Which tone wood? - Which sound?
Aloha, buying an ukulele is like choosing a life partner. Only the partnerships with ukuleles don’t have to be too monogamous.
Our little partners are made from wood, most of the time. A lot of instruments, especially the cheaper ones, are not solid, but laminated wood. This might be excellent for furniture, but for instruments… not so much. In this blog post i will explain the difference and help you to find the right instrument(s).
Of course it is a matter of money. Ukes that are made from solid tone wood are usually more expensive, with a starting price at 100$. Sometimes you’ll find a solid top with a laminated back and sides, and that may sound like a good compromise but you’re still taking a few risks in terms of build and tone quality.
So what makes the difference?
The top of our instrument is like a speaker membrane which amplifies the vibrations of the strings. The frequencies build up on the sound board in specific acoustic fields. In order for this to work properly the “membrane’’ has to be able to vibrate properly. For this to happen we need a good quality wood.
Laminated tops are often too stiff because of the extra glue. Another faktor to cosider is that the unique qualities of the different woods are generally indistinguishable after the laminating process. But on the plus side, if you already have or really want a laminated instrument, laminated instruments are very solid and very often they can sound quite nice.
Depending on the choice of the surface wood they can look great (picture 1). And if you are playing a moderately priced uke, it is up to you to have the most fun you possibly can.
Ukuleles made from solid tone wood also have very good quality materials in other areas. For instance the bridge and saddle will be made of bone, well adjusted frets, and precise tuners are just a few positive qualities that we want in our uke. Of course the look of a Ukulele can’t tell us anything about the sound, but a good looking Uke is a good looking Uke!
Instruments from Hawaii are usually built from Koa wood. This is a special type of acacia tree that only grows in Hawaii and only this wood is allowed to be named Koa. Koa is very responsive, warm, and with a good sustain. (See pictures 2 and 3 to see Koa and Acacia)
Mahogany is also a great tone wood. It has a dark and warm tone with a shorter sustain (picture 4).
Spruce tops with maple back and sides have a bright and clear sound (picture 5). You will also find the typical combination from guitars on Ukuleles. There are spruce tops with rosewood backs and sides. This combination produces a clear and warm sound but lacks the typical Ukulele sound. Sometimes you even find a cedar tops which sound very direct and strong. And then you can find mango, willow, zebra etc. There’s no reason to stick to one Uke, so go and discover you’re all time 3 favorites!!
What is important now?
First of all: There is a love at the first tone. You have to love it. You will find Ukes with quick response which are great for strumming and you will find instruments with a long nice sustain. This might be perfect for fingerstyle/solo play.
Decide which sound you need. If you test Ukes also check the sound quality from 7th fret and up. Even if you don’t play there very often this might change later…
My Koa Ukes from Hawaii combine a good response with a warm sustain and are both handmade luthier instruments. My Martin mahogany from 1970 (the later IZ-series) is fast and warm with a shorter sustain. You can see in the picture that it doesn’t look all that spectacular, but it sounds fantastic. My little Ko’Aloha soprano (picture 6) with concert sized neck is absolutely the superior and loudest instrument of the group. The workshop has a special method to build their instruments very solid. As a result they are able use thin woods of a high quality that produces a perfect sound. As a side note, the special characteristics of sound for each tone wood are the same for all different sizes of Ukuleles.
So, what’s your Uke like?
What do you dream to play? Luckily we can own more than one. If you visit festivals you will meet lots of people with their own instruments and styles. These are great event to find new techniques, playing styles, instrument styles and just to play with people, who love Ukulele as much as you! Sometimes you find exhibitions with many instruments in all price levels. Don’t be shy!
I hope that I could open your minds to the many Uku possibilities and provide you with good advice for your future exploration!!
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That’s it for now!