One of the most important factors to consider is, “what is the best wood for a ukulele?”When picking up a ukulele, the budget of the buyer, the skill level of the learner and the aesthetic are all things to take into account. However, these factors are also shaped by the type of wood the ukulele is made of. This is because the wood is the material that is responsible for relaying the vibrations that make up the notes you play on the ukulele. That is why it is often referred to as the ‘tonewood’ of the instrument due to the impact it has on the sound. The resonance and the emphasis on the highs and lows that the stringed instruments will produce- it all depends on the wood. The ‘tonewood’ of the ukulele will affect its ‘voice’.
Music is a language of the heart, the most widespread form of expression in this era. People of all walks of life, countries, and ethnicities are joined together by this medium of entertainment. Has there been a time in your life, where you thought, after being touched by a cover of La Vie En Rose or Let it Be by the Beatles, that you too wanted to learn to speak this language?
Previously, it was quite the norm to see guitars as being the top pick for would-be singers to accompany their craft or for hobbyists in music but now the ukulele has overtaken as a much more accessible instrument. The learning curve isn’t quite as steep as it is with a guitar and the small stature allows for it to be more easily handled by kids. Veteran players are often also on the lookout for a better-suited instrument for their style of play. Of course, whether it’s your first or tenth time to pick up this instrument, several factors must go into choosing the best ukulele for you.
Before we can look at any particular attributes of wood, we must know what to look for. Different parts of the ukulele require different compositions so, let’s have a look at the ideal characteristics for each area:
Neck: It is the elongated part of the ukulele where the strings rest against. As it has to handle the string tension, resistance is the most important criteria.
Soundboard: It is the part of the ukulele that houses the soundhole. Arguably, the soundboard is the most responsible for the overall sound. As the string tension affects this part the most after the neck, it is important for it to be resistant. Elasticity is also a priority so that the notes can vibrate more and for longer.
Sides and bottom: The sides are the frame that attaches the top and bottom area together. Hard and dense surfaces reflect waves better thus it is great for containing the sound within the instrument and causes less loss in tone.
Bridge: This is the area near the soundhole where the strings are tied. Due to this, it’s necessary the woods used are both hard and stable so it does not budge.
Go to any ukulele shop and it’s likely you will be bombarded by the sheer numbers of types there are of ukuleles. Ranging from color, texture and pricing, it can be confusing even for a seasoned shopper, much less a newbie, to gauge what to go for. That is why it’s better to have some basic knowledge of what these woods can offer.
Mahogany: A light wood with relative resistance. Usually, it is found as red or a coppery brown in color with the exotic tree patterns many are a fan of. It is one of the most commonly used woods not only for ukuleles but instruments in general. It is not too hard or too soft and has a similar balance in its density. It is denser than exotic dark woods like rosewood and less dense than softer woods. The sound it produces is thick in the mid-range, both highs, and lows. Thus, if used in a soundboard, while it is not as bright as softwoods like spruce or cedar, it produces a focused sound in the mids.
But as the soundboards usually require a resonance to avoid forming closed off sounds, mahogany may not be the best pick since it is thick wood. However, because it is such a balanced type of wood, you will find many great sounding full-body ukuleles with this wood.
Koa: Otherwise known as Acacia koa, this exotic wood may be the sound many attributes to the ukulele if they are fans of the Hawaiian performers as this wood originates from the island. Akin to mahogany, this type of wood is also popular for full body usage. It is aesthetically one of the most eye-catching, with its rugged wood grain patterns and beautiful coppery golden brown color. It has a bright and direct sound. Warm and mellow toned songs go perfectly with this ukulele. High ends are very clear with a balanced mid-range. If you are looking for the indigenous sound of a Hawaiian Ukulele, this is without a doubt the best option.
Spruce: A softwood that can offer strength. It has a light straw-colored appearance. Its high resonance allows it to produce crisp, bright sounds that are also loud and vibrant. It’s a good pick for a soundboard wood. The bass and mid-tier sound articulation are very consistent and strong, which makes this type of wood suitable for emotive songs. As spruce is so well-balanced and offers versatility in range, it is great for dynamic and aggressive strumming. You may find your instrument sounding better with time, as the wood changes over the course of its life.
Cedar: It is another softwood that is softer than the spruce. Commonly seen in ukuleles, it offers a quieter, warmer sound compared to the loudness of the spruce. Spruce can catch the ear of the listener but the player fond of darker tones will go for the cedar. Fingerstylists prefer this type of soundboard. Cedar is also a light-colored wood but it is darker, with more reddish tones than the spruce, much like how the sound is darker.
Rosewood: It is a very hard wood on the expensive side of things but the features it brings are aplenty. Quite strong and heavy, it produces a warm and balanced sound, with accentuated highs and deep lows along with the mid-range. It is not as seen in the ukuleles as in the other woods. It is mostly found on the sides and backs sides of acoustic guitars, but it is impressive whenever used in ukuleles. Its dark color and beautiful grain make it an attractive and popular choice to many.
Brazilian rosewood is more expensive due to a lack of supply but its Indian variant, which is sonically just as capable and sometimes even better, has less grain and a darker color which may satisfy a different set of tastes. Rosewood is a great option for the soundboard or you may pair a softwood soundboard with rosewood in the sides and the backs. These attributes and the hardness of this wood are also why it is used as the bridge in higher quality models.
Maple: Hard and dense, maple is also one of the most aesthetically pleasing, with its various patterns such as flamed, spiraled, or even tiger figures. It is heralded for its clarity and clean sound which makes it a great companion to have in the studio. Maple tends to enhance the higher ends, so if you’re playing with sounds rich in the low end, or perhaps you have a low singing tone, maple may be the choice for you. Due to its density, it’s often seen used on the sides and the backs.
Mango: Tough and durable, mango wood used to be one of the most common for ukuleles but less so these days. However, that does not take away from its qualities. It is originally from India and is on the affordable side. Its tonal qualities and physical density make it suitable for stringed instruments. Like maple, it also has various figures and is often seen in a yellow-toned brown color.
Ebony: It is an extremely dense and compact wood. As the name suggests, it is also dark in color with zero grain. It is so valuable and expensive that it’s only seen in the fretboards and finishing.
The takeaway from this discussion is that full-body mahogany and koa ukuleles are commonplace and usable but to strike the right balance for your play style, there are many options for you to go for certain woods in the soundboard or sides and backs.
Now that we’ve established a baseline, let’s try to understand the compositions the wood can take in a ukulele.
Woods used in the ukuleles are categorized into two types of builds: solid, which is a part made from a single piece of wood, and laminate, which is one that has multiple layers of wood glued together. Solid wood is much more expensive and higher in quality, offering rich resonance and tone. It is suitable for performance artists and musicians. The only disadvantage, aside from the cost, of using solid woods is that they are quite sensitive to their environment so, high maintenance is required for this type of builds.
Whereas laminated woods are good for the traveler or concert musician, as it has a higher resistance and strength and also for beginners due to its low pricing. Laminate wood may not live up to the richness of solid wood but it has its designated use. Oftentimes, the sides and backs of ukuleles are laminated to make the instrument sturdier.
The answer is, of course, subjective. You may be a newcomer with a small budget in which case standard full-body mahogany is the best pick or if you’re a studio artist set on fingerpicking, you may go for a cedar soundboard with rosewood backs and sides. You have to think about whether or not you will be traveling a lot with your ukulele. Even then, your individual tastes will affect what sound you deem good or bad.
In the end, you will only truly know after you have tried out the different ukuleles in a shop, which sound is to your preference and which aesthetic catches your eye, but learning about the effects each type of wood has will surely help you in your journey.