Pono Master Series Review - Spruce & Rosewood Tenor

scrambled_eggs

eggcited for uke
UU VIP
Joined
Jul 25, 2021
Messages
432
Reaction score
1,478
Location
Portland, Oregon
Greetings folks!

I recently purchased this Pono Master Series tenor ukulele for myself as a big upgrade to my playing arsenal! A bit of story before I get into the review. This will provide context for the review so I recommend you at least come back, but feel free to skip ahead if you are eager.

Story, prior 'ukes, and why I chose what I chose

I originally bought my first uke upgrade, a Martin OXK concert, at a local music shop here in Portland. I wanted to support local businesses, like a good Portlandonian. I also figured this was the best way to also get more instruments here and eventually in my hands to try--by supporting them. Going in the selection was fair, but they weren't able to speak to the instruments much and I was mostly left alone. The local price was slightly above what I saw online. No setup was offered because this shop didn't do setups--right from the rack to my back. Compared to my old Makala Dolphin I thought it sounded great at first. I was still pretty new, but noticed within about 2 weeks of having it that the bridge was lifted quite a bit and was throwing intonation off up the neck. This was a faulty instrument. Bummer!

I took it back and they gave me store credit. I wasn't thrilled with this but whatever--I wanted something else new and nice and shiny in my hands and I wanted it now! They had just gotten in a new shipment, including a brand new Martin T1K freshly in stock. It wasn't even on the shelves yet. I had seen these before in GotaUkulele review so I expected it to really impress me! I was anticipating some sort of magical and transformative experience. Fueling my fire were hoardes of Martin fans, intensely passionate about their brand. True believers! They kind of remind me of Eagles fans of Phillies fans... or any other Philadelphia sports team. Love ya Philly. But to be completely honest... it felt a bit underwhelming. While the instrument was nice enough, I think I expected some sort of epiphany in my playing, but I was still me I guess. Other than that though, there were things to nitpick at and they stood out to me in my bitterness. The fretboard was very very dry, even though it was new. That would require taking the strings off and oiling, restringing--my time. The fret ends were a bit sharp also, and without the setup it just didn't feel the best to play. The action was high even for me and I specifically like high action. The biggest problem though was the setup at the nut! It made fretting in the first two frets pretty difficult, which isn't great for a new player especially. Just overall not a great experience with the attempt at buying local with no setup and minimal checking of stock. I eventually paid additional fees to get this instrument set up elsewhere--but learned my lesson that I would generally avoid buying locally.

The instrument was loud, yes. Sometimes. But I realized I was looking for more than just loud when choosing an instrument. An expensive first lesson. One of the things I saw others raving about was the lightness of the T1K, calling it things like a cannon. They would remark how you can feel all the vibrations in the neck when you play, the thrumming of the active back and sides with the bass notes. It sounded thrilling! Well, this was all true and as they said. I however, discovered that I didn't particularly like this! The lightness of the instrument resulted in a lot of energy loss--vibrating of the instrument in the neck, back, and sides. If you can keep these style of lightly built instruments away from your body or barely touching the back of the instrument, you'll get a really beautiful and full voice. Some players use a small foam block to prop it away from their body. However, all that lovely haptic feedback will cost you in tone and volume if you've got a little more to love around the middle like me, or if you just hold the instrument up against your body when you play which I generally find more comfortable. And it will muffle it quite a bit as that vibration is absorbed by your body. This isn't good or bad, it's just the cost of an extremely light build. Alternatively, instruments can be built heavier but still lightly braced. I feel like this results in the opposite, less haptic/vibrational feedback coming through the neck, back, and sides of the instrument. What you lose in haptic feedback, I believe you gain in tone, sustain, and volume because this is never lost from the soundboard in the first place. The soundboard really "drives" the instrument. I play in all kinds of weird positions--lying in bed, on the couch, crossed legged on the ground, stand, with a cat in my lap, etc. Having a more soundboard driven instrument was something I specifically wanted in the future now.

Back at this point though, I believe I may have been of the mind at this time of trying to find "the one." That one instrument that would just change everything! But I guess I'm poly-ukuerous or something now because I really do love all well made instruments voices. There are things to admire in each one, but there are definitely some that I found myself gravitating towards. I started listening to sound samples and loved the big FULL voices of the customs I would hear on TUS. Kinnards, Onos, LFDM, the unique KoAloha voices--all lovely instruments and well out of my price range. They all also happened to be flourocarbon strung instruments and always were in the sound samples. I was a recent convert to the church of flouro, and I was a zealot like the rest. So much so that I believe I just didn't even really like listening or consider the sound "good" on instruments and sound samples from instruments strung with nylon or Aquila, including but not limited to Kamaka, Kanilea, and Pono! I was a classic string hater.

Worse, I felt "unworthy" still of graduating to such an instrument, especially at that price point. I decided to move to the used market through this forum. I figured this was the next best thing to buying new, which my wallet and my eagerness couldn't quite afford at the time. I saved a bit more and would patiently wait on what I thought were very good deals. I moved into a few more midranged ukes--a controversial topic at times on this forum with some users indicating you should just all-in to the higher level instruments. I suspect that is a bit of projection 🔍 But hear me out. Other than trying a bunch of ukes very briefly at Elderly instruments earlier in my playing career, I haven't had a lot of time to spend with various ukes. Probably like many other players! I think that one of the reasons the mid range ukes exist is to give players a diversity of options to try without fully breaking the piggy bank. You can figure out your likes and dislikes before you invest in that custom or small batch money.

