By Ken Hughes | From the Spring 2015 issue of Ukulele
Spending some quality time with a good uke is always a joy. And when that uke also happens to be made of desirable woods and comes at a very attractive price, it’s even more fun.
The top, back, and sides of Tanglewood’s new Java Series ukes are made with Java koa, a koa-like wood aimed at giving you the desirable tone of acacia koa for less than real Hawaiian koa commands. I looked at two pretty entries in the series: the Tanglewood TUJ1 concert and the TUJ5 tenor.
The TUJ5 tenor is a glossy, beautifully finished instrument with minimal adornment. Its vibe is “serious instrument,” but not serious in a way that’s judgmental. You get the feeling that this uke will stick with you as far as you want to go toward the frontiers of its playing range, but it’s just as happy strumming out Beatles tunes on the back porch.
I really enjoyed the comfy rosewood fingerboard, with its lovely maple binding and perfectly finished fret ends. There’s not a rough edge to be felt (though the synthetic-bone nut has some pointy corners), and the roomy fretboard is fast and flat. Intonation is very good, owing to the compensated faux-bone saddle. Stamped-steel open-gear tuners are smooth and sure. It’s a cushy ride, for sure, very satisfying for the price.
So what about that Javanese koa, anyway? It is a name given to a widely dispersed tree, Albizia saman, known in various parts of the world as monkeypod or rain tree or Java koa (when it’s grown on the namesake Indonesian island). Is it as good as the Hawaiian stuff? My vintage Kamaka Pineapple is all-Hawaiian koa (even the nut and saddle), but it’s also aged to perfection, so it’s hardly a fair comparison.
That said, the basic tone of the two instruments is in the same ballpark. The Tanglewood offers a little more bite and snap, and is a bit more open and airy. As with any stringed instrument, lots of playing over many years may deepen and mellow the tone, so it’s not surprising that the Tanglewood sounds younger than the Pineapple.
Determining whether Java koa truly equals Hawaiian for tone would require a lot more research and comparison than we can do—or you’d want to read. What I can say for sure is that the Java koa is certainly not vastly inferior.
I found that the TUJ5 responded well to picking and strumming with a pick as well as fingers, particularly when tuned down to DGBE baritone tuning, which really seemed to agree with the instrument.
I wanted to take advantage of its greater air volume for a deep, round, full sound that was lovely to sing over and just as lovely to enjoy by itself. (Felt like a sunset sound.) Tuned normally in GCEA, the sound and feel tightened up as you’d expect, and the uke became super-lively and pleasantly zingy, eager to speak with a bright, clear voice. (And here’s the sunrise sound.
This is an instrument you can get lost in; getting new chords under your fingers and learning new tunes, you feel like you’re still making music—as opposed to some “offline” pursuit of learning devoid of musicality.
For its reasonable price and wonderful sound, the TUJ5 is a must-try if you’re looking for a tenor, whether it’s your first uke or your seventh. And whatever you do, experiment with DGBE and low-G GCEA tunings. You’ll have a blast.
The TUJ1 concert is built the same way as its big sister, with an all-Java koa body, mahogany neck with rosewood fretboard, faux-bone nut and saddle, and maple binding.
This little flea-finger filly wears a matte finish, however, that simplifies its look a bit and results in more handling noise, which could be a consideration if you do a lot of recording. Whether it’s the non-gloss finish, the higher tuning, or the smaller body (likely a combination of all three factors), the concert model is very lively, rewarding even the lightest brush of the strings with eminently musical sounds.
The TUJ1 is way louder than my Pineapple—way, way louder. But it’s not all zing and loudness; there’s that lovely roundness that koa gives you, a wonderfully musical sound that makes you want to keep playing until hours past your bedtime. Not that I did that, of course . . .
The test TUJ1 came with an optional hardshell case that made it a no-brainer choice to bring on the family road trip. Traveling with three daughters ages five and under meant many potty stops, and the uke came out of the case each time my lovely littles needed to avail themselves of the facilities.
It provided a lovely diversion that kept me from going Clark Griswold crazy on a drive that was by turns delightful and dementing. In and out of the car, the TUJ1 stayed in tune whether it was damp or dry, warm, merely chilly, or downright cold.
The uke is a supreme recreational instrument in general, and this one was quite a satisfying companion. Once we arrived at our destination in Oregon, our host asked me to play “Amazing Grace,” which, I was ashamed to admit, I didn’t know, but thanks to the magic of rural satellite Internet, I had my hands on a chart in moments.
I spent bits of the next day or two getting the chords down, but kept going off on tangents, discovering and inventing new chords and progressions simply because the instrument invited it.
Watching the Rogue River flow lazily by one afternoon, I meanderingly strummed and completely forgot about the real world for a couple of hours. That’s the real joy of playing music on any instrument, isn’t it.
The TUJ1 concert is another uke worth your consideration. It would make a fantastic first instrument or a great choice if you play in an ensemble. Tanglewood is a popular UK brand distributed in the States by Musiquip.
They’re available at a few stores and through Amazon.