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

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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!

Caramel CC102A Concert Zebrawood Ukulele

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).

In my series of ukulele reviews, the next review instrument is the Caramel CC102A Concert Zebrawood Ukulele.

At the time of writing (8/23/2017), this ukulele is available from Caramel for $36 and Amazon for $37 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 in bold:

  • Model: CC102A
  • Concert Scale
  • Zebra wood body NOTE: Also a headstock Zebrawood layer–Caramel Logo can be lasered or sticker. The wood itself is 2.35mm 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
  • 18 frets NOTE: 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: notched
  • Label: Identifies manufacturer and model

Size:

  • 15″ Concert Scale
  • 24″ Overall length
  • 10 7/8 Body length
  • 2-3/4 Body depth NOTE: 2.72 inches deep
  • 1-3/8 At Nut NOTE: 35.64mm nut, 8.87mm spacing between strings at the 1st fret
  • Weight 1 pound 0.7oz, seems to be a bit balanced towards the body

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 CC102A 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. Some had sharp ends on the nut that needed filing.

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. $36 or $37 for a concert 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.

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.

Video Play Along Lists Updated!

While I will not post updated lists in a blog post, I will post when I have updated them.

I updated the lists today.

If you go to my Video Play Along page, you will find a list of videos I have created, a list of my 365 project, and three lists of the “universal” collection by title,

We’re up to 242 songs.  Please let me know if you ever find a broken link or a missing file.

My most recent videos include Grace VanderWaal’s Moonlight, Christina Perri’s A Thousand Years, and Bruno Mars’ Just the Way You Are.

This is my last month of freedom before the school year starts, so if you have a request, please let me know.  It would be helpful to know if you have a source video to work from, and any special requests (KIDS colored strings diagrams?  Simplified chords?  A different key?).  I found a new listing of easy songs today that I will be working through–so I do have some things to keep working on.

And again, these videos are fun for me to work on. They combine a love of the ukulele, a love of technology, music analysis, and creativity–and it is wonderful to end with a video that looks good and that can be used instructionally or in public play along venues.  So, please, if you have requests…let me know.

I will also keep working on the 365 project…much more slowly, although the next 4 to 5 songs are pretty easy.  As I look ahead, I don’t know some of these songs at all!

Ukulele Play Along…What do you need?

This summer, I have made a large number of ukulele play along videos, with three purposes:

  • Videos that I wanted to use with my own students, but were not available
  • Videos that specific people needed to use with a program (I had a list to work from)
  • Videos of music that we use in ukulele jams, or songs in the top 10 on ukutabs.com.

Occasionally a good song fell into my lap. Sometimes songs didn't work out so well. Other educators continue to add to the collection as well…Dr. Jill Reese just released a version of Uptown Funk (Kids Bop Version).

I have gone through all of the top two categories, and will keep my eye on the third…but with a few weeks of summer left (I won't have time to do much of this once school is back in session), I have a question…

What songs do you need made into ukulele play along videos? What would help you and your program? I can't promise anything, but if you let me know, I will try to start meeting those requests. Just send me an e-mail at my techinmusiced gmail address.

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