Tech Voices: Kala Brand Music's U-Bass

In 2005, Public interest in the ukulele (correctly pronounced oo-ku-LEH-leh) was just beginning to build, but Kala Brand Music founder Mike Upton had been watching the trend for several years from his former position as a Hawaii-based salesman with Hohner.
By ED Friedland ,

In 2005, Public interest in the ukulele (correctly pronounced oo-ku-LEH-leh) was just beginning to build, but Kala Brand Music founder Mike Upton had been watching the trend for several years from his former position as a Hawaii-based salesman with Hohner. Upton was involved in the development of the company’s ukulele offerings, and began to understand the tiny instrument’s appeal. “It’s not cool, but the fact that it’s not cool is cool,” he states. “You see it everywhere because it’s so easy to play, portable, fairly inexpensive, and so much fun. It’s an inclusive instrument.” The subsequent years have confirmed his insight: the ubiquitous uke has infiltrated virtually every form of popular music, and the sound of a whimsical youngster warbling over the pint-size plinker has become the soundtrack to sell everything from Subway sandwiches to Subarus.

Most bass players confronted with a four-stringed instrument experience some degree of primal urge: our id says “me want,” but the uke’s GCEA tuning usually discourages casual interest, as does its high register. The lowest member of the traditional uke family is the baritone, which bottoms out at the 7th-fret D on our G string—not exactly a practical range for bass. At first, it seemed the great post-millennial uke craze might pass us bassists by completely, but in 2009 Kala Brand Music introduced the mighty U-Bass, a ukulele tuned like a standard 4-string bass, with tone that seemingly defies the laws of nature.

Owen Holt originally conceived of the ukulele bass and brought the idea to Kala for development on a larger scale. Starting with a baritone-size body, the U-Bass neck extends an extra two inches for a 21” scale, deemed ideal for playability and tone. To grasp how this shorty gets its thump, let’s examine the effect of scale length on a bass note. Leo Fender decided on a 34" scale for his Precision Bass because he felt it gave the instrument a good balance between bottom and clarity. If you’ve ever played a “medium-scale” (32") bass, you may have noticed a rounder tone with less bite. Shrinking to the 30" short-scale standard, the articulation develops some creaminess, and the bottom gets plump, heading toward boomy. Essentially, a shorter string length gives a bass note a fatter and less harmonically rich tone. For Kala, the challenge was developing a string that could produce a strong fundamental with good pitch definition at a 21" scale. Jason Villa, Manufacturing Manager at Kala tells us: “Owen Holt worked for many years to come up with just the right diameter, hardness, and density of each string. He began his experiments using weedeater string, but moved on to other compounds, finally settling on polyurethane for its toughness and flexibility. Polyurethane is also extremely stable in varying weather climates, perfect for the working musician.”

While the electronics, wood, and construction all play a part in the big picture, the basic character of the U-Bass is greatly influenced by the string—and with several types of string available, it is possible to tailor the instrument’s response and feel several ways. Villa explains the differences: “The U-Bass Polyurethane Pahoehoe (pa-HO-way-HO-way) strings have an earthy, punchy sound with lots of bass response and minimal sustain; they’re considered the classic tone of the U-Bass. They are well suited for roots-oriented music, jazz, blues, bluegrass, and acoustic musical genres. The U-Bass Thunderguts have a brighter sound with more midrange, and a quicker tuneup time. Their enhanced midrange makes them work well for rock, country, jazz, fusion, and funk styles. The Aquila Reds are much closer to the Pahoehoe sound than the Thunderguts, but with a harder tension and faster tune-up time. They sound great for roots-oriented music, jazz, blues, bluegrass, and acoustic genres. U-Bass Silver Rumblers (stock on the Rumbler model) have a more trebly tone, similar to steel strings, with a quick tuneup time. They work great for rock, country, jazz, fusion, and funk. The Pyramid U-Bass strings are nickel-wound over a nylon core, and have a bright, metallic tone, almost identical to an electric bass or acoustic bass guitar.”

