Thursday, June 10, 2010

Love at First Strum: Review of the Boulder Creek Riptide UT-2N Spruce Top Tenor

Words and pictures by Lamb Chop

One of the greatest things about living near Elderly Instruments, the Lansing, Michigan destination for new and vintage (elderly) stringed instruments, is that I get to sample from among one of the largest and finest collections of ukuleles this side of Hawaii. I always have fun when I go there, but sometimes I fall in love. That’s what happened when I found the Boulder Creek Riptide spruce top tenor.

Quite honestly, I had never heard of Boulder Creek or its parent company, Morgan Hill Music, before. Primarily a guitar company, they are rather new to the ukulele market. While their models are imported from the Pacific Rim, they have physical and stylistic innovations that make them stand out from the crowd. What first caught my eye about the Riptide ukulele was its Dual Port system, which features a small, offset soundhole on the top and a larger one placed of its rosewood side. As the Riptide literature notes, “Moving the front sound port away from the center of the soundboard helps to increase volume, tone, and sustain…”

I don’t know why this configuration works, but it does; I have never experienced a louder, crisper tone, even among other spruce top ukuleles. There is something magical about the Riptide by Boulder Creek.

It was love at first strum!

The spruce top tenor, officially designated the UT-2N, is one of 19 models in Boulder Creek’s Riptide line of Standard Mahogany, Deluxe Mahogany (which upgrades to a solid top), and the Spruce & Rosewood series, which features a solid spruce top and laminated sides. Series sizes range from soprano to baritone, with some models getting a Boulder Creek UK-300T preamp and pickup system (an undersaddle model, which seems to be the best way to amplify a ukulele) with built-in tuner. Each features a unique cut-out Boulder Creek headstock and are all beautifully finished.

The UT-2N, a non-amplified model, is equipped with sealed diecast tuners that hold tune well with none of the slop found on the kind of tuners usually used at this price point. Scale length is 26.25” with a rosewood board of 18 frets, the fit and finish of which are excellent. Rosewood bridge, and, if I am not mistaken, it comes strung with Aquila Nylguts, which are fast becoming my favorite string, especially for spruce tops.

The gloss finish of the natural top (there is a darker vintage top available in the series as well) shines beautifully, as does its dark, glossy-finished laminated rosewood sides which take on an almost deep black appearance. Abalone inlay surrounds the top and both soundholes; wish the headstock logo was abalone as opposed to screened gold, but it still looks nice. Some people don’t seem to like the abalone Riptide logo, which is set where the soundhole usually goes, but it is unique and well done. The fretboard markers are easy to see and the overall fit and finish is simply remarkable.

Looks are one thing, but it’s playability that counts. While the action is not as low as that of a similarly priced Lanikai S-T or S-TEQ spruce top tenor, the Riptide has a low-to-medium setting that is incredibly fast, fluid and playable. No buzzes or rattles, either; set-up was perfect right out of the box.

The Dual Port system works well with the spruce and rosewood, providing tons of traditional tone with lots of sustain and brilliant harmonics. Indeed, while some spruce tops lose that essential ukulele sound found on koa and mahogany models, the Riptide oozes that vibe—it just does it with a lot more volume. Boulder Creek got it right; once I picked it up, I could not put it down. The Riptide has become my Riptide, and it is now my “go-to” ukulele and will likely remain so for some time.

I did make one alteration by drilling a hole in the bottom plate to install a GHS-A37 unidirectional internal microphone. As you can tell by my photo, I routed the mic, which is primarily designed to sit under the soundboard of a full size guitar, out of the Riptide’s side soundhole and up towards the top. Surprising, this gives me a really nice amplified tone with virtually no feedback, provided all the adjustments on my amp are right. If I had it to do over, I’d most likely just go with the UT-2N A/E version with onboard electronics, but there were none in stock at the time. I dreaded drilling into that beautiful wood, but I did so without harming the finish and am happy with the result.

Boulder Creek guitars, which feature an innovative bracing system, are building quite a following, with endorsements from a number of artists such as Julianne Hough, Amanda Martin, and Jenny Tate, as well as Grant Mickelson and Paul Sidoti playing with Taylor Swift, Trey Hill with Kellie Pickler, and Mike Scott, who performs with Justin Timberlake. I would not be at all surprised to find Boulder Creek’s Riptide ukuleles getting their own set of professional endorsements. Having played ukuleles costing literally thousands more than the Boulder Creek Riptide, these are as good of a value as one can get. If money were no object—of course, it always is—I would still have a Riptide in my arsenal, even with all the choices my proximity to Elderly affords.

-Lamb Chop

1 comment:

  1. Lamb Chop, I was impressed with how the sound of the uke just jumped off the video in your 'Middle-Aged Guy' tune. Very crisp and resonant. Thanks for the review. I've seen these on ebay and on elderly's site and was curious about their sound.