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

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.

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.


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.

Caramel Zebrawood Concert (CC102A) and Tenor (CT102A) Ukuleles

After we had ordered Mahalo MK1 ukuleles for our program, and as I learned more about ukuleles, I thought it might be nice to have some concert and tenor sized ukuleles available for my students with larger hands.  I tripped upon Caramel Ukuleles, which are made in China (like many ukuleles) and shipped directly from overseas.  The Concert Model costs $36 and the Tenor model costs $39, when they are in stock.

I initially ordered one concert and one tenor, thinking that if the ukuleles were complete junk, at the least I would have two ukuleles to show my students the difference in size.  I ordered from Amazon, although you can also order them through eBay (all at the same price).  Caramel sells a wide variety of ukuleles, from sopraninos (smaller than a soprano) to baritone.  All are significantly cheaper than other manufacturers–some with electronics (tuners, pick-ups, etc.)

When the ukuleles arrived, I was surprised to see the quality for the price.  They come with Aquilla strings (or at least strings that say they are Aquilla and seem to be similar), they look nice, and they sound decent.  The Caramel logo is lazer etched in the headstock, and there is a lazer etched rosette pattern.   They sound as good as  (or better than) any other low to mid-level ukulele, at a fraction of the price.  They are laminate ukuleles (like most entry level ukuleles), so they stand up well to less than ideal climates (I wouldn’t leave them outside in the rain or in the car in the winter).

There are some issues with the ukuleles we purchased.  All have sharp fret edges (not enough to cut you, but sharp enough to notice versus “known” brands), the nuts have sharp edges, the bracing is installed crooked inside the ukuleles, and the tuning heads are not always mounted parallel.  None of this impacts playability, and some Caramel users actually file down the frets and nuts, making the instruments an even better $36 or $39 investment.

Crooked brace under the inside lable
Crooked tuning heads
Sharp nut and fret edges

We ordered two more tenors, but could not order more concerts as they were out of stock (and still are).
The Caramels have held up well at school, the only issue being damage by a student that scratched the back of one of the tenors.  Once settled in, they hold their tuning.

Simply put, you won’t find a better cheaper entry level ukulele.  There are (literal) rough edges, but if you can deal with that (or sand them down), you can have a very decent laminate ukulele that looks nice and plays well.

I think it makes sense to invest in a concert ukulele (unless you really like the size of a soprano) or even a tenor, and at $36 and $39, almost anyone could afford one.