A well used Magic Fluke: First impressions

bbkobabe

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So- I found a Magic Fluke tenor on eBay for about $200 (w/shipping and a case) so I went for it. These things hardly ever show up for sale, and I was curious, so I bought it to see if these Flukes are really all that... I've had it for a week now and put about 10 hours into it (not counting the hour I spent out in the garage modifying the shape of the neck-stock... more on that later). The strings were super old and worn, so I put a new set of Aquila Nylguts, high g, and gave it a strum...

First, full disclosure: I played those Ovation bowl back plastic basses for a decade, and I may be more tolerant the plastic tone than most people. I came to really like the sound, and to play in a way that minimized it. So that is a part of my background preferences that are probably a bit different than your experiences and preferences.

First impressions? There really is something that is a bit magical about the tone this uke puts out. When gently strummed and played melodically, the way the sound of each string blends together is impressive: Rich and creamy. Round and deep. The body really projects with a big full sound. The strings and the instrument meld in a way that makes each chord appear full and complete. The strings all have equal volume, none standing out more strongly or seeming out of place. And the whole instrument seems to be in such great agreement with itself, having amazing intonation and a sense of overall harmony to it's sound. Playing it hard or aggressively really reveals the plastic-y sound, as I found out when I first started in on it. I play hard sometimes, and that's when the Fluke sounds most like one of those plastic fretboard numbers from the 1960's. I had to play more gently to really bring out those smooth and creamy tones that this uke delivers so beautifully.

That is, after mastering the tuning of this little beast, which is a challenge all it's own. Not being able to see the frets or fret markers on the fret "board" adds to the difficulty.

This Fluke has seen a LOT of playing time. It's serial number in around 25,000, and the Fluke website says that over 27,000 have been sold over the last 20 years or so, so I'm guessing this one is 2-3-4 years old?. It really shows it's age: The paint on the 5th and 7th fret markers is worn off. And the drop G metal wound string in the #4 position has worn deeply into the top three fret "bars" of the plastic fretboard. Probably about 20% down. It still plays well now, but that wound string really had its way with the first position frets. I'm guessing this was someone's daily driver and played regularly during those years...

These things are also known to play well up the neck, but this one is about 15 cents off at the double dots. Hmmm... This morning I figured up the issue: The top has a slight upward bulge below the bridge and a slight dip uphill towards the sound hole. I realized this when low raking light hit the face this morning. It's almost unnoticeable, but it's raising the strings ever so slightly. Oh well... I play up at the top of the neck most of the time so it doesn't affect my play much. But...

Tuning this beast takes a bit of getting used to. It has direct drive pegs in the unique slot head headstock of it's one piece "neck-stock". They are really hard to turn, even with the oversized paddles on the pegs. And they are just too close together: The #1 is hard to get at, and as you reach over to turn it the #2 key is right in the way. Tuning is tricky, and If I was going to order one today I would pay extra for the geared tuners for sure. I'm getting better at at, but tuning this uke would probably drive a beginner into fits of frustration. Once tuned, it stays tuned, but the constant re-tuning as I was breaking in the new strings was a lesson in patience.

I looked at other the reviews on the forum, and the major complaints seem to come in two categories: Hard to hold, and unfortunate choice of neck shape.

I don't get the hard to hold part, and I actually really like how I can drop a couple of fingers over the side while picking: It helps provide leverage during aggressive play. It's no more slippery than a glossy uke. I see you can order straps and friction tape to deal with holding it, but these seem unnecessary to me.

But the neck shape is a bit hard to deal with... so I dealt with it. The place where the headstock profile meets the neck is really uncomfortable. On mine, there WAS a really sharp ridge of wood on both sides, with a sharp and abrasive point sticking out of the downward side. This area really needs to be sanded and smoothed out, IMHO, and I was developing a blister at the base of my left pointer finger from the sharp point. It was really starting to bug my after a week of frequent playing. It's obvious to me, as a former woodworker myself, that this area had not been sanded at all: The chatter marks from the router table were untouched, the headstock corners were barely eased and quite square, and the entire area uncomfortable to the touch upon repeated contact...

