BY EDDIE SCHER | FROM THE WINTER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE

Before I picked up the two Ibanez ukuleles for this review, I was most familiar with the brand from its “lawsuit” guitars, 1970s copies of US-made guitars that often competed with the originals on quality and always outmatched them on price. A copyright lawsuit gave those models their colorful name and ended their production. But I also knew that there is no shortage of famous guitar players that use Ibanez instruments as their main stage axe.

This is a company with a reputation for delivering solid, affordable instruments, and these new concert ukuleles are no exception. They feature a cutaway and a comfortable body size and neck shape. There was a time when one “feature” of an affordable instrument was tuning challenges, but not here. Grover open-gear tuners mean that tuning is smooth and precise.

The difference between these two new models is in the tonewood selection. The light-colored natural model has an African mahogany top, back, and sides. The mahogany, all the way around the ukulele, including the two piece bookmatched top and back, is flamey and downright beautiful. The black-and-white binding on the top and back, and the maple rosette around the soundhole, are subtle and attractive. The dark brown model has a body made from laminated Macassar ebony. The white binding and black and white rosette pop against the dark black and brown striped African hardwoods. Both EW ukes come with an okoume neck topped with a purpleheart fingerboard.

Ibanez UEW13MEE with a Macassar ebony body, left, and its sibling, the UEW15E, which has a body of African mahogany.

These instruments have an open-pore finish—the wood is not sanded or filled, so the grain’s pores remain visible and the finish is textured. It’s a natural look and feel and I can’t help but think that it only helps the instruments breathe and resonate. Both ukes feature a purpleheart bridge and fretboard—a substitute hardwood for ebony or rosewood, with a deep eggplant color and dark, wavy grain. And I love the look of the Ibanez name carved into the unadorned headstock on both ukuleles—another classy, not showy, touch.


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Picking up the ukes for the first time I found the setup was just right—these ukuleles feel good and sound good. The frets are dressed correctly, and the necks are comfortable, meaty enough for a full-sized hand, making a good fit for a guitar player who’s ready to pick up the uke and plug in.

I found the tone of the ukuleles when played acoustically to be pretty, but a little squashed. Keeping in mind that all instruments need lots of time being played to open up, these ukuleles are on the heavy side, making them robust but not as responsive as a more lightly built (and likely much more expensive) instrument. The mahogany ukulele has a warmer, richer tone that shines when it’s strummed. The ebony ukulele has a tighter, more melodic sound that I preferred for fingerpicking. But these were very subtle differences.

The ukuleles performed at their best plugged in. Both come loaded with Ibanez electronics, an undersaddle pickup and onboard preamp with a control panel that includes a volume knob, and bass and treble tone controls on the side of the lower bout, where it is easily accessible to the player but mostly invisible to an audience. The preamp gives a nicely balanced woody tone, the piezo pickup is silent and conveys the right amount of percussion and string noise with the tone of the strings. This is what a ukulele should sound like plugged in. I liked that I can plug directly into an amp or PA, making this an easy instrument to use on a gig. And the onboard chromatic tuner, which is activated by pressing the volume dial, is accurate and mutes the output signal, so audiences don’t have to listen to you tune up. Pro tip: Audiences should never have to listen to you tune.

These two new concert ukuleles are proof that Ibanez knows how to deliver a great-sounding affordable instrument. And given how good they sound when plugged in, I am considering adding one to my collection for gigs when a more robust ukulele would make a lot of sense.


SPECS
UEW13MEE 
BODY  EW concert body with cutaway, laminated Macassar ebony top, back, and sides; maple rosette; satin open-pore finish; purpleheart bridge with plastic saddle
NECK 15″ concert-scale okoume neck; 19-fret purpleheart fingerboard, flat radius, with maple dot inlays; Grover chrome open-backed tuners
ELECTRONICS Ibanez Under Saddle pickup with AEQ2U preamp and onboard tuner, 1/4″ output jack
OTHER Aquila Nylblack strings
PRICE $199 (street)

UEW15E
BODY  EW concert body with cutaway; laminated flamed African mahogany top, back, and sides; maple rosette; satin open-pore finish, purpleheart bridge with plastic compensated saddle
NECK 15″ concert-scale okoume neck; 19-fret purpleheart fingerboard, flat radius, with maple dot inlays; Grover chrome open-backed tuners
ELECTRONICS Ibanez Under Saddle pickup with AEQ2U preamp and onboard tuner, 1/4″ output jack
OTHER Aquila Nylblack strings
PRICE $199 (street)

MADE IN China
ibanez.com