Anyhow, I did purchase some lovely mid range instruments from this forum with success, including my KoAloha Opio tenor and Kala Elite Mahogany tenor (which I'll soon be selling through this forum). These two instruments, along with the Martin T1K, are all quite dissimilar with their own unique voices, quirks, and feel to them. In fact, one is unibraced, one is x braced, and one is fan braced! Having them and being able to play them frequently helped informed my decision for on what kind of instrument I was looking for when it was time to really upgrade!

I play a lot and take this beautiful instrument seriously, so I did decide to upgrade yet again when an opportunity presented itself to buy a nice used custom instrument from this forum! I had heard many sound samples through The Ukulele Site and trust the fidelity and quality of their samples from my prior mid range purchases, so this felt safe to me. And ultimately, I was satisfied--for a short time. Ah, but love is fleeting and a used instrument it was! Through a series of unfortunate events, my darling instrument underwent a botched local repair (A different place, but one that is generally well regarded...I really am never going local again :| ). I don't want to name the custom brand because the luthier actually worked super hard with me--the THIRD owner mind you--to figure things out and and we both trusted this local person to make repairs. I imagine we both shed a few tears, no good deed going unpunished. Anyhow, over the past several months trying to get things figured out, it's managed to bring me more frustration than happiness and things still unfortunately aren't repaired yet. This was my baby, my go to, the one I really gravitated towards, and I definitely felt a gap without having it around. Whatever happens to it, it's still not playable so I decided it was time to sell some instruments and "move on" in my heart. 💔

Boo-hoo, Buying new
Going into buying an instrument again, I decided to buy new this time and treat myself and just to avoid more heartache with my new baby. I had a few hotties on my radar including the Anuenue Moon Bird. My string snobbery had passed and I was also eyeing some Kanileas and Koaloha's, but I was really wanting a soft top instrument. While these K brands did have some soft tops, generally they were at a higher price point. Millars and Flights even tempted me a few times, even though I don't even really find the sound of their instruments was one I particularly gravitated toward, they do look rather snazzy and that can often be just as tempting! I guess I listen with my eyes first. To be sure, there was plenty of temptation everywhere.

To be quite frank, I had been sleeping on Pono as a brand for quite a bit. As mentioned earlier, I was an early string hater and Pono uses titanium nylon strings by default, which wasn't quite to my taste. Additionally, I had read early on a lot about how great thin necks were for "fast action." I think by fast action it means faster fretting, which sounded cool! Having now had two very chunky thick-necked instruments and chunky in different ways (Kala Elite and Pono) I can say that the thickness of the neck doesn't slow down or speed up my fretting in any way that I can tell. Maybe fast action means something a bit different and I'm missing the point, but it makes me want to say that I like thicc necks for fast action then! Lastly, Pono had always been described as being built a bit heavier and people have also called out whether or not a truss rod is needed. As I noted, I too originally was looking for the ultra-light-curved-for-her-pleasure vibrating ukulele, but now I realize through some expensive purchasing experience that I like the additional resonance in a heavier-built-but-lightly-braced (or HBBLB for short of course) instrument, and especially the sustain and tone from a heavier neck. And the woes that you could be saved from if your instrument possibly had a truss rod in it's neck, meaning a botched repair wouldn't be needed :( Ultimately these are choices for the player to make based on their needs, history, and what they are looking for.

Anyhow, It wasn't until I had seen two posts by @TimWilson about the Master Series line in particular that my interest was piqued and I really took notice. TUS again has some excellent sound samples of their instruments including the Master Series Pono, including various string samples which also helped in my decision. I really did think these Master Series just quite different sounding--with that new lattice bracing comes a new unique voice and response. But by this point I had formed some of my own informed decisions on some of these things so I felt good about this brand and my decision. It really seems like it's a "players" brand and it's a brand that I personally feel I can trust based on their history and actions, even though I'm pretty new to the ukulele scene (playing for 3 years). To be honest, I actually wanted an 'Oli, which is a sister brand to Pono the way Rebel is to KoAloha. But the Master Series had everything I prioritized and surprised me with a few things as well! I also specifically wanted to support The Ukulele Site since I see them genuinely supporting the ukulele community, and their community with ukulele. Really beautiful thing to behold. They also have a great reputation here and elsewhere for excellent setups and aloha spirit. Veronica at the front desk was particularly helpful and patient with me, even though I had been forwarding multiple confusing and eager emails 😂 My anticipation was palpable! She ultimately helped me choose and I had purchased the instrument within minutes of finishing our call.

edit: 12/4/23 just a few corrections and restucturing for clarity. I actually wrote this all in one go and one sit without rewrite so I guess this is my rewrite!
 
Last edited:
THE REVIEW
Link to my exact instrument on TUS

I'm going to break down this review into what I consider three general areas that players prioritize: Tone, Playability, and Looks.

Tone
Sound sample 1



Sound sample 2


Strings used are Uke Logic low G (soft)

This instrument is replacing my late used custom tenor. And so in determining what I was looking for I was considering those price ranges as well, $1.5k - $3k or so where I feel like you are no longer paying for tone or voice but for bling. I feel the tone of this instrument is easily in this price range and this is the best quality of this instrument, periodt. When looking at this, consider it a peer among customs save for probably some additional looks, bling, and the back-and-forth unique experience you get with a custom.

