What Do You Do With a Popu!e!e? (Populele Review)

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!

Pros:

  • 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

Concerns/Wishes:

  • 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:

 

 

 

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Kmise Concert Ukulele

I purchased the Kmise 23 Inch Concert Ukulele for my wife, as she might be interested in learning some more ukulele with me.  It is an inexpensive ukulele and might be a good starter ukulele for some players.

The Kmise is a standard double bout ukulele with a traditional string length of 15”, and the overall length is actually 24”.  What strikes you about the ukulele is the pattern that is laser engraved on it, with flowers and fairies, and a flower (hibiscus?) sound hole.  As someone else mentioned in an Amazon review, one of the fairies is trapped under the bridge!  The Amazon listing for the ukulele says that it is a solid spruce top—and I am not sure that it is.  When I look in the sound hole, the top appears to have layers like a laminate ukulele.  So I am inclined to think it may be made of laminate spruce.  The sides and back are made of laminate mahogany, and there is a very slight arch to the back of the ukulele.  The entire ukulele is finished in a satin finish—including the neck.  There is an ABS binding around the sides and purfling (alternating black and white lines) around the binding.  On my ukulele, there was one very small flaw in the purfling…but that’s being super picky about a $50 ukulele.  Functionally, my biggest gripe about the ukulele is the ABS binding, which has a very hard edge.  After playing Kmise’s other model line, the Aklot AKC23, this is hard to deal with.  The AKC23 has a rolled edge around the top of the instrument which really does make the instrument more comfortable to play.

The inside of the ukulele is generally clean, with no interior label.  There is evidence inside the ukulele that the back is glued together of two pieces, with a evident joint with some glue visible (you have to look pretty hard through the sound hole to see it).  Otherwise, the build is nice with clean notched kerfing.

The headstock is very basic with sealed geared tuners and a “crown” headstock, although the points of the crown are very mild.  While I am not personally crazy about the laser design on the front of the ukulele (I am not the intended buyer), the worst aesthetic element of the ukulele is the Kmise logo, which is stuck on the headstock as a decal.  It can be removed (which I may do).  I would prefer to see the logo painted on or applied under the finish, or laser etched.  The nut and saddle are made of bone, and the bridge (very traditional and screwed into the soundboard) and fretboard are made of rosewood.  The frets are nicely finished, but I would not be surprised to see them “pop” in dry weather.  Overall, the rosewood looks as if it could use some oil.

The neck is made of okoume wood, and has a comfortable design—and is finished in satin.  Overall, there are three pieces to the neck.  There are side markers on the fretboard, and the ukulele does not come with strap buttons (I added some).  The nut is 35mm with 8.7mm between each string at the 1st fret; and action is very good with a string height at the 12th fret of less than 2.75mm.

Wrapping up the package are strings that appear to be Aquila SuperNylgut strings, but there was no indication of these being Aquila strings in the packaging (which is usually included in a ukulele).

The sound of the ukuleke is nice.  It obviously will not compete with the tonal qualities of a solid wood ukulele that is ten times this ukulele, but it sounds quite a bit better than the Caramel Ukuleles that I have purchased for our school program.  I would like to try the Kmise with fluorocarbon strings, as I personally feel that fluorocarbon strings also brought out a clearer tone on my Aklot AKC23, which also is made by the same company that makes Kmise.

In summary, you get a lot of ukulele for very little money with the Kmise 23 Inch Concert Ukulele.  It sounds good, plays well, and has all the features that you need in a ukulele.  You will either love the laser engraving or you won’t—and that is to be expected.  There are a few other ukuleles in a similar price range that might be worth examining—but if you like the design, you can’t go wrong with this ukulele.  Keep in mind that you will want to buy a gig bag and you will also want to have a tuner…and eventually you might want to try fluorocarbon strings, too.

