Sunday, February 15, 2009

National Treasure

About a year ago I got to try a resonator ukulele for the first time during a local ukulele club meeting. It was one of those Republic "reso-relic" ukuleles. It was pretty interesting and I thought it sounded pretty good. So since that time I had it in the back of my mind to maybe get a nice resonator ukulele someday. The number one name in resonator instruments, of course, is National. I've read plenty about how great National ukuleles are, so I've kept an eye on them while browsing through ebay and other online marketplaces during that time. Last summer there was one for sale at the Fleamarket Music Marketplace and I grabbed it. It was a mahogany concert scaled National resonator ukulele.

The specs on the National I bought are as follows:

-Concert scale resonator ukulele
-1-3/8" nut width
-Grover friction tuners
-Rosewood fingerboard with plastic position dots and side position dots
-Mahogany neck
-Mahogany body
-Faux tortoise binding and faceplate

It came to me strung with some National strings, with all four strings being nylon-wound. They sounded fine but since I prefer the feel of regular nylon strings, I switched to a set of Worth CDs (my concert scale string of choice). I had read raves about the playability and workmanship of National ukuleles, and I agree that these are very well made instruments. It is very playable with good action and comfortable feeling flat C-shaped neck. The rosewood fingerboard is not bound but the frets are finished perfectly and does not protrude at all. Everything is superbly built and finished with no factory blemish that I can find. I believe the body is made of solid mahogany and the grain looks very nice and uniform. It looks very similar to the mahogany found on a vintage Martin ukulele as opposed to the striped looking mahogany found on modern overseas made mahogany ukuleles such as Pono ukuleles. The neck is joined to the body at the 15th fret, making access to the higher frets easier than most other ukes that are joined at the 12th or 14th fret. The neck itself is one-piece, which means that it was carved out of one piece of wood instead of having several pieces glued together at the heel and headstock. While either way makes no real difference, one-piece necks are pretty rare and only seem to appear on really high end instruments (my only other ukes with a one-piece neck are the William King tenor and Kamaka tenor). Overall, it's just a very classy looking instrument.

Being a resonator uke, it has obvious differences from normal ukuleles that doesn't utilize a resonator cone. Instead of a sound hole, it has a resonator cone occupying almost the entire lower bout. I don't really know how a resonator works, but it's intended result is to have a much louder sounding instrument than a normal acoustic instrument. It is much heavier than a similar sized concert ukulele. This concert scaled ukulele has a body that's not much bigger than a typical soprano uke, yet weighs a little more than my long scale William King tenor. It is not too heavy by any means, but definitely heavier than its size would suggest. It is in fact about the same size as the Kanile'a super soprano (you can see a side by side picture with the Kanile'a SS toward the bottom of the last lineup ranking). Given its soprano-ish body and concert scale size, I think this National might as well be called a super soprano.

The biggest difference from normal ukuleles is, of course, the sound. There is definitely some metal sounding component in the sound somewhere, very different from normal ukuleles. It is very loud and piercing. If you want to be heard without plugging it in or using a microphone, this is probably your best bet. Instead of trying to describe the sound in detail, I'll defer to the soundfile at the end of this review so you can hear for yourself how different it sounds from normal ukes. I think it is a very high quality sound, as it is clear sounding and has good tone and sustain, but frankly I'm not really a fan of it. I just like the sound of a wooden ukulele better. If you like the resonator sound, however, it probably doesn't get much better than this.

So am I glad that I purchased this uke? I would say the answer is yes and no. I'm glad to have played one, as it is a very interesting and great instrument. But at the same time, because the resonator sound isn't one that I'm particularly fond of, I don't find myself playing this ukulele much. Having said that, each time I think about selling it I take it out and play it a bit and say to myself "man this is a pretty good ukulele" and decide to postpone finding it a new home. With a couple of new custom ukes in progress, I'll probably have to let it go sooner or later, but I do think it is worthy of the heaps of praise given to it by people who have played a National resonator ukulele. It is definitely a high quality ukulele.

Here is a soundfile of, you guessed it, Blue Roses Falling played on this Natioal mahogany uke.


C: said...

Very pretty song. I agree the resonator lacks the "warmth" of the sound from an all wood, but it is a very distinct, almost crystalline sound that may benefit certain tunes.

Great sound file.

John Hayes said...

If you decide to sell, you won't have much trouble turning that uke around-- it has a great sound. I like my Beltona resonator tenor personally-- it has a bit "warmer" sound than the National-- but the reso sound isn't everyone's thing.

Anonymous said...

Resonators work by transferring the vibrations of the strings to a spun aluminum cone, rather than to the face of the instrument.

While there are two ways of doing that, all the reso ukes I've seen have had the "biscuit" bridge type, which sits in a little depression in the top of the (slightly truncated) cone.

When you say, "If you want to be heard without plugging it in or using a microphone, this is probably your best bet." you're right on target. Resophonic instruments were a pre-electric amplification attempt at getting more volume, initially out of guitars, but since then there've been all sorts of reso instruments.

GX9901 said...

Cool Hobbit! Thanks for the insight!

Anonymous said...

I'm in the process of falling in love with the dobro-style uke...please keep me on a list if you want to sell this magical uke! find me at mail at janetwellington dot com...great, great song -- I found it inspiring, actually -- makes me want to practice!

mciganek said...

great playing. thanks for setting that up. i'm falling for the resophonics, fast.

TonyB. said...

Stunning playing and performance! Bravo!

Which uke should I bring on my next trip to Oahu???

What's the maximum you'd spend on a ukulele case for your best uke?

If you could steal one of my ukes, which one would it be???

How curly do you like your koa? (preferably on a uke)

What's the maximum number of ukes a perfectly sane person should have???

Poll: How often do you play the ukulele???

Poll: Which guitar company's approach to ukes do you prefer???

Poll: What's your favorite type of headstock???

Poll: The new basic Collings concert uke (UC-1) sells for about $1k, your reaction is: