I ordered a Republic Resonator ukulele: a concert scale, metal-body uke, from Guitar Safari, in San Pedro. I spoke with Dirk there and enjoyed our chat enough to give me confidence to buy from him. I expected the uke to arrive in about a week. It took two, thanks to the combined delaying efforts of the US and Canadian postal services, and a few days enjoying the company of Canada Customs.
Resonators are a subclass of ukulele that is just beginning to gain real popularity. It sounds a bit like a banjo uke, but more metallic. The nylon strings produce a different sort of result than steel strings, so it doesn't have that sharp bite that steel strings offer. Some resos are all-metal, others are wood with the metal cone.
I've wanted a reso uke for a while to do some blues and maybe some slide pieces, but most are in the premium uke price range, close to and even topping $1,000. That's way outside my budget.
Only two - both Chinese made - are affordable (under $300 USD) to me: Johnson and Republic. Bother are similar - metal body, concert scale. The Johnson is bright and shiny with a pattern embossed in the metal. The Republic most commonly shown is the Reso Relic: artificially aged to look like it was found buried in a barn. Personally I prefer the Johnson's look because I think the "relic" look is an affectation. There are several Johnson uke dealers online, but few selling Republics. Perhaps it's because customers don't like the look, either. The Johnson looks new and spiffy.
I was pleasantly surprised when the Republic arrived: I had expected it to be the "relic" version but it was instead bright and shiny. I hadn't realized Republic made two models. The downside is that the nickel plating shows ever single fingerprint and smudge! But I like this bright, metallic look.
For the price, this is a classy little instrument. The body is the traditional figure-eight style, wider at the bottom, and nicely proportioned.
The back is plain with a small hump. The uke is very heavy - 2.4 lbs. on my bathroom scale - and has no tail button for a strap - a major oversight on the designer's part. The weight (most of it in the body so it has poor balance) makes it awkward to hold for a long time and discourages stand-up play. Your standard uke thong won't work on this uke, either, because there's no place to put the hook. Maybe the Uke Leash will.
I'd read better things online about the build quality of the Republic than the Johnson, particularly about some sharp edges on the cover plate where the strings attach. I've not been able to determine if the Johnson is made by the same company that makes Johnson harmonicas. If so, then the questionable quality might be explicable. Johnson harps aren't particularly well made, either. But I've been told that the Republics are American-designed and have better quality control.
I have few complaints about the build quality, all of them minor. The fret edges on the upper side (towards your head when you are playing) are a teensy bit rougher than those on the other side (but not as noticeable because you seldom play that edge). The screw heads that hold the cover plate on have tiny burrs. Some of the fretboard markers are non-standard: one is at the ninth fret (not the usual tenth), the marker at the 12th fret is single, not double, and there is a double at the 16th fret.
But the neck is straight and smooth, the intonation seems accurate (see below), there are no blemishes, marks or poorly finished edges on the body: the uke seems well made and well finished.
My uke came with the cover pressed down (see picture at left) as if someone had sat on it. Since there was no visible damage to the case, I assumed the damage was done at Canada Customs when it was stopped and opened. It turns out the uke is so heavy, if it gets flipped upside down in its case, it will do it to itself. It really needs a couple of pieces of styrofoam block on each side of the cover to prevent this in shipping.
This dent gave me considerable concern, but I decided to try and fix it myself rather than return it. I removed the cover and was able to pop the cover back into shape with no damage and not a lot of effort. The plating was not broken or marked. The cone, inside, was also slightly dented but easily restored because it's thin aluminum and easy to reshape. However, I got a replacement cone for it (see update, below).
Doing this gave me a chance to look inside. There's a wooden brace that runs inside the body. I'm not sure why a metal body (bell brass) instrument would need it, unless it's to help anchor the neck. You can see areas inside and under the cover there the metal as been polished to remove any burrs. I was especially keen to see if the string holes were smooth because on a metal-body instrument, using nylon strings, that's a danger zone. There are online comments about Johnson reso ukes breaking strings there. They seemed to be smooth enough on this Republic, and there's evidence of some polishing underneath. I've read this is a much bigger problem with the Johnson resonators.
The saddle is ""ebony capped maple" but seems to be roughly made and the wood appeared dry (I applied fretboard oil). The notches for the strings are too small and strings can miss them or slip out easily. I think the bridge and saddle are the areas of weakest quality; the utilitarian design works well enough but it needs a little more effort. A bone saddle might be a nice upgrade, too.
The cone - which sports the bridge and saddle - sits loosely on a rim inside and moves quite easily when the strings are loosened. This is a bit problematic because even with the cover on, there's a small amount of free play in the cone's position. It's easy to slide the bridge as much as 1/8" in any direction, and end up with the bridge on a poor angle or the strings angled down the neck. This, of course, affects intonation and you have to be very careful when restringing to try and position the bridge exactly. Some sort of notch or stop to hold the cone in the right spot and at the right angle would have made sense because you will have to fidget with the cover position every time you change strings. I'll have to ask online on the forums for some engineering solutions (no, you can't glue it because you don't know the exact placement until you have the cover back on...)