Positives:

  • Excellent price point
  • Very playable out of the box—good set up
  • Pleasant tone (may want to try fluorocarbon strings)
  • Nice satin finish; very pretty laminate mahogany pattern
  • Side marker dots

Concerns:

  • Sharp corner on ABS binding
  • Decal logo might need to come off
  • No strap buttons (install them yourself)
  • Love it or Leave it Soundboard Design
  • Might not be a solid spruce top

 

Former Ukuleles: Pono RTSH (C) PC

I bought my Pono in 2016 from a ukulele company that was going out of business.  The owners were a married couple, and the husband was very sick, so they decided to sell their business.  They decided to sell of their remaining ukuleles at slightly higher than cost…and I did the foolish thing and asked about what they had.  The owner suggested a Tenor Pono, which was new but not the newest model, with pretty much all of Pono’s bells and whistles: slotted Head, cedar top, rosewood back and sides, abalone rosette radius fretboard, and low action.  It also came with an awesome O’ahu case.

I should back up and mention that Pono is the overseas production of Ko’olau, one of the major “K” Hawaiian brands.  Pono is built to their standards but not on Hawaii, so when you buy a Pono, you are truly buying one of the best instruments available.

I loved everything about the instrument, but when I reached for an instrument, I was reaching for my KoAloha Opio Tenor or my Outdoor Ukulele.  When I needed to record, I grabbed my Lanikai UkeSB.  So while I loved the instrument, I wasn’t playing it as much as I should—for my most expensive ukulele.  I played it…and used it in choir concerts. While it was a beautiful sound, it wasn’t as loud as my KoAloha, and volume is a nice thing when playing with a choir.

In September, a member of the Ukulele Underground Forums listed a KoAloha Opio Concert—a size that I enjoy playing a lot—for sale at a great price.  For a like new ukulele from a reputable source (eBay is not necessarily so), I decided to buy it—and didn’t want to finance the purchase.  It made sense to list the Pono and pay for the Opio (and have some money to spend).  So I did.  It was sold to a ukulele player in Maine…and made the trip safely.  I know that player will enjoy the ukulele, and I hope that I won’t regret selling it…but I know that I will naturally play the Opio Concert more than I would play the Pono.

I list the pictures that I took before the sale…just out of interest and as a way to remember the ukulele.  This is only the second ukulele I have parted with…the other was  a Córdoba 15CM that went to a family member in Georgia.  I would be well served to part with a few more of my ukulele (all in good time).

Happy trails to my Pono!  It was a great ukulele and it will continue to make someone else happy!

 

Outdoor Ukulele Rawhide Tenor

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One my earlier ukulele purchases was an Outdoor Ukulele.  I came across the brand on the internet, and it was a fascinating instrument.  Specifically, I know I watched videos by Pete McCarty on YouTube as well as by ukeeku.com.  The Outdoor Ukulele represented the ability to take an instrument into almost any circumstance without worrying about the care of that instrument.  I specifically wanted the instrument to take to camping.

The company began as a Kickstarter, offering a polycarbonate black ukulele.  The Kickstarter was unsuccessful, but the company was able to bring the product to market.  The first generation Outdoor Ukulele had some issues, and buyers were not hesitant to point them out.  That ukulele had tuners that frustrated users (like plastic violin pegs!), a square neck that wasn’t comfortable to hold, and frets that were very tall (if you pressed down hard on the strings, notes would go out of tune).

The company listened to the criticism, and changed the product,  bringing out both a Soprano and Tenor model.  The new ukulele came with traditional geared tuners, a reshaped neck, and a re-designed fretboard.  There is a rumor (with a strong echo of truth) that the new model is designed from studying a well-respected ukulele brand (which itself will never make a polycarbonate ukulele).

My Outdoor Ukulele has done well for me.  The original Rye Rabbit strings (Outdoor Ukulele’s own brand) frayed on me, so I replaced them with Martin M620 Tenor strings, which I do with most of the instruments that I purchase (Note: I am looking forward to trying Aquila’s new Sugar strings).   The Outdoor Ukulele Soprano and Tenor ukuleles are styled in a traditional double bout shape, with the Tenor having 19 frets, 15 to the body.  The tuners are Grover tuners, and work as expected.  I sent my Outdoor Ukulele back to the company to have strap buttons installed…I see some cracking under the buttons, but they are are still holding up—and in truth, if I need to, I can buy another Outdoor Ukulele.  The neck is flat and wide, with hardly any heel.  There are forward fret markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, and 15th frets, with no side markers.  I bought some of the dry application side markers to appy at the same positions (there is a marker that is ivory with a black edge around the circle).