As I said, Pono is for players and this instrument has serious tone. The tone is remarkably balanced in my opinion, not a lot of loss in the low end either. It feels extremely responsive--the smallest bit of attack with fluorocarbon strings will make it ring out. With it's balanced tone, it can add some nice warmth to solo or group play. One thing that is very interesting is that I am generally used to having to play with a bit more effort and use more energy to get notes to ring out the further up the neck I get. This will always be the case, it's just physics. But with this instrument and bracing, the incline on the increase in effort is very very subtle and gentle. You can pretty much play the same way all over the neck. The highlight of this instrument for me is how expressive it is--how many distinct and true sounds I can make it make! From my mind to my fingers to the instrument. In one of the TUS podcasts, Ian O'Sullivan mentioned a few things that stand out and are worth repeating. These are heavily paraphrased with some of my own perspective probably added.
  • You will stand out, loud and clear, right at the forefront with your voice with this instrument. For better or worse, so you best be calm and in control! I can very clearly hear when I grip harder on this instrument---it's THAT clear.
  • It will change the way you play
lattice_brace_for_pono_ms_1_1_1_2_1_1_1_1_2_1_2.jpg

I thought this second remark was a bit of an exaggeration. He means others players, players less grand and skilled than I surely? This instrument has indeed changed the way I play. I used to avoid playing a lot near the saddle as I think it sounds tinny and nasal on many instruments. In fact, I thought it was just a quirk of the ukulele at this point. You can actually look back at my old videos and watch my right hand position--it has moved much closer to the bridge and saddle now--but not permanently! I feel like the clarity and responsiveness allows you to really move your right hand around more as well to emote and express tone. My guess is this all has to do with the lattice bracing and the specific voicing made for this instrument by Ryan Condon, one of the luthiers (along with Noa Bonk) at Ko'olau. I am guessing that with these small batch instruments they look to replicate this specific voice as closely as possible with each instrument.

I watched some videos on lattice bracing and, essentially, it takes significantly more time from the luthiers to brace in that style and to voice it. It probably also necessitates the use of a vacuum press during the gluing of the bracing to the soundboard--or some very very patient luthiers using more traditional methods. It does, however, generally allow for excellent clear tone, good stability, and even thinner tops. I don't know the specs on the top used, but thick or thin it is EXTREMELY resonant and importantly balanced. Honestly, it's kind of hard to describe until you've played it.

Again, I like the fact this instrument is slightly heavier! I like the heft in the neck and headstock, you get a little bit extra from Gotoh UPT tuners. If weight was the only factor I'm sure they could take off a few grams here and there. But the balance of the instrument and how it supports resonance and tone specifically is superb. I find this balances very well with the body and light bracing, resulting in a beautiful full voice for this instrument that doesn't dull or muffle much from being in contact with your body, even when your playing goes very high up the neck. As this is a more soundboard driven uke, it's great for a person who plays in all sorts of goofy relaxing positions, like me (sitting, lying, walking around, cat in lap, etc.)

Playability

The setup on the instrument from TUS was, of course, excellent. I am one of those players who prefer a higher action, and I think this is generally more common among fingerstyle players. I find a good setup at the nut is the biggest impact to improved playability. The action and saddle adjustments, instead, seem to influence a few other things including the sweet spots to play where you will play with your right hand and sometimes very very very fast fretting or playing or crazy fast hammer ons and such. It's nice if you want to play in more of an electric guitar style. Or if you pretty much always plugged in, lower action might be a good idea since you're not getting or relying on acoustic tone anyway. You can add any filters or effects you want in after.

My preferred setup and the string height and the one used for the instrument heard and seen above is about 2.7-3.0mm at the 12th fret, which is just perfect for me. More than that sacrifices too much tone and volume for my playing needs. I personally don't find it makes the instrument much easier to play having the action any lower than this, again unless you are playing very very very fast. It's the setup adjustments at the nut that really makes the fretting much easier. To test and make sure things are all good, I'll generally see if I can play and barre easily up and down the neck without using the thumb on my left hand, particularly on the first two frets. I was able to do this, even with an action of 3.0 at the 12th fret.

I will admit, however, that I am coming from generally thinner necks. Even the Kala Elite, though chunky, seems a bit thinner than this neck. While I was able to fret easily, I did find that I was very clearly fretting too hard while playing. I suspect this is due first to muscle memory and playing on thinner necks, but also due to the way the human hand grip strength works. In the closed fist position, our hands aren't very strong at gripping. Neither are they when in a fully open position. If you were to graph your grip strength at all the positions between a wide open hand and a closed fist, it would follow a bell curve (for more info see JAMAR grip strength tests). With a thicker neck, you quite literally will be able to grip it harder and it's possible you will, so be careful of this. If your finger tips are hurting, it is likely not because of the action or strings, but because you are gripping too hard with your left hand. Everyone makes this mistake. Everyone. Quick fix and tip if this is you (it probably is): practice playing (volumewise) softly with your right hand attack. Don't use much force, lower the volume on your playing. Your brain will match the exertion in your left hand and you will begin to learn the left hand muscle memory for a more gentle touch. Add volume back to your playing slowly and with caution. With a bit of intentional playing and the ability to diagnose this problem it was a pretty quick fix and muscle memory has kicked in. As noted above, Pono has thicc necks for fast action.

A very important detail for me was a satin neck. I have very sweaty hands, and they get three times sweatier when someone is listening to me or I hit the record button. It was a limiting factor for me on other instruments. The lacquer satin finish on this surprised me a first with how smooth it was, but it's extra nice that way. Honestly if they want to get brandy they should call it "silent satin" because it's less loud than other satin finishes I've played, meaning no noise either as you move your left hand.

