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Kala U-Bass Review

Kala''s Ukulele Bass is a unique instrument that''s capable of producing a number of different type of bass tones

Most electric basses I run across represent variations on a basic theme, but occasionally a new bass pops up that’s nothing like what has come before. That’s certainly the case for the Kala U-Bass. When I first saw it, I thought it looked like a toy. But after spending time with it, I concluded the U-Bass is an instrument to take seriously. It’s an unusual looking axe that can produce—approximately—the usual sounds that bassists and our band members come to expect.

Download Example 1
Upright bass sound and feel - fingers near neck with gentle attack
Download Example 2
Upright bass sound and feel - thumb and palm-muting
Download Example 3
Old-school electric bass sound - fingers near bridge with stronger attack
All clips recorded straight into an AxePort Pro to GarageBand, no EQ adjustments.
Essentially, the U-Bass starts with a baritone ukulele body and neck. It adds a stout, bass-worthy bridge with piezo pickup. Up on the headstock sit four high-quality, geared Hipshot tuners. Bringing the whole thing together is a set of fat, custom-designed polyurethane strings. And there you have it—a flyweight mini-bass that can cop sounds ranging from old-school funk to thumping upright. Let’s take a closer look.

Our review U-Bass was the original model, which comes with a sturdy, rigid foam case and features a solid mahogany body and neck, and rosewood fretboard and bridge. You can get a fretless model as well (fretless and fretted solidbodies are on their way, too), and Kala recently introduced two additional models in different woods: The U-Bass 2 features a solid spruce top with mahogany back, sides, and neck, while the solid Acacia model, with its striped wood grain, is the real looker of the bunch.

In any case, the wooden parts of my review model had a good fit and finish. The satin finish—with no body binding—combined with the black strings to create a sleek, classy look. Rather than using a single undersaddle piezo strip like many acoustic guitars, the U-Bass has separate saddles with an individual piezo element for each string. Made by Shadow Electronics, these saddle pickups provide a very even volume balance across the strings—something a lot of piezo bass transducers can’t claim. Note that the pickup system is completely passive: There’s no preamp, no volume control, no EQ knobs, not even a passive tone—just plug a cord into the endpin jack, fire up the amp, and you’re off. As with most passive piezo pickups, for the best sound you’ll need to use an amp with at least a 1 meg-ohm input impedance or add a separate preamp box.

Initially, the strings reminded me of the Guild Ashbory bass I once owned. Unlike the Ashbory, however, these newly designed strings do not have a sticky, rubbery feel. String tension on the U-Bass allows decent articulation with no floppiness or mushy attack. The frets were uke-sized, really skinny, and certainly not what you’d find on a typical bass. The ends were smooth and the overall fretwork was clean. Given the rubber strings, the U-Bass had an adequate, yet comfortable string height to avoid buzzing (as if rubber strings could buzz).

I would have liked to see a second strap button at the neck-body joint, but that’s a simple add-on job at your local guitar shop. The tuners are the real deal—the same quality you’d find on a fine electric bass. Good thing, too, because getting a string in tune can sometimes require several turns after the U-Bass has been sitting for a few days.

Coaxing Out the Sounds

Experimenting with the U-Bass, I quickly found that despite its simplicity, this is not a one-sound axe. Both where you pluck the strings and how you pluck them makes a real difference. Think fat, old doghouse bass. Think funky ’60s R&B. It all depends on your finger technique. And the closer to the neck you play, the deeper the tone and rounder the attack. Likewise, when you get closer to the bridge, the tone gets more plunky and bright. You can really take advantage of this to vary the sound.

The how of plucking is also important. I found three ways to get different and usable sounds, but I’m sure there are more possibilities (keep in mind that this will never be a slap-and-pop machine). On one end of the spectrum, you can dig in with your fingertips toward the bridge and get a really plunky tone reminiscent of dead flatwounds in the ’60s. At the other end, use all the meat of your thumb and the tone gets round and beefy. A third alternative falls somewhere between these two—play gently with the thick part of your fingertips right up against the neck, and you can get another faux-upright sound. Left-hand finger placement makes a big difference, too. If you get too close to the frets—playing right behind them like on an electric guitar— you’re likely to get some buzzing notes. I also found I had to adapt my left-hand fingering to the U-Bass’ 20" scale. I’m an upright player, too, so going from the 41"+ upright to the U-Bass sometimes caused me to overshoot a fret. Even if you play a regular 34"-scale electric bass, there’s some need to adapt. I usually play with 1-2-4 fingering, but with the U-Bass I achieved more accurate fretting with 1-2-3 instead.

I tried the U-Bass in two musical settings. First, I toted it and my mini-amp to a gathering of the local ukulele society, where I joined up with about a dozen players strumming ukes. Aiming for a big, round sound, I used the U-Bass to provide a pillowy foundation for that pack of little nylon-stringers. Happily, the group liked what the U-Bass brought to the music. They asked if I could sit in for the whole night, and I was invited to return for a future gig.

The second setting was a rehearsal with my blues band, a four-piece group with guitar, harmonica, drums, and bass. In that group, I usually play electric bass and electric upright, so I wondered if the U-Bass could do it all. I’m happy to report that it was credible in that setting, much to everybody’s surprise. The sound can sometimes be a bit plunky, but that seems to disappear in the musical mix. To my relief, I never had a feedback problem despite this being a hollowbody instrument. And if you need further proof, check the Kala website for their A-list endorsers.

The Final Mojo

The U-Bass is a well-designed, gig-worthy instrument, if somewhat of a novelty item. The build is solid, the components are topnotch, and it serves up sounds you can use in a variety of settings.
Buy if...
you’re into novelty instruments that can serve real musical purposes.
Skip if...
you need to play a conventional instrument or your self-image won’t allow you to play a uke-shaped object in public.

Street $499 - Kala Brand Music Co. -