of the ukulele
  • Poorly dressed, sharp frets
  • Headstock is reminiscent of a Kaniel’a
  • Frosted plastic tuner buttons
  • Cheap quality tuners
  • Little sustain
  • Generic sound quality
  • Intonation issues that MIGHT be solved with a set-up

To be honest, I was disappointed by Barry’s review.  Please note that I won’t disagree with any of his observations.  His main concern was that the ukulele may have serious build issues–and that is where I disagree.  I have looked at his picture, as well as our Caramels, it it appears that Caramel shapes the end of the fretboard down.  If you look at Barry’s picture of the “dip,” you can see that the soundboard (face) of the ukulele isn’t dipping at all.  I would also say that Barry forgot to mention the nut. The nut on every one of our Caramels was sharp and needed to be sanded down.  I have looked inside many Caramels–our earliest ones (February 2016) had crooked bracing–but I would say that our most recent instruments have been tidy and clean inside (I could care less about the label), more so than some other “big name” ukuleles that I own!  I can’t really if the bracing is chunkier than any other brand–but Barry has played well over 500 models of ukulele, and I believe him.

Barry is right…if you can afford more money–it may be beneficial to get ukuleles from a reputable dealer who will set them up for you before shipping them out.   The Caramel’s aren’t “overly resonant” with sustain and have a very basic sound.  And they do need set-up work.  But if you are a teacher needing a set of ukuleles, and you can do some of the basic set-up work, $37 for a concert ukulele (direct from the Caramel website) is hard to beat.  Sure, you could buy something like the Makala C (my first ukulele was a Makala CE, and I still own it) but the Makala C begins at $65 (not counting shipping).  A set of 30 ukuleles becomes a $900 difference…or nearly double the cost.  For even better ukuleles, add more investment.  

I “get” that ukulele purists want people to play on good instruments that play well and sound terrific.  That doesn’t match the reality of sets of ukuleles in school (which are likely out of tune with each other anyway); and it also doesn’t reflect the issue of the beginning player who isn’t fully committed to a ukulele, where $37 might be worth a gamble, but crossing the $50 line becomes a “real” purchase.  

In reality, the most recent Caramels have come with generally good action (as Barry mentioned), better dressed frets (which have become exposed as the fretboards dry out in the school and need to be sanded down), and that “general” sound.  And to be honest, the Makala Dolphins, (old) Ukadelics, and even my Makala CE that I have played since Barry’s reviews have not been in tune as you progress down the neck past the 5th fret.  So Caramel doesn’t have an angle in the market in selling ukuleles that are not professionally set-up and don’t play in tune down the neck (although our most recent Caramel DOES play in tune down the neck). New Caramels are coming with a pin-bridge, and I am tempted to buy one of them.  Caramel plans to add side marker dots to instruments later in the year, and to start shipment from a US warehouse this year.

Again–I am not doubting Barry.  In the world of ukulele, he is one of my heroes, and this was a ukulele that he spent his own money to purchase and review.  This is what he was sent.  I have ordered 52 Caramels to this date–and they are getting better–and I would order more.  Not as my primary instrument, but as an instrument for a school or a non-committed beginner.  If you also need a “beater ukulele” that can be used for camping–this is also a pretty good bet.  If a school can afford better instruments–then by all means, go for it.  If a beginner can afford a Kamaka, go ahead (that Kamaka likely needs to be set up, too).  But if you are a teacher in a situation like mine, where you are raising your own funds for instruments–the generic quality of the Caramel becomes attractive.  Furthermore, our Caramels have survivied the tough environment of our school (and sometimes intentional abuse by our students), whereas two of our lovely Mainlands were damaged in a single accident this past fall, not long after receiving those instruments!  And incidentally, the tuners may be cheap, but they are functional.  I haven’t had to replace any, but I have had to replace tuners on two of our Waterman ukuleles (Kala was wonderful with support).

What I would say is this: by a $37 ukulele, and be aware that you will have some work to do, and that sound will be generic.  If you have more to spend…contact some of those great ukulele shops (Mim’s and Uke Republic still deal with “low end” sales) who include set-ups with their ukuleles.  And don’t hesitate to contact Mike at Mainland Ukuleles…particularly if you have an environment where you can care for those instruments (e.g. Humidity).

