Cedar top tenor
Again, my decision to buy a Pono was based on some very positive comments on various forums about this brand, I decided to buy a solid-cedar top tenor Pono, cutaway design, with electric pickup. It has solid rosewood sides and back, abalone rosette, ebony tuner heads, sealed Grover tuners, and maple binding. I wanted cedar because it has different sound qualities than spruce. "Warm" is often used to describe cedar: good bass and overtones, lots of sustain.
It is a considerable step above my other ukes in cost. That difference is - or should be - reflected in a superb build quality and stunning tone. This is also my first low-G ukulele and I wanted to see what it was like to play with a different sort of tuning, more like a guitar. I like it, but I still prefer high-G for most songs I play. It's nice to have both because there are times you really want the lower note in runs or chords.
Pono was my first foray into the ukulele 'big league' over $500, an area I will only visit sporadically. Although I'm nowhere near good enough to really warrant buying an instrument as expensive as this, I decided to treat myself as a birthday gift. I agonized over it for weeks before making the buy, and was excited, with great hopes for this uke.
But I was somewhat disappointed when it arrived.
First impressions: gorgeous. And sound: rich tone to spare: the cedar really gives it projection and wonderful, low but warm overtones. It even has a truss rod in the neck to enable owners to keep the neck straight, the first I'd seen in any uke and an indication of attention to detail. Unlike many other ukuleles he sells, MGM doesn't set these ukes up for customers: they come set up at the factory. That may be one source for my problems.
I plugged the uke into an amp and found it produced feedback fairly easily. I think that's because the soundboard is so responsive that it vibrates easily. Unlike the Kala, it has a passive pickup, without a pre-amp, so it has no controls on the uke and you have to set the tone and volume on your amp. I personally prefer this because it means the uke body isn't broken by electronics and there are fewer internal wires to cause buzzing. It shares the same sort of tail button input jack as the Kala.
Nice finish, bindings, good detailing. It felt nice to hold. Sound was stunning. What more could I want?
Well, it wasn't perfect, sadly enough. Build quality initially seemed terrific, but there are some flaws I quickly found. At first I thought the uke had some surface blemishes, but they turned out to be some gummy material that cleaned off fairly easily. But why, I had to ask, would a uke - especially an expensive one - ship out with such noticeable imperfections? They were easy enough to spot and clean.
When I started to play this uke - did I mention its gorgeous sound? - I found the edges of the frets around the 12th and higher fret, a bit sharper on the edge, than on other ukes I owned. To my fingers the fret wires seem to stand out a bit from the edge of the fretboard, particularly on the first string side at the higher frets. Tiny, perhaps, but very noticeable to my fingertips. I worry that these slightly sharper edges will wear away the first string much faster than should be expected from a high-end ukulele. My other ukes feel much smoother in comparison. It's also rougher than my electric guitar (but not my steel-stringed acoustic Takamine, which is about the same but because of where I place my hands for picking is not as noticeable).
If you look closely at the photos of the fret edges, you can see the filed edges of the higher frets have a steeper bevel, so they stand out more when you are running your fingers along them (you can download and enlarge the photos to better see this). Plus the fret dressing at the sound-hole end of the fretboard has been sloppy enough that the wood has been filed away at the edges between several of the frets, leaving a scalloped impression with the fret wires standing out. This too can be felt on the fingers. It's not this bad further down the neck at the lower notes, where I do most of my playing, however.
There are a couple of small imperfections in the finish, too. Most noticeable are two at the high end of the neck, one on the right hand side of the photo, and another at the very end of the fretboard, just above the sound hole. Neither of these affect play or sound, but again, I expect a better quality control on an instrument that cost me considerably more than $600 to get here (plus $80 in the egregious government tax grab!).
No one on the forums I haunt seems to such issues with their Pono. Most speak in unstintingly glowing terms about their instrument. So most likely mine was one that simply slipped past their vaunted quality control.
I wrote to the seller and to Pono ukes, and got an immediate answer from both (MGM, as he is known, offered to pay for a luthier to dress the frets properly, even without me asking for any such solution). Pono showed concern and a willingness to work to some mutual satisfaction, even paying for a luthier to do the work, but my problem is compounded by not having a qualified luthier within a two-hour drive.
