Mainland red cedar tenor
Mainland Ukes is a relatively new ukulele company which describes itself as a "home grown family business" based in Indiana.
A cursory comparison of the models Mainland offers shows they are strikingly similar in build to the Bushman models. Bushman has a strong following, and I had the opportunity to play one last year, but wasn't interested in dealing with the company after a very unsatisfactory experience trying to purchase harmonicas from them. Mainland gave me the chance to own something very similar without the hassles (read a little more about Mainland at Ukulelereview.com).
With the Canadian dollar again low, I hesitated, but Mike Hater, owner at Mainland, gave me a break on the shipping costs, which helped convince me to order one in February 09. This time I also got a tweed case - very stylish, but also very snug. Too snug, in fact, for most of my other ukes - partly because most have tail buttons, but also because of different body heights. Like every other hard-shell case I have, it is plush-lined, with a small storage area, but no exterior pockets for chord books, songbooks, etc. No reflection on Mainland, but someone has to talk to case makers about that.
I have a particular liking for cedar as a tonewood, so I chose the red cedar tenor model with the gloss finish instead of the mahogany. The mahogany comes in a matte finish, which was sorely tempting, but I was equally interested in comparing this cedar with the two others I have (Kala and Pono). Plus the cedar is very attractive and quite red - both the Kala and Pono cedar tops are brown or slightly yellow cedar. The grain is tight and very linear, too, with no blemishes.
The sides and back are solid rosewood, as are the fretboard and bridge. Rosewood gives the sound warmth and complexity and some low-end tonality.
Mainland ukes are made in Indonesia (I believe) with final assembly and setup in the USA. They offer strictly acoustic models, solid mahogany or a solid cedar top, in traditional figure-8 shape, with no cutaways, pickups or electronics. A banjo ukulele is in the works, and some new models have been released since my purchase.
All models come strung with Aquilas. This makes them loud and bright. The tenor I received is probably the loudest uke I own. It's not as crisp as the Kala cedar (I attribute that to the difference in finishes and the different woods used for side and back), but it's brighter than my Pono cedar (which is currently strung with the more mellow J71 strings). So it sits comfortably between the two, in tone quality, suitable for both strumming and picking styles.
It has great sustain, too, one of the best of my collection. Sustain is very important in a ukulele because without it, a uke can sound 'plinky' like a toy or plastic instrument.
The neck is a tad wider than the Kalas, too. For me neck width is a minor consideration, and I easily get accustomed to any width, but there are other players who don't like the narrow Kala necks and look for wider necks. The Mainland ukes will probably suit them better. It's also a relatively lightweight uke - which is good because it doesn't have a tailpiece to hold a strap. I like to use a strap, so will have to investigate adding a button or getting a Uke Leash.
The action was higher than I like: about 4-4.5mm at the 12th fret (top of fret to bottom of string - enough to easily stack two US quarters there without them sticking). I played a lot of electric guitar with action 2mm or less at the 12th fret, and all my other ukes are lower, so 4mm felt uncomfortably high. That was easily reduced by removing the saddle and sanding it down a small amount (fortunately the saddle is not glued in!). Right now the action is about 3mm, and I may try to reduce it a little more, closer to 2 mm. Mike graciously offered to mail me another saddle if I ground mine down a little too much.
My own style is a mix of fingerpicking and strumming. When picking, I often anchor my non-playing fingers against the soundboard, and pluck upwards. When the strings are high, it means I have to change the arch of my hand and lift my picking fingers a bit more. That's when string height becomes noticeable to me. The action at the lower frets - up to about the seventh - was fine, but my picking is done closer to the sound hole, around the 12th-15th fret.
At the same time as I was reducing the saddle, I smoothed a couple of fret edges around the 12th fret region. When fingerpicking, I often brush the frets around this area with my fingertips in the upsweep. That makes me very sensitive to even the slightest flaws or roughness in fret dressing.
While the Mainland's frets were not as rough or as noticeable as the Pono's fret edges and would be acceptable by most players, they still annoyed me. But a small bit of careful filing fixed that quickly. And now I have the confidence to tackle the Pono's rough edges, a problem that has bothered me for the last year and had relegated the Pono cedar to its case most of the time until I fixed them.
Mainland offers a choice of tuner colours, depending on the model: ebony and gold, white and silver or mother of pearl and gold or silver. Nice touch. I chose gold and ebony. Tuners are geared and sealed.
The ukes have a traditional 'rope' binding that's one of those love-hate cosmetic touches. I like it; Susan doesn't (she associates it with C&W style). On close inspection, it almost looks like raffia or straw. It certainly makes their models stand out from a lot of other designs. I also like the little scalloping at the end of the fretboard - another nice touch.
The only flaw I found in the fit and finish was a small blob of either glue or finish that accumulated under the top near the neck and went unnoticed in the final setup. You can see it in the photo (sorry for the blur). When I change strings, I will get inside and see if it comes off. It's hard to see, and doesn't affect anything, so it's really just a minor cosmetic hiccup. Otherwise it's a well-made instrument; there were no flaws or marks in the gloss finish.
Nicely made, solid wood, reasonable price, good sound - they all make Mainland ukes very attractive to anyone looking for a good uke without shelling out the big bucks for the high-end models. Mainland competes in the same market as most of the ukes listed here, with the small advantage of having a slightly wider neck and some cosmetic options. And being located in the continental USA, shipping is somewhat lower than from Hawaii, especially for Canadians.
