BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Though founded in 2011, Twisted Wood is a relatively new arrival to music stores in the U.S. The company specializes in laminated, solid wood, and solid-top ukuleles, plus steel-string acoustic and Weissenborn-style guitars. Designed at the Twisted Wood shop in Alberta, Canada, the instruments are manufactured in China before being sent back to Alberta for final setup. For our review, we received the tenor version of the Switchback, an attractive ukulele featuring a solid koa top and laminated back and sides made from koa, with a cutaway for higher fret access. The Switchback is available with your choice of two pickups, or as an acoustic, like our tester.
Let’s take a closer look. The combination of a solid top and laminated back and sides is called a hybrid. This type of construction generally gives a superior tone to an all-laminated uke, thanks to the lighter, more flexible solid top. Because of the laminated back and sides, the Switchback comes in at a lower cost than an all-solid wood instrument. The laminated components also give you a more stable and durable uke in the face of humidity changes. Some also claim that the stiffer back helps to provide hybrids with excellent projection.
The top and back are bound with a single layer of black celluloid, and the dark rosewood rosette adds a simple yet elegant touch to the top. The bridge is shaped from purpleheart, which is a very dense and heavy wood from Central and South America that’s also known as amaranth. The bridge here is dyed a dark, almost black color and has the pinless style that feeds the strings through the bridge. The Switchback’s body and neck have a thin satin finish that was absolutely flawless and silky to the touch.
The C-shaped mahogany neck had a comfortable profile and was unstained to show off the mahogany’s natural color. The fingerboard is made from Richlite, a composite made from sheets of paper that are saturated in resin and treated under pressure and heat until its strength and density are close to that of ebony. All 19 frets were nicely shaped, with no detectable buzzing and smooth crowning for comfortable playing on the fingerboard’s flat radius.
My test instrument arrived with a string height of 1/8-inch at the 12th fret, which is pretty high for most people. And, because of the increased distance needed to press the string to the fingerboard, the intonation was off as I went up the neck (where the expensive chords are). Thankfully, lowering the height at the saddle is an easy fix for my only criticism of this uke and is something that a luthier could do lickety-split. The headstock looked straight-up classy with a classic crown shape and a Richlite faceplate inlaid with the Twisted Wood logo. The enclosed tuners have black plastic buttons and work well for accurate tuning.
The Twisted Wood’s volume output was modest, even under forceful strumming. Still, its tone was pretty for an instrument in this price range. All in all, this ukulele is very well balanced. Chords sounded even to my ear and felt even to my hands as they resonated. No single string seemed to dominate or be too quiet.
Like I’d expect while strumming a koa uke, each chord on the Switchback began with a quick attack at the front of the notes and a long decay. This gave me plenty of opportunities to discover this tenor’s expressive qualities. I could just as quickly summon staccato chord chops for some sprightly swing on “Oh, Lady Be Good” as I could vary the front and back end of each chord voicing. This helped me add variety to more midtempo pieces or use the Switchback’s sustain for greasy slides between chords. If you’re a wild strummer, the cutaway’s sharp edge might catch your flailing knuckles and fingertips on the first few passes but you’ll probably adjust as I did.
Single notes from the low C all the way up the fingerboard produced a warm, round sound that popped with a pleasing directness. I ended up grabbing this ukulele to work on melody lines because I liked how effortless it was to get a good, clear sound that was also warm and rang out. The Switchback’s comfortable neck and expressive notes made it both easy and pleasant to work on the fingerpicking patterns of Samantha Muir’s arrangement of “Danse Paysanne” and the sophisticated chord voicings of Byron Yasui’s arrangement of “Tea for Two.”
One of the things about solid koa is that its sound changes over time. With some ukes, you know right away how it’s going to sound down the road. Still, solid koa is a hardwood, like mahogany, which continues to improve as it’s played and as it ages. The Switchback’s koa top is noticeably thicker than the two solid koa ukes I compared it to. However, I’d expect this ukulele’s tone to continue to mature over the years, growing richer and mellower while maintaining some of the snap and bark that koa is known for.
At $329, the Twisted Wood Switchback is positioned at a very competitive price point for tenor ukuleles. Any maker—established or new to the scene—will have to offer something to stand out from the crowd. However, options and opportunities for decent instruments equipped with solid woods and electronics really begin to abound when you cross the $300 threshold. For its entry price, the Switchback offers players a very handsome instrument with elegant appointments and a solid koa top whose tone will likely continue to improve as it breaks in.
BODY Solid koa top on laminated koa back and sides; cutaway; black celluloid binding; rosewood rosette; pinless ebonized purpleheart bridge with bone compensated saddle
NECK 17″ tenor scale mahogany neck; 19-fret Richlite fingerboard with a flat radius; 1.38″-wide at the bone nut; chrome closed-back tuners with black plastic buttons; Richlite headplate with Pearloid logo
OTHER Several different pickup options; Aquila strings; padded gig bag
PRICE $329 street
MADE IN China
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.