If you are new to ukulele and looking to choose the right one for your lessons. You may be confused with the different tonewoods in the ukulele. Just like building a house, a builder would use specific materials to bring out a particular style or to create a certain temperature within. The same goes for making the ukulele. Every ukulele maker has his own idea about the selection of wood used and each music store carries different lines of instruments. In this post, we will break down the different tonewoods to help you with your purchase.
Traditional Types of Ukes
The ukulele has a long history and it explains the different types of wood that are being used. The ukulele supposedly hailed from Portugal and was brought to Hawaii. From Hawaii, it gained popularity and the original ukuleles there are made with koa because it was easily available there.
When the ukulele became a hit in the U.S., C.F. Martin & Co. got into the business and used South American mahogany as an alternative to the more expensive and harder-to-obtain koa. Almost all the ukuleles from this golden era of the uke were built using one type of wood for the top, back and sides creating that traditional ukulele sound. This way of making ukuleles allows the top of the instrument to feature beautiful figured wood compared to the plainer tops used to make acoustic guitars.
Modern Types of Ukes
Modern ukulele builders pair a softwood top with a hardwood back and sides to bring out the best tone, volume, and presence from the instrument. The softwood top pumps like a speaker and the hardwood back act like a reflector, sending the sound out to the audience.
Common examples of softwood tops include spruce, cedar, and redwood. Hardwoods that are proven to work well for ukuleles’ backs and sides include maple, rosewood, mahogany, koa, walnut, and ebony.
It is not recommended for you to compare the traditional and modern makes of ukuleles as they are as different as apples and oranges.
The flexibility provided by Ukulele
Despite its long history, ukulele builders are not constrained like makers of traditional musical instruments like the violin or the guitar. For example, no violinist would hit the stage without a violin made with spruce and maple. Guitarists are also used to having a spruce-top dreadnought with rosewood or mahogany back.
Ukulele builders on the other hand, experiment with almost anything using domestic and local species of wood that guitar builders normally would not risk. Having a variety of wood to build the uke does not mean it would be easy to compare them though. The wood is just one factor in producing the ukulele sound. There is also the shape and way it is constructed that can also contribute to the instrument’s sound. Ukuleles made from koa from two different builders can be hard to compare due to the differences mentioned.
But, you can compare playing a koa Kala versus spruce and maple Kala. Do note that entry-level ukuleles are not made of solid wood but laminated wood. This does not mean that laminated ukuleles are bad-sounding instruments. This just makes ukuleles affordable and also more durable compared to solid wood instruments. Laminate wood ukuleles are suitable for the outdoors, such as the beach, camping trip or a picnic.
How to pick your first ukulele
The easiest way to pick your first ukulele is to visit a few shops. Pick up a few ukuleles of different wood, shapes, and sizes to play them. Compare the sound and how comfortable you are with different shapes and sizes. Don’t get too obsessed with the type of the tonewood. Use your gut and heart to let you know which type of ukulele is meant for you. If you are shopping online, you will miss out on the opportunity of getting up close and personal with your would-be instrument.