Caramel CT102A Tenor Zebrawood Laminate Ukulele Details

Caramel CT102A Tenor Zebrawood Laminate Ukulele Details

Note: if you choose to buy a Caramel CT102A Tenor Ukulele, a Caramel CC102A Concert Ukulele, or a Donner Concert Ukulele, I would always appreciate it if you could use a referral link for Amazon–which sends a portion of Amazon’s profits my direction (links above).

This evening I brought a few of our school ukuleles home to restring them for left-handed players, and I thought I would add a few details about these ukuleles. Please ignore the string colors/gauges as they are configured for left handed players.

The first ukulele is the Caramel CT102A, available from eBay, Amazon, or http://www.caramelukulele.com. At the time of writing (8/21/2017), this ukulele is available from Caramel for $39 and Amazon for $40 without a case. Shipping can take up to 4 weeks in the United States, although the company has talked about building inventory in the United States and shipping domestically. It arrives in a cardboard box which has a layer of styrofoam, with the ukulele in a clear plastic bag. Multiple ukuleles are shipped taped together as one larger box.

Caramel’s Statistics, along with my notes:

  • Model: CT102A
  • Tenor size
  • Zebra wood body NOTE: Also a headstock Zebrawood layer–Caramel Logo can be lasered or sticker. The wood itself is 1.87mm thick, and the Zebrawood seems to have a lot of pockmarks, the print DOES show through on the back side of the laminate, 2 piece construction on sides, front, and back.
  • Rosewood fretboard & bridge NOTE: This should change with CITIES restrictions, very square bottom of the fretboard, and the fretboard does not have a radius (curved) as should be expected.
  • Buffalo bone nut & saddle
  • Neck: Unknown wood, 3 joints
  • 17 frets NOTE: I count 18, 14 to the body, nickel silver frets
  • ABS binding
  • Headstock: Not a copy of a Martin “crown”
  • Open geared tuners NOTE: Some turn easier than others, but none have failed
  • Frosted tuning pegs(not plastic) NOTE: Rubberized tuner heads
  • Aquila Super Nylgut String
  • Fretboard markers: 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th (2), 15th frets
  • Side markers: None
  • Rosette: laser etched sun
  • Kerfing: notchedLabel: Identifies manufacturer and model

Size:

  • 17 Tenor Scale
  • 26 Overall body length
  • 11-3/5 Body length
  • 2-3/4 Body depth NOTE: 2.67 inches deep
  • 1-3/8 At Nut NOTE: 35.35mm nut, 8.6mm spacing between strings at the 1st fret
  • Weight 1 pound 1.8oz, seems to be well balanced between body and neck

Some Observations:

Barry Maz at gotaukulele.com reviewed a concert scale Caramel and didn’t like it at all. He had major concerns about finish, sound, and that there might be structural concerns with the fretboard sinking into the top of the ukulele. His concerns should be noted.

In my opinion, Caramels have average to louder volume, and limited sustain. The CT102A doesn’t have a remarkable tone–it is rather standard. I think it may have something to do with Zebrawood laminate…it may just be a very limited tone wood. You MAY have to set up a Caramel ukulele to play more optimally. In general, set-up has improved since we started buying the instruments, and the nut height (1mm or lower is generally held to be “right”) is usually good; however, some saddles have been unnecessarily high. Fret edges have been better lately…but a Minnesota winter makes the fret ends stick out. Considering the cost, I just attack them with a sanding block, and the problem is solved. Saddles are easy enough to adjust, and some sand paper and some time may well make this worth the purchase as a school instrument. We have 50 Caramels in total, and I personally own a Caramel sopranino ukulele. They are extremely rugged and have handled a lot of abuse from middle school students. One student managed to scratch the back of a ukulele–but otherwise they show nearly no signs of being played by over 350 students.

Caramel keeps adjusting its build quality and does respond to customer feedback. Some new Caramel concerts have a new pin bridge. I was told that Caramel plans to add side fret marker dots.

Pros: Great Price, Rugged, Loud. The tuners have been good for us, whereas we have had to replace some tuners on other instruments.

