BY GREG OLWELL
When we invited makers to be part of our banjo-ukulele roundup (Fall 2016), not everyone was able to participate. New Zealand’s Duke Uke was ramping up production on its debut banjo-uke just as we went to press and wasn’t able to get one of its ukes, with its distinctive zigzag headstock, in before our deadline. The all-black open-back Duke is a tenor-sized affair with a mahogany neck, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) rim, and a pickup. And Gold Tone debuted the BU-1, a concert-sized open-back banjo-uke, with a pickup, that comes in under $200. Both seemed noteworthy enough to wrangle in for a little look.
Like many before him, Ed Ackman, the driving force behind the Duke Uke, started making instruments for personal use, before people started asking him to make more. Now, he’s making banjo-ukuleles under the Duke brand, using a tenor-scale mahogany neck attached to a very rigid plastic rim. This not only gives the instrument a sense of indestructibility, it also makes the Duke very light for a banjo-ukulele. As promised by the website, the Duke is a bright, lively banjo-uke, loud enough to be heard at the back of the concert hall—think of Ethel Merman belting one out to the cheap seats. When played through our Fishman Loudbox combo amp, the Duke’s brilliance was supersized to the sort of tone that would slice through a mix onstage. While it was great for a band, you might want to roll back the treble if you’re playing solo. Though the fret ends could have used more dressing to smooth out some rough edges, the instrument’s light weight and its armrest make the Duke a comfortable banjo-uke.
While our Fall 2016 roundup featured Gold Tone’s top-of-the-line Banjolele DLX, the new BU-1 is more like a tasteful and basically appointed little addition to the lineup. There’s handsome binding around the rim and the fingerboard, with the company’s new Zero Glide nut, which takes the zero-fret concept and allows it to be retrofitted onto instruments made without one. (A zero-fret is a fret next to the nut that sets the string height, so that the nut’s role is reduced to string spacing. Some musicians claim that it makes notes sound more even.) The double-sided tape used to attach the pickup to the head’s underside was the Gold Tone’s one weak spot. The tape came off the top about two weeks after we received the uke and needed regular reattachment. The Gold Tone’s tone was similar acoustic and plugged in—old-timey warmth with a lot of low-end bark.
BODY 8-inch HDPE rim with polyvinyl head and aluminum armrest
NECK Tenor-scale mahogany neck with MOP inlaid rosewood fretboard and 4:1 planetary tuners
ELECTRONICS Schatten Design LP-15 soundboard pickup
OTHER Aquila Super Nylgut strings and gig bag
WEIGHT 1 lb., 13 oz.
MADE IN New Zealand
PRICING $379 (includes padded gigbag, strap, and worldwide delivery)
Gold Tone BU-1
BODY 8-inch open-back maple rim with Remo Fiberskyn LC head and satin vintage mahogany finish
NECK Concert-scale maple neck with 18-fret rosewood fingerboard with binding, Zero Glide zero-fret, and open-back Grover-style tuners
ELECTRONICS Hot Dot pickup
WEIGHT 2 lb., 12 oz.
MADE IN China
PRICING $199 (includes gigbag)