BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SPRING 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The new Ortega RUNAB-CC Bamboo concert ukulele is a striking instrument. Its natural finish and contrasting black binding make a bright and lively visual statement that’s even more vibrant in person than in photos. I suspect that its all-bamboo design might be a big draw for ukulele players into exotic mid-century tiki chic. Still, this Ortega is more than a style statement. It’s a well-made concert ukulele with a cutaway and pickup that makes it stage-ready for open-mic nights and backyard luaus.
Nearly every wooden piece of the Ortega is made from solid bamboo (some interior parts are spruce and other woods). The body, fingerboard, neck, and bridge are all constructed from this highly sustainable, readily available material that looks great and offers good sounds, as my tester showed. For those who might be more familiar with bamboo used for furniture and other non-musical applications, it’s a really interesting instrument material. Bamboo is a member of the grass family, so it is not a wood like spruce or mahogany. While this information might only be of interest to botanists and material scientists, bamboo has an extremely high strength-to-weight ratio that falls between many softwoods and hardwoods. Why do we care about this? Tone. Materials with high strength and low weight are excellent for building instruments because instruments need to strike a balance between being light enough to vibrate and sound good and also be strong enough to withstand string tension.
But let’s get back to this uke before your eyes glaze over.
My concert-sized test uke’s satin-finished body and neck felt light, which likely also helped with this uke’s resonance. The neck has a generous C-shape profile that’s neither bulky nor slender and felt very comfortable to me, especially with the silky finish. The frets were nicely dressed and buzz-free along the flat fingerboard, and it features the Graph Tech Ratio tuners that we’re seeing more and more of on ukes in a wide price range. Ortega used its distinctive asymmetrical headstock. Folks who prefer playing with a strap will appreciate the strap button at the tail block, but some players may want to add a second one to the neck heel.
I liked the simple décor throughout the instrument, from the single fingerboard inlay to the laser-etched rosette and black binding. Still, I could see some players missing the visual landmarks of the fingerboard position markers at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 10th frets. These uncomplicated design elements combine well with the vibrant natural bamboo color and drew lots of positive compliments from folks who saw it.
But, beyond its comfortable playability and bleached-blonde good looks, the sound of this uke kept drawing me back. It had a warm and clear bark that was pleasing and remarkably well-balanced. The Ortega’s bright high end avoided some of the harsh sizzle I find with some ukes, but was detailed enough to sound like a crisp, sunny afternoon. It also could get really loud when called upon while maintaining that warmth, clarity, and fullness at delicate volumes. I was struck by the evenness of this uke’s sound across the strings and up the neck. No matter where my right hand strummed or picked, I couldn’t find any notes that fizzled out or were notably louder than others. Try as I might with vigorous and ugly strumming, I couldn’t push this uke into sizzly highs or unpleasant sounds.
The built-in pickup is another attractive factor for a solid instrument in this price range. There’s a transducer under the black saddle on the little bamboo bridge, connecting to the onboard preamp. The Ortega MagusUke electronics offer volume and tone controls and an integrated tuner. Besides saving you from the visual goofiness of playing with a tuner clamped to your headstock, the onboard tuner also mutes your output when turned on, so your audience doesn’t have to listen as you tune up during a performance; a plus for both players and listeners. Two coin-sized 3-volt batteries power the electronics and are easily accessible on the face of the preamp for battery changes. Battery changes should be rare, however, since you can expect dozens of hours of plugged-in play time before drain becomes an issue.
Though it’s an active electronics system, the Ortega’s tone control works much like a passive system, trimming highs around 10kHz as you dial the knob counterclockwise. It came in handy when I plugged it into a portable speaker. With the tone knob at 10, the sound was a bit too bright and had some high-end quack common to undersaddle pickups. But dialing it back to the middle of its range gave me a sound much more like its acoustic tone: clear, penetrating, and warm.
For a street price of $219, the Ortega Bamboo Concert provides players with a warm and punchy ukulele, a pickup and cutaway, and other cool features in a handsome package. It’s one of those ukes that could quickly become a go-to for players who like warm, clear sounds. And that Ortega is able to offer it for a modest price makes this one of the more impressive ukes I’ve played in a while.
Ortega RUNAB-CC Solid Bamboo Concert
BODY Concert-sized body with solid bamboo top, back, and sides; spruce bracing; black ABS binding; natural satin finish
NECK 15″-scale bamboo neck; 18-fret bamboo fingerboard with black ABS binding; Graph Tech Ratio friction tuners; 1.42″-wide black plastic nut
ELECTRONICS Ortega MagusUke 6-volt preamp and undersaddle pickup with tuner
OTHER Bamboo bridge with black plastic saddle; Aquila strings; single strap button at tailblock; deluxe gig bag
MADE IN China
PRICE $219 (street)
OTHER MODELS Soprano ($209), Tenor ($229), and Uke Bass ($349)