From the Fall 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY GREG OLWELL

In talking with both ukulele players and manufacturers, one area of agreement that keeps coming up is that baritones are hot. Players are diving into the unique sounds of the uke family’s largest strummer, and makers are racing to meet demand. Surely, part of the popularity is due to us uke players needing to have (at least) one of each member of this adorable family, but the baritone also has its own thing going on, and there is much to dig about it.

The baritone is typically tuned like the highest four strings of a guitar, D G B E, in a non-re-entrant format (meaning that the string pitches are ordered lowest to highest). With a smaller body and shorter scale-length than a guitar, it has a different voice than either a guitar or other ukulele family members. These features also give uke players new opportunities, like sitting in with guitar-playing friends, adding gravity to your uke ensemble’s sound, or opening some artistic doors for yourself as you play at home and explore this lower, huskier voice.

For all of these reasons, and more, we decided it was time for a baritone roundup. One thing that playing this diverse array of instruments showed the players who tried these out is that the quality of ukuleles available right now, at very affordable prices, was unthinkable just a few years ago. All of our test ukes had great tuners, impeccable construction, and very playable setups right from the start. In short, you can’t lose if you have one of the instruments in this group. Several of them, including some of the least expensive ukes here, also come with a gig bag—an important feature for anyone who might be toting one around.

A few things to keep in mind: The lower-priced instruments will be made from laminated woods, and as you go up in price, you will start to see more solid woods and perhaps more decoration, though that’s not a given, as our most expensive uke in this roundup is fairly austere. All have 14-fret necks and, oddly, only two have the double-dot inlay at the 12th-fret octave, which is a helpful visual landmark.

Each maker was invited to submit one baritone, and most chose the one that best represents the company’s latest efforts at making its top-selling baritone. We did, however, give special dispensation to Kala because the company’s new 8-string baritone is too cool and unique to pass up. (Please note that we invited several other manufacturers who either declined to participate or could not deliver an instrument by our deadline.)

Finishes play an interesting role here, too. Several of the ukes have an “open-pore” finish, which means that the raw wood’s pores are not filled before the finish is applied. Some claim that this cost-saving measure improves tone. It also allows the finish to sink into the wood, giving each uke a unique texture that makes it look like it’s been around for a long time.

Thanks to Eddie Scher and Jim D’Ville for their help.


Cordoba Ukulele baritone 24b review

CORDOBA 24B

THE LOOK “This looks so cool, I would hang it up on my wall backwards,” said one player when he saw the spalted maple back of the Cordoba 24B. The maple used on the 24 series has dark streak lines created by the initial stages of decay (but halted by drying and seasoning). The result is that each ukulele has a unique pattern. The reddish padauk wood binding around the neck and body gives a bold contrast to the cedar top and rosewood fingerboard.

THE FEEL Cordoba really cut its teeth as a maker of affordable classical and flamenco guitars and it shows on the Cordoba 24B. The choice of a cedar top speaks to the wood’s popularity in the classical world for its warmth and responsiveness. The neck is thin, front to back, and is also wider than all but the LoPrinzi, and the finish was so thin that it almost felt like raw wood. It also had the widest spacing at the bridge, which gave my right hand a little more room for fingerpicking. One tester really liked the thinner neck, but I found it a little shallow for my beefy mitts.

THE SOUND If I could summarize the 24’s tone in one word it’s “woody.” It also had good note definition, making it especially fine for players who are into classical fingerstyle. The 24B has the shallowest body in this roundup, which might explain some of its snappy projection and the observation that it has less low-end woof than the others gathered here.

SPECS
BODY Fan-braced solid cedar top on laminated spalted-maple back and sides, padauk binding and rosette, satin polyurethane finish
NECK Mahogany neck with 19-fret rosewood fingerboard bound with padauk
OTHER FEATURES Rosewood bridge, bone nut and saddle, Aquila 21U strings
Made in China
PRICING $229 (MAP)
cordobaguitars.com


Kala KA-B ukulele baritone review

KALA KA-B

THE LOOK With its richly figured mahogany and elegant appointments, like the single strip of cream-colored binding around the body’s top, back, and end, you wouldn’t know that Kala’s basic KA-B is the lowest-priced baritone in the roundup. The open-pore finish lends a nice vintage-y look and feel.

THE FEEL Kala blazed a path in the market by making sure that every ukulele gets a good setup, and it’s true even on the company’s most budget-friendly ukes, like the KA-B. The fretwork and playability are really good, and the nice “not-too-skinny, not-too-fat” neck made playing comfortable.

