It's many moons back in 2012 since I first looked at a Firefly Banjo Ukulele from Magic Fluke musical instruments. And I really rather liked it too. I'm therefore thrilled to be looking at their latest re-vamped tenor version.
And whilst I liked that original soprano Firefly ukulele for many reasons, I recall a lot of people getting quite sniffy about it being essentially just a 'drum with a neck bolted on'. Aside from the fact all banjos are essentially just that anyway, I really liked the light as feather construction coupled with great tone and it just 'feeling' right in the hands. But yes, I guess it WAS very simple really and not super cheap either for what it was. It also wasn't adjustable either. Fast forward to 2017 and we have a completely different proposition in the newest tenor model from the Massachusetts based brand.
So whilst this one is still a banjo uke, out goes the High Pressure Laminate pot with the drum head that was attached with a kind of edge stitching and in comes a maple ply pot which looks like, well, it looks more like a banjo really!
Yet at the same time.... it also doesn't.. Where are the outer tensioners that you normally see on a banjo? How is that head being held in tension? Where is the tone ring? Well, always the clever innovators, Magic Fluke have kind of turned the banjo concept upside down. On the underside of that outer wooden rim and inside the banjo is the steel tone ring that is bolted into the outer wood rim and adjustable using an allen key in one of the ten bolts visible on the front. Looks wise it reminds me a lot of the old Keech banjoleles and I think looks great, clean and simple. It also means that, unlike the smaller original Firefly ukuleles, this one has a head that is both easily replaceable and tunable too. Incidentally, that head is the same 8 inch diameter Remo as the others whilst the overall diameter is 9.75 inches. Nice.
Otherwise we have similar appointments to the other Firefly banjos too with a chrome tail piece and the same sort of three footed floating bridge you see on most banjos. Looking in the back we also have a similar designed pole piece running from the end of the neck and attaching to the pot with a kind of nifty locking wooden piece. It does also look like you can adjust the neck for action by removing or adding washers at the tail end. Neat. We also have the trademark Firefly embossed logo and the hand numbered makers label too.
That pole piece is made of hard maple as is the tenor neck, and is a thing of beauty. I am always a sucker for a maple neck, particularly one with a pale fingerboard like this. It's not quite the same sort of technique as employed by Deering on their Goodtime uke banjo where those frets are set directly into the neck, but I still think this looks great. And unlike some other Fluke instruments, the plastic fingerboard is not an option on this one - just wood. What type of wood it is, I am not totally sure, but I think it's a slightly darker maple.
In fact all of the wood on this is finished very nicely in a smooth satin that just feels of good quality.
And like other Fluke necks this has a chunky profile that some people raise and eyebrow to, but I personally think is really very comfortable. It's actually rounder on the back than their more squared off earlier necks though, but still chunky. Nut wise we have a width of 36mm which is great for comfort. We have 18 nickel silver frets on this 17" body which is very nice for upper neck options, and as is usual with Magic Fluke, they are fitted and dressed very well. We also have black dot position markers at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th but sadly no markers on the side. (ARGGHH!!)
I am not sure what the nut is made of, ebony perhaps, but like on other Fluke necks we have a zero fret meaning the nut action and intonation are controlled very well by this instead leaving the nut for setting the string spacing only.
Beyond this we have the ubiquitous Fluke headstock shape that people either love or hate (I love it incidentally). In standard spec these come with entry level Grovers that Fluke use widely on other instruments. They are not the best in the world, but not the worst either. Magic Fluke do offer these with a Pegheds option for another $75. Personally I would save your money and if you find that you don't get on with these Grover pegs, spend half the cost of Pegheds on a set of Grover 6's as they should be a straight swap. Don't get me wrong, I do like Pegheds, but just find them over priced.
Other options on offer include a shaped soft gig bag for $59 (that I really think should come as standard) and a pickup system for $89 (for those sadists who want to make a banjo even louder...). In vanilla spec though it comes like this with a set of D'Addario Nyltech (Aquila) strings and comes in at $389 or £349 which may make the people who still think all ukes should cost $50 gasp. It is however far cheaper than the RRP on the 17" Tenor Deering Banjo Uke that will cost you best part of $200 more. It's also comparatively priced to the, now in production, Duke 10 Banjo Uke which is terrific. It's also completely made (and parts sourced) in the USA as close to Massachusetts as possible. So there is no Chinese factory involved here either.
And as well as being cheaper than the Deering it's also much lighter - more comparable to the Duke at about 2lb in weight. So maybe it's the Duke 10 that this is going head to head with more than the Deering? It's much heavier than the original Firefly banjos of course, but that stands to reason with that extra body rim. Build quality, as I have hinted at is truly excellent. It really always is with Magic Fluke stuff and I knew it would be too before it arrived.
It just feels right in the hands. The light weight, the smooth as silk satin all comes together for a nice feeling instrument. And its really helped by the fact that they are not using standard tension hooks so there is nothing to dig into your strumming arm. Just smooth maple. It really is very comfortable. In fact I can't think how a banjo could be any more comfortable.
Sound wise this is a joy. It's far brighter, louder and sharper than the earlier soprano version, and more, well, more like a banjo really. Being an 8 inch head it's not up there with the massive punch of something like the Deering, but it's really no slouch at all. In fact it's extremely lound and punchy and with more guts than some other 8 inch head banjos I have played. It's just so precise and snappy.
Intonation is really good once you have set the saddle (thank you zero fret) and the comfortable neck means it's easy to play and move around on the neck.
But what has really impressed me is how controlled it seems to be with those hollow echoey sounds that banjos can create. The Deering did it, the Duke 10 did it, and people say 'oh you just put a cloth inside'. And yes, yes you do, and that works, but this Firefly doesn't seem to have that problem in the first place. There is no echo. No ghost notes. Just really clear notes whether you pick it or strum it. It's remarkable really, and has left me wishing this didn't have to go back. Yes people may still raise an eyebrow at the pricing, but as I say, this is right on the money with the competition, and in fact cheaper than some notable others.
Magic Fluke have done it again methinks and this would now be my go to choice for a tenor ukulele banjo, no question. Highly recommended.
Many thanks to them and to the UK distributor of Magic Fluke, Mark Pugh of Stones Music for setting me up with this for review.