As a final note, check out Vic’s videos about his Caramel (which has the new bridge):

Bonanza Ukuleles: Amoeba Tenor Ukulele (Aspen/Black Walnut)

Last August, I attended the Silver Creek International Ukulele Carnival north of Duluth (hosted by the Two Harbors Ukulele Group).  As it is a small venue (but free and fun), they only had a couple of vendors, which included Pete and Shelley Mai, who own Bonanza Ukuleles.  Pete is a life long carpenter and cabinet maker, and his wife started playing ukulele.  Pete decided to make her a ukulele amplifier shaped like a ukulele, which eventually became a ukulele and then a decision was made to sell them to others.  They started out selling ukuleles made of counter-top laminate (they still do), and last summer moved to solid wood ukuleles made of Apsen, Black Walnut, and Cherry.  In addition to making a ukulele, they can personalize the ukulele with laser engraving.  The top and bottom are carved out of a larger piece of wood on a CNC machine (unique approach), and my ukulele is one of the new versions that has wood bracing–they had been using corian for the bracing as well.

I ordered a Cherry Tenor for our school, which has the school song as the rosette as well as the choir logo.  We also ordered a ukulele table for the choir room.

In the months since, Bonanza Ukuleles can now make mixed combination of ukuleles, such as different woods and even wood to laminate.

A few weeks ago, I attended the ukulele sessions at the Minnesota Bluegrass Winter Festival.  Pete and Shelley were there, with their new ukulele, the Amoeba.  I sat and played the ukuleles for several hours–and eventually decided to order one.  I wanted a specific set-up…Aspen front, Black Walnut Body and headstock, white tuners, corian nut and saddle to match the tuners.  This came in under $300.  Oh…every Bonanza comes with strap buttons, too.

I expected the ukulele at the end of April, but it came today–and I am just thrilled with it.  It isn’t loud, but it has a clear, bell-like tone. I think it may develop harmonics as the wood continues to age.  And while the shape is unique, it sure is comfortable to hold and play.

If I had to choose one ukulele, it would likely be a KoAloha–I cannot get that instrument out of my head.  However, I don’t have to own “just one” ukulele, and this Bonanza will be fun to play and bring around to various events.  It is also wonderful to support a small Minnesota business–and to spread the word about these very cool ukuleles.

Kala Concert Waterman Ukulele

As soon as the new Kala Concert Waterman were announced, I placed an order for my school. We ordered six (three black, three green), and they arrived today. Thanks to Mike at Uke Republic for ordering and shipping these to us, as promised, as soon as they came in.

Kala gave our program 40 Waterman Soprano ukuleles (turns out in discontinued colors, which isn’t a problem until you need to replace one that goes ‘missing.’ We are incredibly grateful for these ukuleles), and it made sense to have some of these Concerts, too.

I have been fiddling with one of the Concerts today, and I created a video this evening. The video also shows the prior Makala Soprano Waterman and the Tenor Outdoor Ukulele.

The Concert Waterman does sound more plastic-ish than the Tenor Outdoor (not surprising), and styling seems to be exactly matched to its Soprano model. It seems to have the same painted frets and screened side dots, all which will fade over time. Action is good…no idea if Uke Republic had to work on them or not…and intonation is okay. Pitch seems to go sharp as I go up the fretboard, but the strings are not settled and it is hard to really get an idea of what intonation is really like.

The ukulele comes with a “sling bag” that will offer very minor protection. The bag has a smoothing inner lining that allows the ukulele to go in and out of the bag quite easily. The ukulele carries the traditional Waterman logo on the headstock, and has Kala pressed in the plastic on the back. Gone, however, is any mention of Makala. I seem to remember that our Waterman are labeled with “Makala.”

The box itself sells itself as a starter package for ages 3 to 103 (If you hit 104, you have to give the ukulele back). But they are right…you have the instrument, a bag, and online resources such as lessons and a link to Kala’s very decent tuner app. Sure, a clip on is better in a noisy environment…but Kala really does give you everything you need to get going for less than $60.