The only thing I would change or add to the Outdoor Ukulele would be to have the company add side marker dots.  That’s it—as anything else can be purchased.

The nut measures at 37.08mm, with 9.12mm between the strings at the 1st fret, so the tenor version is a bit wider than many other ukuleles that I have measured.   It is a standard tenor scale of 17” between nut and saddle.  The ukulele is 2.75” deep, 26.5” long, and 8.75” across at its widest point…very much in line with many tenors…and it fits well in a gig bag.  This is a rare ukulele that you won’t need much more than the gig bag…a hard case of any kind would be overkill.

I bought the rawhide version (they now call it Moonshine, and the color is more translucent).  My local ukulele dealer had these in stock—which is unusual, as the company usually sells direct via their website (www.outdoorukulele.com).  If you order from the website, you can specify type of tuner, strings, strap buttons, and pickups.  They did offer a short tun of purple ukuleles in addition to bottle brown, bottle green, and occasional runs in camouflage!  They have repeatedly run out of ukuleles, have switched injection mould providers, and they keep working to keep instruments in stock.

The Outdoor Ukulele brings a couple of things to the world of plastic-based ukuleles that are not covered by the other manufacturers.  First, it is a ukulele that truly looks like a ukulele but in polycarbonate.  In other words, it looks less like a toy.  Second, it arrives with a perfect set-up—of all my ukuleles, it is the best set-up ukulele, as it should be.  Since you cannot adjust the nut or saddle—it needs to come set-up well.  And third, it is more rugged than a Waterman, Buggsgear, Korala Explore, or Woodli.  It is designed to handle temperatures from -40ºF to +240ºF.  Your strings will suffer damage long before the ukulele will.

I think Outdoor Ukulele got the “sound” right, even with the first model (I was gifted a first generation Outdoor Ukulele, which I am incredibly grateful for…I wanted one!).  While the Outdoor Ukulele is clearly not a wood ukulele and will never sound like wood, it certainly sounds like a better plastic ukulele than the competition.  On my tenor, there is a bit of sustain, harmonics are excellent, and there is a percussive sound when you strum.  The one thing to be aware of is that it is a very quiet ukulele—I took it with me to a ukulele festival and I could hardly hear myself.  Check out my video for some sound examples.

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I very much like my Outdoor Ukulele, and instantly would buy another if something happened to this one.  I will eventually buy a used Soprano, and if they ever offer a Concert sized ukulele, I will order one the day it is announced.

The Outdoor Ukulele series isn’t cheap, but it isn’t expensive, either.  Sopranos run from $95-$105 without other options; Tenors run from $145-$155 without other options.  Competitors offer solutions in Soprano and Concert sizes for quite a bit less; that said, I feel that you get more of an “instrument” with the polycarbonate Outdoor Ukulele versus its ABS competitors.  For schools, Outdoor Ukulele will sell sets of 12 or more ukuleles at a 50% discount.  Contact them directly if you are interested.  Of note: the company is run by the Seelye family—and most of the advertisements or posts from Outdoor Ukulele feature members of the Seelye family or their close friends!

When I bring this ukulele to school, students ask if it glows in the dark.  It doesn’t—but I did drop a glow stick into the ukulele during our last camp out.  You can take it in the water, but be advise that tuners can rust (this would be a good place for stainless steel tuners!).

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If you are in the market for a ukulele to take outdoors—the Outdoor Ukulele is hard to beat, and I highly recommend it.  It could easily serve as your ONLY ukulele due to the combination of its design and playability.  This is the ukulele that I bring when I don’t know what weather conditions I will be facing—and it is a joy to play.

