You can’t answer that question with science or math. Even studying sound waves won’t factor things like individual playing styles or even distinctions in the same species of wood. The listener ultimately decides what determines whether a sound is good or bad. And we can all be subject to certain biases/illusions from time-to-time.
I was going to do an article on this this last year, but it’s so abstract. I touched on it in the article What Makes an Ukulele Good?, pointing out that the design and skill of the maker is the first determinate of tone. Great builders adjust to the woods’ attributes.
Beyond all of those other considerations, woods do make a difference. This is the material that is transmitting the vibration that makes the sound. The density and makeup of their cell structure in conjunction the other factors is what determine its tonality. We often use the terms hardwood and softwood. These terms do not necessarily indicate whether a wood is hard or not, rather hardwoods are from flowering plants that have seeds that are enclosed (angiosperms) such as mahogany, maple and walnut. Softwoods are non-flowering gymnosperms that do not flower and have unenclosed seeds (spruce, cedar.
Below is my mix of facts and opinions on some of the most common woods used.
Mahogany is a common – and possibly the most popular -- wood used for musical instruments. In the ukulele world almost everyone uses it for the neck. It has great strength at lower weights. Mahogany is a hardwood but in the middle of the spectrum. It is much less dense than other hard woods like rosewood and most exotic dark woods, yet more dense than softwoods like spruce and cedar. Early on it set the standard for the ukulele sound, because almost every Martin ukulele was an all mahogany body. Mahogany produces a focused sound, thicker in the low mid- and high mid-range. As a top, or soundboard, it is less bright in tone than softwoods, but more “punchy” in the mids. The problem with having a hardwood top is they are often too thick and don’t sound “open.” But done correctly, all mahogany is among the best sounding tonewoods.
At about the same density as mahogany, there is a more exotic wood, an alluring island tree vibrant in look and sound. Koa is the wood most synonymous with the ukulele. The sound is more direct with less overtone but good sustain and great attack strumming or picking. Very mid-range. Its coloring is heard in almost every ukulele made in Hawaii. The indigenous wood has become the indigenous sound. And its physical attraction is strong. Many of us have fallen under its spell.
Most builders recognize that the top, or the soundboard, is responsible for over 90% of the sound. Most with a quest for amazing tone on the ukulele will end up contemplating which wood for the soundboard. These three woods are the most loved.
Spruce is considered one of the softwoods but is very strong, crisp and vibrant. Known for being bright and loud, yet still full and warm. What do we mean when we describe sound as warm? Is it the emotional warmth? The harsher tones are not there. Or maybe it is heat-related warmth because of how it makes you feel good. Could sound be temperature related? Anyway, to me “warm” denotes strength in the mids and lower register, filling out the sound with a bed of warmth. LOL. Spruce excels across the range of frequencies and its dynamics are arguably the most complete. There are different types of spruce but we can go over those in another post.
Cedar is the second most common soundboard wood that you see in ukuleles. It is softer than spruce with less pointed mids but often more bass. You also get more complex overtones right off the bat with cedar. It’s alive, sweet and has just the right bite.
Redwood has much of the quality of cedar but is very unique. A big, full voice many think is the best while others hear something they think is unfocused. Redwood has a spatial feel but is not as cutting in the highs.
So we mentioned mahogany and koa that are often used for the entire body. When there is a softwood top like the ones we just looked at, there is often koa or mahogany sides and back, both of which are very responsive and excellent choices.
Other top choices include rosewood and maple.
Rosewood sides and back (seen above with the cedar top) are often used for the flagship models of acoustic guitar brands. It is not often seen in the uke world but when it is, you can often be impressed with the added mid range and low overtones. Rosewood even thickens up the higher range. Most often rosewood is paired with a softwood top, but Ko’olau offers an all rosewood model that sounds great. Otherwise pair rosewood sides and back together with a cedar or spruce top and get tones many consider to be the best.
Maple is renowned for its clarity. It tends to have less overtone clutter and strong dynamic ability. Clean and also fat when done right. Maple sides and back are on some of the best sounding ukes you will find. Often paired with Spruce, Maple can be excellent for recording.
So that’s a quick introduction to some of the basics, the most common woods you will see when looking for an ukulele. Of course, there are many other options. But we will look closer as they come by.Go ahead and ask questions here and we can share the answers for everyone. Aloha!
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