Monday, April 14, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Curiosity is probably UAS's best friend. And for the person with a serious case of UAS, it's not good news. My curiosity got the best of me about two months ago when I hunted down an Oscar Schmidt Bell shaped concert 'ukulele. I had seen pictures of some vintage Washburn bell ukes and also a couple of bell ukes made by Duane Heilman of Black Bear Ukuleles. It is certainly an interesting looking 'ukulele and when I saw that the Oscar Schmidt version is made of solid wood, I pretty much decided that I would like to try one.

When I searched the net a couple of months ago, it appeared that the street price for one of these is around $280 or so. Some further digging landed me at Elevation Music, where at the time I ordered, it had a price of $210 plus free shipping. At such a deal I thought it was a no brainer and went ahead and ordered it. Pretty much right after I ordered it, the price on their website changed to $269. Perhaps they realized that they priced it wrong after I bought it?

When I ordered it, I knew it wasn't going to blow me away simply because I already own some pretty high end 'ukuleles. But I thought maybe it will bring something different to the table. So how does it fare? Let's go into some details. First the specs:

  • Solid Trembesi top, side, and back.
  • Plastic bound rosewood fingerboard with 21 frets.
  • Rosewood bridge.
  • Bone nut & saddle.
  • Off-white plastic binding.
  • Abalone (not sure if it's real) headstock logo, position dots, and rosette.
  • Multi-color "rope" purfling on soundboard.
  • Grover sealed gear tuners with ebony buttons.
  • Satin finish.
  • Custom bell shaped case.

I think this 'ukulele looks quite good. I have no clue what trembesi is but to me it looks kind of similar to koa. The only information I found about trembesi online is that they use it for furniture wood in Indonesia. Since this uke is made in Indonesia, that makes sense. The bell shaped body looks interesting and the decorations are pretty nice. I think the multi-colored "rope" purfling look very cool. I'm not sure about the abalone used on this uke though. It does appear to be real abalone, but I'm just not sure. It looks decent for the rosette, but the Oscar Schmidt logo on the headstock looks kind of like an abalone decal. The shape of the headstock, body, and bridge are all pretty faithful to the original bell uke, as far as I could tell. The only part that doesn't look faithful to the original are the tuners. But frankly I much prefer geared tuners to friction tuners so this isn't a problem for me. Those "ears" probably would keep a few purists from considering this uke though.

This is a concert scaled 'ukulele. The nut is 1-3/8", which is a little narrow for my tastes (I prefer 1-1/2"). It has a fairly round neck profile, almost a slight "V" shape, that I don't particularly care for either. So right off the bat it doesn't quite fit my preferences. Holding the 'ukulele is also a different experience. If you hold it by cradling the bottom of the uke in your right arm, like how you might hold it standing, it feels normal enough. But when holding it while sitting down, I find that if I rest the uke on my right leg, the pointy part of the bell kind of digs into my right arm sometimes, depending on the arm position. I've concluded that this isn't the most ergonomic shape for an 'ukulele. In fact, I think the cigar box uke I have feels more ergonomic. The action was slightly high when I got the uke, so I sanded down the saddle and now it's fine. Overall it certainly doesn't fit my preferences all that well, and the bell shape is kind of awkward, but none of the issues I have with it has to do with quality, and for the right person, it can feel really good.

I suspect that this 'ukulele is made at the same factory as Pono ukes. I based that suspicion mostly on the fact that this is made in Java (Indonesia) and has the exact same Grover geared tuners as my Pono cedar top tenor. But the workmanship of the bell uke also seem to be Pono-esque. I would say it's definitely on par with Pono ukes. The insides look clean. All parts fit together well. No sharp fret ends. Those quality Grover tuners. In short, the workmanship is great, especially when you consider the price.

This is a pretty difficult category for me to rate because to be honest just about all the other ukes I own are of much higher sound quality. They also cost a lot more, so there's not reason to expect this bell uke to sound as good as say the Kanile'a super-soprano. Judging it on its own, I think it's a fine sounding 'ukulele. It came strung with Aquila strings, which sounded just OK. I installed some Worth CD's on it and to my ears it represented some improvement. The sound is clearer and it rings better at the higher frets. The volume is pretty good, about the same as the previously mentioned Kanile'a super-soprano. It's sound is what I would describe as a bit artificial. I don't exactly know what that means, but that's the word that comes to mind when I listen to its sound. The intonation is good. Overall I would say that for the money this is a fine sounding 'ukulele. I think it's on par with Ponos I've played and at least as good or better than most Lanikai or Kala laminated ukes.

This is where this 'ukulele shines a little bit. For the street price of $280, you get a good sounding, nicely decorated and uniquely shaped solid wood uke plus a very nice custom bell shaped case (reviewed in this post). The case quality is at least on par with the Ko'olau hard cases, so it would be reasonable to say that it's worth $50-60. That means you're spending about $210 or so on the uke itself, which is very reasonable, I think. It compares favorably on the value front against Pono ukes.

If you've read this far, you're probably thinking that this 'ukulele isn't that great. While I would say it's not a great uke, it's certainly a good 'ukulele. It's not going to make you forget your KoAloha or Kanile'a concert, but it's a fraction of the cost. If the bell shape appeals to you, and you do not own ukes of higher sound quality than Ponos, I would have no problem recommending this ukulele. If you own one or more Hawaiian factory made ukes or custom ukes, this one probably does best serving as a good sounding novelty uke in your collection. Hey, playing Christmas songs on this uke should be a lot of fun right?

Here is a sound clip of me playing this 'ukulele.

Some pictures:


Soundhole & rosette.

Bound fretboard and soundboard purfling.

These tuners are exactly the same as the ones on a Pono cedar top tenor.

With custom case.

No comments:

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