Pros:

  • Take it anywhere
  • Affordable Pricing
  • Great set-up/action
  • Options at purchase (Tuners, strap buttons, pick-ups)
  • Wide nut and space between strings

Cons:

  • Can be a wait for new stock to be available/waiting lists
  • Not made of wood, so it doesn’t sound like a wood ukulele (Glaringly obvious)
  • No Concert model
  • Not as cheap as a Waterman, Buggsgear, Woodli, or Korala Explore
  • You may not like the color options

Guitar Guitare Toy Ukulele

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Today I was surprised by a student who came up to me and gave me a toy ukulele.  He had found it at local store called the Dollar Tree (everything costs $1) and wanted to get it for me.  It was an incredibly kind gesture on what turned out to be yet another challenging day.

The ukulele is 11” (in the video, I say it is 8.5”…ignore that) and has a scale length of about 7.5”. The ukulele is plastic with some wood grain (oak?) stickers.  It really isn’t playable as it can’t really be tuned.  The neck bends, the headstock is inverted, and the tuning pegs, mounted as they are, get in the way of the strings.  There is a zero fret (instead of a nut), and bridge doesn’t have a saddle and is made of plastic as well.  The strings seem to made of the same fishing line, and while they produce a sound—it isn’t playable.  I don’t know how this would compare in size with a true nano ukulele (such as those by Andy’s Ukuleles), but I do believe that true micro ukuleles would have more space between strings on the neck than a traditional ukulele, to give you a fair shot at actually being able to play the instrument.  My Caramel Sopranino really brings out the size comparison.

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These toy ukuleles are imported to the US by Greenbrier International in Chesapeake, Virginia—and again, are being carried by the Dollar Tree in the Twin Cities are of Minneapolis/St. Paul.   My guess is that if you are a ukulele player—you would find $1.08 to have one or two of these around.  The packaging is quite entertaining.  Those kids look so happy to be playing this non-playable instrument!  Check out the video review below…

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Bruce Wei Acacia Concert Ukulele

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This summer, there was a thread in Ukulele Underground about Bruce Wei, a luthier in Vietnam.  The thread questioned whether Bruce Wei would be making ukuleles much longer.  I had seen many posts and watched a lot of videos about Bruce Wei ukuleles, as they are custom made ukuleles in a small shop (even if not by Bruce himself, as he has luthiers under his management) at a tremendous value.  Overall feedback seemed to be that over the years, the product has improved, although the ukuleles were still smaller than typical for the scale size, and still relatively quiet.  There were some horror stories, but nothing recent on that front.

I had been watching a mandolin-type ukulele of Bruce’s on eBay for some time, but didn’t want to get into such an instrument for $250 (or more) plus shipping.  Please remember, in the world of custom ukulele building, this is a bargain basement price.  When I read about the potential of Bruce retiring (I don’t think it was true), I started looking more closely to the instruments, and an acacia concert ukulele with f holes grabbed my attention.  It also had fret markers that were more standard (a lot of Bruce’s instruments have ornate abalone inlays on the fretboard which do not appeal to me).  This concert acacia ukulele was selling for $99 plus $65 shipping, and I watched it for the length of the auction, buying it at the last minute (there were no other bids).

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The ukulele arrived safely in the US right on schedule (I was out of town at the time), and I made some videos and posted about the ukulele.  Now that I have had it for a while, I wanted to write a bit more about it.

It is a solid wood traditional double-bout shaped ukulele with rosewood bridge and fingerboard.  It has a bone nut and saddle, and the nut measures at 35.85mm wide, with a string distance of 8.55mm between strings at the first fret.  Set-up is very good, with action below 2.5mm at the 12th fret, and below .75mm at the 1st fret.  While it came with Aquila strings, I quickly swapped those out for my preferred fluorocarbons (it is just a personal preference).  The original strings are installed in a crazy way…I did not replicate this and just moved to traditional stringing methods.

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The ukulele is made of solid acacia (a close relative to the koa, but not koa) with two pieces on the sound board, two pieces on the sides, and two pieces on the back.  The joint on the bottom has a nice strip of decoration, and there is an attractive side sound port.  The soundboard features two f holes that have a thin abalone inlay, and there are snowflake abalone fret board markers at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th (double), 15th, and 17th frets.  The fretboard is bound with another wood type (not sure) with side markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, and 15th frets.

