From the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine | BY GREG OLWELL
The banjo-ukulele is one of the most powerful spices in the ukulele world. For decades, this marriage between a banjo body and a ukulele neck and tuning was something of a novelty to most players, but it also found a few dedicated advocates. Long after American vaudevillians like Wendell Hall and Roy Smeck moved on, the banjo-ukulele remained popular in England, with people such as George Formby and George Harrison carrying the torch of the fun-loving banjo-ukulele (or bangolele or banjulele).
It’s making a comeback, too.
We’re seeing more players using them and more makers offering them. So, why the sudden resurgence? It has a unique flavor of sharp attack, quick decay, and plonky twang that you just can’t get anywhere else. It’s bold, fun, sounds old-timey, and maybe even a little goofy. Even if a banjo-ukulele is not your first (or third) ukulele, it’s a great taste to have when you want to mix up your playing and explore new sounds. And, given how much fun banjos can be, the banjo-ukulele is a great way to get yourself playing this very American instrument.
Given the banjo-ukulele’s rising popularity, we couldn’t resist rounding up a few that grabbed our attention.
Before you scroll to the instruments, it’s important to keep in mind that in gathering banjo-ukes for this roundup, we were more concerned with getting a sampling of the wide variety of what you might find when shopping, than a complete list. A few makers weren’t able to get an instrument to us in time. Some companies, like Deering and Gold Tone, make several sizes and versions of banjo-ukuleles, which meant we had to pick one from extensive lineups for this roundup, so if you don’t see one that’s perfect for you in this review, take a look at their full collections.
DEERING GOODTIME TENOR BANJO UKULELE
The large head and bright, unstained maple used for the neck, fingerboard and open-back pot, makes the Goodtime easy to spot from ten yards away. Deering is a banjo specialist and its line of made-in-the-USA banjos has an unmistakable, almost raw, look, with a sophisticated feel and sound.
Deering’s experience with banjos really shined on our Goodtime tester, which felt expertly made and set-up, with very solid construction, tight-fitting pieces, and excellent fretwork. It was ready to play immediately. The 12-inch head is the largest in our gathering and it helped make this one of the easiest instruments to hold while playing.
The Goodtime features Deering’s unique bridge plate—a thin slice of East Indian rosewood fitted between the bridge and the head, which Deering claims, “smooths out the vibrations through the bridge and give a more even tone and good sustain.” Between that bridge plate and the large body, it’s hard to say exactly which feature deserves credit, but the Goodtime had the roundest, creamiest tone of our roundup instruments—and indeed, it was very smooth and even. It also had a pickup, which gave me the chance to plug in and be even louder.
Body Three-ply open-back violin-grade maple rim with 12-inch Remo Renaissance head
Neck Tenor-scale maple neck with 17 frets, extended over the body
Electronics Under-bridge piezo pickup
Made in USA
Pricing $649 (MSRP), $549 (MAP); without pickup, $599 (MSRP), $500 (street)
Other models Concert Banjo Ukulele ($499 MSRP, $400 street)
KALA BANJO UKULELE
The Kala Banjo Ukulele’s flat black finish and antiqued bronze hardware gives it a look that reminds me of the “murdered out” look popular with the custom car crowd. But the Kala is approachable in a way that goes beyond its styling. The bound fingerboard and hardware add a bit of flash and elegance.
The Kala had a very solid feel, as if every piece was tightened up just the right amount. I found the neck’s thick U-shape very comfortable and it also helped give the Kala a vintage-y feel. The fretwork was top-notch, though the nut’s sharp edges could use a little smoothing out for greater comfort in open-position playing.
Neither the brightest nor the darkest ukulele in this roundup, the Kala Banjo Ukulele’s tone shoots right down the middle. It’s solid and plucky, but never abrasive, and its maple flat-back resonator design gives it a volume bump over open-back designs.
Body Maple rim with maple flat back resonator, Remo Weatherking banjo head, and antique bronze-finished hardware
Neck Concert-sized maple neck with 18–fret, ivoroid bound rosewood fingerboard
Made in China
Pricing $449 (MSRP), $300 (street)
LUNA ULU BANJOLELE
The Luna Ulu’s look really sets it apart from the other banjo-ukuleles assembled here. Its transparent head gives us a clear look at the pattern laser-etched into the maple resonator. This design looks a little like something you might find on a Hawaiian print and helps give the Luna a unique, fun vibe. The matte tobacco sunburst finish also helps lend a vintage look to this concert-sized banjo-ukulele.
The Ulu is lightweight for a banjo-uke, which made it easy to play. The neck’s meaty feel felt comfortable to me, however, it was installed slightly off-center. While this didn’t affect playability, visually, the strings didn’t run down the center of the neck. The nut and the frets had a few rough spots that could have used more attention.
The Ulu gives you that basic meat-and-potatoes banjo-ukulele tone that many may look for as a new flavor for creativity. Its modest output won’t upset the neighbors or wear out your welcome during long strum sessions with your ukulele club. It’s not quiet, by any means, nor is it a cannon like a few of the others.
Body 8-inch mahogany resonator with etched maple back, in matte tobacco sunburst
Neck Concert-scale mahogany neck with 20–fret rosewood fingerboard, bound with faux-tortoiseshell
Made in China
Pricing $403 (MSRP), $200 (street)
GOLD TONE BANJOLELE DLX
With its dark-mahogany stained, closed-back resonator, and metal rim, if there’s one instrument here that comes closest to capturing the George Formby vibe, it’s the Gold Tone Banjolele DLX. Come to think of it, just about everything about the DLX screams deluxe: The snowflake inlays on the bound ebony fingerboard, the extravagantly bound mahogany resonator, and the fleur-de-lys on the headstock.
Given Gold Tone’s expertise in banjos and banjo-hybrids, it’s no surprise that the DLX was very well built. Everything on the DLX seemed like it received an extra bit of attention, a trait that befits its price. With its large resonator and metal rim, the Gold Tone is heavy enough that players may want a strap for playing (even the anti-strap crew might want to reconsider its stance). The Vega-style armrest helped playing comfort.
You don’t have to be a Formby mega-fan to like the DLX. Its closed back gives the Gold Tone the most bluegrass-banjo–like sound in our roundup—and the most volume, by far. You know this sound: A powerful bark with almost a touch of built-in reverb; twangy, and bright, but warm. It has a lot of dynamic response, ranging from loud to really loud. It’s a professional grade banjo-uke made to be heard; great for performances and mixing with loud stringed instruments.
Body 10-inch mahogany resonator with 8-inch maple rim, one-piece metal flange, Vega-style armrest
Neck Concert-scale maple neck with 18-fret ebony fingerboard and snowflake inlays
Made in China
Other Padded gig bag ($68 MSRP), hard-shell case ($209 MSRP)
Pricing $789 (MSRP), $592 (street)
MAGIC FLUKE FIREFLY BANJO UKULELE
The Firefly is like Magic Fluke’s designer Dale Webb stripped the banjo-uke down to its essentials. It’s an elegantly simplified design that uses nylon webbing to hold the milky white head tightly to the pot, instead of the metal rim traditionally used. And, like Magic Fluke’s other unique instruments, the Firefly has a distinctive open headstock.
Thanks to the elemental design, the Firefly is light—under one pound!—which made it easy to play for long periods, and even easier to carry. The setup was flawless, with smooth frets, and the neck had a nice D-shape and a smooth satin finish.
The Firefly’s small 8-inch head and open-back design gives it a quick, warm tone that seems to spread out from all directions and sounds old-timey, perhaps more than any other banjo-ukulele in this group.
Body Open-back “acousticon” pot with an 8-inch Remo Renaissance Mylar head
Neck Concert-scale maple neck with 18-fret hardwood fingerboard
Made in USA
Options Maple or walnut body; Open Source pickup ($95); Peghed geared tuners ($69); gig bag ($39); hard-shell case ($95)
Other model Soprano Firefly, $189 (direct)
Pricing $295 (direct)
BIRTH OF AN ICONIC SOUND
The ukulele first found its way into the hearts of mainland Americans, thanks to the Hawaiian Building’s enormous popularity at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California. Soon, this first wave of ukulele mania swept across the country and manufacturers were right there to sell ukuleles to everyone who wanted one.
In the days before amplification, banjos were about the loudest stringed instruments you could find and were very popular for driving everything from high-society dance bands, to minstrel music, to jazz, which was also exploding in popularity at this time. Banjos seemed to breed with other instruments, creating banjo-guitars, banjo-mandolins, and the banjo-ukulele.
Though the documentary evidence can’t definitively say who invented the hybrid of a banjo and a ukulele, a Hawaiian named Alvin D. Keech generally gets the credit for melding a ukulele neck to a small banjo rim somewhere around 1917 to 1918, and trademarking the name “Banjulele,” according to Banjo: An Illustrated History.
Keech produced a large number of banjo-ukes and helped to popularize them in the 1920s, along with other makers including Harmony and Regal, who made instruments for many other brands. Most of the banjo-ukes made in the ’20s and ’30s used a very small pot size (head diameter) of six- to eight-inches and were inexpensive options for ukulele players wanting more volume. As interest continued, drum companies like Ludwig began to offer higher-end models, such as the famous Wendell Hall Professional, which found favor with many banjo-uke aficionados, and British maker Dallas, which offered a line of George Formby-endorsed instruments.
Interest faded by World War II, but the mighty banjo-ukulele remained popular with a devoted crown in the UK.
For more on the history of banjo-ukuleles, check out banjoukes.com, Bob Carlin’s new book, Banjo: An Illustrated History (Backbeat Books), $35, or the George Formby Society website, georgeformby.co.uk