I've seen a lot about Pono's truss rods, but usually nothing heavily positive. I would like to make the case for it, truss me. 🥁 Many setup issues an instrument can experience later in life after humidity changes can be fixed with a truss rod. A truss rod also means they can consistently add relief to the neck and can give that nice setup easily on day one or year 10. The bolt on neck also means, if its around for a long long time and eventually needs a neck reset (or if it's not so long for any reason) it will be reasonable and affordable to actually have this done. I feel like they really just make instruments that will last and respect the consumer. As noted, I also like the truss rod for the additional weight and tone for the styles of builds I prefer. I bet if they started calling these "neck tone bars" instead of truss rods people would ask to have them installed.

Additionally, having had both wide 38mm nuts and thinner 35mm nuts, I really don't mind either. I am 6'2" and used to play a lot of volleyball, I am probably bigger than you and so are my hands :D The point being that a 35mm nut is just fine for me. Difficulty here again might be a misinterpretation of the player over gripping the instrument a bit. I personally care not only about the nut width, but more importantly the string width especially after the 12th fret. I find the way Pono necks taper to be quite comfortable and easily playable personally and I'm able to use all my different techniques on this instrument without changing the way I play, which was important to me. I want my voice to come out naturally through my fingers without the board being a limiting factor, basically.

I also really really really love Ponos frets and fret works. Very smooth and a different profile than I've seen before. They are low and a bit fat with a round square edge. I find they are especially excellent at expressing vibrato and slides, which I love to do most so it makes sense I like them. I feel like it allows me to get a very R&B tone, which I love.

EDIT 12/9/23: I'd like to add additional positive findings regarding Pono weight, balance and neck weight. These aren't factors I've considered before because I haven't played anything with this weight to impact it in this way, so I find it very very satisfying and interesting. Anyway, I've found when I play the ukulele, I grip the instrument to my body with some point between my mid forearm and elbow--it may change for advanced right hand movement. Not everyone uses this method, but it is comfortable for me and the method recommended by James Hill. This instrument is not heavy, but you can feel there is specific balance and weight in the fingerboard and the tail of the instrument. I find this makes the leverage you obtain when holding the instrument in James Hills recommended method particularly comfortable! The fingerboard doesn't really want to get away from you as much, as he describes, due to the increased inertia and different leverage.

Additionally, with my style of playing and the way I make vibrato, I essentially think of my left fingers and hand like a little dancer on a tiny dance floor. This dance floor is guided and balanced in the air by my left hand like a tiny hydraulic lift. To make vibrato, my hand basically does the Michael Jackson "anti-gravity" dance move.



This is not magic, it's science. Michael and team needed nails in the floor to do this in order to obtain appropriate leverage, and it was probably still really difficult. Your hand-dancer (handcer?) is supported by your wrist in the air and thumb on the other side (acting like Michael's nail) making this possible for you. But if the floor you are on is very light, when you try to do this move and add vibrato you'll end up shaking the whole fingerboard, and the instrument sometimes. Imagine Michael trying to do this on, say, a plywood dancefloor suspended in the air versus a very heavy log dancefloor suspended in the air. The first would shake all over the place and would require counter balancing from the hydraulic lift (left hand) while performing the technique. It is SIGNIFICANTLY easier for me to apply vibrato on this instrument due to the inertia in the fingerboard and leverage at my right arm anchor. Since I've never played on an instrument like this I've never considered it before. Not that it's impossible with a lighter instrument, but you'll need to learn the skill of counterbalancing actively to do it making it much more difficult.

Looks

Do I really need to say anything? I guess I will.

The fit and finish, frankly, are flawless. (ALLITERATION!)

Gorgeous headstock with inlaid EI Rosewood tree flower (I think?) bird of paradise flower! My partner noticed as soon as it arrived, but my ears were plugged with excitement and I didn't hear them lol until about a month later :ROFLMAO: . From reading a bit about this flower it seems the flower can--among other things--represent joy, excitement, anticipation, love, faithfulness, and having a good outlook on life. Very appropriate! I still also I kind of wish mine had the Pono Wahine, the woman playing 'uke that Andrew's mom designed which I think was really cool.

5.jpg

I actually kind of like the double markers are 7th and 12th fret, I guess marking the harmonics? Also just makes it easier when quickly glancing at the neck if you lose your orientation.

This is my first gloss finish and it's totally gorgeous, flawless all over. The woods were clearly selected to please, including the wicked flaming and waves in the spruce top caused by medullary rays in the wood and a perfectly quartersawn piece. Imagine you wanted to make a sandwich but hated the end pieces of bread so much that you only would accept to eat the single middle piece of bread in every loaf. That's what "perfectly quarter sawn" is trying to convey. Very very tight grained top. Kind of hard to capture its glory under camera. I also hate abalone and love the understated rope rosette.

1.jpg


Rosewood isn't usually much to admire, but wowee!! And the flamed maple binding on top and bottom to boot. Besides looks, this is basically the equivalent of having bumpers on your car. If you get a big ding or something on the corner in the future this is much easier to fix than than if the binding were not there. Usually I don't like binding much, but I think it really does look excellent with this combination.


2.jpeg

Behold the Great Eye. Lidless and wreathed in Flame(d maple binding)! A lovely eye of Sauron on the back of my instrument. I imagine if the crazy Dos Equis guy threw this into a fire it wouldn't melt or burn, but rather an inscription would appear around the edges in a form of Elvish used in Mordor, Black Speech.