I was unwilling, however, to send the uke back, and lose it possibly for a long time. So I expect I will have to live with its flaws, chalk it up to the problem of buying something unseen from the Internet. But it did make me reluctant to spend that much on another Pono again. However, I grant them kudos for their attempts to satisfy a customer. Perhaps it's simply a matter of getting used to the neck, or just living with its imperfections, but as much as I wanted to be, I wasn't 100% satisfied. Still, it does sound beautiful, so I am not disappointed in that category.
Update Feb. 09: I continue to play the Pono cedartop and enjoy its sound, but the rough fret edges remain annoying enough to make me prefer other ukes. I have since bought or traded several other ukuleles, none of which have such noticeably rough frets.
Would I purchase another Pono cedar? Yes.
Solid mango tenor:
I purchased a solid mango tenor Pono, with pickup, again purchased from MGM on eBay. I admit it: I was seduced by its looks. I bought it for the beauty alone. This look is sometimes offered as "spalted" mango. Other mango wood ukes look very different.
It came tuned low-G, but I also purchased a set of Worth CT strings to restring it as high-G once I had played it a bit.
The tone is different from the cedar - not as much sustain, but a little fuller in the bass and not as 'boomy', especially when plugged in. It also projects a little less than the cedar when unplugged. In part I think the difference comes from the strings (different brands apparently). The cedar top has two wound strings; on the mango only the low-G is wound. It is also not as crisp as my spruce-top at the higher tone range, but offers a stronger, fuller mid-range.
Mango is not a popular tonewood like spruce, mahogany and koa, but it is one of the exotic woods gaining greater popularity among makers. Several manufacturers offer laminated mango: this was the first solid-mango I found (I prefer solid-wood over laminates). I have not read anything on how long it takes mango to 'settle' compared to other tonewoods.
The tuners are Grover open-gear machines with chrome heads, utilitarian and functional, but not the nice sealed tuners with their ebony heads on the cedar model. The neck and frets are smooth this time, with no rough edges. Finish is beautiful - very glossy, but possibly a little thicker than it might have been. Otherwise: no blemishes or faults to be seen.
The mango wood is simply stunning. It's got skeins of yellow and orange running through it and the grain is wildly abstract and patchy, not straight. It's speckled like a gecko in some areas. It reminds me of those polished slices of fossilized rock. It makes the cedar and spruce tops look staid and conventional. I really like it, and even Susan thinks its damned attractive. The photos barely capture its beauty, and tend to be redder than the actual wood shows in real light.
The A string snapped almost immediately when I began to tune this instrument, right at the nut. It probably got nicked at some point and tightening the string exacerbated it into a tear. Not a big deal: I replaced it with an Aquila, but it's a little odd looking now - the original strings are yellow (Gold Koolau), but now the A is white. I'm not sure if these string brands have such different tones, but as soon as I get a new set of Koolau strings, I'll replace the lone Aquila to find out.
I also took the moment to use a metal bead on the string end instead of the traditional saddle-hugging knot. It's an experiment, but I believe beads will dampen the bridge vibrations less than a knot does. See the photo above. I've read that many classical guitarists string their instruments with a bead rather than tying the string to the bridge. This apparently improves the treble end of the tone. I found a few different types of beads to try at a local craft shop (glass and metal) and will see if there's any noticeable change once I restring an entire uke. There's some discussion of this technique by Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music at the University of Hawaii and other sites.
It's not a cutaway model, but I don't really have any difficulty reaching the upper frets, at least the ones I generally play on. For all of the ukes I have, playing up above the 12th fret is not as good as on a guitar: the strings are closer to the frets so they can buzz easily if not fingered exactly, and the strings don't have that clear resonance or tone that they have further down the neck.
The passive pickup works well and doesn't provide feedback until I get into the "nuke the neighbours" volume range on my Roland Cube 30X amp. I suggest the mango top is less sensitive to feedback than the cedar.
Price with case and shipping was $480 USD (plus another $64 in blood money to the government). I can't complain about the quality or sound, but for that price, the gear heads should be a little more upscale, at the very least sealed to prevent dirt and debris from corroding them. I plan to replace them with some nicer Grover or similar sealed tuning gears in the near future (in my experience, open-geared tuners get dirty and corrode faster - I live in a house with four cats and a dog, and their hair gets everywhere). I would have given it a little higher rating but for that - however they don't affect the sound. (Open tuners are often used t keep the weight of the head down, which is more noticeable on a ukulele than on a guitar).
