Review: Kala Acoustic Electric U-Bass and California U-Bass

Over the past five years, the kala u-bass has become a bit of a sensation.
Author:
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, THE KALA U-BASS HAS BECOME a bit of a sensation. The little bass that seemingly defies the laws of nature has achieved a strong foothold in the bass market—the short scale and easy action make it fun for casual players, but the mini axe with the maxi tone has also captured the pro community’s attention in a big way. The U-Bass has made its way into the arsenal of some of the top players in the world, and not just as a curiosity piece—they use it, more than you might think. While the import models are what established the U-Bass as the go-to axe for portable acoustic tone, Kala felt it was time to release a premium version of the instrument, handcrafted in the company’s Petaluma, California custom shop with choice woods and improved electronics. The imported Solid Body SUB U-Bass also gets a makeover and hits the street as the California U-Bass.

We explored the design concept behind the U-Bass in Tech Voices (November ’14), but here’s the basic formula: short scale length + thick, dense, low-tension strings over a small acoustic chamber + a powerful preamp/EQ = huge tone in an extremely portable bass. The USA Acoustic Electric model is currently available in maple and koa versions, both equipped with a new custom-tailored LR Baggs pickup system. The under-saddle piezo element is bolstered by a discrete Class A preamp with ±8dB @ 90Hz (low Q) for the bass control, and ±13dB @ 670Hz (low Q) for the presence control. Unlike the imported models, the volume and tone controls are top-mounted for easy access. The review instrument featured beautifully figured koa for the top, sides, and back, with a nicely carved mahogany neck. It is not practical to play above the 12th fret of the 16-fret rosewood fingerboard, as the intonation up there is not great—better to stay in the money zone. The tuners are Hipshot-supplied, and specially designed to accommodate the fat strings. The USA Acoustic Electric model comes with a deluxe tweed hardshell case.

The California U-Bass shares the same electronics, strings, and tuners, but the essential tone difference you would expect between hollow and solidbody instruments applies. Without the influence of acoustic resonance, the California U-Bass takes on a more direct tone, with a woody character that can at times border on P-Bass-with-flats territory. A swamp-ash body with a bolt-on maple neck and rosewood fingerboard is a familiar recipe, but the majority of the tone is driven by the LR Baggs system, and it is well tuned for the task. The custom rosewood string saddle floats on a simple two-point bridge with height-adjuster wheels. The neck affords you easy access to 22 of the 24 frets, although the string response limits the usefulness of that register. While the Acoustic Electric model doesn’t specify, the California U-Bass is loaded with tall, narrow 6105 fret wire. The California U-Bass comes with a nicely tailored deluxe gig bag.

In my experience, taking either of these instruments on a gig produces a predictable sequence of events. First comes good-natured kidding, followed by nervous laughter: “Huh—you’re really gonna play that tonight?” During the first tune, a look of disbelief develops, which is eventually replaced by acceptance with a quirky smile. Once the interested party shifts their attention to the actual music, acceptance turns to totally digging it. By the end of the gig, everyone loves it and wants to hear all the details, so be prepared to chat. The physical adjustment to the low-tension strings requires a degree of acceptance as well—the response time is slower than that of a typical steel string. I’m not saying it’s impossible to play fast on a U-Bass, but the instrument does not invite it. I took out the USA Acoustic Electric U-Bass for several western-swing gigs where I might usually play a gut-stringed upright, and it proved that bigger is not always better. The small body provided enough acoustic thump to give the Bob Wills-heavy repertoire an authentic pulse. On a low-volume acoustic songwriter gig, the U-Bass filled the space with round bottom, a soft attack, and a nicely articulated voice.

The California U-Bass came with me to a recording session as an experiment, and it worked out perfectly. The first track was an old-school soul/R&B groove, but they wanted “some of that McCartney stuff” on the verses. While the U-Bass is well endowed in the lower register, the neck’s middle range is creamy and punchy. With the right note choices and the purest of intentions, I was able to get a velvety texture that echoed Sir Paul on the verses, and I could drop down into the chorus groove with a Bob Babbitt-like plunk—the engineer went nuts. The LR Baggs system gives you a full, dark tone simply by rolling back the presence control. Boosting the presence, a distinct attack comes forth, and the U-Bass develops an aggressive edge that belies its squishy string composition. Boosting the lows is what makes heads turn, and the Baggs EQ can easily fill a track with luscious bottom, without getting unruly.

While the import models are solid players, the new U.S.-built U-Basses take the platform to a higher level. The premium price tag on the Acoustic Electric model may be startling, but the fine build, upgraded electronics package, and acoustic quality make it a true pro-level instrument. The California Solid Body can fill many roles, plays like a charm, and is ridiculously portable. It is priced considerably higher than its imported counterpart, but the grade of materials, workmanship, and improved electronics make this micro beast worthy of a serious player.

SPECIFICATIONS

KALA

USA Acoustic Electric U-Bass
Street $2,300
Pros Big acoustic tone, excellent build quality
Cons Potential sticker shock
Bottom Line A finely crafted version of the original with upgraded electronics.

California U-Bass
Street $1,100
Pros Huge tone, amazingly portable
Cons Great high-register access
Bottom Line A big step up in quality from the import model, the California Solid Body is the real thing.

SPECS

USA Acoustic Electric U-Bass
Construction Set neck
Body Koa
Neck Mahogany
Fingerboard Rosewood
Radius 12"
Frets 16
Nut Graph Tech Black TUSQ
Scale length 21"
Neck width at nut 1.75"
Pickups LR Baggs piezo
Hardware Custom Hipshot tuners
Weight 3 lbs

California U-Bass
Construction Bolt-on
Body Swamp ash
Neck Maple
Fingerboard Rosewood
Radius 12"
Frets 24 6105 Jumbo
Nut Graph Tech Black TUSQ
Scale length 21"
Neck width at nut 1.75"
Pickups LR Baggs piezo
Hardware Custom Hipshot tuners
Weight 4 lbs

Made in U.S.A.
Contact kalabrand.com

Related

Image placeholder title

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.