And speaking of Canadians, I hope Mainland gives some consideration to getting a Canadian distributor. We're ukulele-deprived up here.
May, 2009: This bright, cheerful sound has made this uke a favourite of mine. It's my constant companion - as the 'beside my computer' uke I strum as I work and surf.
Winter, 2009: Never lend your ukuleles. I let a friend borrow this because she wanted to learn and play along with her husband (to whom I had given my Applause uke). She was so taken by it she didn't want to return it and convinced me to sell it to her. I'm glad it has a loving home, but I miss it!
Would I purchase another Mainland? Yes. Probably
my next will have a satin finish. But another red cedar -maybe a
baritone? -would also be
Mainland mango tenor
This uke arrived at my door on the first of September, 2010, an unexpected box of delights to explore. This is one of Mainland's new line, offered this year as the company expands its horizons. Here are my initial impressions, based only on a few hours with it.
This is an entirely different sort of mango wood than my Pono uses. The Pono looks almost like spalted wood. This mango looks more like acacia or mahogany. It has a fine, tight, honey-amber-gold grain with none of the broad swaths of colour on the Pono. Obviously there are differences in mango based on the type and location of the cut. I will have to look into that more to better understand the wood and the tree.
It also sounds very different. The Pono mango was quiet and more mellow than I liked until I replaced the saddle with a Tusq saddle and changed to Aquila strings. Now it's louder and brighter, but is still a reserved sound compared to, say the Mainland or Kala cedar tops.
This mango is bright and cheery - which appears to be the Mainland signature sound. In fact, it sounds remarkably like a soprano in its brightness. That was unexpected in a tenor, because I expect more lower range in a larger uke. It doesn't have the sustain and resonance of its cedar companion, but it has a light, cheerful and somewhat plinky sound. It came strung with non-wound Aquilas, and that contributes to the brightness.
The body is also about 1/2" (12 mm) thinner than most of my tenor ukes. That contributes significantly to the bright sound.
I am ambivalent about mango as a tonewood. Beautiful as it is, it does not have the frequency range or vibration coefficient of woods like spruce and cedar. That makes me think it's more suited to the smaller body sizes than the larger ukes, and this instrument reinforces that belief.
It's easier to discern the effects of the tonewood on a larger-bodied instrument where there is more surface area, and a larger body cavity to generate a more complex, louder sound.
The sound of a soprano uke is defined significantly by its body size, which sets some acoustic limitations on the harmonics, volume and tone. That's a sound many traditional players prefer: light, bright and plinky. For some players, larger ukes edge too close to a guitar sound.
I would think that to compensate for mango's tonal limitations, a larger or deeper body would be appropriate. But for anyone who favours the traditional soprano sound, this ukulele offers that in a tenor-sized package. To me that extra fretboard space is a plus. The sound of this uke may suit vintage (1920s-30s) and traditional Hawaiian music very well.
I am also curious about how a mango-top and rosewood-side and back uke would sound. Rosewood or a similarly dense hardwood might help compensate for the mango's modest tonal range by reflecting more of the sound towards the front. Just a thought...
I'm also curious as to how this uke will 'break in' as the wood responds to playing. I really don't know how mango adapts to playing and the local environment.
I may switch strings to a more mellow brand, like D'Addario J71s or Martins. I like Aquilas and use them on many of my ukes, but they may be too bright for this design and body size, at least according to my own taste.
Of course, this is a new instrument - so new I can small the finish inside still curing. it needs time to adapt to my local environment (and humidity) and to being played before I can comment definitely on the sound.
As with other Mainland ukes, fit and finish are impeccable. The top and the head are decorated with that lovely rope binding, and the whole uke is wrapped in a shiny gloss finish. Overall, it looks very much like the cedar, except of course the wood has more of an amber-honey-golden appearance. It's hard to see in the photos, but under certain lights, there is a definite ripple in the grain; a very pleasant wavy look.
The neck is comfortable, the fret edges smooth and the intonation is spot on. The nut width is 1 3/8", which compares to most of my other ukes, although the Kala necks are a tiny bit narrower. The bottom of the fretboard has a slightly scalloped end, similar to the older Martin ukes. That's a nice touch.
The lower edge (first string side) of the nut is a little crisp, so I plan to file it down a hair when I restring it. My playing style brings my left index finger into contact with the nut at times, and I find the sharp edge a little distracting. You may not notice it.
The tuners are geared (14:1) and sealed, and available in gold or silver depending on your taste. These are great tuners and work very well.
Nut and saddle are bone. I would not recommend a Tusq saddle here, because it would be too brash. Bridge is rosewood. It uses the traditional tie-down system for the strings.
The uke came in a beautiful faux-alligator-skin, padded hard-shell case. It's quite attractive, and equally functional. There are two snaps to hold it closed, and a small inside storage case to hold accessories and strings. I'm not sure whether I like this design or their tweed case better, but I think this will stand up to the wear and tear a bit better than a fabric case.
Update, Nov 8.: I think this uke would be a prime candidate for a low-G string set. Playing it recently while a friend played another tenor really highlighted how much it sounds like a soprano compared with other tenors. Nice complement to a low-G mahogany or koa uke, though. But for solo play, I think I will try a low-G set that's not quite as forward or bright as the Aquilas it comes with.
Would I purchase another Mainland? Yes. A red cedar
baritone would be