Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spruce Top Kala U-Bass SSMHG FS Review


A while back I reviewed the Mahogany-top Kala U-Bass, and thought maybe I should go through their similarly-equipped spruce-top ukulele-inspired bass. It turned out that there were not many surprises with this one.

I first played the Kala U-Bass at Bass Player Live a few years ago, and my first impression was that it was a toy or a gimmick, but after I played one for a while I changed my tune. This is a fun and easy to play instrument that also happens to sound very good.

The U-Bass is about the size of a baritone ukulele, so it has a scale length of 21-inches, which is about 61% the length of a normal bass guitar. The neck, back and sides are made of solid mahogany, and the top is solid spruce. The bridge and fretboard are both hewn from nice-looking rosewood.

The spruce-top model is a little dressier than the mahogany model, with classy binding on the top and back. It has the same toad inlay and matte finish. There is also a U-Bass with a solid acacia body, but I have never seen one in the wild. These instruments are also available in fretless models, but with a scale that short there was no way I was going to spring for one of those. You might be up for the challenge, though.

The fret wire on the U-Bass is very small (like other ukuleles), which is not a big deal with the strings they use on these basses. The fret ends on this one are well done, and they seem level enough for what this thing is going to do. The hipshot tuners are finished in black, and are more like electric bass tuners than uke tuners, which is a good thing in my book.

The Shadow electronics package is simple, with no knobs, pre-amps or batteries – just a jack on the endpin to plug it in. The passive piezo pickup is not a single strip, but instead has separate elements for each string. This provides much more consistent volume between strings and makes the U-Bass a much more usable instrument. As this is a passive piezo set-up, if you have a poopy amplifier you might need to use a pre-amplifier with this instrument.

This one shows good craftsmanship, with nice joints and an even finish., As I said earlier the frets are good, and it played very well out of the box. As I have seen a couple of shabby Kala products over the years, I recommend playing before buying, or buying from a retailer with a good return policy.

Then there are the strings, which are thick and made of black polyurethane stuff. They are almost like the silicone strings on Ashborys, but not as sticky and maybe with more tension. As they are stretchy it can take a lot more turns than normal to get it up to pitch, so having real tuners is a blessing.

And, it comes in a nice embroidered soft case, that appears to be a little long for most airlines’ carry-on luggage size requirements, but they will probably let you bring it on anyway. People bring all kinds of huge crap on the plane with them, it seems.

That about covers the mechanics of the U-Bass, but the real magic is playing it. Despite their plastic composition, the strings have decent tension and they are still soft enough that there is no buzzing. The super-short scale takes a lot of getting used to, and I find myself staring at my left hand when I am playing. The action is high and there is no truss rod to adjust, but the strings are so fat and soft that it does not seem to matter.

It is pretty quiet when playing unplugged, but when amplified the sounds out of this Kala are nothing short of amazing, even though the electronics are not high-tech. Depending on how you use your right hand and where you pluck the strings, you can get thumpy 1960s Motown to a genuine double bass sound. And pretty much everything in between. If you want to sound like Flea or the guy from Tool you are out of luck, though. It just does not have that much of an edge on it.

So, this thing is pretty much a winner, as it plays well and sounds very nice. The folks at Kala put a lot of thought into making this instrument versatile, and they should be happy with themselves. Of course it still looks weird, which is probably enough to scare off many bassists who are concerned about appearance.

I notice no sound or playability differences between this one of the mahogany bass, so the changes are only aesthetic. And looks-wise, the mahogany one is pure money and my #1 choice.

My gripes are few and far between. The top is pretty soft, and gets dinged by fingernails too easily. I also miss having a strap pin, but since ukuleles do not usually come with strap pins I will let that one slide.

The list price for a spruce top Kala U-Bass is $530, with a street price of $450 ($100 cheaper than the mahogany one), and is steep when compared to similar quality baritone ukuleles, but this one will do a lot more than any of those one-trick ponies.


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