BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
One of the first things to know about Pepe Romero Jr. is that he is a member of the illustrious Romero family of classical guitarists. However, instead of following the family tradition of becoming an excellent classical and flamenco guitarist, Pepe Jr. steered his efforts into building excellent classical guitars. Then, several years ago, he got involved in hand-building ukuleles in his San Diego workshop. As you might expect, these ukuleles also carry a pulse-quickening price tag.
Still, the instrument’s lure was too strong for him to ignore and he sought a way to offer hand-built ukes to ukulele players accustomed to down-to-earth prices. This is where his Romero Creations line comes in. Using Pepe’s designs and guidance, Romero Creations is crafting high quality, hand-made production versions of Romero’s ukes in a workshop in Vietnam.
We’ve been eager to get our hands on Pepe’s ukes and he sent in two of his most recent designs, a production version of his handmade tenor, the Replica, and the ST Concert, a new concert-sized take on his interesting Tiny Tenor model. Both instruments come with meticulous gloss finishes and are setup in low-G tuning with Pepe Romero strings.
Soprano? Concert? Tenor?
Grammy-winning musician Daniel Ho spends a lot of time traveling for performances and he was looking for a tenor-scale ukulele that was super-compact. So, a few years ago, Ho teamed up with Pepe Jr., a long-time friend and collaborator, to come up with the Tiny Tenor. With its uniquely shaped body and tiny headstock, the TT fit a tenor instrument into a concert size. Now, Romero Creations is trying the same concept on a concert-scale ukulele, reducing it to the length of a soprano, while still shooting for the tone of a tenor. It’s a tricky order, so how does it sound?
Doggone good. Though the Concert ST lacks some of the low-end booty of a full-size tenor, it has a surprisingly big, round tone for such a petite instrument. Notes zip and zing, with a hint of brightness, bountiful warmth, and a nice punchiness that kept me playing it for extended picking sessions. The guitar-pick-shaped body (or is it candy-corn-shaped?) made it easy to spend a lot of time high up on the fingerboard, a place I don’t often travel. The feel all over the fingerboard is sweet with tones that are tight, focused, and warm.
Pepe’s signature ukulele strings also deserve a shout-out. The wound low-G string is a big improvement for anyone who has ever used a classical guitar string to turn a concert-scale uke into a low G.
While an abalone rosette and purfling inlay around the top would own the visuals on most ukuleles, this uke’s look is all about the wood. The attention-grabbing dark streaks throughout our tester’s solid spalted-mango body were created by fungus attacking the wood. (Don’t worry about the ick factor; they halt the fungal growth before the ukes are built.) Inside, the Replica features Pepe’s signature “reverse fan bracing” which has the interior braces pointing toward the end-block instead of the soundhole.
The Gotoh UPT tuners surrounding the inlaid mother-of-pearl logo on the headstock are a great high-end touch and helped me get the Romero more in-tune than most ukes seem capable of. The Replica’s wide neck and flat ebony fingerboard is a lot like what you’d find on a classical guitar, but found here in a comfortable tenor size. The wider string-spacing made playing fingerstyle easy on both hands and would be welcome for players who find the spacing on a tenor a little snug.
Volume-wise, the Replica is not a screamer. Instead, it’s probably best suited for fingerstylists interested in a dynamic and sensitive ukulele for chord melody arrangements and classical transcriptions, instead of one that’ll pop eardrums when strummed aggressively. Indeed, the sounds and feel encouraged me to dig out some of Lyle Ritz’s jazzy uke arrangements and John King’s classical pieces.
The price ranges for each of these Romero Creations ukes place them squarely in some hotly contested territory for players’ money. Both of our test ukes were excellently set-up, featured class-leading woods and hardware, and sound good enough for any player to have lots of room to grow as they step into something new, and for experienced players to remain excited about the possibilities of the Replica and the Concert ST.
Romero Creations Koa ST Concert
BODY Solid koa body; ebony bridge with compensated bone saddle; abalone rosette; glossy finish
NECK 15″-scale mahogany neck with 16-fret ebony fingerboard and 1-3/8″-wide bone nut; 16:1 ratio sealed tuners with ebony buttons; abalone fret markers; mother of pearl Daniel Ho headstock logo; glossy finish
OTHER Pepe Romero US2 concert fluorocarbon ukulele strings (wound low G); fitted polyfoam case;
also available in spalted mango ($799 MSRP, $719 street) and all mahogany ($599 MSRP, $539 street)
MADE IN Vietnam
PRICE $799 (MSRP); $719 (street)
Romero Creations Replica
BODY Solid spalted mango body with abalone purfling and black plastic binding; ebony bridge with compensated bone saddle; abalone rosette; glossy finish
NECK 17“-scale mahogany neck with 18-fret ebony fingerboard; 1.5“-wide bone nut; abalone fret markers; 4:1 ratio Gotoh UPT universal planetary tuners with ebony buttons; mother of pearl logo; glossy finish
OTHER Pepe Romero UT2 tenor ukulele strings (low G); fitted polyfoam case; also available in all koa ($1,149 MSRP, $999 street), all mahogany ($879 MSRP, $799 street), and spruce and mahogany ($879 MSRP, $799 street)
MADE IN Vietnam
PRICE$1,149 (MSRP); $999 (street)