Ever wish you could take your ukulele absolutely anywhere? Ukuleles are very portable, but the wood can get warped and damaged from exposure to the elements. Enter the BugsGear Aqualele, a ukulele made entirely out of plastic. It still sounds great, with the added benefit of being all but impervious to water and climate changes.
Read on for my full in-depth review!
Overview of the BugsGear Aqualele
The BugsGear Aqualele is not a traditional ukulele, and not just because it’s plastic. The bright colors, offset soundhole, and cutaway all immediately make it stand out from the crowd. The plastic adds to that, and makes this a great travel companion.
In fact, one of the only traditional aspect of this ukulele is the sound. It’s certainly different from wood, and even a laminate ukulele will be more resonant and rich. But the BugsGear Aqualele is surprisingly loud and punchy, with more than enough of that classic soprano ukulele tone. It won’t outperform a solid wood uke, but you wouldn’t want to take one of those on a kayak with you!
The ukulele also comes with gig bag. It’s not highly padded, but the ukulele is durable enough for that not to matter much. With a comfortable shoulder strap and handle, the bag is a nice lightweight way to take your BugsGear ukulele on the go. I don’t think you’ll need anything more protective that the included case; after all, that’s why you’d get one in the first place!
Overall, BugsGear has made a fun little ukulele that you can take anywhere. If you want to take a ukulele to the beach, out on a hike, or to other places where it may get wet, this is the uke for you.
Plastic vs Wood
The defining feature of the Bugsgear Aqualele is its all-plastic construction. It’s made out of molded ABS, a polymer that has become popular among instrument makers for its similarities to wood. It’s pretty remarkable how resonant this plastic can get. You won’t necessarily mistake it for solid koa, but it doesn’t sound like Tupperware with strings, either.
The main benefit of plastic is its ability to withstand the elements. If you splash water on a wooden ukulele, some of that water will be absorbed in the wood. The process of absorbing water and drying out again causes the wood to swell and contract, producing warping and cracking.
With plastic ukuleles, you can fill them up with water, strum a tune, dump the water out, and the uke will be none the worse for wear. There’s no finish to worry about, either. ABS, the plastic used in the BugsGear ukulele, is also less brittle than wood, making it less likely to crack or shatter if knocked into.
So, in the end, you’re sacrificing some amount of tone for peace of mind when it comes to extreme conditions. Most people don’t have a plastic ukulele as their main instrument. But if you need a travel companion, plastic is the way to go.
Look and Design
One thing you may notice if you’ve played other soprano ukuleles is that the BugsGear’s body is deeper than normal. As I mentioned before, plastic doesn’t resonate as well as wood, and most plastic ukuleles are softer than their wooden counterparts. BugsGear has compensated for this by making the resonant space bigger. It works, which I’ll talk more about later.
As for the design, this is a “love it or hate it” ukulele looks-wise. It’s made in bright neon colors, some of which look like what you’d find on a high-vis vest for construction workers. The offset tone hole is a departure from ukulele traditions, one that few other ukuleles have taken. The cutaway is a little more functional and common, but also a departure from the norm.
Where you fall may depend on how traditional you are. I honestly really like the look. The model I have is bright neon yellow, and I’m glad that I’ll never lose or overlook it. But these things are very personal, so I understand if you’re less into it. At the risk of sounding like the server in the Monty Python Spam sketch, the black and red version doesn’t have much neon on it. That may be the best choice for those who don’t want a visually loud ukulele.
One more design feature of note is how you attach the strings to the bridge. Traditionally, this was done with a tiebar, but many modern ukuleles use pegs. BugsGear has a different, much easier design. Four slots connect to four small holes just below the saddle. Simply tie a knot at the end of the string, stick it into the hole, and slide it into the slot. It holds well, and it’s remarkably easy to remove and replace strings. I hadn’t seen this on other ukes before, but I’m sold on this design.
The fit and finish of the ukulele leaves a little to be desired. The one I received has a few areas with glue spots or slight gaps at joined corners. This doesn’t seem to affect the sound or overall construction, and a little over a year later nothing has come apart or even moved much. Still, it’d be nice to work out these little cosmetic issues, especially on a ukulele with an otherwise great (to my eyes, at least) look.
Sound and Playability
Many plastic ukuleles do end up sounding softer and less rich than their wooden counterparts. BugsGear counteracts this by using a deeper body. The result is a fairly loud ukulele with plenty of punch. It’s still a little duller and less rich-sounding than solid wood ukuleles. But overall, it sounds as good or better as many laminate wood ukuleles in its price range. It certainly sounds more like a wooden ukulele than any other plastic ukulele I’ve tried.
Molded plastic ukuleles are completely fixed in their fretwork, bridge, nut, and action. You can’t take it apart and file things down, or adjust a truss rod. Luckily, everything’s in its place. The intonation is very good, even far up the neck. This is particularly important since it has a cutaway; there’s no use in being able to reach the high notes if it sounds terrible!
A lot of people find that tuning up one step from the usual gCEA ukulele tuning gets a better tone from sopranos. I find this particularly true of the BugsGear Aqualele. Tuned to gCEA, it sounds fine, but it comes to life in aDF#B. Some of the inherent dullness from the plastic construction is lost, and it seems to project better. I’d highly recommend this tuning for the BugsGear Aqualele, and for sopranos in general.
The main reason most people get plastic ukuleles like the BugsGear Aqualele is for durability. They’re made to withstand a lot of adverse conditions that can cause problems with wooden ukuleles. And on these fronts, the Aqualele does the job very well.
You can take it out in the rain, splash it with water, spray it with a hose, or even dunk it in the pool and it’ll be fine. I’ve left it in the car over a cold winter night without any worries. And it holds up to the usual bumps and dings very well, without showing the obvious scratches that a wooden uke might collect. For anyone who loves backpacking, kayaking, or other all-weather, all-terrain hobbies, this will withstand pretty much anything that you can throw at it (within reason).
You can even take it on a waterslide!
The one area to watch out for with this and all ABS plastic ukuleles is heat. As ABS heats up, it softens. In normal conditions, this doesn’t happen nearly enough to affect the ukulele. But in extreme temperatures like those in a hot car in the summer, the plastic can start to warp. Since the neck is under tension from the strings, it will start to curve inwards like a banana. This makes the ukulele all but unplayable.
However, this is under very extreme conditions, usually only “hot car in the sun on a summer day”-type heat. For those in desert climates like the Southwest of the US, it may be more of a concern. Otherwise, just keep your ukulele out of temperatures over about 110ºF (43ºC) and you’ll be fine. This is also true, by the way, for wooden ukuleles, who will warp and come unglued at similar temperatures. Come to think of it, you really shouldn’t be in those conditions, either!
If you’re looking for a ukulele you can take anywhere without worrying, the BugsGear Aqualele is a great option. Tonally, it won’t replace the wooden ukuleles in your life, but it still sounds good. It makes up for some of the inherent issues of plastic ukuleles with some neat design elements. And it’s a ukulele that certainly stands out in the looks department.
It may not be for everyone, but it’s well worth checking out. Even if you’re a traditionalist when it comes to ukuleles, this may be the one to sway you over to the dark (or neon bright!) side of plastic ukes!