The Fender Montecito Ukulele was introduced last fall, during a refresh of its California Coast series.
The all-koa Montecito’s gorgeous beach-blonde and tan wood grains glisten through its high-gloss finish, while the snazzy blue-green abalone used for the top purfling and soundhole rosette conjure images of a sea surf lapping away at the playa. Cream-colored edge binding along the top, bottom, and fretboard adds an air of elegance. The four-in-line Tele headstock with vintage-style closed-back tuning machines invokes the unmistakable image of a classic Fender dream machine. Even the inside label bears an image of a sailboat on the ocean passing near a palm tree. Ukulele purists may scoff at a Tele-style headstock on a uke, but Fender is honoring its California roots. The tuners actually work well, too, which ain’t always the case on affordable ukes.
The Montecito is a tenor ukulele, meaning it’s the third biggest of the four main body styles: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. Therefore, the Montecito sounds a bit fuller than the traditional Hawaiian tones of a soprano or concert, yet it retains plenty of brilliance. The Montecito’s solid koa top produces a lovely if rather soft tone with a warm resonance many ukes lack. In fact, Fender already has a koa tenor called the Nohea on the market that’s quite similar to the Montecito, but the Montecito’s solid top is a clear distinction from the Nohea’s laminated koa top. Somehow, they’re priced exactly the same, so the Montecito is a clearly a better value.
With 19 total nickel frets—14 to the body—notes are plentiful. Excellent action via a generous 17” scale length makes them easy to come by. The frets feel fantastic under the fingers, and the fretboard binding ensures smooth edges. The Montecito comes loaded with three unwound strings, and a wound fourth. Clearly, Fender decided that this rather guitar-like tenor should have a low G, rather than a high G as used in traditional re-entrant tuning, or “high G on top,” which would have a wound third string. Either way, the string tunings go G, C, E, A (4, 3, 2, 1). It’s simply a matter of how you prefer the sequence from low to high. Re-entrant uke players can easily swap out a couple of strings via the Montecito’s no-tie bridge. Being primarily a guitar player, I liked the lowest string having the lowest pitch, and the ensuing fretboard familiarity. Essentially, the Montecito plays exactly like the top four strings of a guitar, but the sound is up a fourth. Play an open D shape and the Montecito sounds a G chord. Still, the four-string layout will challenge you to consider what you already know in a new light. What’s the fingering for a C shape on just the top four strings? Hmm, that puts the third in the bass. You wind up learning and re-learning a lot, and playing in new ways no matter what.
Fender’s Montecito ukulele is gorgeous, pleasant-sounding, and a joy to play. It’s an inspiring songwriting tool and a perfect travel companion, even if its gig-bag lacks any padding whatsoever. The Fender Montecito is truly a guitar player’s ukulele, and that’s a good thing.
MODEL California Coast Montecito
PRICE $249 street
NUT WIDTH 1.375,” bone
FRETBOARD Laminated hardwood, 17” Scale
FRETS 19 vintage style
TUNERS Sealed nickel
BODY Laminated koa back and sides, solid koa top
BRIDGE Laminated hardwood with bone saddle
FACTORY STRINGS Fender Aquila Tenor set (1-4) .02425, .0305, .0365, .02675
KUDOS Stellar look, easy to play and learn on.
CONCERNS A little on the quiet side. Gig bag not padded.