BY E.E. BRADMAN | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In the last few years, Kala’s line of U-Basses has made quite a splash. The company’s nearly 20 bass ukulele models—including fretted, fretless, and left-handed models made of mahogany, spruce, and striped ebony—range from the $199 Paddle Bass to the $1,499 Nik West signature solidbody 5-string. The company sent us its lowest-cost U-Bass acoustic-electric yet, the Wanderer, and a slightly more upscale Striped Ebony; we took both instruments to a rehearsal spot, a recording session, and a music festival in the woods.
Cute & Cuter
The Wanderer, Kala’s most basic U-Bass, features mahogany top, back, neck, and sides, with a satin finish and custom black die-cast tuners. The nut and saddle are both plastic; the onboard electronics include a volume slider and digital tuner, as well as treble, mid, and bass controls located on the side’s upper bout. The Wanderer is beautiful in a plain, straightforward way, but perhaps the first thing you’ll notice are the rubbery Thundergut strings, which are made of a dense, elastic material that aims to be better than the usual polyurethane and silicon bass strings.
The Wanderer’s similarly satin-finished brother made quite an impression with its striped ebony top, back, and sides, as well as its mahogany neck, walnut fingerboard and bridge, and maple binding. With just volume, tone, and a tuner, the Shadow electronics were placed on the Striped Ebony’s lower bout side. Both basses have a removable plate on the back that permits access to the interior for changing strings—the Ebony’s is magnetically attached, while you’ll have to deal with four tiny screws to remove the Wanderer’s bigger back plate. The price difference showed itself in other ways, too, including the Ebony’s easier-to-open battery compartment, a subtle but sexy arched-back contour, a bigger and fancier bridge, bigger digital tuning display, slanted bridge, and custom Hipshot Ultralite tuners. Both basses had truss rods, and they arrived set up and ready to go.
Thanks to its thick strings, the Wanderer took longer to tune, but once I plugged in, I was rewarded with big, big tone. The three-band EQ helped clarify or fatten things up; turning up the mids and treble accentuated string noise, but they also channeled the sound of an amplified upright that’s been fitted with a bright pickup. With so little string tension, hand placement made all the difference—I could get warmer tone by moving my fretting hand closer to the nut, and I got slightly more definition by playing back by the bridge. The strings may not be made for speed, but with practice, fast passages are certainly possible.
After spending quality time with the Wanderer, the Striped Ebony sounded positively guitar-like. Unamplified, it was bold, but plugged in it was focused and bright even with the onboard tone control rolled off. As a regular electric bass player, I found the Metal Round Wound U-Bass strings fitted to the Ebony bass immediately felt familiar: Chord shapes were easier, and they responded well to picks, especially the SkinTone leather pick. The roundwounds also made it possible to use techniques usually associated with full-scale bass, including slapping, tapping, and palm-muting. Played through a Markbass Mini CMD 121P 1×12 combo, the Striped Ebony sounded big and beefy, but plugging into a Focusrite Scarlett Solo interface and recording into Logic Pro X revealed a far more complex tone.
There were a couple hiccups along the way. The E string nut slot on the Striped Ebony was a bit high—pressing down on the first fret was a chore. The Wanderer’s fat strings aren’t for everyone; I liked them but couldn’t really get used to them. But both U-Basses excelled where it counted: At a jam session, the Wanderer delivered gigantic upright bass-style tone, and at an outdoor festival gig, the Striped Ebony, plugged into a Gallien-Krueger 1×15, got lots of love for its smart looks and reggae-ready low end.
Whether you’re a uke player who wants to play bass, a designated bassist for a uke jam session, or an electric bass player and frequent flyer looking for something that fits in the overhead bin, the Wanderer and Striped Ebony Electric-Acoustic are worth a look. They may be cute as kittens, but they roar like lions.