July 26, 2011 by Tim
What if I told you that you could buy a solid koa soprano ukulele for $300 new? Most would say I had to of stolen it, or that it has something wrong with it. Now what if I said it was made in the U.S.A? I would think people would call shenanigans and ask what sweat shop is actually making them. This is no joke. Brad Donaldson out of Eugene Oregon is doing just that. Making a $300 solid koa ukulele that rivals most ukuleles that are 3-4 times the price.
Why you may ask? Well it is simple; Brad loves you and the U.S.A.
Sappy, I know, but Brad (Known as Bradford on the Ukulele Underground) is one of the few that I call garage builders (like David Gill). These are the people that are retired, have a good pension, and like to make ukuleles and feel that it is better to get well made instruments in people’s hands than make money at it. While talking with Brad the other day he said that he played a bunch of Chinese made ukes that where nice, but he knew he could do it better and decided to take them head on. Although he can’t push out the quantity, his quality is worth every penny. Also he feels like it is better that there are more ukes made in the states. If you talk with him you can tell he has a real passion for making musical instruments, and ukuleles I would say are his favorite.
So on with the show…Brad contacted me after hearing that I like the small makers and love reviewing their ukes. I was lucky enough that he was able to get it to me before Ukulele World Congress so I could show it to everyone. I had it in a double case with the Martin S1, let’s say the S1 did not fare well in comparison.
Heres how he explained what he was sending to me in the e-mail
“It is based on a 1920 Jonah Kumalae. The two big differences are I add a bridge patch and a raised fretboard. It will be all solid koa, with PegHed tuners, normal retail price is $299”
And while he was building it he was nice enough to send me and my reader’s pictures.
On a side note; when you order yours, be prepared for the most over protected packing you have ever seen. The amount of protection that Brad uses when shipping his ukes is insane! Mine came in a box lined with cardboard, then a tomb was made of hard pink insolation, and in that wad a bubble wrapped and taped uke. He claims that none of his ukes have ever been damaged in shipping and I believe it.
Tuners: PegHed tuners (Like these from Elderly)
Nut & saddle: Bone
Top: Solid Koa
Sides: Solid Koa
Back: Solid Koa
Neck: Koa Neck, Koa Fretboard
String Attachment: Knot in the body
Case: No case included, but shipped so well it will blow you away.
Full Specs: No Specs, just his site.
First look: (5) Before I received it I knew this thing was a looker. The French polish on it really brings the wood grain out and makes it really nice. I also noticed that the waste seemed smaller and that weird shape would pull me toward it if I saw it in a shop. The simplicity of the design and inlays (Just around the sound hole) make it seem so plain, but also vintage, even though it is brand spanking new. One thing that caught me that makes it a little weird is that there is no logo on the head stock, but I can see how that would not be in the style of a vintage uke.
Fit and Finish: (4) Let me start with why I gave it a 4 out of 5. Brad makes amazing ukes, there is no doubt in that. I will have him build me one someday, but I see some issues with his finishing on this uke. I have been told that he does not do gloss all that often and that he prefers a matte finish, just as I do. I also know that he rushed this uke out to me so I would have it for UWC, in saying that I know that some of this is due in part to that. What I found is that I see little dots in circular pattern in the finish. I think this is caused by putting it on a non-slip mat while it was still tacky, almost unnoticeable unless you are looking for issues. The other things I saw had to do with sanding marks. The bridge has some finish on it and some of it was sanded off at the top, and also there are sanding marks at the 12 and 13 frets, all minor things that make no difference in the sound. I have found that many of the garage ukulele builders have small issues when it comes to finishing. Over all this is one of the best made instruments I have ever played. I see no pulling up at the bridge, it is so sturdy but light and it just sings. For $300 you would be hard pressed to find a uke that sounds like this. The only changes I see that I would make would be to angle off the saddle at the edges, since they kind of stick out, and fret markers at 3 and 12. But I might be picky.
Sound Type: A very forward mellow sound. What does that even mean? I found that this uke is very clear and almost on the verge of over the top, but is keeps it’s mellow Koa sound that you expect.
Intonation: (5) Perfect. Just like all other details of this uke, he pays close attention to intonation.
Volume: (5) One of the loudest sopranos I have ever played.
Sustain: (5) LOOOOOOOOOOOONG and clear.
String Height: (medium-low) The strings are where they should be.
Neck Radius Depth: (3/4″) C shaped neck but with a flat edge that makes it feel really wide.
Frets: (5) You can see them from the sides, so it is not bound, but there is no place you can feel them. They are angled and rounded off on the edges as they should be. Frets do not feel super low, but they are. Very easy to make every note crisp and clear.
Tuning: (5) I have never had PegHed tuners before (Geared peg tuners, just like these from Elderly). Super smooth operation, I may put them on all my nicer ukuleles. Stay in place and super easy to use. Is it me or does it blow your mind that he uses $80 tuners?
Comfort: (5) One of the lightest ukes I have ever played. I am always surprised when I pick it up and it is so super light. If I had a scale I would weigh it. Also all the edges are nice and rounded and it just fits so perfectly in my arm to hold it. The other thing I noticed is that it is super balanced. The body and head seem to not be heavier than the other, which makes it super nice to hold and play for a long time.
Sound Hole Smell: Woodshop
As you can see by the scores, I think this uke is a must have. I think in general having a Brad Donaldson of some sort is a must have. The combination of woods, workmanship, sound, and price make this uke spectacular, especially in the price range. I have met a few people that have one on order and can’t wait to get theirs.
I think brad is one of the main reasons that I love the ukulele. I have never heard of any other community that is willing to make something just for the reason of making the world a better place. It is not about the $$$, it is about making people happy, and himself happy. That is a great thing, and I think many of us could learn something from him.
All Rating on a scale of 1-5
Click here for an explanation of reviews
|Fit and Finish||4|
|Sound Type||Forward Mellow|
|String Height||Medium -Low|
|Neck Radius Depth||3/4″|
|Sound Hole Smell||Woodshop|
Places to buy on the web: Not Super easy to find online
Have to e-mail or call. WEBSITE
HD Audio Samples: