By Marc Greilsamer | From the Summer 2015 issue of Ukulele
For some reason, the baritone ukulele seems to be a relatively overlooked instrument. Because of its larger size and linear DGBE tuning, it’s often dismissed as nothing more than a small guitar. Perhaps if the world had more instruments like Pono’s MGBD, the baritone uke would emerge from the shadows.
The all-mango MGBD baritone deluxe is an absolutely charming instrument with a sound that manages to be both bright and deep simultaneously. Yes, it’s a great transitional instrument for guitarists bitten by the uke bug, especially those who don’t particularly care for the tinkle of smaller-sized ukes, but fans of “traditional” ukulele will also find much to admire in its dulcet tones.
The Pono line of ukes is part of the Ko`olau Ukulele family. The Oahu-based Ko`olau, which is overseen by John Kitakis and his son, head luthier Noa Kitakis, produces about 400 world-class ukes every year, almost all of them commissioned by special order. Ko`olau ukes range in price from about $1,600 to $4,500, although custom modifications can push prices even higher than that. The idea behind Pono, unveiled in 2003, was to accommodate a bigger, more diverse customer base while keeping Ko`olau’s high-end production relatively limited.
Pono designs are based on the Ko`olau catalog, using the same tools, molds, and dimensions. Pono’s ukes are all made with solid woods and quality materials, but to keep manufacturing costs low, they are made in a factory on the island of Java, Indonesia, under the close supervision of Ko`olau’s Hawaii-based workforce. By most accounts, Pono’s earliest endeavors were met with mixed results. However, improvements in quality control have done wonders to raise the level of craftsmanship, and if this MGBD is any indication, the company seems to have truly dialed it in.
To these ears, the key to the MGBD’s charm is its combination of mango wood construction and baritone dimensions. Mango, not entirely unlike koa, is distinguished by a bright, clear tone. In conjunction with a baritone design, the mango delivers a wonderfully balanced sound: mellow, but not overly quiet; crisp and dry, but not without quite a bit of warmth and fullness, too; articulate, but not brusque. In many ways, it finds the middle ground between the richness and depth of a guitar’s tone and the sweet, gentle sounds of a ukulele.
The Macassar ebony fingerboard, with its distinctive brown streaks, is a joy to play in any position, and the 1 3/8-inch nut width gives the player ample room to maneuver. The instrument handles vigorous strumming, delicate single-note melodies, and advanced jazz voicings with equal aplomb. While it is most successful in conveying the midrange, the wound D and G strings help ensure that the low end is well cared for.
As for craftsmanship, I searched long and hard for imperfections, but couldn’t really find any worth mentioning; nut and fret ends are smooth, the neck joint seems tidy, and the factory setup is virtually flawless. Cosmetically, the MGBD’s gorgeous, spectacularly figured mango is a delight, sparkling brilliantly under a gloss finish, and the rope marquetry rosette is a welcome touch as well.
The Pono MGBD would be an impressive creation, for both ears and eyes, at any price point, but considering this instrument sells for less than $600, it is nothing short of remarkable. And for those intrigued by the all-mango construction, but not thrilled by the baritone size, Pono offers this model in all sizes (and with a choice of gloss or satin finish). Suitable for professionals, but reasonably priced, this deluxe baritone uke is proof that top-notch instruments can be crafted anywhere—in the right hands.
- Baritone size with mango top, back, and sides
- Gloss finish
- Mahogany neck with Macassar ebony fingerboard
- Ebony bridge
- Bone nut and saddle
- Sealed tuners
- $659 list; $527 street