The strings are super Nylgut–but the tag in the box says, “Red Series.” I’m not sure what to make of that, but I will be moving the ukuleles to our KIDS colored strings for instructional purposes (Ukulele Kids Club has started using those strings).

My only complaint is that I am not sure where strap buttons could go on this ukulele.  I like straps on my ukuleles (this has been a process over time)

This is a ABS plastic go-anywhere Concert ukulele for what should be less than $60 for most vendors. This is a great price, and also a great price and option for schools for a rugged instrument. You can find the Bugsgear Concert for $60-$100, so this instrument, styled after the Macaferri, is at a desireable price. Remember that the new Ukadelic ukuleles are also now solid plastic Waterman ukuleles, as well (no more wood top, like a Makala Dolphin). Outdoor doesn’t have a Concert ukulele, but you get a different sound from Outdoor for $100 for a Soprano and $150 for a Tenor. I know you can leave that Outdoor in your car, winter or summer (strings might take a beating)–not sure you should do that with a Waterman or Bugsgear. But if you aren’t going to do that and would like an affordable larger-than-Soprano travel ukulele the new Concert Waterman is ultimately very replaceable and quite affordable.

Bonanza Tenor Ukulele (Cherry)

We purchased a special ukulele for our school, which will stay with the program as we open a new school in less than two years. Bonanza is somewhat new to the ukulele world, the result of Pete and Shelley Mai’s efforts. Pete has been a lifelong woodworker, and his wife Shelley fell in love with the ukulele, and Pete started making ukuleles for his wife.

They make ukuleles out of countertop laminate and American sustainable woods, like Ash, Cherry, and Walnut. The design of the ukulele uses a neck from another vendor, but the bodies are CNC’s from a solid piece of wood…including the side bracing of the ukulele! A stone (or stone-like) substance is used for the saddle, nut, and additional bracing in the ukulele. If you wish, you can have Bonanza laser engrave a ukulele–giving a custom made ukulele a further custom touch. Pickups are also available.

The sound of the ukulele is pleasant (please listen), but does not match the resonance or power of a K Brand (Kamaka, Ko’olau, etc.) but neither does the price. The Bonanza is easily 1/4 the price of a K Brand ukulele and its sound will open up as time passes.

I also love that these ukuleles are made in Northern Minnesota.

In the video, I show a little bit of strumming, finger picking, and my singing along. I also compare it to our bargain Caramel Ukuleles, as I did not bring any of my personal instruments to school that day. Please note that we are running strings on the Bonanza that I would not run if it were my own personal ukulele.

Need a great first instrument? Caramel. Want an affordable customized ukulele from a small company without paying thousands of dollars? Check out Bonanza!

Two Caramel Tenor Ukuleles

Today our final tenor Zebrawood ukulele arrived, along with the “upgrade” solid top mahogany ukulele we bought as a prize for the student that sold the most items for our fundraiser.

Both ukuleles came set up very well, at 2.6mm action at the 12th fret.

The things I would “nit pick” on the mahogany ukulele is an inconsistency of stain, and the fact that the ukulele, which has a tuner/pick up, did not come with batteries.  Charge me another dollar or two for the ukulele and include the batteries!

I noted that the mahogany model had longer sustain.  Both sound good for ukuleles that are under $70.  The mahogany, as outfitted is $68.  The tenor is $39.

I won’t talk about how much I just paid today for a new Pono Cedar Pro Classic ukulele…and that was an incredible bargain (nearly ten times the cost of the mahogany).  You can get a lot of playing out of the $68 ukulele!

So…here is a short video comparing the mahogany and the zebrawood.  You can’t go wrong with either as a beginner ukulele (the mahogany might require a little more care, as it is a solid top).

