Hands-on review: The Kala U Bass — uke 2 can B cool!

(Dave Molter | Posted 2010-11-27)

Hands-on review: The Kala U Bass — uke 2 can B cool!

In the 1920s there was a popular ad for piano course: “They all laughed when I sat down at the piano — but when I started to play!” Skip forward almost a century, and the same treatment might be applied to the Kala U Bass.

When ads first appeared in 2009 for the first run of the U Bass, many bassists laughed. After all, it’s a bass ukulele — a tiny (20-inch scale) instrument built on a baritone uke body. It looks, well, funny. And that was the initial reaction when I brought my U Bass 2 to a gig. Smiles. Some laughter. But when I started to play!

We’ll cut to the chase and say right up front — the Kala U Bass is the real deal. It’s a professional-quality, well made, great sounding bass instrument capable of producing a variety of tones, from very deep, upright-like bottom to punchy midrange. And it’s easy — and fun — to play. You won’t be embarrassed toting U Bass to any gig.

With or without uke
I’ll admit that although I saw and heard the U Bass being played on Youtube (Uketube?), I was somewhat skeptical. But then I played one at Summer NAMM 2010 in Nashville, and I became a believer. What a sound! All from an instrument that weighs around 3 pounds. I put off buying the U Bass, though, until I had a good reason to do so. That reason arrived when my band decided to do all acoustic sets and one of the guitarists broke out a standard uke.

My instrument is a spruce-top U Bass 2, a second-generation model that shaves a couple hundred dollars off the price of the original U Bass, which uses more exotic woods. My model uses woods more commonly found in acoustic guitars — solid spruce top and mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard and bridge, and a solid mahogany neck. The incredible sound is produced by proprietary black polyurethane strings and amplified by a passive pickup system with four individual piezo elements wired to an endpin jack. There are no volume or tone controls. Heavy, nicely geared custom diecast tuners complete the package. Fit and finish is excellent: fret leveling is fine and there were no sharp fret ends. Body and neck have a satin finish, and the back of the neck is smooth and comfortable. The spruce U Bass also ships with a nicely padded gigbag. (An acacia-wood model is also available with hard foam case for about $180 more). Both models also are available in fretted or fretless. Since I already have an EUB and a fretless, I chose fretted. I also figured that with a 20-inch scale, I’d have a better shot at playing in tune if I had frets.

The long and short of it
I normally play a 35” scale Lakland or multiscale Dingwall, and I also have Stagg EUB (42” scale), but the U Bass felt very comfortable from the get-go. Playing while sitting is natural, but playing while standing requires a strap. The U Bass doesn’t have a front strap button, so plan on either adding one or rigging something. I found a very affordable (around $20) nylon strap system that doesn't require drilling or other alteration of the uke body at www.ukeleash.com.

As you might expect, the polyurethane strings are a bit stretchy, and getting them up to pitch initially or after the bass has been unplayed for a few days requires patience. Once up to pitch at playing temperature, however, they hold tune well. The strings don’t feel sticky or gummy, but they do roll under your fingers more than traditional metal or gut strings, so left-hand vibrato can be a bit tricky. String tension is very good for such a short scale —better, in fact, than on some 30-inch scale basses . But if you normally “dig in,” be prepared to alter your right-hand technique. Several tonal variations are available depending on where and how you pluck. I used both the meat of my thumb and two fingers. Using my thumb, I grabbed a reggae dub tone easily; using two fingers and playing close to the bridge produced a punchier tone equivalent to a P Bass with flats. Speaking of tone, be prepared to experiment. The passive piezo pickups require an amp with at least a 1 meg-ohm input impedance or a separate preamp. Plugged into my Genz-Benz Shuttle or a Line 6 Lowdown Studio 110 and recorded, the U Bass sounded fine. In a stage situation at higher volume, however, I had better luck by putting a Fishman Platinum Pro preamp between the U Bass and the Shuttle. And, as with any hollowbody bass, standing too close to the amp or facing the wrong way on stage can cause feedback. Having a preamp with extra EQ stops feedback short.

The bottom line
Small in size but heavy in tone, the Kala U Bass 2 is a solid, professional instrument that offers a variety of sounds, from upright depth to solidbody punch. While it may not replace a standard bass in metal or heavy rock bands, the U Bass would be right at home in reggae, folk, country, bluegrass and even jazz — in short, anywhere an upright bass is welcome. With judicious use of EQ, it can also hold its own in soul and light rock settings. Weighing less than 5 pounds and able to fit easily into an airline overhead compartment, it may be the “next small thing” for traveling upright players.

• Recommended Tuning: EADG
• Body Width:
o Lower Bout: 80mm
o Upper Bout: 67mm
• Top Across:
o Lower Bout: 257mm
o Upper Bout: 190mm
• Waist: 165mm
• Body Length (Back): 356mm
• Neck (Nut to Body): 254mm
• Fretboard Width (nut): 47mm
• Fretboard Width (end): 70mm
• Fretboard Length: 318mm
• Body Connects at 12th Fret
• Custom diecast tuners
• Passive Shadow piezo pickup system; 4 individual elements and compensated saddles
• Rosewood fingerboard and bridge
• Includes deluxe custom padded gigbag (with Spruce U-Bass) or a padded lightweight hard foam case with Cordura-type outer shell (Acacia/Mahogany U-Bass)
• Limited Lifetime Warranty against defects and materials, 1 year on electronics and tuning machines.

The Kala U Bass is available from several online retailers. Street price varies according to model from $399 to $599. For more about the U Bass and other Kala instruments, visit www.kalaukulele.com.

Dave Molter (“Laklander”) is a professional bassist with more than 45 years’ experience in a variety of genres. He is Managing Editor of MusicGearReview and freelance writer. Contact him at davem at MusicGearReview.com

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