By Greg Olwell
As the bass branch of the ukulele family tree grows, it seems to be sprouting in a few different directions. The latest development is toward bigger bass ukes that some players may find easier to use.
The Ohana OBU-22 compact bass ukulele is one such instrument. The pairing of a larger body and longer scale length addresses two concerns shared by many people who’ve tried other ukulele basses: that they’re too small to play comfortably and in tune, and they’re not acoustically loud enough for anything more than home practice.
While some other ukulele basses overcome this by being positively thunderous when plugged in, they can’t really match other instruments acoustically. Blame physics for this classic “it’s not me, it’s you” moment. That’s because lower pitches need a longer string length and a larger body to amplify the string’s vibrations accurately. (That’s the main reason why the upright bass is so much larger than a violin.) It has to be able to produce the volume necessary to be heard at the frequency that people love to hear.
That’s where the Ohana comes in. Even though the Ohana’s gig bag has “Bass Ukulele” embroidered on the outside, the OBU-22’s larger body, longer neck, and metal-core strings are more like a miniature acoustic bass guitar than a direct descendant of the wee little machete brought to Hawaii from Portugal. Still, we wanted to see for ourselves if bigger is indeed better.
Purists Be Damned
How big is this thing? The Ohana compact bass is larger than a baritone uke, and its 24.5-inch scale length will feel familiar to many guitarists. As one who dabbles in too many different stringed instruments, I found it very easy to adapt to the Ohana’s scale length.
Smaller uke basses, which usually have a very short 20-inch scale, tend to leave my hands cramped after about 20 minutes of playing, but I never had that problem with the larger, but still compact, Ohana. The shorter scale (when compared to standard basses) requires a gentle touch to get the notes to ring clearly, but once I lightened up my plucking hand, I was in love. On more than one occasion, hours of playing and practicing ticked by before I even noticed the time.
The Ohana’s body is made with a solid spruce top and laminated mahogany back and sides. Some players feel that this hybrid construction balances ruggedness with sweetness by combining a freely resonating solid top and stiff laminated back and sides, resulting in a powerfully punchy instrument with lots of volume. (If you’re looking for proof, the Selmer guitars favored by jazz legend Django Reinhardt are hybrids and are some of the loudest acoustic guitars ever made. You don’t hear too many people complaining about his sound.) The OBU-22 also has an arched back, a feature long known to enhance an instrument’s sound and volume.
This compact bass sure packs a punch, and it’s set up for easy playing. The fretwork is superb, and the glossy finish is well done, with no gloops or orange-peel markings anywhere. The 12th-fret dots are a little close to the fingerboard’s edge, which causes the strings to obscure the view, particularly on the lowest string.
Though metal strings are considerably more stable than the polyurethane strings used on other ukulele basses, the Ohana’s short-scale bass strings still require frequent tuning, leaving me grateful for the onboard tuner. The Fishman preamp is fantastic, with several controls that make it easy to sculpt my sound and control feedback when the volume gets loud.
I used the Ohana through an acoustic-friendly SWR Baby Blue bass combo and was impressed with its plugged-in tone. Just using the onboard controls, I was able to quickly change from a zingy and bright amplified acoustic bass sound to a dark, upright-like sound by rolling back the treble knob and adding light palm muting. It was great for nailing some swing sounds for my big band, without having to trudge the doghouse bass to a rehearsal.
Acoustically, it is also pretty impressive for a little bass and can easily keep up with some other ukes in a strum session or a group class. And for me, it’s unbeatable for woodshedding new tunes at home. It’s comfy, easily heard, and doesn’t take up much space in the living room. (Your spouse is happy, you’re happy, everyone is happy.)
Finding replacement strings is one concern, though. I wasn’t able to easily find any suitable replacements, in case I broke a string or was simply looking for a fresh set. One solution is purchasing strings for an acoustic bass guitar and cutting them to length, though some folks recommend against cutting strings since it can lead them to unwind.
Yes, purists might decry, since it uses steel strings and is somewhat large, it’s not a “real uke.” But those people are going to miss out if they ignore this instrument’s strengths. The Ohana OBU-22 is a very usable bass that feels comfortable and sounds great, plugged in or acoustic.
- Compact bass (36 inches long) size with solid spruce top and laminated mahogany back and sides; gloss finish
- Fishman Presys + Bass preamp with Sonicore pickup and built-in tuner
- Backpack-style gig bag
- Also available fretless (OBU-22FL) and lined fretless (OBU-22FLM)
- $759 list; $499 street
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine. Click here for more on that issue.
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