7.jpg

Final Remarks

I would strongly recommend this instrument. Some people shop with their hands, some with their eyes, and some with their ears. This is for the ears. I think it would be good instrument for you if you want to progress as a player and want to get custom level voicing and quality. This remark is made without consideration to the price point. However, in addition to the excellent voicing, they are still remarkably affordable-especially with the current exclusive pricing.
 

Attachments

  • rt-ms_s_7665-1.jpg
    rt-ms_s_7665-1.jpg
    43.6 KB · Views: 9
  • rt-ms_s_7665-5.jpg
    rt-ms_s_7665-5.jpg
    56.3 KB · Views: 8
  • rt-ms_s_7665-4.jpg
    rt-ms_s_7665-4.jpg
    129.2 KB · Views: 7
  • rt-ms_s_7665-3.jpg
    rt-ms_s_7665-3.jpg
    70.8 KB · Views: 8
  • 1702147237736.png
    1702147237736.png
    66.9 KB · Views: 5
Last edited:
But to be conpletely honest...
I'm not sure if was an intended typo, but I think it's hilarious 🤣

but learned my lesson that I would generally avoid buying locally.
Drive up to Dusty Strings in Seattle sometime and try out some nice ukes! I peek at their inventory online often and drop by when I see a nice trade in that I wanna play.

As for a local luthier near Portland, I've heard good things about Kerry Char. You don't have to say (here) if this is the luthier you mentioned above.

poly-ukuerous
We need to make this a common UU word!

ultra-light-curved-for-her-pleasure vibrating ukulele
🤣 cracking me up!!

The fit and finish, frankly, are flawless. (ALLITERATION!)
I love a good alliteration! I try to use it when I can!!

This was an informative and fun read. You're a great writer. Thanks for sharing your uke journey, so far!!!
 
Last edited:
No surprises here. I knew you'd like it and be happy ! Congrats scrambled eggs.

I miss my Master Series. I sold mine to another person because of Uke guilt. Felt I had too many dollars tied up in Nice ukes and more instruments than I could play. I have four KoAlohas and decided to let the Master go. Economics and numbers - but maybe I should have held on to it... But how many truly nice Ukes does one man need.

Would I buy a Master again ? Yup.
 
THE REVIEW
Link to my exact instrument on TUS

I'm going to break down this review into what I consider three general areas that players prioritize: Tone, Playability, and Looks.

Tone
Sound sample 1



Sound sample 2


This instrument is replacing my late used custom tenor. And so in determining what I was looking for I was considering those price ranges as well, $1.5k - $3k or so where I feel like you are no longer paying for tone or voice but for bling. I feel the tone of this instrument is easily in this price range and this is the best quality of this instrument, periodt. When looking at this, consider it a peer among customs save for probably some additional looks, bling, and experience you get with a custom.

As I said, Pono is for players and this instrument has serious tone. It feels extremely balanced and responsive and can add some nice warmth to solo or group play. One thing that is very interesting is that I am generally used to having to play a bit harder and use more energy to get notes to ring out the further up the neck I get. This will always be the case, but the incline on the increase in effort for this instrument and this bracing is very very subtle! You can pretty much play the same way all over. The highlight of this instrument for me is how expressive it is--how many distinct and true sounds I can make it make! In one of the podcasts Ian O'Sullivan mentioned a few things that stand out and are worth repeating. These are heavily paraphrased with some of my own perspective added.
  • You will stand out, loud and clear, right at the forefront with your voice with this instrument. For better or worse, so you best be calm and in control! I can very clearly hear when I grip harder on this instrument---it's THAT clear.
  • It will change the way you play
View attachment 162248
I thought this second remark was a bit of an exaggeration. He means others players, players less grand and skilled than I surely? This instrument has indeed changed the way I play. I used to avoid playing a lot near the saddle as I think it sounds tinny and nasal on many instruments and thought it was just a quirk of the ukulele to be honest. You can actually look back at my old videos and watch my right hand position--it has moved much closed to the bridge and saddle now--but not permanently! I feel like the clarity and responsiveness allows you to really move your right hand around more as well to emote and express tone. My guess is this all has to do with the lattice bracing and the specific voicing made for this instrument by the Ryan Condon at Ko'olau.

I watched some videos on lattice bracing and, essentially, it takes significantly more time from the luthiers to brace in that style and to voice it. It probably also necessitates the use of a vacuum press during the gluing, or some very very patient luthiers using more traditional methods. It does, however, generally allow for excellent clear tone, good stability, and even thinner tops. I don't know the specs on the top used, but thick or thin it is EXTREMELY resonant and importantly balanced. Honestly, it's kind of hard to describe until you've played it.

Again, I like the fact this instrument is slightly heavier! I like the heft in the neck and headstock, you get a little bit extra from Gotoh UPT tuners. I find this balances very well with the body and light bracing, resulting in a beautiful full voice for this instrument that doesn't dull or muffle much from being in contact with your body, even very high up the neck.

Playability

The setup on the instrument from TUS was, of course, excellent. I am one of those players who prefer a higher action, and I think this is generally more common among fingerstyle players. I find a good setup at the nut is the biggest impact to improved playability. The action and saddle adjustments, instead, seem to influence a few other things including the sweet spots to play where you will play with your right hand and sometimes very very very fast fretting or playing or crazy fast hammer ons and such. I think if you want to play in more of an electric guitar style or pretty much always plugged in, lower action might be a good idea since you're not getting acoustic tone anyway. You can add any filters or effects you want in after.