THE SOUND Mahogany ukes tend to have a nice barky sound, with a warm midrange that gives them a pleasing tone that makes my ears think “old-timey.” And, true to that old saw, this Kala had a pleasing pop to its sound that was nice for fingerpicking parts, though it lost a bit of its charm when strummed hard up the neck.

SPECS
BODY Laminated mahogany body, with cream binding and satin finish
NECK Mahogany neck with 18-fret rosewood fingerboard, Graph Tech NuBone nut, sealed tuners
OTHER FEATURES Aquila Super Nylgut strings, Graph Tech NuBone saddle
Made in China
PRICING $199 (MSRP); $140 (street)
kalabrand.com


KALA KA-ABP8-CTG 8-STRING BARITONE ukulele review

KALA KA-ABP8-CTG 8-STRING BARITONE

THE LOOK With its cedar top, swirly acacia back and sides, padauk binding, and slotted headstock, the Kala 8-string baritone is a handsome instrument. Feelings were mixed on the gloss finish on the neck and body—I liked the look and found the neck very comfortable, but players with sweaty hands might find it sticky. It also came with a heavily padded gig bag.

THE FEEL With its 8-strings and full-figured neck, the Kala 8-string baritone plays like nothing else. The two high pairs of strings are tuned in unison (B and E), while the lower strings (D and G) are tuned in octaves and made it much easier to play by either strumming or using a pick. Because of the large headstock, it makes that end of the instrument a little heavy, so you may want to install
a strap button or two and use a strap.

THE SOUND There is nothing to compare with this ukulele. The sound of eight nylon strings singing in harmony left one player saying, “It makes everything you play sound prettier.” Chords and picked notes ring out with sustain and have little of the ukulele decay. When in tune (yes, expect to spend time tuning), it’s downright angelic and is one of those instruments that invited comments and compliments from everyone who heard it. I can imagine players finding this great for recording overdubs, or even in many kinds of string bands, including Americana and Latin American ensembles.

SPECS
BODY Solid cedar top with laminated acacia back and sides, padauk binding, and gloss finish
NECK Mahogany neck with slotted headstock and 19-fret rosewood fingerboard bound in padauk, Graph Tech NuBone nut
OTHER FEATURES Graph Tech NuBone saddle, Aquila Super Nylgut strings, padded gig bag
Made in China
PRICING $444 (MSRP); $300 (street)
kalabrand.com


Lanikai MA-B BARITONE ukulele review

LANIKAI MA-B

THE LOOK One of the first things Rock Clouser did when he took over as Lanikai’s product manager was redesign the entire lineup to include features that he feels are essential to a good-playing uke, such as higher-quality nuts and saddles and adding strap buttons. There are other nice touches, too, like the bound fingerboard and the little finial at the end of the fingerboard. The rosette is one misstep; it’s obviously a sticker and looks a little cheesy on the otherwise handsome ukulele.

THE FEEL If there is one thing to repeat from this roundup’s introduction, it’s that low-cost ukes like this Lanikai are really good. There is nothing whatsoever to complain about. The setup and attention to detail on this baritone leave nothing wanting; it’s just a solid, well-built ukulele. At this price, with a gig bag, it is a standout value.

THE SOUND Much like the similarly priced Kala, the Lanikai is a highly competent baritone that raises the level of “basic” to new heights. It sounds great when strumming open chords and has a crisp and rich tone for fingerpicking parts, too. The Lanikai had a nice sweetness to the tone when pushed hard.

SPECS
BODY
 Laminated mahogany body, walnut bridge with NuBone saddle, white plastic binding, satin finish
NECK Mahogany neck with slotted headstock and 19-fret rosewood fingerboard bound in padauk, Graph Tech NuBone nut
OTHER FEATURES D’Addario EJ88B strings, padded gig bag
Made in China
PRICING $219 (MSRP); $149 (street)
lanikaiukuleles.com


Loprinzi AM-B ukulele baritone review

LOPRINZI AM-B

THE LOOK Everything on this all-solid mahogany ukulele, minus the tuners and strings, is handmade in the LoPrinzi family’s small Florida workshop. (The company was founded by Augustino LoPrinzi and is now led by his daughter Donna.) It is basically appointed, but in a way that says “simple elegance” instead of “plain as vanilla pudding.” This bari’s “old world” headstock stands out as something extra-lovely in a world with only a few headstock designs.

