Owen Holt may not be a name you know, but he’s one of the great innovators of the ukulele. His Road Toad shop produces some amazing-shaped ukes, like the Sharkfin and Mana, that are some of the finest sounding ukes made today. But more importantly, he’s created a fifth uke to add to the set of soprano, concert, tenor and baritone: The bass uke. For a few years his Big Bufo Bass has quietly been earning a solid reputation in uke circles. While similar in size to a baritone uke, the BBB was created for Pahoehoe unique polyurethane bass strings, which Owen developed.
Owen and Kala have made sure that the U Bass is no slouch on the important parts. The tuners are custom HipShot Ultralights and the pickup is a pro-model passive Shadow piezo. Shadow has a long history of making piezos in Europe and makes some of the finest-sounding bass bridge assemblies around. This one has four ceramic elements, one for each string to generate a very present sound that’s warm and full.
As you’d expect with a custom-made instrument from a top uke luthiers, the Bufo is pricey for most uke player’s budget, so Mr. Holt paired up with Kala to produce the U Bass. According to Owen, “The goal on pricing had been to offer something at half the price of what I build in my shop. We could have gone cheap on the tuning machines, but sticking with the high quality Hipshots made it look like a bass and feel really solid.” The U Bass is built on a Kala baritone body made in China that has been fitted with a wider neck and a special bridge that attaches the string ends on the underside of the soundboard. This technique is being used by more and more luthiers, like Dave G of Waverly Street Ukuleles on his sopranos. It takes most of the pressure off the bridge as well as generates a more powerful volume from the soundboard.
The U Bass is loud enough to play unplugged for solo practice, but it’s really designed to be plugged in. No preamp is required. Just plug into a bass amp or recording input and you have a clean, humless signal that requires no EQ.
Owen named the Pahoehoe strings after a black, ropey lava. They are very soft on the fingers and the most comfortable bass strings you will have ever played. The tone is excellent and musicguymic, online seller of both the U Bass and the Bufo, reports that the strings on his Bufo have lasted more than a year. Owen adds, “The original set of Pahoehoe strings are still on the first bass I tried them on in January 2006, so almost three and a half years.” They can squeak against the fingers sometimes, which can be corrected by rubbing a small amount of silicone lubricant on the fingers.
Here’s a sample of what the U Bass sounds like. It was recorded with a little compression and distortion on a Boss Micro BR recorder.
The first production run was only 12 basses. “The first ones were all done fretted. They will be done is both fretted and fretless on the next run,” notes Owen. I’ll go out on a limb and recommend the fretted over the fretless. On a bass with a scale this short, hitting the high notes on a fretless can be difficult, as owners of the rubberband-stringed Ashbory bass will attest.
The U Bass retails for about $600. That might seem pricey for a uke made in China, but the tuners and pickup alone retail for well over $200. Mine came with a case and a humidifier as well, so the package price truly was complete. Players used to the short string length of a uke will find the U Bass easy to adapt to, while adding a competent low end to their sound. For those looking to amplify the U Bass for Coffee House play, the battery-power Roland Micro Cube Bass RX is a good partner. The U Bass will be in short supply while Kala completes the second run. When ready, they will be available from musicguymic and well as from the Uke Surfer shop in Germany.