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The neck appears to be made of just two pieces, with a joint at the heel, and there is a heel cap with a dark wood that also matches a dark wood layer on the headstock.  The tuners are generic open geared tuners which seem to work well enough (as most do), with black plastic buttons.  There is no logo on the ukulele, although there is a label on the inside of the ukulele which is basically invisible without a traditional sound hole.

The ukulele has a oil-rubbed finish, and is quite attractive–I bought it mainly because of its looks.  As a classical musician, f holes appeal to me, but I have generally been unhappy with the sound of ukuleles that have them.  This ukulele didn’t “break the bank,” and allowed me to own yet a second custom ukulele (the first is my Bonanza Tenor Amoeba).  I added strap buttons to the ukulele, and the single flaw is a finishing error on the headstock, on the dark wood–something I saw on Bruce’s initial eBay ad.

The ukulele is both less wide and less deep than other concert ukuleles I own.  It was .10″ less deep than my Aklot concert ukulele, is more than 1/2″ less wide than my other concert ukuleles.  That means less surface area and logically, less sound.   I do think it is made of slightly thicker wood than other ukuleles I own–but it is hard to tell as the openings (f holes and sound port) are reinforced.  The f holes have an additional layer, and the sound port is built with a wood inlay.

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Put another way, it isn’t a loud ukulele, and it might get lost in a large group.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad sound…it is a solid wood ukulele.  It has a sweet tone (helped by the fluorocarbon strings, I think), and there is nice sustain.  Intonation seems to be very good, and harmonics pop easily at the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets.  The neck has a wonderful shape that feels good to hold.  It is easy to play…probably the easiest to play of any ukulele that I own–and remember, I basically run the same brand of strings on nearly all of my ukuleles.  I like the concert scale, as some of the chords that require a stretch are easier to play than on a tenor, yet the fretboard is not as small as a soprano.  I imagine my ideal scale would be a tenort (a word I just made up)–right in between a concert and a tenor!

This leads to the ultimate question…am I happy with the purchase?  Yes.  The style appeals to me, and I don’t know of a design with f holes that would sound better than this ukulele.  If I were to commission Bruce to make a similar ukulele, I would want it to be wider, deeper, and to remove the abalone from the f holes.  I might also want to upgrade the tuners to something nicer.

At the same time, this instrument wouldn’t be my only ukulele.  I would want other ukuleles that would project louder (e.g. KoAloha) and could be played outside (Outdoor Ukulele…where is your Concert version?).

Pros:

  • Great price
  • Custom built ukulele
  • Comfortable neck and great set-up, super easy to play
  • Looks!
  • Sweet tone
  • Less ornate fretboard markers

Cons:

  • Smaller than usual for the scale size
  • Thicker wood than many other manufacturers
  • Less volume
  • Very standard tuners
  • Flaw in the headstock finish

Aklot AKC-23 Ukulele Review

Update (10/16/2017): Barry Maz, the author of Got a Ukulele, reviewed the Aklot (which was shipped directly to him—not via Amazon), and within hours had taken the video down and later completely removed the review. I’m not sure what happened, and Barry didn’t explain—but clearly something happened that caused Barry to no longer be able to post about the Aklot on his blog. In summary, he hated the color, disliked the dove bridge, and wasn’t overly impressed. At $65, he thought it was a good bargain; at the suggested retail price of $125, he would recommend laminates from other manufacturers.

I don’t have any problem posting my review, and I have bought two more of these instruments since I bought this one. For the record, most of my initial purchase was refunded; the second one I bought with a coupon code for just under $43; and the third one was the current price, $65. I have to admit, I am weirded out by the Got a Ukulele situation, and have since left the Aklot pages on Facebook that I had been participating in. I still very much like the ukulele, particularly with fluorocarbon strings, and every part of my review is still true. I think it IS a five star ukulele in the $65 and less price range; it is probably a 3.5 star ukulele in the context of all ukuleles including the K brand ukuleles from Hawaii. So, as you read my review, please understand that while the first was free, I have paid for the second and third, and would likely buy another.