Kala makes several U-Bass models ranging from the imported Rumbler with a list price of $399, all the way up to its handmade, USA Acoustic-Electric Exotic Wood models that can range as high as $2,800. Choices in between include both import and U.S.-built solidbody models. All current import models come equipped with a Shadow Electronics tone system that uses black phenolic string saddles and incorporates a single combined tone control for bass and treble (turning the control clockwise increases treble response, counterclockwise increase bass response). The system also has a volume control and an onboard tuner. The U.S.-made U-Basses come standard with a custom rosewood saddle designed in conjunction with LR Baggs to work with its Element under-saddle pickup.

The strings and pickup account for a big chunk of the U-Bass tone, but the wood and construction are significant factors as well. The U-Bass comes in acoustic/electric and solidbody models. Jason Villa told me: “The different body woods have more of an impact on the acoustic tone of the bass than the amplified sound. Generally speaking, the mahogany bass has a slightly rounder bottom end and pronounced midrange. The spruce-top U-Bass is brighter by contrast and cuts more in a mix. Our koa and maple U.S.-made instruments have a very strong lower-midrange presence. Players have commented that they have more ‘growl’ compared to our other offerings.” Regardless of the material, the acoustic/electric U-Bass played through an amp bears an uncanny resemblance to a full-voiced upright bass, making it an effective if not visually striking choice for traveling doghouse players. The construction of the acoustic/electric models differs from a traditional uke in a few ways. “The acoustic U-Bass is constructed with heavier bracing and thicker top and back dimensions than a baritone ukulele,” says Villa. “This helps with durability, since it will be used with a heavier attack than a ukulele. Additionally, the heavier bracing and thicker top allow the strings to drive the pickup harder. The neck on the acoustic U-Bass is angled back slightly to allow for the taller bridge and higher strings. Typically, ukuleles have a neck angle of less than one degree.”

On the solid side of things, Kala offers two models, the imported SUB U-Bass and the U.S.-built California U-Bass. The solidbody design eliminates the potential for feedback, but also has a slightly different character. As Villa puts it, “The California solidbody bass has a refined tone and allows players to hear the characteristics of the LR Baggs electronics system. Being that the instrument is solid, the saddle has a different foundation to rest upon than the acoustic bass. As a result, the strings can drive the piezo pickup a lot harder than the acoustic model. Consequently, the bass has less overtones going into the pickup, through the EQ, and out to the amplification system.” Equipped with a set of the Pyramid strings, the solidbody U-Bass sounds similar to a typical electric bass, with great articulation and punch. The string tension is closer to what feels familiar, making it easier to approach more technical styles of playing. At roughly the size of a tennis racket, this could be the ultimate fly-date bass. The California model is available in a 23.5"-scale 5-string version.

The U-Bass is available in fretless as well as fretted versions. The fretless can get even closer to an upright bass sound, as it allows for subtle vibrato techniques, and of course the ability to vary intonation. The fretted version has a bit more attack and makes for an easier transition to the super-short scale length. Due to the soft texture of the Pahoehoe strings, the fretted model does not offer up much “clank” for would be slappers, but the Pyramid strings might serve that purpose better. Despite its short scale length, unorthodox string diameter, and uncompensated string saddles, I found that the fretted U-Bass played surprisingly in tune.

The U-Bass makes a strong first impression, and for many bass players, it’s a combination of the feeling you get while looking at a cute puppy, mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism. From a casual glance, it would be easy to write off the instrument as a gimmick— an attempt to cash in on the uke frenzy—but once plugged in, the U-Bass states its case. This instrument is no joke: It is capable of delivering all the low-end punch you can handle, and based on my personal gig experiences, I consider it not only a serious addition to the bass family, but a welcome one. This year the Kala U-Bass celebrates its 5th Anniversary, and with a packed roster of top-name artists and a sound that quickly silences potential scoffers, it’s clear that this minuscule tone monster is here to stay.