My preferred setup and the string height for the instrument heard and seen above is about 2.7-3.0mm at the 12th fret, which is just perfect for me. More than that sacrifices too much tone and volume for my playing needs. I personally don't find it makes the instrument much easier to play, again unless you are playing very very very fast. It's the setup change at the nut really makes the fretting much easier. To test and make sure things are all good, I'll generally see if I can play and barre easily up and down the neck without using the thumb on my left hand. I was able to do this, even with an action of 3.0 at the 12th fret.

I will admit, however, that I am coming from generally thinner necks. Even the Kala Elite, though chunky, seems a bit thinner than this neck. Which I was able to fret easily, I did find that I was very clearly fretting too hard. I suspect this is due first to muscle memory and playing on thinner necks, but also due to the way the human hand grip strength works. In the closed fist position, our hands aren't very strong at gripping. Neither are they are a fully open position. If you were to graph your grip strength at all the positions between a wide open hand and a closed fist, it would follow a bell curve. With a thicker neck, you quite literally will be able to grip it harder and it's possible you will, so be careful of this. If your finger tips are hurting, it is likely not because of the action or strings, but because you are gripping too hard with your left hand. Everyone makes this mistake. Everyone. Quick fix and tip if this is you (it probably is): practice playing (volumewise) softly with your left hand. Your brain will match the exertion in your left hand and you will begin to left the muscle memory for a gentle touch. With a bit of intentional playing and the ability to diagnose this problem it was a pretty quick fix and muscle memory has kicked in. As noted above, Pono has thicc necks for fast action.

A very important detail for me was a satin neck. I have very sweaty hands, and they get three times sweatier when someone is listening to me or I hit the record button. It was a limiting factor for me on other instruments. The laquer satin finish on this surprised me a first with how smooth it was, but it's extra nice that way. Honestly if they want to get brandy they should call it "silent satin" because it's less loud than other satin finishes I've played, meaning no noise either as you move your left hand.

I've seen a lot about Pono's truss rods, but usually nothing heavily positive. I would like to make the case for it, truss me. 🥁 Many setup issues an instrument can experience later in life after humidity changes can be fixed with a truss rod. A truss rod also means they can consistently add relief to the neck and can give that nice setup easily on day one or year 10. The bolt on neck also means, if its around for a long long time and eventually needs a neck reset (or if it's not so long for any reason) it will be reasonable and affordable to actually have this done. I feel like they really just make instruments that will last and respect the consumer. As noted, I also like the truss rod for the additional weight and tone for the styles of builds I prefer.

Additionally, having had both wide 38mm nuts and thinner 35mm nuts, I really don't mind either. I am 6'2" and used to play a lot of volleyball, I am probably bigger than you and so are my hands :D The point being that a 35mm nut is just fine for me. Difficulty here again might be a misinterpretation of the player over gripping the instrument a bit. I personally care not only about the nut width, but more importantly the string width especially after the 12th fret. I find the way Pono necks taper to be quite comfortable and easily playable personally and I'm able to use all my different techniques on this instrument without changing the way I play, which was important to me. I want my voice to come out naturally through my fingers without the board being a limiting factor, basically.

I also really really really love Ponos frets and fret works. Very smooth and a different profile than I've seen before. They are low and a bit fat with a round square edge. I find they are especially excellent at expressing vibrato and slides, which I love to do most so it makes sense I like them. I feel like it allows me to get a very R&B tone, which I love.

Looks

Do I really need to say anything? I guess I will.

The fit and finish, frankly, are flawless. (ALLITERATION!)

Gorgeous headstock with inlaid EI Rosewood tree flower. I kind of wish mine had the woman playing 'uke that Andew's mom designed, but this is cool too.

View attachment 162264

I actually kind of like the double markers are 7th and 12th fret, I guess marking the harmonics? Also just makes it easier when quickly glancing at the neck if you lose your orientation.

This is my first gloss finish and it's totally gorgeous, flawless all over. The woods were clearly selected to please, including the wicked flaming and waves in the spruce top caused by medullary rays in the wood and a perfectly quartersawn piece. Very very tight grained top. Kind of hard to capture its glory under camera. I also hate abalone and love the understated rope rosette.

View attachment 162265


Rosewood isn't usually much to admire, but wowee!! And the flamed maple binding on top and bottom to boot. Besides looks, this is basically the equivalent of having bumpers on your car. If you get a big ding or something on the corner in the future this is much easier to fix than than if the binding were not there. Usually I don't like binding much, but I think it really does look excellent with this combination.


View attachment 162266

Behold the Great Eye. Lidless and wreathed in Flame! A lovely eye of Sauron on the back of my instrument. I imagine if the crazy Dos Equis guy threw this into a fire it wouldn't melt or burn, but rather an inscription would appear around the edges in a form of Elvish used in Mordor, Black Speech.

View attachment 162267


This is my longest post ever. I don't know how to end it, but I can say that I would strongly recommend this instrument if you want to progress as a player and want to get custom level voicing and quality--no price consideration included in that remark. However, in addition to the excellent voicing, they are still remarkably affordable, for now!

That instrument has serious tone !
 
I'm not sure if was an intended typo, but I think it's hilarious 🤣

This was an informative and fun read. You're a great writer. Thanks for sharing your uke journey, so far!!!
That typo was not intended but I love it XD And thanks so much! It took quite a while to write and gather my thoughts so I appreciate it :)
No surprises here. I knew you'd like it and be happy ! Congrats scrambled eggs.