Next stop: My garage workbench! I aggressively sanded both sides with a thin sanding block wrapped in 80 grit, and than smoothed the area out with a course of finer sanding papers. (120g-180g-220g-320g-600g-1200g-2500g) I put a new radius on the headstock, smoothed out the transition to the neck, and improved the thing quite a bit. WAY better feel now, and the rubbing problem has been eliminated. (BTW: I sand on my ukes frequently... I know. And: 2500 grit leaves a polished finish, so I didn't need to do any refinishing an it looks just fine. Go to Tap Plastics or autobody painting supply stores to get these 1000+ grit papers)

Overall, I really do like this strange looking ukulele. Everyone at the school where I work was asking "What is that?", which is fun. And I like the fact I can keep it in my trunk with little fear of it coming unglued or something. And it does sound pretty good for a relatively inexpensive instrument. It won't displace my Pono or my Bruce Wei from their spots on my couch... but since it stands up, it has found a spot on the kitchen table where it awaits my arrival into that room!

I will not be leaving it in my backseat, though, because I fear someone will mistake it for a gun. The case looks a LOT like a gun case, actually. And I'd hate for someone to smash my window thinking that's what they were getting.

Some positives and some negatives. If you are thinking of getting one, I'd suggest the geared tuners for sure. And a case. The biggest downsides are the costs for all these additions. The tuners are $79 and the case an extra $32. I'd want the side markers too, now that I know the paint will soon wear off of the markers on the fretboard... $15 more. But here is something to think about: This uke, $295 list price, is now going to cost over $400 (with tax and S/H). That's more than I paid for my (used) Pono OR my (new) Bruce Wei.

Hard call to make for a uke that, though sounding quite nice, is going to wear out it's fretboard over time. Yes, you can get a hardwood fretboard with metal fret bars (for $89 more) but now it's a $500 ukulele. And if you add a pick-up and a strap, almost $700... and with a $20 dollar "players side port"...

Hmmm... Weird, but Wonderful. Plastic and Pricy. Fun and interesting. Made in USA. Plays like a dream.

Lot's to consider.
 
Nice review. I've had a few Fleas and 1 concert Fluke over the years. I liked most all of them just fine.

I agree with your comment that they can sound more plasticky and harsh when played hard, but sound sweet when played normally. I've owned a concert Flea with the optional rosewood fretboard for a few years, and really like that one; the wooden fretboard and metal frets feel much nicer to me.

I got a used standard tenor Fluke, with laminate walnut top, a couple of months ago, and am really enjoying the size, and the warmer/deeper sounds I'm getting, compared to the soprano and concert size Fleas and Flukes. Excellent intonation and action too. This one is only a year or two old, with a serial number in the low 28,000 range, so I'm surprised at all the wear on the plastic frets, apparently from normal flouro or Aquila strings, since much of it is under the the E and A strings, on frets 1-7. Tiny lines worn in the plastic frets, under and parallel to the strings. Only occasionally can I hear the strings scraping against those, not really a problem. However, having this type of fret wear on the zero fret sometimes produces an annoying pinging sound, if sideways pressure is put on the strings while playing, instead of direct downward pressure. Again, not a huge problem, only on the E string, but annoying when that ping pops out in the middle of a song. If anyone else has that issue, MFC will send some tiny plastic tubes, to run the offending string through. With that in place, the tube then sits both in the nut slot and over the zero fret, eliminating the scraping and the ping sound from the string being pushed in & out of the worn divot.

In addition, I found the dark plastic frets hard to see. I tried the silver Sharpie mod, taping up the fingerboard and applying the silver Sharpie ink to all the frets. The frets were much more visible afterward, but it wore off between strings within a few days. I probably should have done a few coats. In the video below, you can see the Sharpie ink still intact on the upper frets, while it has mostly all worn off down where I usually play.

Since I like the wooden fretboard on my concert Flea so much, and otherwise like this tenor Fluke quite a bit, I'll be sending it back for the wooden fretboard upgrade, as the wooden board with normal metal frets just feel so much better to me, and won't wear out like the plastic frets.

Here's a video showing this Fluke. Just a few strums, with the annoying ping, caused by fret wear on the zero fret, shown at the end. I obviously exxagerated the divot pinging at the end, but it does occasionally pop out during a song.

 
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Nice review. I've had a few Fleas and 1 concert Fluke over the years. I liked most all of them just fine.

I agree with your comment that they can sound more plasticky and harsh when played hard, but sound sweet when played normally. I've owned a concert Flea with the optional rosewood fretboard for a few years, and really like that one; the wooden fretboard and metal frets feel much nicer to me.