This model certainly helped quell my earlier doubts about Pono's build quality after the problems with my cedar-top model. I wasn't sure about ordering another, but was easily seduced by the photos of the wood grain in this particular model. I'm glad I did.
I think because of its more mellow, mid-range sound, this is more a strummer than a picker, but I will know better with more play and a change to high-G tuning.
Both Ponos came with excellent hardshell cases, but they are very snug, with little extra carrying room aside from a small, closeable interior space, but no external pockets and no shoulder straps.
Update, Sept. 12/08: Humidity changes caused my cedar-topped Pono to snap a string while in its case. I took advantage of that to replace the stings with a set of D'Addario J71s and add glass beads to the string ends. The original strings were low-G Ko'olaus with wound C and C strings. Personally, I think they are better strings for this uke than the D'Addarios. The J71s seem a little muted in comparison, but the high-G on the J71s gives a nice sound too, although I miss the low end of the low-G (cedar gives such a nice resonant low end). Here's a photo of how the beads look at the bridge. I chose some anodized glass beads for a bit of extra colour. Make sure you trim the string end after they're settled and tight. If you do it too soon, the string can end up pulling itself through the bead as you tighten the string. If you leave it too long, it can contact the sound board and buzz.
Over the past year, I've found I play the mango more than the cedar. Although not as rich a sound or as long a sustain, the mango is a nice, warm tone. Also, the rough edges on the cedar's fretboard discourage me from playing it a lot. I tried D'Addario J71 strings on the cedar, but don't like them as much as the Aquilas I put on the mango.
March 2009: I replaced the bone saddle with a Tusq ("artificial ivory") saddle on the mango. It made a small but noticeable improvement in the brightness of the sound.
May 09: The mango top popped a string in its case too! None of my other ukes have ever done this, except these Ponos. That's a bit off - both have truss rods in their neck - you'd think that would discourage bending.
Nov. 10: Seems that wound Aquila strings wear quickly. The wound G is showing dangerously thin wear spots on this uke. from comments on the forums, I think this may be a string, not a fretboard issue. Still playing this uke, and hoping for it to open up a bit more.
Would I purchase another Pono mango? Not likely; one
mango is sufficient. But I'll keep it.
Solid mahogany baritone
Got this from a chap on the Ukulele Underground in spring, 2010. I'd never had a baritone and had only spent a few minutes with any of them in music stores before this. Didn't like what I had seen, but I got the whim and bought this Pono solid mahogany baritone.
It came in excellent condition - no marks. It had its hardshell case and has a built-in passive under-saddle pickup. It also has a nice satin finish. I had to file some of the frets a hair because I found them a tad rough, but nothing serious.
Fit and finish are excellent. The satin mahogany finish gives this a reserved elegance. Open geared tuners, which i prefer.
My first thought was, "Gawd, this thing is BIG!" Even compared to a tenor it seems overwhelming at first. The distance from nut to saddle is almost 22", or as long as some tenor guitars. But then I went to the local music store and picked up a guitar and realized it was much smaller, at least in the body. It just seems large after the tenors, and the neck is wider, too. Still, songs I am fairly adept at playing on a tenor uke are a reach on the baritone and I have to play more slowly and carefully. I was clumsy at first.
But I was also delighted. It's a full, deep sound, rich and complex, much more like a guitar. The uke was strung high-D but I plan to restring it to low-D. The high-D just doesn't quite sound right. After all, there's very little difference between a baritone uke and a tenor guitar, aside from it being somewhat smaller than a tenor guitar. So it SHOULD sound more guitar-like, I believe.
I would prefer a somewhat narrower neck to compensate for the greater distance between frets. That's about the only issue I've had so far. I might replace the saddle once I change the strings, but I'm unsure whether I want this instrument any brighter. It has a warm sound I don't want to lose.
I was surprised at how much I really liked a baritone and how, to my ears, it suits some music better than a higher-pitched instrument. I still play my tenors more, but I am playing the baritone a lot more than any soprano or concert I've owned. In fact, there are now some shiny areas on the finish where I rest my fingers when fingerpicking.
It plays well through an amp, too, and the pickup is very responsive. I'm really enjoying this uke and plan to keep it. In fact, it has encouraged me to buy more baritones (see my reviews of Lyra, Gold Tone and Beansprout).
Would I purchase another Pono baritone? Yes,
perhaps a different wood. I want to try spruce or red cedar.