If you play bass…
Or ukulele for that matter…
There’s a good chance you’ve heard rumors in recent years…
About a crazy new instrument called the bass ukulele, that’s small enough to fit in your backpack…
Yet can somehow produce surprisingly nice tones, that almost rival the realism of today’s electronic drums.
A novelty instrument, you ask? Possibly.
But what music geek can resist the allure of such a fascinating new instrument?
Not me. And if you’re reading this article I’m guessing not you either.
So for today’s article, I’ve compiled all the best knowledge I could find about this fascinating instrument into one comprehensive post.
Now let’s get started. First off…
How It All Began…
You probably never heard of them…
But the original idea for the bass ukulele came from a small company known as Road Toad.
The founder, Owen Holt, popularized this instrument with the very first Road Toad Big Bufo Bass.
While it had great potential, the biggest problem with the Big Bufo was that it was far too expensive for most musicians.
So, in 2007 Road Toad teamed up with Kala, a well known ukulele maker, to design a more affordable model that could be sold to the masses.
What they eventually came up with was the original U-Bass, which exploded in popularity over the next several years…and is still perhaps the most well-known bass ukulele of today.
Later on in this post we will cover the U-Bass in more detail.
But first though, let’s learn a little about how the instrument itself actually works…
The 6 Key Qualities of Bass Ukes
Chances are, if you’re shopping for bass ukuleles, you probably already play:
- or BOTH.
Therefore, it makes sense that the best way to explain this instrument would be to compare it to its two parents.
So let’s do that now. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Body Type
- Octave Range
Perhaps the greatest appeal of the bass ukulele is its ability to produce a big sound despite its tiny size.
And while it’s much smaller than a bass guitar, it’s still pretty big compared to most ukuleles.
Typical bass ukuleles range from 30-32″ in length, which is comparable to a standard baritone ukulele.
2. Body Type
Depending on their body type (hollowbody or solidbody)…
Bass ukuleles will look like either:
- a giant ukulele, or
- a baby bass guitar.
But more importantly than just looks, the body type of the instrument also plays a huge role in the sound.
As you’ll hear in the videos I’ll show you later in this article…
Hollow body bass ukes have a sound that resembles an upright bass, while solid body bass ukes have a sound more comparable to that of an electric bass guitar.
So depending on your style of music, the body type you choose is absolutely KEY.
To lower the note of a vibrating string, you can make the string…
- or looser.
Common sense, right?
The problem is, to play bass notes on a ukulele-sized instrument…
None of those solutions really work.
- Adding length won’t work, because the instrument itself is too short.
- Adding thickness won’t work because the internal dampening on a string that fat would make the notes sound dull and lifeless.
- Decreasing tension won’t work because it would make the strings floppy and unplayable.
Luckily there’s a 4th option.
And that is: ADDING DENSITY.
Which is exactly what manufacturers did to develop a string capable of producing deep bass notes on such a tiny instrument.
While each string model claims to have their own patented technology, most fall into the general category of polyurethane strings, which players often describe as having somewhat of a “rubber band” feel.
NOTE: Polyurethane strings have a long “break-in” time, and will continue to stretch for a minimum of 2 weeks. So be patient. 🙂
Now here are two the most popular options:
The “other” lesser-known variety of bass ukulele strings feature a nylon/silk core, with some variation of silver/copper plating.
The great thing about these strings is that they feel far more similar to standard bass strings. However, the downside is that they are also about 3x more expensive.
Check them out:
4. Octave Range
While bass ukuleles are generally lumped into one big category…
There are actually TWO distinct variations of this instrument that are important to know:
- Bass ukuleles, and…
- CONTRAbass ukuleles.
Bass ukuleles, which are slightly smaller (around 30″), play the same open notes as a standard bass guitar (EADG), but ONE OCTAVE UP.
Contrabass ukuleles, which are slightly larger (around 32″), also play the same notes (EADG), but at the same octave as a standard bass.
