BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SPRING 2016 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The ukulele bass is the new kid on the block, effectively getting its start five years ago with Kala’s debut of the U-Bass. Once the initial laughter at the ukulele-sized bass died down, bass players quickly looked beyond the novelty of a comically small bass and found a useful instrument that not only had a huge tone, but also was also super-portable.
It soon became popular among all sorts of musicians looking for an easy-to-play bass that sounds great. The U-Bass’ success led to many other makers riffing on the idea and now there are several iterations on the market.
While uke basses are still a small portion of the ukulele market, you’ll increasingly see these instruments played at uke jams, Americana and jazz gigs, and other occasions when an ensemble needs a low-end instrument. With good reason, too. Each of the basses in this roundup deliver a gratifyingly solid thump to your chest when you pluck a note, and when plugged in, the onboard electronics give them a big sound that seems out of proportion with the instrument’s size.
The best part about ukulele basses is that these tiny powerhouses are tremendous fun to play, either at home or on a gig.
Some of these uke basses are closer to traditional ukuleles, but they all have a few things in common: Each comes from makers that specialize in ukulele family instruments; they’re small; and they wouldn’t be out of place at a ukulele strumming party. All of the basses in this roundup have onboard tuners, which helps, since the elastic strings fitted to most of the instruments seem to require frequent tuning.
Playing these wee basses back-to-back made something very clear—the components and setup make a difference between a bass that was merely usable and one that was user-friendly.
Gold Tone Microbass 23
With a 23-inch scale, the Gold Tone Microbass is the second largest bass in the roundup, which may make it a little easier to play for people used to playing guitar. It’s also the only fretless bass submitted for the roundup, which may or may not intimidate some players weaned on frets. A fretless bass can give musicians more chances for expression by making vibrato easier and, in the case of these little basses, can also be easier to make slight tuning adjustments on these fat strings. Of course, having no frets also gives you more opportunities for mistakes. If anything, I felt the fretless fingerboard added to the upright-bass-like sound and the fret lines gave a nice reference point, making micro-tuning adjustments easier when the strings went slightly flat.
The Gold Tone Microbass uses Aquila Thundergut strings—cream-colored strings made from a dense elastic plastic which have a sticky texture that grabs your fingers, making slides a little challenging, and requiring assistance when tuning to keep the strings from binding in the nut. The Gold Tone offered one of the loudest acoustic tones, thanks to its larger body, and had a solid, plump tone when plugged in. I dialed out all of the treble on the onboard EQ, to cut down on finger noise on the strings and to round out the tone.
Gold Tone also deserves a shout-out for the slight contour on the lower bass bout, which made playing more comfortable. Added bonus for the delicious, fresh smelling mahogany scent coming from the bass.
- Mini-dreadnought-shaped mahogany body
- Mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard (fretted fingerboard also available)
- Onboard electronics w/tuner
- $525 (MSRP); $393 (street)
Kala Bubinga U-Bass
I’ve played several different versions of the U-Bass over the years—basses with laminated bodies, solid bodies, and solid-wood models—and each is different. This latest addition to the U-Bass line is a solid-wood bass made from Bubinga, a hardwood from equatorial Africa often used as a lower-cost alternative to rosewood. Beyond having a name that’s fun to say, the Bubinga U-Bass has the snappiest, clearest acoustic tone of any of the U-Basses I’ve played. This clarity and snap come through the amplifier too.
The material is a thoughtful addition. The Graph-Tech TUSQ nut and bridge are solid, but slippery, so the stretchy strings don’t bind up when tuning. This seems to help the U-Bass stay in tune better than most other mega-short-scale basses.
The neck has a nice chunky profile that feels supportive to my hands over longer playing sessions. The electronics are simple to use and deliver the massive sound that players have come to love about these little basses.
- Bubinga body
- Mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard
- Road Toad Pahoehoe polyurethane strings
- Shadow electronics with tuner
- $499 (MSRP); $400 (street)
With its 24.5-inch scale and roundwound metal strings, the Ohana OBU-22 may be further from the ukulele family than other basses here, but it earns a place at the table because it represents a solution to problems some players have with ukulele basses—the instrument’s small size and the stretchy strings.
The metal strings, which are much more like strings on an acoustic bass guitar, give the Ohana a zingy sound, with more sustain, compared to the plump thump of other basses. They also give the Ohana better tuning stability and a very different feel and tone than the basses with synthetic strings.
The instruments’ large size also gives it an edge when played acoustically. The larger body and longer scale give the bass more volume, making it a bit more competitive when there’s no amp available.
Ohana also gave the OBU-22 the most versatile electronics of any bass in this roundup. The Fishman preamp has serious tonecontrol options, which will help you get the best possible tone in any amplified situation. And the sound? Clear and punchy, with a bright and slightly twangy edge, which seemed to stand out even more when played back-to-back with the tubby-toned basses in this group.
- Solid spruce top with laminated mahogany back and sides
- Fishman Presys+ Bass electronics with onboard tuner, 3-band EQ, phase, notch, and brilliance controls
- $759 (MSRP); $500 (street)
Magic Fluke Timber Electric Bass
From ten feet away, it may look a little like a homemade bass, but under your fingers, this is a serious, well-made instrument. It’s no surprise, given Magic Fluke’s history of coming up with simple ideas that are well executed, function great, and have a
The 21.5-inch scale bass was designed by Josh Webb (son of the company’s founders, Dale and Phyllis Webb), and is made from a solid piece of butternut trees milled on the company’s property in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Those rounded triangular cutouts in the body are perfectly placed finger-rests. The bass uses silver-wound synthetic-core La Bella strings specially made for the Timber Bass that feel almost like classical-guitar strings. They have a roll-y feel, like some of the other strings, but a zippy response that really sets the bass’ body and neck in motion.
The Timber has Magic Flukes’ distinctive open headstock and includes geared tuning pegs that look like traditional violin tuners. They worked smoothly and the Timber had no trouble staying in tune. The maple neck’s unique U-shaped profile was comfortable over long playing sessions. Because the tiny body and its angled shape made it challenging to play while sitting down, I ended up playing the bass using the included leather strap.
Though unofficially voted “Most Likely to Get You Laughed At,” the Magic Fluke Timber Bass will give you the last laugh once you plug into an amp. Its sound was somewhere between the tubbiness of the stretchy-stringed basses and the clear zing metal-strung Ohana, with lots of deep, punchy low-end and sparkly highs.
At $650, it’s at the high-end of the instruments here, but it’s a great bass for those who need a solidbody and something portable enough to fit in your suitcase.
- Solid butternut body (also available in cherry and maple)
- Maple bolt-on neck with maple fingerboard
- Shadow electronics
- $649 (direct)
Oscar Schmidt OUB500
For regular ukulele players, the Oscar Schmidt OUB500 might be the most familiar looking and feeling bass here. Part of that can be credited to the 20-inch scale, which, being the shortest in this roundup, makes it closer to the more established members of the ukulele family. Cosmetically, the bass also looks more like a ukulele than most of the other basses here.
The spruce top is handsomely bound with rosewood and an abalone rosette surrounds the soundhole. The back and sides are koa. The OUB500 has a beveled edge where your arm rests, making it more comfortable. There’s a similar treatment at the neck-body joint, giving you some of the benefits of a cutaway for easier access to the upper end of the fingerboard without having a cutaway.
The OUB is comfortable to play overall, though I would have liked the nut’s edges to be smoothed down a little more, since I kept bumping up against them while playing in open position.
Like all of the other basses here, I found myself dialing back the onboard treble control, to wipe away some of the clackiness I hear from the piezo pickups and warm up the tone to a more upright-bass-like boom. The OUB500’s electronics did a great job getting there.
Though it’s the least expensive ukulele in the roundup, the Oscar Schmidt offers some nice high-end touches and is a playable, solid-performer with a strong tone.
- Spruce top with koa back and sides, bound in rosewood
- Mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard
- Belcat electronics, with onboard tuner and bass and treble sliders
- Aquila Thundergut strings
- $549 (MSRP); $275 (street)