From the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY GREG OLWELL
One of the things that everyone seems to know about resonator ukuleles is that they’re loud. Play one the way you normally play a wood ukulele and you’ll see that your strumming hand energy is turned into serious volume. That’s because under each circular coverplate is a very thin, rearward-facing cone made from spun aluminum that acts just like a speaker cone. The strings sit on top of a wooden bridge, called the biscuit, making a reso-uke, quite literally, a string-powered speaker cone.
While resonator instruments are known for volume, many people may not know that they also have a uniquely sweet tone when played at lower volumes. Stretch your technique a little and you’ll soon find that well-made resonators have the widest dynamic range of any acoustic ukulele. Play them loudly and you will be heard, but play them softly and you might find a sweetly ringing whisper with an echo-y backing.
This variety of sounds plus, let’s face it, the shiny metal bits, make resonator-ukuleles irresistible. With so many available to players of all financial resources, we couldn’t resist the chance to round up some of the playful ukes available to players today.
To test the ukuleles, I played them extensively at home and with the help of Eddie Scher, a Bay Area resonator ukulele and guitar player and bandleader.
Beltona Blue Uke #2
This lovely asymmetrical body shape is similar to an early-’30s Kay-Kraft guitar, and with a gorgeous marble-turquoise finish, the Beltona is a stunner among this group of stunners. (Beltona offers more conventionally shaped ukes, too.) But, what really sets these ukes apart is that UK maker Steve Evans makes the bodies from fiberglass (rather than steel, brass, or wood) and the finishes and appointments are highly customizable.
Since it’s made from fiberglass, the Beltona weighs considerably less than metal-bodied ukes. So, if you’ve ever been put-off by the weight of a metal reso-uke, this is one solution. The neck has a wonderful shape and a smooth gloss-finish, which I found very comfortable. As you might expect in this price range, workmanship was excellent throughout, with tight fits and a very playable setup.
It may be one of the lightest ukes in this roundup, but the Beltona’s sound is anything but lightweight. Its strong, solid tone had an especially powerful low-end, with tremendous clarity from the lowest notes to the highest. Staccato-strummed chords had a nice sharp chop, without the biting treble that can get a little tiresome. The Beltona is an impressively versatile little axe.
BODY Fiberglass with aluminum coverplate, 6-inch aluminum cone, and maple biscuit
NECK 19-fret soprano-scale mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard and pearloid headstock veneer and Gotoh tuners
WEIGHT 1 lb., 11 oz.
MADE IN UK
PRICING £750 (direct), including case
OTHER MODELS Also available with a concert-scale neck (£750); Blue Uke #1, conventional shape (£750); Songster tenor (£775)
As the most affordable reso-uke in this roundup, the Gretsch stands out with its combination of a warmly colored mahogany body and shiny coverplate. Snowflake fingerboard inlays add a nice vintage touch, though a greater contrast between the wood and inlays would have showed them off better.
The laminated mahogany body is a strong foundation for the cone-powered Gretsch. The generously proportioned neck has a comfortable shape, though the fret edges were a little rough and could have used a little more filing for smoother playing.
Though it may be odd to say, given how much of the sound comes from the metal resonator, the wood body seems to impart a warmer tone than the metal-bodied ukes. The Gretsch’s tone is balanced and even, but not as loud as the others; think more woodsy country-twang than screaming blues clang. A good choice for budget-minded players wanting some classic resonator looks, with a warm, mellow tone.
BODY Laminated mahogany body with 6-inch aluminum cone and rosewood biscuit with maple saddle
NECK Concert-scale mahogany neck with 16-fret rosewood fingerboard, abalone snowflake position inlays, Grover tuners, bone nut
WEIGHT 1 lb., 9 oz.
MADE IN China
PRICING $379 (MSRP); $249 (street), includes padded gigbag
Gold Tone ResoUke
With banjos and resonator guitars being among Gold Tone’s specialties, it’s no wonder that the company has a resonator-ukulele in its lineup. Simply named ResoUke, the Gold Tone’s brass body has a brushed-chrome finish that looks utilitarian badass, while the ivoroid-bound fingerboard is an elegant touch.
With a nicely shaped nut and crowned frets, the Gold Tone’s setup shows considerable attention to detail. The setup and solid construction helps create one of the most responsive ukes in this roundup. The medium-thick neck feels good to players who want a neck without too much meat on it. The ResoUke is one very playable uke.
On the scale of bright to warm tones, the Gold Tone falls between the wood-bodied Gretsch and the shiny, polished brass-bodied Luna and National. It had the dry and bright sound of a brass body uke, with less sting at the front end of the note and excellent sustaining decay.
BODY Brass body with brushed chrome finish, 6-inch aluminum cone, and rosewood biscuit with maple saddle
NECK Concert-scale mahogany neck with ivoroid-bound rosewood fingerboard, dot position markers, Kluson-style tuners, and bone nut
WEIGHT 2 lb., 10 oz.
MADE IN China
PRICING $589 (MSRP), $442 (street), with foam shell case
With pearloid binding outlining the body and an antique-brass coverplate (that’s destined to build up a great patina over time), the Kala KA-RES-BRS exudes a posh, elegantly vintage vibe. A subtle matte-sunburst finish adorns the laminated mahogany-body and features an arched back and f-holes in the upper bouts.
As we usually see with testers from Kala, the KA-RES-BRS shows that the company pays attention to the details. The setup is buttery smooth, as are the frets and nut. The satin-finished neck has a comfortable shape and joins the body at the 14th fret. The only tenor in this roundup, it also had the most fretting-hand space of any ukulele here.
