Archtop instruments have an almost mystical quality. To some, they’re the height of the luthier’s art, a labor-intensive instrument crafted to meet the needs of the most talented musicians. Perhaps part of the mystique is way these instruments are made. Like Michelangelo removing marble until finding David hiding inside, the tops and backs of archtops are carved to shape from a block of quality wood.
While archtops exude glamor and elegance, their design flows from the need for louder stringed instruments. In the early ’20s, Lloyd Loar, a designer at Gibson, took some of the principles from the violin family, like carved tops and backs and a raised fingerboard, and applied them to the mandolin and guitar. It revolutionized both families and changed the course of 20th century music.
Though Eastman offers some ukes that are more traditionally styled, the new EU80E archtop ukulele really caught our attention. Eastman has a strong reputation for its archtop guitar and mandolin lines; why not investigate the company’s ukuleles?
Classic Archtop Sound
Crack open the Eastman’s hard-shell case, and your senses are bombarded by the sight of the lovely reddish-brown sunburst finish covering the luscious curves—along with the unmistakable scent of lacquer. It’s an intoxicating smell that gets the hearts of aficionados racing because it’s usually reserved for higher-end instruments, where a finish can make the difference between a good-sounding instrument and a great-sounding one. (Eastman also makes a blue-finished EU80E, as well as the EU60E, which has mahogany back and sides and sunburst finish.)
From a feel standpoint, the EU80 is somewhere between a concert and a soprano. The 14 7/8-inch scale is a little shy of the standard 15-inch concert scale and may take a little getting used to for some players. I adapted after playing the Eastman for a little bit, but it did make me hope the company will offer larger sizes in its archtop ukulele line someday soon. (Hint, hint.)
Though archtops may have been created to be louder and punchier, I can’t say that my Eastman tester was an especially loud ukulele. With the quality of amplification today, it’s OK not to be a big-band-driving cannon, though. The important part is that even though it’s strung with nylon strings, the Eastman has a classic archtop sound, which I hear as a very quick attack on the note and a pronounced midrange—characteristics that make it excel at strumming through chord changes and picking out single-note lines.
As you might expect from an instrument in this price range, the fretwork was excellent, with no high frets or sharp ends to be felt anywhere along the neck. Like the rest of the instrument, the EU80’s neck is all elegance, with
abalone snowflake position-markers on the ebony fingerboard, which is bound with ivoroid plastic, as is the body and headstock.
True to archtop form, the ebony bridge can be adjusted for height and is compensated for better intonation as you move up the neck. But the fit of the bridge to the body was the only part of the EU80 that didn’t rise to the same level of attention to detail. As it was, I could slip a piece of paper under the bridge, meaning it should have been carved more meticulously to match the uke’s arched top. A tighter fit might help increase the EU80’s tone and output, too.
Jazz and More
The “E” at the end of the EU80E’s name means that it’s electric, and in this instance, the uke is equipped with a Schertler Resocoil, which is more of an internally mounted microphone than a piezo-type pickup. Plugged into a few of our go-to test amps (a Fishman Loudbox and an SWR Baby Blue), the Eastman indeed delivers a more mic-like sound than I’m used to hearing from an electrified uke. From gentle brushes with the fleshy part of my fingertips, to aggressive chord comping and flying single-note lines, I love the response and dynamics that the Schertler is able to give. And, being a microphone, it also picks up some of the extraneous noises, like my arm brushing on the top.
Eastman calls it an “archtop jazz ukulele,” but I can see the EU80E being used by strummers in just about any style of music. It’s a fun ukulele to play, sounds great acoustically or electrified, and boy, does it look good.
Concert-size archtop with carved Sitka spruce top and carved maple back and sides
Maple neck with ebony fingerboard and abalone diamond inlays
Schertler Resocoil pickup
Adjustable ebony bridge and ebony tailpiece
Open-back Grover tuners
$1,250 list; $999 street