By Adam Perlmutter

[Editor’s note: Collings has put ukulele production on hiatus since this review appeared.]

In its four-decade history, Collings Guitars has made smart, modern interpretations of the widest range of golden-era guitar designs—acoustic and electric, flattop and archtop—not to mention a selection of mandolins and mandolas. But, five years ago Collings started giving the ukulele some love.

The Austin, Texas-based company is presided over by Bill Collings, the luthier who in the mid-1970s skipped out of medical school to build guitars inspired by prewar Martin and Gibson flattops. What started off as a one-man operation is now an 80-employee company using a combination of computerized machinery and traditional hand tools to produce up to 3,000 instruments each year—250 to 300 of them ukuleles.

In its standard ukulele line, established in 2009, Collings offers both concert and tenor models, in three different levels of ornamentation. (The company has also been known to offer limited-edition variations, like a maple archtop version.) The least fancy, those designated with the suffix 1, have a satin nitrocellulose finish and a minimum of cosmetic embellishment; the fanciest, labeled 3, have a high-gloss nitro finish, lots of binding, and an abalone rosette, among other flourishes.

Having recently been enticed by a row of Collings ukes hanging high on a wall at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, the Los Angeles–area instrument institution, I was thrilled to receive two of these instruments for review: a UC1 (which stands for ukulele concert 1) and a UT2 K (ukulele tenor 2 with koa).

Solid All-Round

Though the UT2 K is nearly 70 percent costlier than the UC1, the two ukes share common features: they’re made from all-solid woods, mahogany back, sides, and top on the UCI; and figured koa on the UT2 K; and both have a mahogany neck with a rosewood fretboard, headstock overlay, and bridge. They also come equipped with Pegheds planetary tuners with ebony buttons, which look like vintage friction tuning pegs, but make tuning a breeze with 4:1 gearing inside.

Both instruments are nice to look at, and aesthetically speaking, form a nicely contrasting duo.


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With its rich dark stain, the UC1 has an appearance reminiscent of an old Martin, an effect helped out by the tuners and a headstock whose sides meet at a single central point. Though the instrument is on the plain side, all of its woods are beautifully grained; the mahogany has a nice, even pattern with a hint of figuring and all of the rosewood components have attractive striations of varying shades of brown. Rather than seeming cheap, this lower-priced option feels elegantly streamlined.

The UT2 K, in contrast, is a bit more luxurious. Its koa, with a lovely wavy figuring and overall luminous appearance, adds a bit of eye candy to the proceedings, as do the ivoroid body binding with black-and-white purfling and the abalone rosette. This uke also sports Collings’ trademark asymmetric “haircut” headstock, a smart modern flourish.

Collings’ guitars are known for their impeccable craftsmanship, and so it comes as no surprise that both ukuleles are faultlessly built. The frets are perfectly crowned and polished, the bone nuts and saddles carefully notched. On the UT2 K, the finish is rubbed to a sumptuous, even gloss, and a peek inside each uke finds that everything has been meticulously joined, without a hint of excess glue to be found.

Superb Playability & Sound

Weighing 14 ounces, and one pound, three ounces, respectively, the UC1 and the UT2 K I reviewed are lightweight and comfortable to hold. It’s deeply satisfying to play both instruments. The neck profile on each is an easy C shape. The fretboards have a 12-inch radius and a perfect low action—the notes do not distort when the instruments are played heavy-handedly. The intonation on both is accurate, thanks to the compensated saddles, and the notes at the highest frets ring true and clear.

Both the UC1 and the UT2 K sound outstanding, with sweet and complex voices that lend themselves to all styles, from the most basic triadic accompaniment to solo classical fare. But, obviously due to the size and wood choice, each has its own personality. Broadly speaking, the UC1 sounds a tad darker, a bit more mysterious when played gently. The instrument really seems to hit its stride when heartily strummed. The brighter-sounding UT2 K feels slightly more touch-sensitive, which gives it an advantage when it comes to fingerpicking and a hint brasher for strumming.

Finely Crafted

If the UC1 and the UT2 K are any indication, Collings is making top-shelf ukuleles. Unimpeachably crafted from stem to stern, the instruments boast excellent sound and playability, and smart looks to boot—a treat for Collings fans looking for a uke and ukulele players in general. At $1,600 and $2,700 (MSRP) these ukes aren’t cheap, but for professional-level instruments they’re certainly sound investments.

SPECS

Collings UC1
  • Concert-sized ukulele with solid mahogany top, back, and sides
  • Mahogany neck with 18-fret rosewood fretboard (12-inch radius) and bridge
  • Satin nitrocellulose lacquer finish
  • Aquila Nylgut strings
  • Collings deluxe hardshell case by Ameritage included
  • $1,600 (MSRP), $1,440 (street)

collingsguitars.com

Collings UT2 K
  • Tenor-sized ukulele with solid figured koa top, back, and sides
  • Mahogany neck with 19-fret rosewood fretboard (12-inch radius) and bridge
  • Ivoroid top/back binding and black/white purfling
  • High-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish
  • Aquila Nylgut strings
  • Collings deluxe hardshell case by Ameritage included
  • $2,700 (MSRP), $2,430 (street)

collingsguitars.com

From Ukulele No. 6, Fall 2014