BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE SUMMER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Among ukulele players, it’s newsworthy anytime Martin shuffles its offerings, and this year, the esteemed maker from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, released three new models. We received two of the three for review, and both are delightful instruments that make for a surprisingly affordable entry into the world of Martin ukes. At $299, the 0XK concert is the company’s most affordable uke offering. The other, the T1 Tenor, applies the company’s popular StreetMaster guitar aesthetic to an all-solid-wood tenor that comes in under $450. Both hail from Martin’s factory in Sonora, Mexico, where, since 1989, the company has produced some guitars and ukuleles, and its strings and accessories.
T1 StreetMaster Tenor
Since their introduction in 1928, Martin’s tenor ukes have held a grip on players who enjoy their added playing space, increased volume, and rounder tone. The T1 StreetMaster is the latest addition to the tenor lineup, and it
applies a distressed satin finish to an all-mahogany body, as Martin does with its popular StreetMaster guitars. Like the guitars, too, the ukulele’s worn-in look is polarizing, but the result is an all-solid-wood uke with a good sound, excellent playability, and the Martin name on the headstock.
Let’s begin with the obvious—the finish. One of the benefits of a satin finish is that manufacturers can apply a thinner coat, creating a richer tone. When viewed in natural light, I could see the wood’s pores, which indicates that they didn’t use grain filler to level out the finish, instead letting the finish sink into the wood. Other makers use this type of open-pore finish, but Martin adds a twist with lighter-colored areas that give off the vibe of a uke that has been used. The wear is not like Willie Nelson’s famously tattered guitar, Trigger, but maybe more like a ukulele used by a busker.
Because of this finishing process, each StreetMaster tenor will have a slightly different look, and whether it’s beautiful or not is in the eye of the beholder. A distressed finish can make players less uptight about the inevitable signs of play wear that will appear. That’s one of the things I really like about this uke: It invites you to just go for it. Strum away with wild abandon; it can take it, and you’re only adding to its vibe. A gentle bevel around the back and top’s edges makes the body even more comfortable, and the lighter color gives it a nicely contrasting accent line in place of binding.
The neck is made from select hardwood, which is Martin-speak for “it could be mahogany, Spanish cedar, or something else.” Rather than commit to some specs that need to be updated, they give themselves a little wiggle room to choose from the best of what’s available. Doing this helps keep the prices and quality in check, even if it seems a little vague on the spec sheet.
The neck has a satiny smooth finish and a lovely C-shape that was endlessly comfortable during our time together. It’s capped with a sipo fingerboard and 20 well-seated and -shaped frets. Sipo is a plentiful African hardwood with a uniform grain and coloration that makes it a common substitute for mahogany and its close relative sapele. The bridge is made from morado, a rosewood substitute, and is fitted with a compensated saddle to help intonation. This was also my first real chance to check out the Graph Tech Ratio ukulele tuners in action, and they’re impressively lightweight and make accurate tuning a breeze.
The bright, crisp, and warm tones that pop out from the T1’s soundhole are what you hope for in a ukulele. Too much or too little of any of those characteristics would detract from the sound. The StreetMaster delivers a pleasing balance between a warm plushness, the crisp snappiness of the attack, and the brightness that gives every single note and chord a bubbling bounce. I wasn’t surprised that it still sounds like a new uke (because it is), but the tone seemed to warm up and loosen up a little during my weeks with it. The projection and volume were solidly respectable, neither skewing towards a scream or a whisper. It’s one of the better-sounding solid tenors in this price range that I’ve heard, and a faultless setup helps make it very playable. And I can’t help but think that it will improve with more time and playing.
I’ve been playing and traveling with a Martin 0X Bamboo uke for a few years, and I have a lot of experience with them. Mine helped me fall in love with the soprano size, so I was delighted to see one in the larger, more comfortable concert size. This new uke is part of Martin’s X-series (that explains the “X” in 0XK), which combines much of the craft and precision of traditional building with modern materials and techniques. The result is a line of innovative, rugged instruments that deliver Martin sound and quality at an attractive price. Though it has fingerboard inlays like Martin’s classic Style 1 ukuleles, the 0XK has the plainer decoration of the company’s Style 0 ukes; thus the zero in its name.
If you’re thinking that the “K” is for a koa pattern on the body and headplate, congratulations, you’ve cracked the code (sorry, no prizes, just glory). Like my 0X Bamboo, the 0XK’s body is made from HPL or high-pressure laminate. HPL is a multilayered composite of resin-impregnated cellulose formed under very high pressures, creating a durable material that can be decorated with a pattern and turned into the ukulele you see here. Inside, traditional organic materials, including Sitka spruce braces and wood neck- and end-blocks, offer structural support and voicing. In the case of the 0XK, Martin used what is essentially a photo of lovely curly koa to give the manmade material a more natural look. Indeed, it looks convincingly like real wood, even up close.
The comfortable neck is made from many layers of birch laminated and stained to coordinate with the body. Along with a handsome sipo fingerboard, the result is a strong neck that won’t react to temperature and humidity changes the way a solid neck might. I found out how solid it was on an outdoor evening gig where the temparture dropped rapidly as the sun went down and some of San Francisco’s famous fog rolled across its hilltops. I tuned up before I left the house, found the 0XK still in-tune as we set up at the gig, and only required a little tuning touch-up hours later.
When you do need to use the tuners, they’re nice Grover friction pegs. Like Martin’s other modern ukes, this concert’s fingerboard extends to the soundhole rather than stopping at the 12th fret body joint. For many players, that space between the soundhole and the neck joint is a strumming sweet spot, and some might find the extended fingerboard gets in the way, while others might make good use of those extra frets.
For a modest, otherwise standard ukulele, the 0XK has a sound all its own. There’s a deep, rich bassiness that makes it sound larger than a typical concert-sized ukulele. In regular open-chord strumming, the 0XK had more of a tenor sound and was almost as dark as a baritone, with a warm, enveloping tone that I kept coming back to. The uke’s midrange was modest, while the treble response delivered enough presence and clarity to prevent it from sounding muffled or too dark. Still, there was no denying that the 0XK dealt out more low-end whoomp than any other concert uke I can recall; if it was a barking dog, it’d make more of a woof than a yip. When fingerpicked, its clarity and projection were inspiring. The 0XK is also capable of an impressive dynamic range that delivered a consistently good tone no matter how soft or hard I picked or strummed it. When pushed hard, this concert didn’t really compress the way many ukes do; it just didn’t get any louder. But it did get loud.
Overall, my experience with this exceptionally well set-up uke is that it delivered a lot of pleasing tone and playing comfort for the price.
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