I miss my Master Series. I sold mine to another person because of Uke guilt. Felt I had too many dollars tied up in Nice ukes and more instruments than I could play. I have four KoAlohas and decided to let the Master go. Economics and numbers - but maybe I should have held on to it... But how many truly nice Ukes does one man need.

Would I buy a Master again ? Yup.
I mean they still do have one in stock at TUS...:sneaky: I believe the perfect number of ukes is "n+1" where n is the number of ukuleles you currently have. I'll be honest, even with this I still want an 'Oli too! Maybe that one in a baritone...🤤
 
Other than that though, there were things to nitpick at and they stood out to me in my bitterness.

Worse, I felt "unworthy" still of graduating to such an instrument, especially at that price point. I decided to move to the used market through this forum. I figured this was the next best thing to buying new, which my wallet and my eagerness couldn't quite afford at the time.

This instrument has indeed changed the way I play.
Wow it's like we've lived the same ukexperience. I felt all these things, and found the Moonbird did all the stuff for me that your Master Series has done for you.

Congratulations, and thanks for sharing all of these wonderful thoughts and experiences. I'm so happy for you!
 
I'm the one who benefited from Tin Ear's "uke guilt" and consider myself very fortunate! It really is a marvelous instrument. Thanks for the good read.
 
It's beautiful! I'm in love with my Pono's too, one of which is the lattice braced Master Series.
Have fun!
 
Wow it's like we've lived the same ukexperience. I felt all these things, and found the Moonbird did all the stuff for me that your Master Series has done for you.

Congratulations, and thanks for sharing all of these wonderful thoughts and experiences. I'm so happy for you!
I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of others had a similar initial buying experience, which stinks! So glad you found a beautiful instrument to grow with, the Moonbirds are delightful also! If money were not an object I'd just have one of everything. Which makes me think of a joke. What does the Dalai Lama order when he goes out for hotdogs? One with everything


I'm the one who benefited from Tin Ear's "uke guilt" and consider myself very fortunate! It really is a marvelous instrument. Thanks for the good read.
Very nice! I see yours is the same tone woods too! Lucky us :) Thanks for reading!

Incredible review and a beautiful Pono. I ditto your review regarding my Mango MS tenor too. Great instruments and great setups by TUS. Thanks for your contribution to the ukulele community and enjoy your Pono. 🤙
Heck yeah, the mango baritone master series is probably what I'll end up succumbing too at some point in the future I'm sure. You are too kind, thanks for checking out the review :)

It's beautiful! I'm in love with my Pono's too, one of which is the lattice braced Master Series.
Have fun!
I saw your NUD post! I don't think you post your playing but would love to see you playing it! I think you got a guilele if I recall and I remember those sounding SO GOOD in the TUS vid! We'll both get lots of joy from them I'm sure :)
 
It wasn't until I had seen two posts by @TimWilson about the Master Series line in particular that my interest was piqued and I really took notice.

WHAT?!? I can't believe I had even the tiniest part in this epic journey! What an AMAZING review! I feel the same way about mine, obvs!

The only rosewood they had at the time I bought mine was with a cedar top, but I really, really wanted the spruce. I'm glad I went with spruce, even with "just" mahogany back and sides. My other two ukes are also mahogany, and I do love how it sounds, but wow, the look of that rosewood is just stunning! And I had no idea that Andrew's mom did the logo of the woman playing!

The thing I keep coming back to is that, of course, no single ukulele is for everyone. Ours is a spruce top, not koa or cedar. The neck is the neck, and some people like 'em thinner. It's $1300 and up. On and on. But you know what? This thing is magic. There's nothing in this price range that sounds or looks anything like this. I wish everyone could play one.

Hey, and great advice on moving toward a softer grip. I feel like every player who hasn't gone through the explicit process of taking the time to intentionally soften their grip will benefit from it.

I've read and re-read your posts a lot of times over the past couple of days, and they're definitely hitting me right in the feels! I wish I had a reply worthy of what you wrote, but this is gonna have to do for now. Thanks so much for sharing! I feel like no matter what happens to me and mine, it was worth it for what it brought you. :)
 
WHAT?!? I can't believe I had even the tiniest part in this epic journey! What an AMAZING review! I feel the same way about mine, obvs!

The only rosewood they had at the time I bought mine was with a cedar top, but I really, really wanted the spruce. I'm glad I went with spruce, even with "just" mahogany back and sides. My other two ukes are also mahogany, and I do love how it sounds, but wow, the look of that rosewood is just stunning! And I had no idea that Andrew's mom did the logo of the woman playing!

The thing I keep coming back to is that, of course, no single ukulele is for everyone. Ours is a spruce top, not koa or cedar. The neck is the neck, and some people like 'em thinner. It's $1300 and up. On and on. But you know what? This thing is magic. There's nothing in this price range that sounds or looks anything like this. I wish everyone could play one.

Hey, and great advice on moving toward a softer grip. I feel like every player who hasn't gone through the explicit process of taking the time to intentionally soften their grip will benefit from it.