Six Caramel Concerts, Six Caramel Tenors

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9 Caramel Tenors…1 still coming

We ordered Caramel Ukuleles on October 3, and most of them arrived yesterday (October 18th).  We are still waiting on a solid ukulele and one tenor…and since these arrived, I decommissioned ten of the Mahalos (which will be sold to students at a very low price) and worked the hanging system a little bit.  We hung the bottom row of wood based on soprano height, which may have been a mistake (we’ll see).  It turns out that the concerts need 9″ of space, and the tenors need 10″.  The previous sopranos only needed 8″ of clearance.

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And 10 Caramel concert ukuleles.

 

Of the twelve ukuleles, nine were set up pretty much in an ideal fashion, and I had to do minimal sanding of the saddle for the other three.

Now that these have arrived, I have placed an order for our next twelve Caramel concerts (no more tenors).  The eventual goal is 50 concerts (and the existing, or soon to be existing 10 tenors).

Truly, if you are a starting player and are not sure if you will keep playing, or are a music educator wanting to start a program, you can’t beat the Caramels.

I also think very highly of Mainland Ukuleles as inexpensive (comparatively) higher end ukuleles (competitors would be in the $500-$800 range).

New Video: Update on Caramel Ukuleles (Zebrawood Laminate Concert Ukulele CC102A)

With the new school year and my return the school, I ordrered the Bonanza Ukulele Carousel (not yet arrived) and three more Caramel Ukulele Zebrawood Laminate Concert ukuleles.  In addition to the 58 Mahalo MK1 ukuleles we bought, and the 40 Makala Waterman ukuleles, I bought 3 Caramel Tenors and 1 Caramel Concert last year.

I was already convinced that I want to replace the Mahalos with Caramels.  I don’t feel bad about buying the Mahalos, as they were between $24 and $36 each, most at the $24 range.  They lasted through the winter/spring, and are still going.  That said, they are almost toys.  As we replace Mahalos with Caramels, we are getting three or four times the quality of the Mahalos at nearly the same price.  We can sell Mahalos to students (as they were not purchased with school district funds) for an affordable cost.

So the new Caramels arrived today.  Last spring, I wrote to the company and notified them about the problems I had with the Caramels we had purchased: crooked (visible) bracing inside the instrument, sharp fret edges, crooked tuners (on one of our tenors), and a sharp nut.

On these new Caramels, the bracing was level, the frets were nicely finished, and every tuner was straight.

Straight bracing on the new Caramels

In terms of set-up, two of the ukuleles were high with about 3mm of space above the 12th fret.  I quote The Ukulele Site, but their goal is 2.65 mm.  As the nut height of the new Caramels looked good, I only had to sand down the saddles a bit to reach 2.65.  

Improved fret edges. No more sharpness.

One of the Caramels was PERFECTLY set up at 2.65mm.

Amazing.

I’m not saying that Caramel took my e-mail into account, but nearly every complaint I had was addressed.  I did have to take some sandpaper to the nut which still had sharp edges.  But that was non-invasive (and I need to do that to our older Caramels, too).

The only change I saw was a new treatment of the Caramel logo on the headstock.  The logo used to be laser-etched.  The logo now appears to be a gold vinyl decal, which is on top of the laminate finish.  I’m not sure how that logo is going to stand the test of time (or middle school students).  For now, it looks nice.  I hope it lasts…but if it doesn’t then the ukuleles will only be identifiable through their sticker in the body of the instrument.  

You’re not going to find a better deal than this $36 laminate ukulele, or the $40 tenor version. They sound nice, they look nice, and they play nicely.  They seem to come relatively well set-up, and this time we purchased directly from the company’s website rather than through eBay/Amazon.  Caramel sells solid instruments, too, but I have no desire to try them for our school…our harsh winter climate and poor indoor climate control would make short work of a room full of solid wood ukuleles.  No thank you…we will stick to the laminates and plastics.  That said, the Caramels do not sound as good as my KoAloha Opio Tenor, but only equal or more expensive instruments meet or exceed that sound of that instrument.  You can hear the Caramels in the video below.

Know someone who needs a good starter ukulele?  Know someone who needs an ukulele that isn’t as suceptible to humidity issues?  Check out the Caramel.  By buying the Caramel, you can save money for the pro-level instrument that you want someday rather than buying twelve other instruments along the way.