FROM THE WINTER 2016 ISSUE OF UKULELE | BY AARON KEIM
Whether you are a casual shopper at the local music store or ready to order a high-end custom ukulele, choosing the wood for your next ukulele can be overwhelming. Every builder has his own ideas about wood selection, each music store carries different lines of instruments, and looking for answers on the internet might lead to more questions than answers. Hopefully we can break it down for you and relieve some of the worry about wood.
‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’ Approaches
The ukulele has a unique history that has led to the types of woods that we use today. The original Hawaiian builders used koa because this beautiful local wood was easy to use and readily available to them. If they had been in a different location, they probably would have chosen something else! When the ukulele craze hit the mainland and C.F. Martin & Co. got in the game, the company used its stock of South American mahogany as an alternative to the more expensive, and harder to obtain, koa. Almost all of the ukuleles from this golden age were built using one kind of wood for the top, back, and sides, creating what I think of as a traditional ukulele sound.
This approach gives builders a chance to use beautifully figured wood on the tops, instead of the plainer tops that we usually see on acoustic guitars, and to show off their aesthetic ideas to the audience, instead of hiding it on the back and sides. At Mya-Moe, where I used to build ukuleles, we preferred myrtle for ukuleles in this style, as it is local to us in Oregon, looks amazing, and sounds great. Other medium-density woods can also serve this purpose, such as sycamore, cherry, mango, and walnut.
Many modern builders pair a softwood top with hardwood back and sides because it is a great way to get the best tone, volume, and presence from the instrument. The softwood top pumps like a speaker and the hardwood back acts like a reflector, sending the sound out to the audience. Some common examples of softwood tops include spruce, cedar, and redwood. Proven hardwoods for ukulele backs and sides include maple, rosewood, mahogany, koa, walnut, and ebony. I often encourage customers to avoid comparisons between these modern style instruments and the more traditional approach to building; they really are apples and oranges.
Flexibility and Options
One of the good things about the ukulele world is that builders and players are not as constrained by tradition when compared to violin or guitar builders. A classical violinist is unlikely to hit the stage with anything but a spruce and maple violin. Few bluegrass guitarists will play anything except a spruce-topped dreadnought with rosewood or mahogany back. In the uke world, however, the rules are more flexible.
Modern builders experiment with almost anything, including domestic and local species that guitar builders won’t necessarily risk.
It also can be problematic to compare tonewoods between different builders. After all, the wood is just one factor in the sound of the instrument. Each individual builder’s shape and construction adds so much to the instrument’s sound that it isn’t fair to compare a koa uke from Collings or Kamaka with a koa ukulele made by Chuck Moore or Eric DeVine. I believe it’s much more productive to compare instruments made from different woods within a maker. For example, you will get a much more useful comparison by playing a koa Kala vs. a spruce-and-maple Kala.
Remember that most ukuleles in the entry-level price range are not made of solid wood, but laminated wood. You might even see a thin veneer of a crazy exotic wood laminated onto a plain inside core. A laminate ukulele is not inherently a bad-sounding instrument, but this construction method is most common among entry-level instruments. Building ukuleles with laminates makes the instruments more affordable. These ukuleles are also more durable than solid wood instruments, perfect for the beach, camping trip, or outdoor gig.
Your best bet when buying a new uke is always to play as many different instruments in your price range as possible. That way you can build up your “sonic palate” and zero-in on what you are looking for. Even though the wood species is important, don’t get hung up on it. Just make a decision and get ready to strum your new ukulele!
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments, and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American, an old-time folk music duo based in Hood River, Oregon.