I got a used standard tenor Fluke, with laminate walnut top, a couple of months ago, and am really enjoying the size, and the warmer/deeper sounds I'm getting, compared to the soprano and concert size Fleas and Flukes. Excellent intonation and action too. This one is only a year or two old, with a serial number in the low 28,000 range, so I'm surprised at all the wear on the plastic frets, apparently from normal flouro or Aquila strings, since much of it is under the the E and A strings, on frets 1-7. Tiny lines worn in the plastic frets, under and parallel to the strings. Only occasionally can I hear the strings scraping against those, not really a problem. However, having this type of fret wear on the zero fret sometimes produces an annoying pinging sound, if sideways pressure is put on the strings while playing, instead of direct downward pressure. Again, not a huge problem, only on the E string, but annoying when that ping pops out in the middle of a song. If anyone else has that issue, MFC will send some tiny plastic tubes, to run the offending string through. With that in place, the tube then sits both in the nut slot and over the zero fret, eliminating the scraping and the ping sound from the string being pushed in & out of the worn divot.

In addition, I found the dark plastic frets hard to see. I tried the silver Sharpie mod, taping up the fingerboard and applying the silver Sharpie ink to all the frets. The frets were much more visible afterward, but it wore off between strings within a few days. I probably should have done a few coats. In the video below, you can see the Sharpie ink still intact on the upper frets, while it has mostly all worn off down where I usually play.

Since I like the wooden fretboard on my concert Flea so much, and otherwise like this tenor Fluke quite a bit, I'll be sending it back for the wooden fretboard upgrade, as the wooden board with normal metal frets just feel so much better to me, and won't wear out like the plastic frets.

Here's a video showing this Fluke. Just a few strums, with the annoying ping, caused by fret wear on the zero fret, shown at the end.


Did they give you an estimate on what the fret board replacement is going to cost? That sounds like a good idea...

And: It seems like it was that wound low G that did the most damage. There are low G sets that don't have a wound #4 string, so I'll be heading for those if I go with the low G sound in the future!
 
I have a very nice Fluke tenor - I bought it at Magic Fluke right after they opened the new shop/store in Massachusetts, oh those many years back.

Mine was a "second"; the battery had fallen out of the holder during shipping and a wire broke, so it was returned. They repaired it, and put it on a shelf for sale. I played it numerous times during my 4-5 hour visit - wooden fretboard, Peghed tuners, B-Band pickup,and the Gator hardshell case (good luck finding one of those anymore!). I think I paid $395 out the door. (I also ordered my Firefly during that visit, havng played two of the prototypes, which Dale would not let me buy - also Pegheds, and they only came with the wooden fretboard, so I was fine. That one shipped within 30 days, S/N 26)

I don't play the Fluke very much anymore - it has a deep, mellow sound, but I'm usually playing my concert or sopranos. But I have no intention of letting the Fluke go - I like it too much.

-Kurt​
 
Nice review. I've had a few Fleas and 1 concert Fluke over the years. I liked most all of them just fine.

Since I like the wooden fretboard on my concert Flea so much, and otherwise like this tenor Fluke quite a bit, I'll be sending it back for the wooden fretboard upgrade, as the wooden board with normal metal frets just feel so much better to me, and won't wear out like the plastic frets.

Here's a video showing this Fluke. Just a few strums, with the annoying ping, caused by fret wear on the zero fret, shown at the end. I obviously exxagerated the divot pinging at the end, but it does occasionally pop out during a song.


What is the cost of the fretboard upgrade?
 
I had a fluke early on and resold it, mostly because I saw that the fretboard was wearing, much faster than I really anticipated. I sold it and moved on. But it would be nice to have another fluke with the upgraded fretboard. I had a flea for a while too and sold it since I liked the fluke sound better.

Funny, nowadays I mostly play my gambler's special butler music lanikai pineapple soprano, a beat up dolphin that required moving the bridge about 1/2", and another gambler's special lanikai baritone, this one i think has a tenor bridge on it instead of a bari one (string spacing doesn't flare like you would expect it to.
 
I hear you on the fret wear issue... I suggest avoiding wound strings on these. That should help you get the most life from the fretboard. The one I have was bought used, had a wound low G set on it, and shows far more wear under that string that else where on the fret board...

I just put a set of the new(er) Aquila AG x AQ low G sets onto my Fluke tenor... the low G string looks like it was made out of mud, and kinda sounds that way, too. The opaque, flat brown color looks way out of place compared to the transparent pale green of the other 3 strings... Sounds like a thud when sounded, and it's just not as resonant as the other three strings... hmmm...

I'll probably try a set of Worth clears with the low G next time... It also features a solid low G option.

I'm getting more used to these AG x AQs, but I'm not so sure it's a good pairing for my Fluke... I'll write a review of this setup soon.
 
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