Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mini-Me or Tiny Tim???

Uke-crack arrived yesterday in the form of the Kala Acacia Pocket ukulele. While I have tried to find as many reviews, pictures, and videos of it as I awaited its arrival, I must say that I was still not prepared for just how friggin' small this thing is! No, it doesn't actually fit in your pocket, but it is a really really small ukulele. It is definitely smaller than I expected and I don't think seeing pictures of it next to other ukes would really drive that point home (Although I do present a couple of such pics at the end of this post). You need to see this thing in person to appreciate its smallness.

Aside from the small size, my other first impression upon picking this ukulele up is that it is pretty heavy for its size. It's built like a tank, which isn't necessarily a good thing when talking about ukes. I don't know if it's because the body is so tiny and therefore the wood seems thicker, but it sure feels that way. I held my Collings UC-1 on one hand and this uke on the other, and I can't really tell much difference in weight. Granted, the Collings is really built very light, but it's like 5 times the size (OK, I'm exaggerating) of the Kala. So perhaps this pocket uke is a bit overbuilt, but maybe it needed to be built this way, I'm not sure. It does look well built. Perhaps not the most perfect workmanship (some glue and a little bit of wood shaving is visible on the inside of my copy), but I would rate it as very good. The acacia wood body looks nice, with some very faint curls in the wood. The headstock has an inlaid Kala logo in maple and an overlay of what appears to be clear plastic, which gives it an interesting effect.

The sound is predictably thin and not especially loud. I tried CFAD, DGBE, and GCEA tunings and decided to stick to GCEA for the time being. In CFAD and DGBE, it didn't seem to sound much better than GCEA and most songs I tried didn't sound that great in those tunings despite the strings are all "spaced apart" the same. It does seem to have pretty good intonation, but the Aquila strings are still stretching so much it's hard to tell since the strings seem to go out of tune as I play. Speaking of tuning, I used my brand spanking new Peterson StroboClip to tune this baby and it was surprisingly easy. I thought given the sensitivity of the tuner and the short scale of the ukulele, combined with friction tuners, I was going to be in for a workout to tune it. Turns out I was able to get the strings dialed in fairly quickly using the StroboClip, so I'm definitely happy with the new tuner.

While the sound of the pocket uke is not really all that great (yes, it's super tiny, but even if you consider it good for its size, it's still not that great in absolute terms), it IS fun to play. It is somewhat difficult given how small the scale length is, but there's something inherently fun about playing a tiny ukulele that actually produces all the right notes (unlike cheapo toy ukes you can get at ToysRUs or Hawaiian tourist shops). I've read a few reviews of the pocket uke where the reviewer says it's fun to play, but I didn't really understand what they meant until I played it myself. This ukulele is all about its tiny size. If all else is equal and this is a standard sized soprano, I'd probably return it. But its size makes it a keeper, which is probably difficult for people to understand unless they've handled one of these. Once you've handled it, you would probably either love it or hate it.

So the biggest problem most people will have with the Kala pocket uke is the price. The street price for the mahogany version is $210 while the acacia version is $280. To put the $280 price for the acacia in perspective, you can buy the Kala acacia TENOR for $21 more from most dealers. That uke is like 10 times bigger than the pocket uke!! (ok, exaggerating again. It's only 6 times bigger) It doesn't take a math major to realize that the value quotient for the pocket uke is extremely low. The only reason I went for the acacia version is because I found one for $240 shipped and decided "what the hell" on the $30 premium over the mahogany version because I really wanted the acacia. Now, I don't really have a problem with the pricing on these ukes because I believe that it may actually be more difficult for Kala to make these. Dave Means of Glyph once said that it's most challenging to get good sound out of a small soprano box, and it doesn't get much smaller than these. Also, I think it's more difficult to ensure good intonation on a shorter scaled instrument. I imagine Kala needed tighter quality control to get these to intonate correctly. So personally speaking, I can understand why these ukes carry such relatively high price.

So who will buy these things? I kind of doubt too many are sold over the internet. Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't see many people shelling out $210~280 for these pocket ukes just by looking at pictures or even videos of them. Like I said, you can almost get the acacia tenor for this money, and there are a slew of nice imported solid wood ukes of all sizes at this price point. So I think it's a tough sell over the internet. However, I'm willing to bet quite a few gets taken home when people actually handle them. It's just so damn cute you almost can't help it. It's like seeing a puppy in a pet store or something. And if you think the price is too high, there are basically no alternatives. There are several sopraninos out there made by the likes of Ohana and KoAloha, but I assure you the Kala pocket uke is much smaller. So you must pay to play, basically.

I've only had mine for under 24 hours as I type this post, but so far I am happy with this purchase. That's not to say I recommend you jumping online and order away. I think you really needs to handle it to determine if you love it or hate it. Either that or you need some money burning a hole in your pocket to give it a try. I have to admit I basically had some hot cash to blow on it, but right now I fall in the camp of those who love it, so I guess the gamble has paid off.

So that's the first impressions/semi-review from this crack, I mean uke addict. I will be attempting some songs that probably should not be played on this ukulele, so stay tuned for some vids!

Peace, love, and ukulele baby!

Headstock with Kala logo inlaid in maple:

Front of the pocket uke:

Back of the pocket uke:

Next to the Collings UC-1. I swear the pocket uke feels smaller in person:

Side view next to the UC-1:

Next to the DaSilva Santos Repro. The Santos is almost sized like a sopranino:

Side view next to the DaSilva:

The Kala is actually a little thicker than the DaSilva:


Anonymous said...

I've played these and think maybe the acacia must make it heavy- the mohog didn't feel that way to me. I think a lot of people tune them higher too. Have fun! Ukester Brown

GX9901 said...

It may well be the acacia causing the heaviness. Actually I should have mentioned that I thought it might have been good for this uke to have some heft. If it was feather light, it would REALLY be difficult to keep in place while playing it.

pdxuke said...

The price tag makes the Ohana Sopranino an even bigger bargain.

Alkemie said...

Could I ask where you got the acacia version for $240 shipped? Thanks!

Fantastic video btw!

GX9901 said...

I got it from Amazon. But it was a while ago, so I'm not sure if they still have any.

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: