BY EDDIE SCHER | FROM THE FALL 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
George Harrison’s musician son, Dhani, tells a story about how, as a very young child, he was interested in the drums—until his first lesson, when the loud noise his teacher made scared him screaming out of the room. So perhaps we should thank Uncle Ringo, because Harrison grew up playing ukulele, and continues to use the uke occasionally for performing and songwriting.
Dhani Harrison’s music career, which began with work on his father’s Brainwashed album, has continued to grow with the success of his own solo work, film and TV scores, and collaborations with everyone from Jeff Lynne to Wu-Tang Clan to Perry Farrell. His accomplishments have now led to a partnership with Fender and the Dhani Harrison Signature Ukulele.
The tenor ukulele is available in two semi-transparent finishes: turquoise and sapphire blue. The sapphire blue version, which I received for this review, features a stunning dark shade that shows the natural black figuring of the wood underneath. The satin finish shows more of the natural imperfections of the wood, as compared to the more heavy-handed approach of a filled, lacquered, and polished finish. But the softer, porous finish also gives the ukulele a beautiful natural feel and no doubt helps with tone.
The top, back, and sides are made of ovangkol, a West African wood that is similar in tone and wear characteristics to rosewood but is not rare or endangered. The ukulele’s iconic Fender headstock is painted to match the top color. The gold Fender logo and cream binding on the neck, top, and back contrast beautifully with the deep blue, as does the black-and-white bound abalone rosette. The bridge is unfinished ovangkol, which is set beautifully against the blue top, and the bone saddle and nut also pop against the dark woods and blue/black of the top and headstock.
Fender says that Harrison chose the aesthetics, including the chalky white cloud motif and double circle fretboard inlays on the dark walnut fingerboard and engraved design on the back of the ukulele. The back features an India-inspired face carving and the back of the headstock has Dhani’s carved signature. The turquoise version has its own unique carving and inlays.
The neck is nato wood, similar to mahogany except not rare and or endangered. (I’m beginning to notice a theme here; good on you Fender and Dhani Harrison!) The full C-shaped neck is very comfortable and came well set up right out of the box and ready to play. I’ve said in previous reviews how impressed I am how even inexpensive and mid-range imported instruments these days are surprisingly comfortable, stay in tune, and have accurate intonation. This ukulele is a prime example of the point. I also like the way the fretboard is raised slightly above the top, by the same thickness as the binding, which looks great and makes it easy to reach all 19 frets.
With it’s 2-3/8-inch body depth, the Harrison features a thinner body than most tenors. Fender calls this a 3/4 body depth, and it makes for a very comfortable ukulele to hold and to play. But it also likely contributes to a slightly muted acoustic sound, especially when strummed. Played quietly, the acoustic sound is warm and full, and I was happy with the mellow tone fingerpicking songs on the couch for myself. But this uke is not as present and loud as a full-depth ukulele, and I would not want to bring it into a loud room, join a jam session, or accompany a singer without a little help from an amplifier.
But any weakness in the acoustic tone is made up for when playing amplified through the onboard Fender electronics; indeed, Fender and Harrison say that this uke is “designed for live performance.” The preamp, mounted on the side of the upper bout, includes separate volume and tone controls, and access to the coin battery that runs the active system. The built-in tuner is unobtrusive, easy to turn on and off, easy to read, and mutes the pickup when engaged.
Plugged into a PA or a guitar amp, the ukulele’s amplified tone is warm, bright, and responsive, although it did take a few adjustments to dial in my sound. I was able to find a setup that provided adequate volume and dynamics both when strumming hard and picking gently. A little goes a long way when rolling the single tone knob between treble and bass. And I appreciate that Fender limited the number of buttons to the minimum needed for control, without confusion. I was happiest with my results on the volume control when I found the right level—which in this case means the highest level that still gives a clean, undistorted sound when strumming madly—and then relied on the PA or amplifier for setting the volume for the room. There certainly are more sympathetic electronic packages out there, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use this ukulele on any gig.
The Dhani Harrison Signature is a successful collaboration between one of the world’s leading instrument makers and an artist with a deep connection to the ukulele. It’s a versatile, good-looking instrument that really comes into its own when amplified.
BODY Tenor size, ovangkol top (solid), body, and sides; open-pore satin finish
NECK Nato with 17″ scale length; flat walnut fingerboard with 19 frets; 1.375″ bone nut; sealed nickel tuning machines
OTHER Walnut bridge; abalone rosette; Aquila Nylgut strings; Fender-designed electronics; padded gig bag
PRICE $279.99 street
MADE IN Indonesia