While bass guitars typically use some type of active electronics pickup…
And ukuleles typically use some type of piezo microphone pickup…
Bass ukuleles can use EITHER.
The choice of the pickup for any particular model usually depends on the body type.
- Hollow bodies typically use piezo pickups.
- Solid bodies typically use active pickups.
As I’m sure you know…
The vast majority of bass players play fretted rather than fretless…
And the same is true for bass ukuleles as well.
With this instrument in particular, a fretless board offers TWO BIG ADVANTAGES that you should be aware of:
- Since ukuleles are notorious for bad intonation, fretless boards allow you to play higher up on the neck while still staying in tune.
- Since the polyurethane strings often suffer from unpredictable stretching, fretless boards allow you to compensate as necessary for flat tuning.
Of course, despite the advantages of the fretless bass uke, if you don’t already play at least one other fretless instrument…then you probably shouldn’t start with this one.
So beginners stay away. 🙂
The Top 6 Bass Ukuleles to Check Out
Now that we’ve covered the key features of the instrument…
Let’s look at 6 of the top popular bass ukuleles to see how those features compare.
1. Kala U-Bass
As the first bass ukulele to ever see mainstream success…
The Kala U-Bass set the standard by which all future copycats were measured against.
Even today, the U-Bass is easily the best-selling and most well-known name in the world of bass ukuleles.
Notable features of the instrument include:
- piezo pickup
- polyurethane strings
- active EQ
- contrabass octave range
- bulbinga, mahogany, or spruce wood options
- both fretted and fretless models
Check it out:
2. Kala Rumbler
The newest model in Kala’s line of U-basses, the Rumbler has everyone wondering the same thing…
What’s the difference?
While the Rumbler and the the original U-bass are compared endlessly in online forums, no one can quite agree on which one is better…and why.
The most apparent changes are the updated electronics, the new Silver Rumbler strings, and a cheaper (but not THAT much cheaper) price tag.
But from what many say, the differences are minimal.
Check it out:
3. Hadean UKBE-22
While we all have our own definition of “expensive“…
If $400-$500 for a Kala U-Bass is out of your price range, a great alternative is the Hadean UKBE-22.
For less than half the cost of U-Bass, the Hadean boasts reviews that are every bit as good. And many say that for the price, it’s a much better value.
NOTE: When you watch the video, you’ll hear that the tone is actually much better than in either of the previous two videos (although that’s likely due to the recording).
Anyways, check it out:
- Click to see current price – (Amazon)
4. Luna BASS TAT
Of all the bass ukes on this list the Luna Bass Tat is the most unusual.
The reason is: it’s the only model that can be played acoustically (at least, that’s what they claim).
The first reason this is true, is because of its flat wound strings, which carry more acoustic volume than polyurethane strings.
The second reason is that it’s the only true “bass” ukulele on this list (not contrabass), meaning the tuning is one octave higher, and easier to hear without amplification.
As you’ll see in the video, it doesn’t have anything close to a true bass sound…
But for a ukulele jam session at the beach, the Luna Bass Tat would be perfect.
Check it out:
5. Kala SUB Solid Body
As the only solid body bass uke on the list, the Kala SUB sounds pretty much how you’d expect:
Like a mini electric bass.
So if you play bass guitar, or just want that tone to match your style of music…it’s the obvious choice.
One notable feature of this instrument is its battery-free active pickup, which charges in 60 seconds for up to 8 hours of playing.
Check it out:
6. Kala Hutch Hutchinson
Created specifically for the legend himself, the Kala Hutch Hutchinson Signature bass ukulele offers a cool spin on the classic Kala U-Bass.
The two most notable features of this model are the cutaway body, and the unique soundhole designed to resist acoustic feedback.
From the numerous online reviews praising the tone and craftsmanship of this instrument, it’s quite possibly the best bass ukulele on this list.
Check it out: