Review: Opal Instruments’ New Aluminum-Framed Ukes Are Showstoppers

By Greg Olwell

When I pulled two brand-new Opal tenor ukuleles from their cases at a recent rehearsal, the questions started flying. It was supposed to be an ordinary basement rehearsal in San Francisco for an upcoming show, but these two ukes, with their minimal aluminum bodies, turned my easy-going, uke-crazy friend into a pushy journalist. Eddie needed to know the answers to “who, what, where, when, why, and how” right away. The only thing missing was a microphone jammed in my face.

I couldn’t blame him, though, because I felt the same way when I first saw the Opal Hollow Body and its even more extreme stablemate, the Open Frame, unboxed at Ukulele mag headquarters a few days earlier. The Opals do that to people. They also do that thing that makes ukuleles so appealing—they make you want to play.

Precision and Durability

The newly launched Opal ukuleles are professional-grade instruments built with an aluminum frame, mahogany neck, and onboard electronics. They’re the product of Southern California makers Scott Dordick and his son Sam. Given the Opal’s uniquely configured body, which is CNC-milled from a solid aluminum billet, it’s no surprise that the elder Dordick has a long background in designing and manufacturing parts for the aerospace, automotive, and photographic industries—fields that demand precision and durability.

So what does that have to do with ukuleles?

The Dordicks want to make an instrument with a defined sound that captures each string’s tone, is durable enough for rugged professional use (and abuse?), and offers players a distinctive look. While we usually steer away from reviewing pre-production samples, Opal says it expects to make only a few minor changes from the instruments the company sent us for review before finalizing them for production. That was good enough for our eager mitts.

Given the metal frame and thin body, even on the Hollow Body, these ukes are clearly meant more for a life on the stage. Naturally, they have an acoustic volume—and it’s worth pointing out that the Hollow Body has a surprisingly snappy, chipper acoustic sound—but these two are meant to be plugged in. It’s where they excel.

That plugged-in sound is powered by the L.R. Baggs Five.O pickup and preamp system fit to each Opal. The Five.0 has a three-volt battery in the endpin-mounted preamp and should last a long while before needing replacement, and you have red volume and tone knobs at your fingertips. I played the Opals through an assortment of amps, including a Fishman Loudbox 100, an SWR Baby Blue, and several vintage electric-guitar tube amps. Each mashed its sonic imprint on the Opals, and the Opals returned the favor with immediate response that was very resistant to feedback.

Both Opals have a direct sound, with a sharp, crystal-clear tone. If one of Dordick’s goals is a defined sound where each string could be heard, he nailed it with these two alloy puppies. There is a difference between the two when they’re plugged in. The Hollow Body has a slightly more airy sound, as you might expect from its spruce top and the mahogany-backed frame, but both are straightforward and bright, making them more alike tonally than they are different.


Spun with Soul

One thing that surprised me about the Opals is their feel. They are lively instruments, plugged in or played acoustically. They aren’t loud, like a fully wooden uke, or sprightly, like a resophonic uke, but each note rings through the ukes’ necks and bodies, giving me the feeling that I’m playing more than just a hunk of high-tech, precision-milled metal. Dodrick is quick to thank Sam Radding for helping to refine some of the Opal’s design elements. Among his other accomplishments, Radding is an influential luthier who ran a shop (American Dream) that helped to launch the careers of Bob Taylor, Kurt Listug, and Greg Deering.

As far as I’m concerned, an instrument’s neck is its soul and the part of it that I really connect with when I’m playing. Strumming and picking ukulele just isn’t as fun when it doesn’t have a neck that comfortably suits my left hand, and the shape of these Opals’ neck’s is among the nicest I’ve ever had the fortune to play.

“That’s a really nice neck,” my skeptical bandmate said once he started to play the Open Frame, opening up a little to the radical design.

Both necks are made from generously proportioned pieces of Honduras mahogany, carved into a meaty D shape and capped with an ebony (Hollow Body) or rosewood (Open Frame) fingerboard with big frets.

They’re available with a few different inlay materials in a standard dot pattern; one uke had small white dots and the other had larger red dots.

With their extreme design and high price, the Opals are not for everyone. Their electric focus and aluminum frame make them polarizing in a way that most ukuleles aren’t. But, if you’re the type of player who wants a unique ukulele, with a stark, high-precision look and sound, you probably already hear the Opals calling your name.


Opal Hollow Body
Tenor size with 6061
T-6 aluminum frame
Sitka spruce top
and mahogany back
Honduras mahogany neck
with ebony fingerboard
Bone nut and saddle
L.R. Baggs Five.0 pickup/preamp with volume and tone controls
$2,500 direct

Opal Open Frame
Tenor size with 6061 T-6
aluminum frame (no top or back)
Honduras mahogany neck
with ebony fingerboard
Bone nut and saddle
L.R. Baggs Five.0 pickup/preamp with volume and tone controls

$2,000 direct