BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
With apologies to the dog-lovers among us, outside of traveling with your personal favorite people, a ukulele might be the best travel buddy. They’re easy to carry, rarely cause a fuss, and no one is going to hassle someone with a ukulele (I’m looking at you, TSA). Even a full-size baritone is easy to tote through airport security or stashed in a car, but sometimes a uke built to take the rigors of travel is a primo pal to accompany your trips.
While any ukulele can be a travel uke, instruments that are built a bit more ruggedly are undeniably preferable. Traveling to places with drastically different climates can make some instruments unplayable or, worse, damaged with cracks or loose glue seams. Instruments made with engineered materials, such as laminated woods or composites, can help prevent these issues, and also help protect your uke from the bumps that can come with travel. Some travel ukes might ask you to trade depth of tone and richness for ruggedness and consistency, but that’s a minor trade-off for the passionate strummer who wants to play some music around a campfire, visit family across the country, or play a favorite song on an isolated beach.
Here’s a roundup of a few ukes made for travel (quick links below to each section).
San Francisco’s Blackbird makes its ukuleles exclusively with the company’s rugged and responsive Ekoa material—a composite a natural linen fiber and bioresin. The company currently offers two ukes: The Farallon tenor (starting at $1,492, direct) and Clara concert (starting at $1,295) might be the premier ukuleles built to take a beating in some of the world’s harshest environments and still sound—and look—great.
It’s hard to find a type of ukulele that Kala doesn’t make, so it’s no surprise that they have a few travel-friendly ukes, like the popular budget Waterman series, but it’s the company’s thin-bodied Travel series that stands out. They feature a solid spruce top on thin, laminated mahogany sides, and an arched laminated mahogany back that make these slender ukes extra portable, yet surprisingly potent. Available in soprano ($219 street), concert ($241; $362 in spalted maple with cutaway and pickup), tenor ($274; $318 with pickup; $384 in spalted maple with cutaway), and baritone ($285).
A pioneer in the field of nearly indestructible ukuleles, Outdoor offers colorful (and colorless) polycarbonate ukes in Soprano ($105, direct) and Tenor ($155) sizes, and now a Banjolele banjo-ukulele ($245). (Add $10 to each for a gold hardware upgrade over the standard nickel.)
The venerable C.F. Martin & Co. hasn’t marketed its X-series ukuleles as travel ukes, but speaking from personal experience, these ukes, which are made from high-pressure laminate bodies and laminated birch necks with sipo fingerboards, make great travel instruments—if you can play comfortably on a soprano. At $379 street, they’re Martin’s most affordable ukes and are available in patterned finishes including koa (pictured below) and bamboo (in natural, green, red, or blue).