BY EDDIE SCHER | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The presentation of the Lava U Blue Tenor ukulele in its retro-futuristic Space Case won me over before I even touched the instrument. The case’s sparse, gleaming white, futuristic design, with its gray rubber feet and a window that shows off the uke inside, reminded me of the original iPod. You find the discrete little button that opens it integrated into the chrome handle, and inside, the instrument is held snugly in thick, fuzzy black padding.
The Lava U ukulele is an all-carbon fiber instrument featuring built-in electronic effects courtesy of Lava’s FreeBoost internal amplification system. The Lava U is available in 23-inch concert and 26-inch tenor sizes; both share the same features, just different scale lengths.
The Lava U is molded using a carbon fiber composite (dubbed “AirSonic”) which means plastic embedded with carbon fibers for strength and stability. The advantages include sustainability—no forests were disturbed in the building of this ukulele—and durability that approaches indestructibility. Lava says this uke is safe in temperatures from -4 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Meaning you can bring the U safely out in extreme cold or heat. Or, more likely, leave it worry-free in the car even on a sunny hot summer day. It’s also nearly impervious to humidity, though given the electronics, I would still avoid swimming with the instrument.
I tested the sparkle blue tenor, which happens to be my favorite color for Telecaster guitars. It also comes in red, black, gold, purple, and pink; all sparkle. The matte finish has a slight texture and a surprisingly warm feel.
The body shape is somewhere between a pineapple and a dreadnought guitar, not traditional, but not at all unpleasing to my eye. The oval soundhole, accented in shiny chrome, hides the controls for the electronics, but more on that to come. The bridge is the same color as the body, but in a glossy finish, with slots to hold the strings in place. Below the bridge is the Lava logo in mirror chrome finish, another futuristic
The neck and headstock are also part of the single mold that makes up the Lava U, eliminating the need for a heel and making it easy to access all 18 frets (15 to the body). The fretboard is more traditional, at least in 21st century terms, made of another innovative material called Richlite—a great-feeling and -looking sustainable substitute for tropical ebony. The fretboard is marked only with small but highly visible silver side dots, and a dash at the 12th fret. The paddle-shaped headstock may be the only thing that harks back to the shapes of ancient 20th century ukuleles, but the screwless Lava-designed tuners, which turn smoothly and precisely, are another technological advancement.
The top of ukulele, which must flex and also retain its shape to amplify the sound of the strings, is strengthened on the inside using a complex “142-piece bionic structure” that Lava designed to produce a “brighter tone.” It’s difficult to see without a luthier/dental mirror, but easy to feel through the soundhole—it’s basically a complex honeycomb on the underside of the top. And the results speak for themselves. The tone is rich, warm, and full, though on the quiet side. I found the uke gave me both the bark I wanted for strumming and also handled more subtle playing and picking.
The only strange feature on this unique-looking instrument is the single strap button on the back of the upper bout. Lava separately sells a strap that attaches to the button, but a regular strap won’t work without some DIY innovation. It seems like a strange choice to introduce a new incompatible technology and not include the strap in the package with the uke. Especially for a ukulele that I think works best as a performance instrument where a strap is very useful if not essential.
Given that one of the strengths of the Lava U will be as a travel uke, its medium acoustic volume may be a bonus in some circumstances—for example in hotel rooms or apartments with thin walls and grumpy old neighbors. And while the acoustic sound is fine, the appeal for the presumably younger audience the Lava U is aimed at will be the electronics package that opens up a wide range of sonic possibilities, both plugged into an amp or PA using the 1/4-inch instrument plug, or layered on the acoustic sound via the onboard FreeBoost technology.
Just inside the soundhole is the Lava L2 mini electronics box, with a small power button and a switch to choose between chorus and delay. Also on the inside are a USB charging socket and mic volume slider. On the top of the uke sit three silver dials that control reverb, effects (chorus or delay), and volume. A small green light on the top indicates that the system is powered on. When an instrument jack is not plugged in, the sound modifications from the electronics are transmitted by a contraption built into the ukulele, so what you hear are the effects added to the acoustic sound of the uke. It does not raise the volume much, but it does give you many tonal possibilities.
It took me a while to dial in an “enhanced” tone that I liked. The dials are unmarked, so the first thing I would do to fix that, if I owned this uke, is break out a Sharpie and mark the settings of my preferred tone. And what I preferred for playing tunes was a moderate amount of reverb and a touch of chorus—not enough to start an ’80s band, but enough to thicken up the tone a bit.
Only the chorus or delay can be engaged at any one time, a limitation that seems unnecessary given modern technology, but I didn’t find it to be a problem since I only found the delay useful for sound effects. On my review uke, the sticker mislabeled the switch, but it is easy to tell which effect is engaged; you’ll know when you are in Star Trek mode.
With an instrument cable plugged in, you can go directly into an amp or PA system. The preamp in the ukulele gives you control over the built-in effects and volume. I was happier playing the Lava U through a PA—with a little more control, I was able to get a richer amplified tone than I could when playing unplugged.
In the end, this is a ukulele that may be best as a step up for someone who is ready to take their skills to wider audiences. Given the continued pandemic social distancing requirements, this may be the perfect instrument for busking with amplification.
Lava U Blue Tenor
BODY Proprietary “AirSonic” molded carbon fiber/plastic composite top, back, and sides
NECK Same composite; 18 metal frets (15 to body); Richlite radiused fingerboard; proprietary screwless chrome sealed tuners
OTHER Slot-style composite bridge; L2 mini preamp system with effects; onboard FreeBoost technology; fluorocarbon strings
EXTRAS Hard “Space Case”
PRICE Concert: $379 street (with electronics), $299 (acoustic); Tenor: $399 (with electronics), $319 (acoustic)
MADE IN China
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