Some time ago, I read about a high-tech ukulele, the Populele, which was a Kickstarter. I saw articles on The Verge (link) and even from John Atkins, “The Ukulele Teacher” (YouTube link). It was originally sold via a very successful Indiegogo campaign, and is now for sale directly on the Popband website. While the instrument had some coverage, I didn’t see any reviews from other ukulele players, or from any music technology experts…so I contacted the company. And then I contacted them some more. In time, I think the company realized that I wasn’t just a person looking to scam the company–but someone with a genuine interest in blogging about the instrument in the field of technology in music education.
The Populele is a concert sized (15 inch length from nut to saddle) laminate ukulele with a traditional double bout. It has two oval shaped sound holes, a brown “bottom” (the Ukulele Teacher says that it looks like a white and black cookie), and a 72 LED fretboard that is controlled by your phone (iOS or Android) via an app. The Populele has a 35mm nut with spacing of 8.5mm at the 1st fret, which is about average for many ukuleles. The saddle is removable and is not compensated.
I received the “package” version of the Populele, which sells for $229; they also sell a non-packaged version for $179. The package includes a very cute bag (that looks like the Populele), a capo, a micro USB cable, and a pick. I have to be a little critical here and say that the $50 extra charge over the non-packaged version of the Populele may not be worth it…you can buy a hard case (which the ukulele does not require) for as little as $24 shipped via eBay, and a capo for less than $10 shipped via eBay. I would like to see the package version as a $25 premium; or simply one price where everyone gets the accessories.
The ukulele takes a little while to charge when it arrives…and that’s okay. You need to download the app and create an account. There was a little chatter on the Internet when the Populele started shipping, as the Android version required all kinds of permissions that seemed over-reaching. Since that time, the company has fixed that problem. However, when I showed the Populele to a local ukulele player, his first question was about the privacy settings of the app–so the chatter definitely stuck in the minds of the ukulele community.
When you turn on the ukulele (hold down the button until the lights go on), the ukulele boots up, and the app discovers the ukulele (no “pairing” necessary), and you start playing the game. I would have loved the option to jump ahead without completing each stage–but I did not find a setting that would allow me to do so. You can follow the app’s set progress, go to a song library, or use some tools. The tools are limited…there is a tuner, a very small chord library, “dazzle” settings for the fretboard (it shows waves or linear patterns as you play), and the ability to turn on custom lights on your Populele. These things all work well–but a headstock tuner was much more accurate, and the library of chords drastically needs expansion. I would love to be able to set “presets” for the custom lights, and perhaps have the ability to do a scrolling message! In the another part of the app, there is a nice collection of songs, but the printed lyrics are often mismatched to the chords. The chords (usually simplified) are in the right place–but the words are not. If you don’t know the song, you are in trouble. I would love to see the song library “cleaned up” in this regard.
I would like to see an advanced player option, where the app would teach 2nd, 3rd, and 4th position chords, as well as the notes of the fretboard in a game format. That feature alone might make the ukulele worth $179.
As for the ukulele itself, it is a nice laminate ukulele. It sounds nice, although I swapped the Aquila Super Nylgut strings for Martin M600 strings, and I personally think it sounds better with the Martin strings (see the end of the long video to hear for yourself). The ukulele has a nice clean build with notched kerfing inside and no visible glue stains. The head stock is unique with yet another oval hole, which serves no function as the headstock isn’t a slotted headstock. The tuners are very nice closed gear tuners (with a bit of a futuristic flair), and the strings are held in place by a pin bridge. Upon changing the strings, some of the strings were held in with beads, others with knots. I just used knots on all of them when I restrung the ukulele. The action was initially very high…higher than my string action ruler could measure. I lowered the action to about 2.75mm, and now there is a light buzz on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd frets of the C string…but it is a minor buzz, and with the LED fretboard, I can’t really sand the frets to try to get rid of the buzz. I can live with it, and I doubt it will be an issue on all Populeles.
The Populele also comes with two strap buttons, but with no strap. I’d love to see an accessory store where owners could buy Populele t-shirts, straps, and stickers/pins. If I were to own a ukulele company…PR and apparel would be a priority!
The LED fretboard works, and is visible in any light. My students wondered if it could light up in other colors, and the answer is: no, at least not this version. I can absolutely see the value in colors for educational purposes, much like Bernadette’s stickers (YouTube link). I can also see the wonderful potential marriage of the Populele with KIDS ukulele strings by Aquila (you can order them in bulk for a great discount directly from Aquila). As an advanced player, the LED lights don’t help much–I can’t see them when my fingers are already there or on the previous chord, but I can see the power of learning with the lights. I can also see the potential for a classroom set of Populeles, where a teacher could press a button and the correct lights would show up on all of the ukuleles in a class! This is not a feature at the moment–but you can see where it can go, either for learners with special needs, or for an entire class. Populele does have a director for education, and they are aware that money is an option in schools, and that $179 ukuleles may not be a reality for a classroom set of ukuleles.
Speaking of the future, I would also love to see a tuner embedded in the electronics, as well as a pick-up, at the $179 price point. I would also love to have a system embedded in the ukulele where you could run the lights (wave, linear, or custom) without a phone. I would also like to see some front markers on the fretboard (even if just LED lights of another color), although side markers are already provided.
And in the far future, I would love to see a marriage between the JamStik by Zivix and the Populele. The JamStik isn’t a “real guitar” and makes nearly no noise when strummed–it requires a device to run the JamStik programs, but then it also acts as a full MIDI device. It would be great to have a full acoustic instrument (the Populele) with its LED features, plus an IR keyboard and the features of the JamStik apps and Populele apps. I have bothered the nice people at Zivix about a ukulele for a long time…maybe I can encourage them to work together?
In conclusion, the Populele is a very nice laminate ukulele with a huge selling point…the LED fretboard and accompanying app (and included songs). As you consider the price point, which will be significantly higher than other laminate ukuleles–you are paying for the fretboard and the app. On the positive side, a laminate ukulele means nearly no maintenance, and the sound is good for a laminate ukulele. You won’t be getting the sound of a solid top ukulele or a solid wood ukulele–but again, you are buying the fretboard and app. I can see how this ukulele could be used in educational settings, as both an incentive for students to practice on their own, or, with future offerings, the ability to trigger the lights on a number of Populeles in the same class. I can also see how you could link play along videos to the ukulele, as the app registers sound anyway. I would love to see the app updated with a far more extensive chord library, “favorites” in the custom light generator, and advanced player modes/games for additional chord positions and notes of the fretboard.
At the same time, I can see opportunities for versions two and three of this ukulele (tuner, pick-up, fretboard markers, multiple color LEDs)…and I would love to see an alliance with Zivix for a future version of the product.
I should mention that I am not being paid to write this review–but I was sent a Populele to review (I would have bought a used on from eBay had that not occurred).
Would I recommend the Populele? Absolutely. It is a high quality laminate ukulele with an incredible instructional tool (even though you will eventually move not to using them) and when the batteries die or the novelty of the LED lights wear off, you will still have a decent acoustic instrument to play–and it is cute!
- LED 72 light Fretboard
- The Populele App
- Quality instrument with closed geared tuners, strap buttons, and side markers
- Laminate ukulele and LED fretboard should require very little care
- A bit expensive for a laminate ukulele–although you have to keep in mind that you are paying for the LED technology and the app
- The app needs more features such as additional chords and some tools for advanced players
- While there are no promises, the Populele Version 2 has the chance to incorporate even more technology
- To use the lights, you need to use your phone, too
And the rather long video review: