FROM THE FALL 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE | BY GREG OLWELL
Two recent additions to Kala’s Exotic line show the Petaluma, California–based maker offering ukes made with materials that are not rare in the exotic sense, but that are enticingly different and affordable for players who want a higher-quality step-up instrument from their starter, or are just into the idea of a new plaything. Kala sent both review instruments in tenor-size versions: the Chocolate Burl, built with a burl-figured camphor body; and the Bamboo, a lighter-colored ukulele built almost entirely of bamboo. (The Bamboo is also available in concert and soprano sizes, while the Burl is only available as a tenor.)
Both have Kala’s signature tenor shape, which is immediately identifiable by its plump lower bout. Beyond making Kala ukes easy to spot, the larger lower bouts usually offer a touch more low end, which can sound extra pleasing when you’re strumming away at home. Though they share many of the same measurements, the different materials and slightly different interior architecture designs help give each uke a unique sound.
All Bamboo Everything (Almost)
Nearly every component of the Bamboo model is made from solid bamboo, making this one of the least expensive all-solid-wood ukuleles you can buy. Before the botanists send angry emails, in the interest of clarity, I should point out that bamboo is a woody member of the grass family, and it generally isn’t considered to be wood (like, say, mahogany or spruce). It’s also a fast-growing, very sustainable material, and its structure is very strong for a lightweight material, making it a good choice for a musical instrument that needs to vibrate and also be strong enough to withstand string tension.
The neck has a comfortable C shape that is not too thin or thick, and is finished off with a handsome open-face headstock that adds a touch of panache. There is no extra decoration, either, a decision that highlights the simple and striking pattern of the material and gives this instrument a basic but contemporary look. On the inside, the solid bamboo top has three fan-style braces that run behind the soundhole. The bridge is screwed into the top and interior bridge plate for a more durable connection, so you can be less concerned about it loosening over time. (One summer afternoon in a hot car can cause a uke’s glue joints to fail, and when they do, bridges are often the first joint to pop, thanks to the string tension.)
The Chesty Chocolate Burl
The Burl tenor is made from camphor, a wood that you may know from the oils used as the active ingredient in medicinal chest rubs. You rarely see camphor used on ukuleles, but its burl figuring makes it an attractive wood for cabinetry, furniture, and as my tester showed me, ukuleles. The elaborate burl figuring is created by an abnormal but common growth in the tree, and this wood looks chocolaty, indeed. This uke is made with laminated woods, which are usually stiffer and stronger than solid woods—and less costly, which is why you often find them on the most affordable instruments. Perhaps partly thanks to the use of lightweight spruce for the interior laminate, the Burl uke had a very similar weight to its Bamboo cousin. The Chocolate Burl keeps the two exterior fan braces while shedding the center brace, likely because of the stiffness of the laminated woods used for the body.
While this review is more of a side-by-side review instead of a comparison, it’s still fair to compare the end results of the sounds and feels of these two different ukes. Both had a smooth and full-range sound that is good for this price range, but each also offers something different. I found that the Chocolate Burl had a warm sound that was punchy and projected well, with the whole sound leaning a little more toward the upper frequencies. I favored the Burl for strumming chords, especially on quicker pieces where a fast response and a nice chunk to the chords help give you a groove or cut through a group. The Bamboo had a bright presence overall, with a snappy, crisp high end, and fat lows that I liked for fingerpicking pieces such as “Hi’ilawe” and “Lagrimas.” As an all-solid uke for under $170, it stands out for its clear, resonant sound and satisfying responsiveness, all at a very reasonable entry price.
Seeing how many ukulele players love to put a personal stamp on everything from cases to clothing, showing up with a uniquely handsome instrument fits right in. Thanks to the figuring of the woods used on Kala’s Exotic series, you can always be content to know that your uke is like no other. And, with Kala’s typically great playability and easy-to-enjoy tones at prices that say “treat yourself,” these two new Exotics make a strong case for anyone looking to step up to a finer uke, expand their collection, or just play a good-performing instrument that’s solidly built for years of enjoyment.
Bamboo Tenor Specs
BODY Solid bamboo top, back, and sides; satin finish
NECK 17″ tenor-scale bamboo neck with satin finish; open headstock, 18-fret bamboo fingerboard with black dot position markers; Graph Tech Black Tusq nut (1-3/8″ wide); black open-geared tuners
OTHER Bamboo bridge with Graph Tech Black Tusq saddle; Aquila Nylgut tenor strings; black die-cast endpin
PRICE $164.99 street, tenor; $139.99, concert; $129.99, soprano
Made in China
Chocolate Exotic Burl Tenor Specs
BODY Laminated burl camphor top, back, and sides; mahogany binding; satin finish
NECK 17″ tenor-scale mahogany neck with satin finish;18-fret rosewood fingerboard with abalone dot position markers; Graph Tech NuBone nut (1-3/8″ wide); chrome-plated sealed gear tuners
OTHER Rosewood bridge with Graph Tech NuBone compensated saddle; D’Addario EJ65T Pro-Arte clear nylon strings; black die-cast endpin
PRICE $189 street
Made in China
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