KM Ukuleles Boatpaddle Soprano – REVIEW
I asked Barry Maz from GOT A UKULELE to take a look at my soprano Boatpaddle: This is his review…
I’m delighted to be able to bring a KM Ukuleles instrument back to Got A Ukulele this week. In fact the man himself visited me recently to lend me this model! This time I am looking at the soprano version of his new range of boatpaddle ukuleles.
And it’s a delight because when I looked at the first (and only) KM Ukulele on this site (a dreadnought Concert ukulele of his), I adored it so much during the review process that I bought it from him immediately after. It was a ukulele I just couldn’t see get sent back. That’s never happened before with me! High praise indeed…
KM stands for the name of the builder, Kevin Mulcock, who makes ukuleles part time in Bridgend in the UK. He was, in part, trained by Pete Howlett in ukulele building and his instruments have created a lot of positive comments from those that own them. I’ve been wanting to look at his boatpaddle models, a design he intends to become his kind of ‘standard off the peg’ model, as not only do I like the look and shape, but I like the concept too. Because it’s a simpler build design, it’s quicker to put together and therefore a little more accessible on price. Incidentally, if they look familiar to you Pete Howlett himself previously made these under the label of his ‘marmite’ range of ukuleles. Kevin actually acquired the rights to this design template from Pete and is now the sole builder of these. Of course, owning a design template is only part of it…. building them is quite another!
Kevin offers his boatpaddle range in soprano, concert and tenor scales, though I must admit to being secretly pleased to discover he was loaning me the soprano. Not only is it my preferred scale, but when I opened it I immediately thought it was one of the cutest ukuleles I think i’ve ever seen! I don’t know why I thought it would be bigger, I mean, it IS a soprano, but it put a huge smile on my face! My ten year old daughter (who get’s bored at the amount of ukuleles that arrive at Got A Ukulele HQ) exclaimed that she loved it, and she never usually bats an eyelid! Yet despite all that, it’s a deceptive ukulele too. Sure, the body is smaller than I expected, but I actually found myself questioning Kevin on the scale length when I first opened the case. It IS a soprano though, but due to a more unusual body joint at the 13th fret and a ‘slightly longer than normal’ scale length of about 35mm (13 and ¾ inches) the whole thing kind of feels a bit longer. Trust me, at under 14 inches scale length this is closer to the more common sopranos at 13 inches, so it IS a soprano for me, but.. well, it’s intriguing… (in a good way).
It’s is made from all solid tone woods with the top, back and sides of this example all made from cherry wood. The top and back are single pieces and because of the triangular shape in which the sides are made, there are three pieces to those with a flat base and very slightly curve shouldered sides. The grain of the wood is simple but attractive with some nice shimmer to it in certain lights and the paleness contrast with the darker wood features is something I also like about it. That boapaddle shape screams ‘old timey’ and ‘different’ and whilst some may say it looks ‘simple’ (it does), it’s still doing it for me. I suppose with a hand made ukulele though the sky can be the limit on decoration if you want it, but it just so happens that this one is a plainer example.
The bridge is a slot style made from rosewood with an uncompensated corian saddle. The whole thing is extremely tidy, well done and not overly large.
The body is then finished in a hand rubbed semi gloss which gives it a pleasing shine, but not a mirror finish. It’s very nice to both look at and feel, and has a hand made vibe to it that doesn’t look rustic or cheap, but doesn’t feel ‘factory produced’ either.
Other than that there is little to say about the body. It’s simple, has a small sound hole, and that’s it. Oh, apart from the strap button in the base made from pear wood. I did have to ask Kevin why he fitted one as it takes away the ‘hey you can stand it up’ factor of the Magic Fluke Flea. There are a couple of sensible reasons he explained. Firstly, this is a small, handmade solid wood instrument and whilst it could possibly stand up unaided, it would still be top heavy. Whilst you will not mind a plastic backed, bombproof Fluke toppling over, you would probably not want a hand finished solid wood instrument to do the same! A very fair point. The other reason is a technical one. Due the small soundhole and it’s placement, Kevin needs to bolt the neck on these by going throught the base with a long thin driver to get the right purchase. As such, he has to leave a hole in the base to do that. Fair enough on both counts I say, but it is worth noting that he explains that he might be able to do away with the button if you wanted it, by plugging the hole and making it a decorative ‘inlay’. It’s something he is working on, but honestly the button doesn’t bother me at all.
Inside is tidy and simple. The back brace is made of cedar and the top brace and bridge plate are spruce. The linings are not notched, but then with the simple body shape, I suspect the joining of top and back to the sides is not such a tricky thing to achieve. There is no mess in here at all. (the peg you can see on the underside of the top is not structural – it’s just a piece of the dowel used to align and attach the bridge). I also like the hand numbered makers label which amends Kevin’s normal ‘heartbeat’ logo (he’s a trained medical professional doncha know..) to a heartbeat pattern shaped into the boatpaddle outline. It was designed for him by Aaron Tucker at Echotoons and I think they are unique to this line.
The neck is made of a single piece of mahogany and is very nicely carved with a fatter heel to meet the top dimensions of the boatpaddle exactly. The rest of it has a nice flattened profile on the back and a roomy 36mm at the but with 29mm from G to A. That coupled with the profile makes for a dreamy neck for the fretting hand. Adding to this yet further is some really nice curving where the neck meets the back of the headstock making for a really nice feel on first position chords. It’s finished in a hand rubbed semi gloss too which feels great.
