Sweet. Mellow. Woody.
Just three simple words summon the iconic sound of the affable ukulele, a delightful instrument hailing from Hawaii that has captured the hearts (and ears) of people the world over.
So where does that enchanting, heartwarming sound come from?
Very simply, the magic is in the wood.
(Well, the wood and the deft fingers of great uke players, of course …)
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Tonewood: A Primer
The concept behind tonewood is familiar to most musicians as it applies to a vast range of instruments. Indeed, any wooden instrument will yield a different tone depending on what kind of wood was used in its construction. This is especially true of hollow-bodied, string instruments, such as the ukulele.
Here’s how it works.
When a string is plucked, strummed (or bowed), it transmits vibrations from the string to the top (face), or soundboard, of the instrument as well as the back and sides. How the wood responds to these vibrations shapes the sound that we hear, from sustain to projection to the frequency ranges that stand out.
The wood’s response has everything to do with its density. Dense hardwoods tend to produce darker, lower tones while light softwoods generally sound bright and loud.
Given that the ukulele is a relatively uncomplicated and versatile instrument, its tonewood speaks (or more precisely, plays) volumes …
Not surprisingly, the most common and best tonewoods for ukulele yield a myriad of colors and tones that suit an equally wide range of styles and settings.
Whether soloing high above a festive ensemble or backing a laid-back singer, there’s a tonewood for that!
No conversation about ukulele tonewood is complete without mention of Hawaiian koa. A type of acacia tree that only grows on the Hawaiian islands, Hawaiian koa is where the ukulele has its roots. The first ukuleles were constructed of koa and, to this day, professional uke players prefer this tonewood for its sweet and warm qualities as well as its superior sustain.
Soprano uke players are especially drawn to koa for the clear high-end frequencies that it affords alongside rich mids and balanced lows.
An exotic wood with a curly grain, Hawaiian koa packs a visual punch that complements its classic sonic qualities. As such, instruments made with Hawaiian koa fetch top dollar and are often found only in the hands of professional players.
Bright in sound and spirit, spruce is a very popular choice for modern ukes. Known for its bassier qualities, spruce is the tonewood of choice for lower register instruments such as the baritone uke.
Due to its low density, spruce projects extremely well and is ideal for uke players who frequently perform for larger crowds. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find spruce ukuleles that are constructed with a denser wood such as mahogany for the back or sides to tame the volume ever so gently.
Spruce can also be a fingerpicker’s delight for its ability to produce well-balanced, crisp tones across the instrument’s range.
Technically a hardwood, mahogany ranks as less dense than other hardwoods but still produces a noticeable darker tone than softwoods like spruce and cedar. It boasts robust mids and lows with a warm and woody all-around tone.
Mahogany is a readily available wood, and as such, is a popular choice for beginners as it produces a classic mellow uke tone but comes in at a much lower price point. Plus, it looks as robust and engaging as it sounds.
Somewhere between the brightest spruce and the darkest mahogany is the well-balanced yet complex cedar. Known for its clarity and control, cedar is the tonewood of choice for anyone playing with advanced finger stylings.
While darker and bassier than spruce, cedar shines when it comes to ear-tickling, super-engaging overtones. It may not be as visually appealing as other tonewoods, but cedar truly offers a rich listening experience unique amongst its tonewood brethren.
Like Hawaiian koa, mango offers a more exotic look alongside the traditional ukulele sound. While rare these days, mango ukes have a wild look to them that still sparks debate amongst today’s uke players. According to the brain trust, you either love the look of mango wood or hate it.
What everyone does agree on is the sublime beauty of its tone. Sonically, mango wood projects resonant mids with a bright yet mellow and laid-back tone, ideal for the ukulele. Plus, they’re about as durable a uke as you can get for a solid wood instrument.
Solid vs. Laminate
Speaking of solid wood, many beginning ukulele players find themselves encouraged to find an array of budget ukes constructed with laminate wood instead of solid. Which begs the question: how much worse are laminate wood ukes than solid wood ukes?
Surprisingly, laminate wood ukes aren’t as atrocious as a musician might think. Certainly, the sound is thinner and less complex, which for a pro is non-negotiable. But frankly, they sound fine and have a few additional upsides.
For example, amateur players who travel regularly and like to bring their instruments with them may benefit from the durability of laminate wood ukes. They are also less susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity.
Ideally, an aspiring uke player will acquire a laminate wood instrument (backs and sides) with a solid wood soundboard (top) to enjoy at least a little taste of the complexity that specific tonewoods can offer. Imagine getting a dose of that traditional koa sound without the painful price!
It seems no coincidence that the versatility and easy spirit of the ukulele is also reflected in the wide range and combinations of tonewoods that evoke its classic sound. From the bright and bassy sound of spruce to the evocative and complex signature of cedar, it’s no wonder that the charming ukulele seems to speak to just about everyone it encounters.