I was gonna 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? but mainly 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 it’s tonality. Here’s my mix of facts and opinions on the most common woods used.
Mahogany: This is one of, if not the most common wood used for musical instruments. In the ukulele world almost everyone uses it for their neck. It has great strength at lower weights. Mahogany is a hard wood but in the middle of the spectrum. It is much less dense than other hard woods like rosewood and most exotic dark woods, and more dense than softwoods like spruce and cedar. Early on it became the ukulele sound. Almost every Martin Ukulele was an all mahogany body. It produces a focused sound. Thicker in the low mid and high mids. 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 amongst the best tonewoods . At about the same density though, their 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. It’s coloring is heard in almost every ukulele made in Hawaii. The indigenous wood has become the indigenous sound. And it’s physical attraction is strong. Many of us have experienced it.
Most builders recognize 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 are the most loved..
Spruce: is a softwood but 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? It’s the emotional warm… I think? The harsher tones are not there. or maybe it is heat related warm, because of how that makes you feel good. Could sound be temperature related? Anyways, 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 it’s dynamics are arguably the best. 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 very unique. A big, full voice many think is the best and others hear as unfocused. A spatial feel but not as cutting in the highs.
So we mentioned Mahogany and Koa that is most often used for the entire body. When there is a soft wood 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 these woods-
Rosewood sides and back (seen above with the cedar top) is 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 renown for it’s clarity, less overtone clutter 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. Excellent for recording and often paired with Spruce.
So that’s the basics, the most common woods you will see when looking for an ukulele. There are many other options. But we will look closer as they come by. a hui ho.