Negatives: Can develop sharp fret ends, saddle may need adjustment, very basic tone, no side markers, no case included in the price, Zebrawood is a love it or hate it type of laminate, the same with the sun motif

Conclusion: When Barry Maz gave the concert sized Caramel such a negative review, I had to question my support of the brand–but I find myself still supporting Caramel. These are fantastic “beater” ukuleles for the school setting, where ukuleles may not be taken care of (I think a bit of Toy Story 3, how the toys found themselves at a day care facility). I think they are also great for beginners who don’t know if they want to continue with ukulele. $39 or $40 for a tenor ukulele is almost nothing–and the laminate wood will not require much care at all. That said, fret ends and action can be an issue, so if you recommend a Caramel, make sure you can help someone with it if necessary. Yes, you can spend $30 more and get accessories and a gig bag (A Donner concert, for example). However, $30 can make a big difference to a starter–and to be honest, there are far worse instruments out there in a much higher price range. We could not have replaced our Mahalo MK1 ukuleles with Caramels if each cost nearly double what we paid for each instrument. While there is much to be said for buying from a well known dealer who sets up each ukulele, checking action and fret ends, you are only going to find these online.

Bruce Wei Concert Ukulele

Bruce Wei Concert Ukulele

For some time, I have been watching Bruce Wei ukuleles on eBay. Bruce is a luthier in Vietnam, who sells on eBay. He makes solid wood instruments, and is also known for his inlay work on those instruments. He also sells parts to other luthiers. He can make custom ukuleles, and can do custom inlay work. Some of his instruments start on eBay (his main channel) for $0.99, other instruments list at other prices and sell for more than $400. Ultimately, it is very inexpensive way to purchase a ukulele made by a small shop.

The internet has had mixed opinions on Bruce's work, including some horror stories (instruments that split) from the past all the way to raving reviews. The general consensus seems to be: pretty ukuleles with thicker woods (thinner woods tend to resonate better), smaller bodies than other makes, and thus are pretty quiet. Most reviewers are happy with their purchases, although many gravitate towards other instruments in time.

I have been watching the mandolin-type ukuleles on Bruce's site…the "F Hole" design looks so attractive. Those F Hole instruments only seem to appear in mandolin and arch top ukulele designs. I am generally not drawn to fancy inlay work–particularly on the fretboard, which would distract me as I play. I admit that I do look at the fretboard from time to time and do no navigate just by the side marker dots.

My watching of Bruce Wei Ukuleles was further inspired by Ukulele Underground. There is one member there who has had Bruce custom make a few instruments–so he is always a champion for his products. Additionally, there was discussion about Bruce possibly stopping the construction of ukuleles–I am not sure where that stands (originally there was a statement about health concerns, but that sounds as if that were not the case). I don't know of any other "custom" manufacturer that sells ukuleles like this…so my interest was ignited.

The other week, Bruce listed a concert ukulele that had a very simply fretboard (no crazy inlay), F Holes, and a side sound port on a traditional ukulele body. It was $99 for the lowest bid, plus $65 shipping, so I bid–and won the item (the $0.99 instruments never sell for that little).

The ukulele arrived last week while I was on vacation–so I picked it up yesterday. The ukulele includes:

  • Acacia wood
  • Minimal inlay on the fretboard
  • Bound fretboard with side markers at 5, 7, 10, 12, and 15
  • F Holes with minor inlay
  • Side sound-port with a a checkerboard
  • The body and back are made of two pieces of wood, book matched
  • The sides are made of two pieces of wood
  • No edge binding on this ukulele
  • A rather dark, unadorned headstock (Bruce can customize this with your name, logo, etc).
  • Very standard tuners that work, but do not feel very smooth
  • Aquila Super Nylgut strings
  • Very nice action, under 2.5mm at the 12th fret and less than 1mm at the 1st fret. No buzzing.
  • 20 nickel silver frets, 14 to the body. All are finished well…no sharp edges.
  • Bone saddle and nut, and the nut is nicely shaped with no sharp edges.
  • The neck is straight, no cracks in the wood and the finish is a flat satin that feels nice to the touch
  • The neck seems to be made of two pieces…with a joint at the heel.
  • The headstock departs from the crown motif on so many ukuleles
  • Came with a soft case (which is a little silly, as it will need a solid case for the Midwest winter that is right around the corner, even in August)

There is no doubt that the thickness of the wood is much greater than my solid wood Martin S1 Soprano and KoAloha Opio Tenor. The top, in particular, might benefit a lot from a thinner sound board, but I would have to guess that Bruce's process is based on trial and error. The sound with the Aquilas was pleasant, but muffled. I put Martin 600 strings on the instrument (what I normally use), and the ukulele sounds richer and fuller to me–but it will never be a "screamer" like the Martin can be, or the Opio is.

