BY EDDIE SCHER | FROM THE SUMMER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In less than 20 years, Kala has become one of the biggest names in ukuleles with, as they claim, “the most diverse catalog of ukuleles in history.” I believe that their success is due to the fact that every Kala instrument I’ve ever picked up, from their boutique made-in-Petaluma, California, ukes to their entry-level models, has played and sounded great. A testament to that diversity and quality are the two instruments reviewed here: the KA-SMH-TG-CE tenor and the KA-BNJ-MHG-C banjo ukulele.
Cumbersome model name aside, the KA-SMH-TG-CE tenor is an excellent and reasonably priced uke from Kala’s all-solid mahogany line, featuring a long list of upgrades over an entry-level instrument. That means that this tenor will be the right choice for many players and performers. The solid mahogany body gives the uke a beautiful, warm tone. I was especially taken with its rich sound in the lower registers. Acoustically, it isn’t loud, but it has the all-around, across-the-spectrum sweet tone that I associate with a tenor. This is the kind of uke tone the singer in my band prefers to hear me play.
The body is fully bound in wide light maple binding with black stripes and a matching soundhole rosette; classy. The rosewood bridge has two light wood strips that are another subtle, elegant touch. The cutaway allows easy access all the way to the 18th fret. As someone who, generally speaking, doesn’t really venture beyond the 7th fret or so, I was very impressed with the way this uke plays and sounds all the way up the fretboard.
The slotted headstock is another significant feature of this uke. The mahogany sets off nicely against the unbound chocolatey rosewood fretboard. The headstock is capped with mahogany that matches the body and is finished with a subtle light-wood binding effect that is part of the wood. It looks great, but the real benefit of a slotted headstock is that it increases the angle of the strings over the nut, which means more of the vibration stays over the body, where you want it. The result is better tone than an instrument with less of an angle over the nut. The nut and saddle are made of NuBone, a substitute for bone that is nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, at least from this player’s perspective. The Kala-branded open-gear chrome tuners work flawlessly. I really like how each of the tuning pegs has two holes for the string, which solves the common problem of stringing a slotted headstock and ensures the string running through the slot to the nut doesn’t touch wood.
The medium mahogany neck is a very nice size and shape and sports a satin finish. The body features a gloss finish, which is another upgrade that may not affect tone but does a lot for aesthetics and resilience. A gloss finish requires more prep and care in manufacturing, and the reward is how it shows off the beauty of the mahogany wood grain. It also provides a hard, water-resistant barrier that will protect the uke.
The onboard watch-battery-powered Fishman Kula pickup and preamp system includes an EQ with bass, mid, and treble control, volume, and a battery warning light. The onboard tuner is a convenient, pro feature. This ukulele is the complete package with upgrades and features that really deliver, including the always welcome feature of affordability.
All Solid Gloss Mahogany Tenor Cutaway with EQ
- BODY Tenor size with single cutaway; overall body length 25.75″; solid mahogany top, back, and sides; maple binding and rosette; high-gloss finish
- NECK Mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard and bridge; 18 frets; fingerboard width at nut 1.4375″; Graph Tech NuBone nut; rosewood bridge; slotted mahogany headstock; open-gear chrome tuners
- OTHER Fishman Kula electronics with active onboard EQ and tuner; D’Addario Clear Nylon strings
- PRICE $409 street
- MADE IN China
KA-BNJ-MHG-C BANJO UKULELE
This concert banjo uke is a 2022 addition to Kala’s Americana line. I was having a good time with it around the house until I decided to try out one of the heavy guitar picks I use for playing jazz. That’s when my like of the instrument turned into an infatuation—but also when my partner got up from her desk at the other side of the house to give me a look and closed the doors to both of our offices.
Fingerpicking this all-mahogany concert uke gives a loud, bright, treble-y tone with the unmistakable percussive thump and overtones that really couldn’t be anything other than a banjo, or a banjo uke. The Kala comes with a Remo Weatherking banjo head made from a modern synthetic product called Fiberskyn that looks and sounds like old calfskin. Kala went right to the source and let the famous drum company do what a famous drum company does best, and the result is the plunk-y tone and long-term promise of reliable consistent wear from a high-tech product with the beautiful natural look of a vintage banjo head. Marry it to a bound, satin finished all-mahogany body, a mahogany neck, and a bound rosewood fretboard, and you have an instrument that is ready for prime time.
The beauty of this instrument is its volume and how it cuts through an ensemble and/or a loud room. I’ve always been very interested in achieving high acoustic volume; yeah, I’m a resonator uke fanatic and calfskin is the original resonator. Am I the only ukulele player who grew up on the Who? But over the past couple years, the issue of volume has become even more immediate, because playing parks and sidewalk parklets without electricity puts the onus for being heard on the instrument, and your approach to the instrument.
I’m not sure you can talk about the banjo uke without mentioning the great English entertainer and ukulele star George Formby. Like Formby, this banjo uke (and the instrument in general) has a big personality. But I found myself happily playing just about anything from my ukulele repertoire on it. Yes, this uke handles ballads. And, again, I loved being able to get the volume I needed to play in an ensemble without hitting the instrument very hard. And when I did use a pick and hit it hard, I had some idea of what a Pete Townshend cover of the Kermit the Frog-sung “Rainbow Connection” might sound like. And that was cool.
The Natural Mahogany Banjo Concert is a fairly inexpensive instrument that will put this somewhat obscure relative of the ukulele in many more players’ hands. It comes with a nice padded soft case and is also available in a black maple version, which is an equally good-looking option. When I first became interested in banjo ukes, the only instruments around were survivors from the 1920s and ’30s and were inconsistent at best. This uke is an easy choice that highlights Kala’s expertise at balancing performance, playability, and tone with affordability to deliver an instrument that I don’t want to put down. Because it’s fun.
Natural Mahogany Banjo Concert Ukulele
- BODY Concert-size; overall length 24.25″; mahogany back; stained satin finish; five-ply maple shell; shell diameter 8″; maple/ebony cap saddle; Remo Fiberskyn banjo head
- NECK Mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard; 15″ scale length; 18 frets; fingerboard width at nut 1.38″; Graph Tech NuBone nut; standard banjo headstock
- OTHER Aquila Super Nylgut strings; padded banjo ukulele gig bag
- PRICE $219 street
- MADE IN China
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.