That is topped with a rosewood fingerboard with some simple end shaping over the top of the body. The grain is straight and uniform and looks good. As I say above, this is joined at the 13th fret, but the instrument has 16 in total. They are not edge bound. They are also more vintage in styling and flatter topped than I normally like rather than rounded crowns. Saying that, I raised that as a very minor gripe on the concert ukulele that I bought and to this day play more than any other. So maybe I don’t even know my own mind…. You get a pleasingly minimal single outward facing dot at the 7th, but the full compliment on the side. Different and cool looking.
Beyond the corian nut is Kevin’s usual simple headstock faced in a veneer of shimmery sinker redwood. I STILL think it’s crying out for an inlaid logo in the empty space as I did on my concert, but ho hum.
The tuners are Grover 4 copies with black buttons which he has arranged for Andy Miles (of Nano Ukulele fame) to shape down to keystone shapes. There are a couple of reasons. Firstly that they look cool, but also they give you more space to turn them and don’t crowd the headstock. They look great and work great, but again, as with any independent builder, you could speak to him about using something different if you have an aversion to this sort of tuner.
Finishing it off are Seaguar fluorocarbon strings and his boatpaddle sopranos start at £275. In this spec this will cost you £300. It’s worth pointing out here what I always mention when I review anything from a hand made builder. Kevin can really employ (within reason) whatever woods and decor you want on his instruments so this is just an example of what he does in this shape. I’ve seen boatpaddles he’s made in Koa for example. The choice is yours. You could therefore specify a cheaper one with a more basic wood, but equally go more pricey and exotic. It’s the beauty of working with a hand made builder. Naturally, the larger scales will also cost a bit more too. Regardless, £300 for a handmade ukulele like this, with all solid woods and terrific build is a bit of a steal I would say.
As you will glean from the comments above, I have not found any notable flaws in it at all. It’s really well put together and finished. It’s also really light, perfectly balanced and, surprisingly, for the shape, also really easy to hold without a strap. Owners of the Fluke will know that it can be a bit of a struggle to stand and play those without some sort of support, but not so here. The shape kind of nestles into the crook of the arm and fits me perfectly.
The first big plusses to note here are volume and sustain. It’s quite staggering how much punch and resonance such a small instrument like this can have, and this is up there with some of the most vocal ukuleles I have ever played. And to add to that, it takes minimal effort to coax that volume out of it. Sure you can play it quietly too, but give this a decent strum and it really thumps the sound out. Terrific. You may look at the small body and very small sound hole and think that means it’s going to be quiet. But remember – there are a lot of misconceptions about soundholes. Bigger ones don’t mean more volume as such. The sound hole is just a place to allow air to move in and out of the sound chamber. The volume and tone is coming from the vibrating top wood. Smaller sound hole? More top to vibrate!
I freely admit to not really knowing what the tonal characteristic of cherry wood would be, but like other paler woods I had assumed it was going to be overly bright. Not so. Whether the wood is naturally more mellow (possibly) or the boatpaddle shape is doing something here (almost certainly), the sound of this is really rounded across the range. I think the shape is doing a lot of the work here as like a pineapple ukulele does (or, indeed, Kevin’s dreadnought shape to some degree), the removal of the waist in the body seems to bolster the mids in the mix. My first impression was ‘this sounds more like a concert, or maybe even something bigger!’. Don’t get me wrong, that good volume makes for a punchy staccato sound if you strum it rhythmically, and that reminds you of its soprano stabling for sure. But there seems to be much more to it when played with more considered laid back strums. There’s a warmth and breadth that sometimes makes you wonder if you are playing a soprano.
That richer more complex tone comes through particularly with fingerpicking. Sure, moving up the 1st string can produce some really zingy highs in the sound, but it’s immediately balanced by the other tones and fuller mids in the rest of the palette. I suppose it doesn’t shine as much as the KM Concert I own, but that one seems to have a magical life of its own on the tone stakes. Yet still, this one sounds terrific and being different scales it’s unfair to compare them. Add the light weight and the comfortable neck in the mix, and this is one really fun and extremely playable instrument.
I see a lot of ukuleles, and get a feel for the qualities quite quickly. When I first saw a KM Ukulele it was immediately clear to me that Kevin was imparting some serious skill in coaxing tone and sound out of a wooden box in his builds. I suppose anyone can throw woods together into a ukulele shape, but not everyone can make them work as a great sounding instrument. This does… in spades. And as such it comes highly recommended by Got A Ukulele. In fact, if you are a ukulele fan, I think this is one of those that should be indispensable in your collection. Get your orders in, because… why wouldn’t you want one?
UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP
Model: KM Ukuleles Boatpaddle Soprano
Body: All solid cherry
Bridge: Rosewood slot style
Frets: 17, 14 to the body
Nut Width: 36mm (29mm G to A)
Tuners: Grover 4 copies
Strings: Seaguar fluorocarbon
Price: £300 in this spec
Cute and different looks
Excellent build and finish
Light weight and balanced
Really comfortable neck
Terrific volume and sustain
Richer tone than I expected
None really. If you think it’s too plain, you can always specify something more exotic!
Looks – 9 out of 10
Fit and finish – 9.5 out of 10
Sound – 9 out of 10
Value for money – 9.5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE – 9.3 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW HERE
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