On the inside, things look fine. I can see some areas where the glue seeped past the purfling, but not to excess. I don't see any significant mess in there. There is a Bruce Wei label in there, but no one will ever be able to read it without dismantling the ukulele.

I have three other Concert scaler instruments at the current time…a Makala MK-CE (my first ukulele), a Lanikai LU-21CE/BK, and a Kala Concert Banjolele. I really like the Concert size, and a future purchase will be a KoAloha Concert or a KoAloha Opio Concert. The Bruce Wei size is smaller than the Makala, and even smaller than the Lanikai. Both the Makala and Lanikai drive significantly more sound than the Bruce Wei (all use Martin strings). However, that isn't to say that the Bruce Wei is a super soprano…it is significantly larger than my Martin S1. That said, the top of the Martin appears to be 1/2 to 1/3 the thickness of the Bruce Wei. It makes me wonder what this ukulele could sound like with a much thinner top (I can see leaving thickness on the sides and back)! That said, the Bruce Wei sells for 1/3 of the cost of the Martin (new).

All that said, the Bruce Wei doesn't sound unpleasant, and has a nice warm, clear sound with the Martin 600 strings–although is just isn't going to be loud. I have no problem playing harmonics at the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets. Another factor may be the F Holes and the lack of a traditional sound hole. The Kala arch tops that I have played (all laminate) leave me unimpressed in terms of sound as well. I would say–from memory–that I like the sound of the Bruce Wei better than the Kala arch top–but I haven't played an arch top with fluorocarbon strings, either.

In summary, the negative aspects of the ukulele are:

  • Very marginal tuners, which work and look nice–but could be better
  • A very thick sound board
  • A body that is smaller in terms of length and depth than other Concert ukuleles
  • A rather quiet ukulele
  • In truth, I would prefer the F Holes without the inlay around them

The positives, for me, are:

  • A unique F Hole design that appeals to me as a classical musician
  • Solid acacia instrument that may open up more over time…the finish feels nice to the touch
  • Bound fretboard
  • Limited fretboard inlay (for a Bruce Wei ukulele)
  • Side Sound Port
  • Warm, pleasing tone

For a $163 ukulele that is relatively "custom" I think I am pleased–I can buy a louder ukulele in the same price range (or lower, such as my Makala MK-CE, which was $85). If I could buy another solid wood ukulele from another manufacturer with some of the same design features, I might consider it–but I don't know of other ukuleles like this.

I have only been working with this ukulele for 28 hours or so…and thus I will attempt to follow up in the future.

Here is a video review, including a demonstration with the stock Aquila strings and the Martin 600 strings:

https://youtu.be/4KGwvGAYXdk

Some Enya EUR-X1 Videos


I have been working on two new ukuleles today, but the real show stopper is the Enya EUR-X1 that I blogged about earlier today. I simply cannot believe that the Enya costs as little as it does and that it comes with everything that it has.

  • HPL Laminate (same as Martin laminate instruments)
  • Removable neck (potentially, you could swap a Concert or Tenor neck)
  • Radius fretboard
  • Truss Rod
  • Smooth fret edges
  • Compensated saddle
  • Pull-through bridge
  • Strap buttons
  • Really nice feeling tuners
  • Incredibly nice action (string height)
  • Good intonation
  • Gig Bag
  • Strap (ukulele)
  • Cleaning Cloth
  • Capo
  • Tuner
  • Finger shaker (?)
  • Picks (?)
  • Extra Strings (don't use them)

The negatives?

  • The strings are low tension, and have very little difference in gauge for the different pitches.
  • It is a softer ukulele, even with different strings. It doesn't punch like a Martin laminate soprano. That doesn't mean it sounds bad.
  • The nut is a little sharp on the edges for my preference
  • The lower body presses against my arm and hurts a little as I play it

Those negatives are REALLY minor for a less than $30 ukulele. Want to buy one? Consider using my Amazon referral link (click here) and send a small percentage of Amazon's profits my way!

Some videos:

A review:

https://youtu.be/1SPaF59Laxo

A demonstration on how to change the strings on a pull-through bridge:

https://youtu.be/gidUUzoHabk

A comparison of the stock strings and Martin 600 fluorocarbon strings. I don't hear much difference in the final sound, but there is a difference in feeling as you play.

https://youtu.be/wbsevBkDGDU

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!