As you can see from the title, this review is for the Aklot AKC23 Ukulele Package. Click on any picture to see a larger image.

Aklot keeps product stocked in the USA for fast shipment (unlike Caramel, which takes up to a month to arrive), and the order came in a couple of days with Amazon Prime shipping. The ukulele arrives in a nice box (reminiscent of Enya, who makes the EUR-X1 that I recently reviewed, but Aklot is not the same company) along with a few accessories, such as a thin gig bag, tuner, neck strap, cleaning cloth, extra (Aquila Super Nylgut) strings, a felt pick and a nylon pick, and a beginner’s booklet. Without going into unnecessary detail, the included tuner is nice and I have been using it with a number of ukuleles, and the neck strap is excellent–but a mismatch with the instrument (I will come back to this later). The bag is a thin gig bag–not as thin as some bags–and offers basic protection for your protection as you go place to place.

The company is trying to market these ukuleles to beginning and advancing players. The ukulele is a traditionally double bout shaped concert ukulele with a solid mahogany top with laminate mahogany back and sides. It has a rich finish that the company calls “matte.” I wrote this review on Facebook, and someone said that the ukulele I have looks better than the one pictured on Amazon. It IS a pretty ukulele with attractive stripes of dark brown and lighter mahogany colors coming through. Some players may not like the finish on the neck, which shares the same finish–I am okay with it. The neck is made of okoume wood (I’ve never heard of it) with three joints. There are strap buttons on the instrument from the factory. The tuners are open tuners with black plastic buttons that turn nicely–and as with most geared tuners, they work. The company uses copper and stainless steel in the tuners and talks about this as a feature (I’m not sure that is a “feature.”). The headstock approaches but does not replicate a three-point crown, with the Aklot logo, as well as a bird–which is supposedly a pigeon! Note: my review on Facebook led to a discussion of pigeon. Apparently, several languages only have one word for dove and pigeon, which are in the same species. Dove and pigeon have very different connotations in English. So, while Aklot informed me it was a pigeon, and I talk about that in this review and in the video, I’m going to give Aklot the benefit of the doubt and call it a dove in the future.

The saddle and nut are made of bone; the fretboard and bridge are made of rosewood. The bridge may be a point of departure for many buyers as it is a larger bridge in the shape of a bird–again a pigeon. You would probably want to lie to people and tell them it is an eagle. If you bought this ukulele, the bridge would be hidden most of the time as you played it.

There are eighteen nickel silver frets with fourteen to the body…fretboard markers as expected and side markers as well. There is a nice etched rosette on the front of the instrument–a departure from the sun that is used on many different instruments these days. In my opinion, it is a nice touch–understated and elegant. Let me say this again: I really like the rosette. The company stresses that the neck is made with straight grained wood to add strength (Again, I’m not sure about that as a selling point) and that the edges of the soundboard are rolled so as to be more comfortable for the player. They may have a point–someone recently pointed out to me how the sharp edge of the round Enya EUR-X1 can be addressed with some careful sanding.

The fret edges are finished nicely, and the company is stressing good action from the start, insisting that it be no more than .5mm at the first fret, and no more than 3mm at the 12th fret. My ukulele was under 2.75mm at the 12th fret.

A look inside the ukulele shows a clean build, with notched kerfing and typical bracing. It has a 35mm nut (34.86) with 8.67mm spacing between strings at the first fret. The ukulele weighs in at 1 pound 1.6 ounces.

