People love the adorable mid-century charm of the plastic ukes that were popular decades ago. Whether they grew up with them or were simply attracted to their surprisingly good sound, players still hunger for these kitschy instruments.
When the price is right, how could you say no?
With its new Waterman series of plastic ukes, Kala is banking on the enduring appeal of the inexpensive Islander ukes that were designed by Mario Maccaferri and made by the millions in the ’50s and ’60s. A genius luthier who developed the style of “Gypsy jazz” guitar most closely associated with Django Reinhardt, Maccaferri went on to make a fortune in plastics manufacturing (even inventing the plastic clothespin). In the late 1940s, his Mastro Plastics Corp. began making small guitars and ukuleles out of polystyrene, an early plastic.
Kala’s cute little soprano ukes, part of its entry-level Makala line, are made from polycarbonate and take their inspiration straight from the Islander series. Much like their predecessors, the Watermans (Watermen?) feature an injection molded body and a fingerboard with molded frets, including a zero fret, which was favored by Maccaferri for producing a more even tone between fretted notes and open strings.
While a plastic uke might scream “toy” to many, the Waterman’s tuners and molded frets make it easy to stay in tune. More than that, though, these ukes have a sound all of their own. You won’t think you’re hearing a fine solid-wood uke, but they sound better than a plastic instrument has any right to sound—especially taking the price into consideration. They even have a resonant feel.
Being plastic, these water-resistant ukes are available in many different colors and patterns, and Kala sent us three to check out: solid-color top and back; swirly back that looks like a bowling ball; and translucent blue back. To my ears, I swear that each uke sounded different. I preferred the slightly warmer sound of the solid-colored Waterman, and it felt a little livelier than the others, too.
Like all of Kala’s ukes, the Waterman comes with Aquila strings, Super Nylgut in this case, and a little backpack for toting your Waterman wherever you’d like. (Kala notes that these models are especially easy to convert to playing left-handed.) And while its street price ($50 and under) is stupid cheap, the Waterman’s sound is anything but stupid. You might even end up buying several of these to distribute—a perfect gift for the little kids and big palookas in your life. My only wish is that these retro-inspired ukes had some of the fanciful images used on the vintage Islanders.
- Soprano size with polycarbonate body
- Aquila Super Nylgut strings
- Nickel-plated open-geared tuners
- Logo backpack
- Solid-color top/black back: $56.99 list; $40 street
- Swirled, clear, or translucent bodies: $69.99 list; $50 street
This article originally appeared in the
Summer 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.
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