I've read and re-read your posts a lot of times over the past couple of days, and they're definitely hitting me right in the feels! I wish I had a reply worthy of what you wrote, but this is gonna have to do for now. Thanks so much for sharing! I feel like no matter what happens to me and mine, it was worth it for what it brought you. :)
I tried to tag you originally, but it got all messed up because my original post was over the character limit! Ooopsie! 😳 I had to convert it to BB code, then copy it all and add in attachments and stuff again. I noticed the other day you were untagged so I'm glad I fixed it and you saw that! We're all planting little seeds constantly on our own journeys. Your prior reviews and advice definitely impacted me, thanks so much for them! e

I honestly think mahogany is lovely too! I've got an all 'hog 'uke and I think it's a very underrated tone wood just because it happens to be slightly more affordable! I'm sure if there was a sudden shortage it would be more desirable :LOL: I find it has a beautiful woody dry sound generally and adds a really nice roundness to notes! Like I said above if money were really no object I would just have one of every excellently made 'uke (there are so so many) each in every size and flavor :D I definitely enjoy having an all hardwood type in the roundup and that's why I'm eyeing that future mango bari as well :D But I'm still selling off my instruments to pay for this new one so I'm slightly ahead of myself.

Super agree about the grip having to be intentional. Definitely takes time and focus!

And agree! Asking what the best 'uke is is like asking what the best sandwich is! I can't say it's the "best" because everyone likes different things, but this is an excellent sandwich, and if you appreciate sandwiches you will appreciate this. This sandwich. I'm hungry.


Dang! And a re-read! Thanks so much 🥹 And thank you so much for your thoughtful response and kind words! My partner thought I was a crazy person sitting there for hours typing this all out on a Sunday :ROFLMAO::ROFLMAO: They reminded me to move around and stretch, but my nerdy excitement carried me through in one go! This instrument and the experience definitely, and of course this community, brings me joy every day!
 
my original post was over the character limit! Ooopsie! 😳

When I started here as an admin, one of the first things I did was double the original limit. I found myself still bumping up against it, so I doubled it again. Maybe time to increase again? 🙂

I definitely enjoy having an all hardwood type in the roundup and that's why I'm eyeing that future mango bari as well :D

Okay, yeah, but what about all SOFT wood? TUS just posted a Kinnaird tenor that's ALL SPRUCE! German spruce top, Sitka spruce back and sides. Gorgeous looks and sound!


1701822363206.png



I can't say it's the "best" because everyone likes different things, but this is an excellent sandwich, and if you appreciate sandwiches you will appreciate this. This sandwich. I'm hungry.

🤣🤣🤣
 
When I started here as an admin, one of the first things I did was double the original limit. I found myself still bumping up against it, so I doubled it again. Maybe time to increase again? 🙂



Okay, yeah, but what about all SOFT wood? TUS just posted a Kinnaird tenor that's ALL SPRUCE! German spruce top, Sitka spruce back and sides. Gorgeous looks and sound!


View attachment 162347





🤣🤣🤣

Ok I was just looking at this again because I love the sound of Kinnards, even though they seem lighter. I feel like I like the lighter instruments, but it's a more intimate sound. If it were clothing, it would be either very intimate or very formal clothes. My Pono is my athleisure. I always want to wear it, you can kind of wear it in a lot of different settings, and will wear for too many days until it stinks, or something. I am very good at metaphors.

But as I was looking at the photos on TUS I realized something. I was admiring all the woods patterns, the waves. The soudnboard, the headstock, the bridge. The intricacy in the rossette??? how was that shape even made and fit together?

...And I then I got to the back of the instrument and went "hmmm, that seems...plain?...different?... compared to everything else? Maybe he was going to for something else... squint

And in my squinty magic-eye mode I swear, I SWEAR, that the back of this instrument is supposed to look like the silhouette of a topless woman in a bikini facing away from you. You get to hold her as you play, perfect for valentines day!
 
Last edited:
... I SWEAR, that the back of this instrument is supposed to look like the silhouette of a topless woman in a bikini facing away from you. You get to hold her as you play, perfect...
Oh my, and my wife isn't back from her quilt retreat until tomorrow.

Mama Mia!
.
.
.

I'd best get a Pono.

<edit> Thoughts that the backs of ukuleles can be seen as quite sensual cannot be conveyed in the English language.
English is crude and unrefined. Like, "Boy Howdy!

<edit 2> "We now return to our regularly scheduled programming."
 
Last edited:
And in my squinty magic-eye mode I swear, I SWEAR, that the back of this instrument is supposed to look like the silhouette of a topless woman in a bikini facing away from you. You get to hold her as you play, perfect for valentines day!


🫣:ROFLMAO:

I'll just observe that this one's my favorite photo from that set, and leave it at that.

1701896689046.png
 
@TimWilson Side note, more than 10 attachments would be good per post also, though I can see how that can be abused so I dunno. I'm hitting my limit here and trying to get creative!

Also bump to any re-readers as I've added some edits as of 12/9/23 with additional thoughts on Pono weight and balance under the playability section.
 
Side note, more than 10 attachments would be good per post also, though I can see how that can be abused so I dunno. I'm hitting my limit here and trying to get creative!

The idea is that slow pages can be a problem for the web experience, and can create cascading failures across the system if they fail to load (ie, other things failing to load if they're being called at the same time)... but I think we can manage it. Maybe? I'll look into it. 🙂

Otherwise, I like your workarounds! I found your multi-chapter approach very readable, having read them all more than once, and I've enjoyed your edits too!

For any post of mine of any length, I feel like anyone who reads them should probably check back again in a day or two. 🤣 I'll have fixed more typos, clarified the stuff my phone messed up, and probably added some things.

In fact, I've been meaning to look into whether we can send notifications for edits as well as new posts. Some of my edits almost ARE new posts!

Anyway, thanks for the heads up! I'll be reading your posts again... again!
 
Top Bottom