THE FEEL  Indeed, if there is any uke in this roundup that feels like it came from a small shop, it is the LoPrinzi. The thin five-piece neck—two larger mahogany pieces over a center stripe of walnut sandwiched with maple—was very inviting, and had a wide fingerboard that made it seem much more aimed at the fingerstyle player.

THE SOUND When strummed, the LoPrinzi sounded pretty much like the other baritones in this group, but when we played fingerstyle blues or classical, it really stood out. Perhaps most revealing is that this was the ukulele we kept picking up again and again. Each note was plump and round, with portly bass and smooth trebles. One player commented, “If I was going to play like Mississippi John Hurt, I would take this.”

SPECS
BODY Solid Honduras mahogany top, back, and sides; rosewood bridge with bone saddle; satin varnish finish
NECK Mahogany neck with maple/walnut/maple center strip; 20-fret rosewood fingerboard with mother-of-pearl position markers; bone nut; Grover open-gear tuners
Made in US
PRICING $660 (MSRP)
augustinoloprinzi.com


Ohana BK-70 BARITONE ukulele review

OHANA BK-70

THE LOOK With a solid spruce top, abalone rosette, and laminated rosewood back and sides, the Ohana BK-70 is the baritone here that most evokes a small acoustic guitar. And that was part of Ohana president Louis Wu’s intent. He wanted an instrument with a deep, bassy tone, “much like a human baritone.” I really liked the classic look of the BK’s open headstock, and the tweed hardshell case was a perfect touch.

THE FEEL The Ohana BK-70 is also among the lightest ukuleles in this roundup, weighing several ounces less than the others. The neck had a nice shape, and the setup and playability was unimpeachable. The BK also had a lively, resonant body that quivered as you played it.

THE SOUND Excluding the 8-string, the Ohana was the most different-sounding uke in this roundup. In this case, having the most guitar-like features—deep rosewood body and spruce top—meant that the Ohana also had the most guitar-like sound in our roundup. The result was that the BK-70 had a big, round low-end tone paired with high-end definition. It had a more modern sound than the mahogany ukes, and was very powerful when played hard, yet responsive and clear when played softly.

SPECS
BODY Solid spruce top on laminated rosewood back and sides, rosewood bridge with bone saddle, cream binding top and back, abalone rosette, satin finish
NECK Mahogany neck with 18-fret rosewood fingerboard, bone nut, and slotted headstock with open-geared tuners
OTHER FEATURES Aquila strings, tweed hardshell case
Made in China
PRICING $349 (MSRP); $219 (street)
ohana-music.com


Ortega RUACA-BA Acacia BARITONE ukulele review

ORTEGA RUACA-BA ACACIA

THE LOOK For this very handsome bari, German ukulele and guitar maker Ortega used acacia, a wood that comes from a large family of trees that includes koa, a traditional ukulele favorite that only grows on Hawaii. As such, this Ortega has some of the warm glow of the (much) more expensive Hawaiian wood. The red-brown padauk (also known as vermilion) binding around the body and neck is a pretty pairing, and the rosette has some lovely details. The only thing that strikes me as odd is the asymmetric headstock, which calls to mind some of the pointy heavy-metal guitars of the ’80s.

THE FEEL Like several other ukes in this roundup, the Ortega uses an open-pore finish, which foregoes a traditional step to let the finish sink into the wood, leaving the uke a lightly textured look and feel. As you should expect from a ukulele in this price range, construction was excellent, as was the setup, giving me a uke with a great action that made playing the smooth, shapely okoume neck very comfortable.

THE SOUND It seemed happiest being strummed, producing a peppy and musical bark, especially when digging-in a little for a sharp, staccato strum. Much like its rich brown color, the Ortega had a warm, thick tone that was heavy in the midrange, with solid lows and clear, bright highs, regardless of how delicately (or indelicately) it was played. Whether playing it or listening to it from across the room, the tone didn’t change much between light playing and heavy playing—it was very consistent throughout the dynamic range.

SPECS
BODY
 Solid acacia body with padauk binding top and back, rosewood bridge with plastic saddle, open-pore finish
NECK Okoume neck with 18-fret rosewood fingerboard, padauk binding, gold sealed tuners with black plastic buttons, plastic nut, open-pore finish
OTHER FEATURES Aquila strings, gig bag
Made in China
PRICING $426 (MSRP); $319 (street)
ortegaguitars.com

Baritone Ukulele Basics: Expand Your Sound

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