Perhaps because of its long tenor-scale neck and large body, the Kala had a deep tone. Strummed chords had a nice cask-aged roundness and low-end punch that smoothed out the resonator’s brasher qualities. Its modest projection worked nicely for fingerpicking blues and classical pieces.
BODY Laminated mahogany body with pearloid binding, brass coverplate, 5.75-inch aluminum cone, and rosewood biscuit with maple saddle
NECK Tenor-scale mahogany neck with 18-fret rosewood fingerboard, Graph Tech NuBone nut
WEIGHT 1 lb., 9 oz.
MADE IN China
PRICING $420 (MSRP); $300 (street)
Luna Uke Tiki Concert Resonator Chrome
With its shiny metal body and stylized South Pacific-themed pattern etched into the top, the Luna Tiki flashes a vintage vibe and twists it with a touch of tiki-themed whimsy. Triangle fretboard inlays and the words “TIKI Uke-A-Nator” etched into the metal strap that protects the resonator and serves as a handrest complete the stylish presentation.
The nicely shaped nut makes open-position chords and notes easy to pick, while the medium-depth neck is a good fit for people who like their necks not too thin and not too thick. The frets could have used a little more shaping and filing for a less scratchy feel along the treble side of the fingerboard.
The Tiki was one of the loudest ukes here, which means one of the loudest ukes we’ve ever tested. Similar to the other polished brass-bodied ukes in this roundup, the Tiki had a bright, throaty tone with a sharp attack. The Tiki excelled at fingerpicking lines and captured the classic reso tones.
BODY Chrome-plated brass body with etched “tiki” pattern, 5.8-inch aluminum cone, rosewood biscuit bridge with maple saddle
NECK Concert-scale mahogany neck with 20-fret rosewood fingerboard, triangle
position markers, half-closed chrome machine tuners, OX Bone nut
WEIGHT 2 lb., 11 oz.
MADE IN China
PRICING $399 (MAP)
National Style O
Here is the original, and the fountain that all the others sip inspiration from. With National’s now-iconic palm tree design sandblasted on the front and back, and the bound ebony fingerboard made by modern-day artisans in San Luis Obispo, California, the National is in a class all by itself.
As you have to expect at this price, every construction and setup detail on this National is perfect. The comfortable concert-scale neck joins the body at the 15th fret, giving it a very long look. It is several ounces lighter than the other metal ukes, which makes playing a little easier, and the tuners are excellent and easy to use.
The National had a sound that many non-players singled out as the best, even when the listener had no idea that it was vastly more expensive than the others in the roundup. The tone is so sweet and musical that after playing a few bum notes, Eddie said, “Even wrong notes still sound musical.”
BODY Nickel-plated brass body with sandblasted palm tree pattern, 5.87-inch “Hot Rod” aluminum cone, and maple biscuit bridge
NECK Concert-scale maple neck with 20-fret ebony fingerboard, Gotoh UPT planetary tuners, ivoroid binding and position markers, bone nut
WEIGHT 2 lb., 5 oz.
MADE IN USA
PRICING $2,900 (MSRP); $2,465 (street)
OTHER OPTIONS Available left-handed (no charge); with German silver body ($500), Antique brass body ($300), or distressed Replicon ($600); Style O Deluxe ($3,200)
Recording King RU-998 Metal Body Ukulele
The Recording King is the only shiny-body reso-uke here unsullied by an etched or sandblasted design. Its pearloid faceplate on the headstock, complete with a Recording King badge and the ivoroid neck binding add to the dazzling vintage vibe. It never failed to elicit “ooh’s” and “aah’s” from all who gazed upon its mirror-like nickel finish. Your only burden will be keeping the body clean from smudges.
The Recording King has a thick and rounded neck, which is just the kind of neck I love for extended playing sessions. The silky smooth setup was among the best in the roundup, with well-dressed frets and no buzzy notes.
Recording King makes a point to mention that a maker in Eastern Europe who uses a different alloy than the competition spins its cones. They may be on to something. The RU-998 had a tone like the finest resonators, one that is far sweeter and chime-y than we give resonator ukes credit for. Overall, the Recording King was balanced and loud, with a rich reverb component to the sound that adds complexity to the tone.
BODY Nickel-plated brass body and coverplate with 6-inch aluminum cone and maple biscuit
NECK Concert-scale mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard, abalone inlays, and a pearloid headstock overlay
WEIGHT 2 lb., 8 oz.
MADE IN China
PRICING $574 (MSRP), $430 (street)
About the Resonator Design
A Slovak immigrant named John Dopyera invented resonator guitars (and in 1928, ukuleles) in his Los Angeles-based shop for the company that later became National String Instrument Corp. During this era, bands were getting louder and guitarists (and ukulele players) were looking for instruments capable of being heard with bigger bands in large un-amplified venues. Dopyera’s patent called for instruments that used three small resonator cones (The resulting instruments are often called tricones or triplates.) These loud and shiny guitars were built using nickel-plated German silver and became wildly popular for Hawaiian, country, and blues music in the years before electric instruments took over.
A National employee, George Beauchamp, championed the idea of the single-cone resonator and indeed, his name appears on the patent (seen above). It was Beauchamp’s single-cone design that National used for most of its ukuleles. (A few prototype tricone ukuleles appear to have been made, before they focused on the single-cone design.)
The National brand was reborn as National Reso-Phonic in 1988 and it offers ukuleles made from brass, steel, and wood (currently maple, koa, and mahogany). In the company’s first era, National only offered ukuleles with bodies made from German silver or steel.
To learn more about the fascinating people and gorgeous instruments of resonator history, check out The History & Artistry of National Resonator Instruments by Bob Brozman and The Hawaiian Steel Guitar & Its Great Hawaiian Musicians by Lorene Ruymar. To see some more of the great historical instruments, visit notecannons.com