As for sound, I have access to 4 other concert ukuleles…a Makala CE (the C model is in the same price range), a Lanikai LU-21/BKCE, a Bruce Wei Concert Ukulele, and one of our school’s Mainland Mahogany ukuleles. In my video, I comparing the Aklot with these other ukuleles. The sound of the Aklot is surprisingly good (to me–I’m sure it isn’t a surprise to Aklot as they made it that way) with a full, rich sound with good punch and sustain, as well as a bit of depth due to the deep body (2.83″). In my opinion, many laminate ukuleles tend to have depth without brightness, and the Aklot actually gets the best of both worlds with its construction of part wood, part wood laminate. A tap on the soundboard shows that it is really quite resonant, as you would hope for a solid wood soundboard. To be honest, after comparing the instruments, the Mainland has it beat in sound…but this ukulele is 1/4 of the cost of a Mainland. It seems to me that this would be a perfect first or second instrument…allowing you to play a very nice instrument until you saved for the semi-pro level (e.g. Mainland, Pono, KoAloha Opio) or pro level (Kala Elite, Kamaka, KoAloha, Ko’olau, Kaniela). For causal players, who do not suffer from Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome, this could be an instrument that lasts a lifetime. So think of the Aklot as a great first instrument, a great primary instrument, or a great transition instrument. You really can’t go wrong with it.

I only have three minor concerns about the ukulele: first, it comes with a neck strap–a very nice one–that doesn’t utilize the strap buttons installed on the ukulele. It should come with a shoulder strap.

Second, the strings do not have a bead tied on them…something that I do with my pull-through ukuleles, so I used some extra beads that I had (a container of hundred of beads was $1.63 at Wal-Mart). Don’t be afraid of a ukulele with pull-through strings. I’m not sure that it helps the ukulele settle down in tuning–but it is another accepted way to string ukulele. Just remove the old strings from the tuning pegs (I just cut them near the headstock), feed the old strings through the bridge, and fish them out of the ukulele. Then feed new strings into the ukulele, fishing them out from the inside while they still stick out on the outside. I tie a small bead on the end, and then connect the string to the tuning pegs. It is easy…but a little more involved than a tie bridge or a slotted bridge.

Finally, and most importantly, this is a solid top ukulele that should require extra care when humidity falls outside of the 40%-60% window. If you choose to buy this ukulele, you will need a plan to humidify if you live anywhere that falls out of that humidity range. The gig bag that it comes with will not trap humidity, so another solution will need to be found (different case, Rubbermaid container, etc.). I also thought the fretboard looked a little dry, so when I changed the strings to Martin M600 strings, I applied some Lemon Oil from StewMac–something that is good to do with any ukulele with a wood fretboard. Just remember…a drop of Lemon Oil is probably all that you need!

There are other $55 to $60 ukulele packages out there (See Donner and Enya as reliable brands)…but this is the only solid top ukulele package that I know of.

The Aklot AKC23 is currently on Amazon (the only place to buy it) for $55, and I fully recommend the Aklot AKC23 Concert Ukulele with one final reminder that it does have a solid top and should require some humidity maintenance in many places in the world.

Pros: Solid mahogany top ukulele with laminate mahogany sides, excellent action (set-up) straight from the factory, smooth fret edges, warm and bright sound, included strap buttons, beautiful colors, tasteful etched rosette, it comes with a light case and other accessories including a tuner that works very well, and of course, it has a great price. The company desires happy customers. Buy, unpack, tune, and play (note: like all ukuleles, strings stretch a lot when new. Just keep tuning it up, and playing it as you do so. It will eventually settle down).

Cons: Truly, nothing to avoid. The main thing is that you likely don’t know the name Aklot. The company is trying to change that. The included strap is for your neck and not your shoulder–and the instrument comes with strap buttons! Don’t get me wrong…it is a high quality neck strap, but I would like to see a shoulder strap included instead, like this one. The large bird on the bridge is the only thing on the instrument that sticks out–and you may not like that. The neck also shares the matte finish of the ukulele, and some players do not like a tactile finish on the neck. I personally like fluorocarbon strings, so I swapped the strings out with Martin M600 strings. The most important thing: this is a solid top ukulele and you should address humidity when the humidity in your house (or wherever you play it) is out of the 40%-60% range.

Note: the links on this page are referral links. If you buy an Aklot AKC 23 Ukulele or Martin M600 strings from this page, a small percentage of Amazon’s profit comes my way, which helps pay for my ukulele addiction. Thanks in advance if you buy through a referral link!