BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SUMMER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
There’s a lot to be said for showing up and looking good. While it’s often used as an aphorism for success in life, it’s just as valid as when you open a ukulele case for the first time and find a KA-JTE Archtop Tenor ukulele from Kala. This stylish instrument is bound to catch a few eyes. Still, once I wrapped my hand around its neck and pulled it in close for some strumming, I found it comfortable to play and it sounded good, too. In addition to its snappy appearance, it’s equipped with a pickup and onboard preamp, so it’s also ready to hit the stage.
Let’s start with the obvious: This ukulele’s flashy exterior makes a pretty bold fashion statement. With a large, white modernist design over a light metallic blue finish, the KA-JTE Archtop Tenor reminds me of some mid-century budget archtop guitars, like Harmony’s colorful Catalina line. As a big fan of that era of design and those affordable and collectible guitars, I really appreciate Kala’s twist on this cool vintage look. The details were well thought-out, right down to the faux mother-of-pearl binding on the body and fingerboard and the white tuner buttons. To my eyes, it’s a handsome uke, though Kala offers several other options for people who want a different color or something with a more sedate finish, like a classic sunburst or an antique gold like an old Gibson electric guitar.
Beneath the metallic finish, the body is made of three layers of mahogany, which are visible on the unfinished edges of the f-holes. The laminated sheets for the top and back are pressed into shape. The arches on the top and back are there for more than appearance, though; an archtop’s vaulted structure gives it a unique sound that’s often louder and projects more than a flattop uke. And, true to form, my test instrument had a robust sound that placed it among the louder ukes I’ve reviewed. But, while it could easily generate a reasonably high volume, it wasn’t a screamer like some resonator ukes or lightweight handmade ukes can be. Still, the Kala Archtop would be a good uke for any player who yearns to be heard.
Loudness doesn’t always come with sweetness, but in this case, it does. I found the Kala to have a smooth tone and a strong midrange presence that gave it clarity and power that never veered into harshness, even under exuberant strumming. Many instruments in this price range can have a treble emphasis that can be a little hard on my ears after a while, but the Archtop’s balance between highs, lows, and mids was pleasing indeed. I really enjoyed this uke’s tone.
The neck is medium-full, and its C-shaped profile was very comfortable in my hands. The edges of the bound fingerboard were also nicely rounded for a broken-in feel, and the fretwork showed Kala’s typical standard-setting level of attention. No high frets or sharp fret-ends were sticking out on the edges to catch my fingers as I navigated the neck. It’s all standard stuff that should be right in this price range, but it isn’t always this good.
For folks who want to plug in for recording or a performance, the Archtop comes with Kala’s tried-and-true UK-300TR preamp and pickup system. It features a volume knob, a pair of boost/cut sliders for bass and treble, and an onboard chromatic tuner. Like most onboard tuners, turning it on silences the pickup’s output, so your audience doesn’t have to follow you on your tuning journey. I prefer a center detent on EQ controls to make adjustments by feeling rather than looking, so I had to divert attention to the controls for changes. Still, the sweep of the boost and cut were modest through my test amp, so I’d probably rely on the PA or amp for most of my EQ needs. Likewise, the sweep of the volume control was pretty steep. Turning it down didn’t change the tone much until I got to the lower half of the range, where it quickly dropped off. This uke had a smooth, even tone through my amp, so the volume was just set-it-and-forget-it for amplified sessions.
There’s no ignoring the Eisenhower-era good looks of the Kala Archtop Tenor in Lake Shore Blue. But more than just showing up and looking good, it has playability and warm, punchy, and sweet tones that could make it a fun and memorable uke for any collection. And, with its solid-sounding pickup system, it’s also an appealing tenor for live shows.
BODY: Tenor-sized body with laminated mahogany top, back, and sides; faux mother-of-pearl ABS binding; metallic satin finish
NECK: 16.875″-scale mahogany neck; 18-fret rosewood fingerboard; 1.44″-wide Graph Tech NuBone nut; chrome sealed-gear tuners; faux mother-of-pearl ABS binding and heel cap; metallic satin finish
ELECTRONICS: Kala UK-300TR undersaddle pickup and preamp with a chromatic tuner, volume, and bass/treble controls
OTHER: Rosewood tie-block bridge with Graph Tech NuBone saddle; Aquila Super Nylgut strings;
black strap button at end block
MADE IN: China
PRICE: $309 street