I've had a bit of a problem getting it tuned spot-on because of the shifting bridge, but also because the tuners were a bit loose and the strings new. The Republic has friction tuners which may look more authentic but seem to slide a lot and are an annoyance to use until the strings stop slipping. I always prefer modern geared tuners and am seriously thinking of replacing these with geared versions. That way I could also experiment with steel strings.
The knotted end of the strings go into holes on the cover and tighten into small slots. I might try using beads on the ends of my next strings to see if they change the tone. The slot is the danger zone where the metal can cut into the nylon string and break it. The Republic's metal edges seem smooth enough, but when you remove the strings you can feel an indentation on them where they rest against the metal. So far none have snapped, but it's something to keep an eye on, especially if I increase the string tension (such as tuning it up to A).
The big question is, of course, the sound. Well, the uke comes strung with black GHS strings, which I think are too soft for a resonator (I had them on a concert Fluke, too, and don't like them). It really wants the tension on the saddle to transmit the most sound to the cone. I personally feel the GHS strings are too light. Aquilas might work as well, but they're harder to get where I live. I'm almost tempted to try metal strings because the uke should be able to take the added tension.
As set up, the reso doesn't live up to what I believe is its potential. A reso should be slightly twangy - almost a banjo sound, bright, but metallic and loud. The Republic is all of those, just not as much of any as I think it ought to be - or what it really could be. Plus the C string seems a bit 'boomy' compared to the others (and it's more the sound I want from all the strings!). That may be because it has the most tension, so perhaps changing the others and leaving it could help balance that out. So until I can change the strings and test it, I would say the sound is only average, but has the potential to be excellent.
Overall, it's an old-fashioned sound with some echoes of old style blues and even banjolele tunes. That's what I was looking for. Now all I need to do is sweeten it a bit.
I also tried changing to an open tuning and try some slide playing, bottleneck blues stuff. I think a reso lends itself to that more than the other ukes I have. The Republic comes strung in high-G tuning, by the way. Again, I may change that to low-G just to experiment, especially if I try it with open tuning and slide.
The Republic came in a well-padded thick foam case that's has a soft plush lining. The uke fits quite snugly in it. The case has two zippered pockets outside and both a handle and shoulder straps for easy carrying. That's another bonus.
This is my second concert-scale uke and I have to admit I don't like the shorter neck as much as I like tenor scale. Had this been a tenor, I would have been much happier. Unless the new strings change it more in favour of the sound I want, I will likely not play it as much because I really don't like the shorter scale and I find my fingers are sloppy and grab the wrong strings or hit the wrong frets more than with a tenor.
Update: Frank at Republic guitars sent me a new cone to replace the one damaged in shipping, no charge. That's great customer service! He's also been corresponding with me about string upgrades. If I want to try metal strings, he says they'll work but I'll need to upgrade to geared tuners. Heavier strings, like Aquila, he warns, may snap at the place where their ends meet the cover. So I came up with a suitable sleeve to protect the string, made from a small slice of tiny plastic tubing (see below).
August 13/08: I got the new cone and replaced it this afternoon. I also changed the GHS strings to Aquilas. While the strings were off, I also oiled the fretboard and the bridge/biscuit assembly with teak oil.
The new sound is noticeably louder and brighter, with a slight metallic echo. It sounds very much like a banjo uke to my ears. I even wonder if the Aquilas make it too loud and twangy now. It's a sound you either love or hate, with no apparent middle ground. Susan hates it, me I like it for its old-fashioned bluesy kick.
I added a glass bead at the end of each string (see picture on left), which gives them more gripping space, then used a piece of red plastic air pipe from a can of pressurized air as a sleeve to protect the end from being cut by the metal cover. I was guessing at the length and as you can see by the photo above, a couple of sleeves were cut a bit too long (the cover's colour is a reflection of my dining room walls). The ballpoint pen idea is good, but the barrel of the refill is too wide for the notches in the cover. The air pipe was also a bit too wide, but I crimped the tube (with my teeth) after I put it on the string so it fit nicely into the notch.
I had to really tighten the tuner heads to keep them from slipping, because the Aquilas have more tension than the GHS strings. The uke continued to go out of tune after a few minutes' playing, but that settled down when the strings were properly stretched. My only problem putting this together was with the C string: it's too thick to make a loop around the bead and thread it back through. I'm depending on the knot to hold it in place. I need to find some other beads with just a little bigger diameter hole for future use. But the other strings were easy to set up with a bead and sleeve.
Update, Sept. 20: I love the look of this uke, and the sound is funky, but can't warm to the scale as much as I can to tenors. I play it a bit and then go back to the longer scales with my fingers feeling cramped. I ended up selling it to another forum member and getting another tenor uke.
Update, Aug. 2010: Republic now offers a wooden-body resonator uke. very nice looking, sut still only concert scale. I'd buy one if it was a tenor scale.
Would I purchase another Republic? Not a concert scale;
yes if they ever make a tenor.