You may have noticed me use the term 'Over Built' when describing my thoughts on particular ukulele models. What do I mean by that and why should you be concerned?
|Martin T1K - an example of a well made, thin resonant solid wood ukulele. Bags of volume!|
Now we have talked before on here about the huge myth that surrounds solid woods and laminates (and the horrible tendency for some to buy cheap solid wood ukes and immediately claim they are automatically better than any laminates) so we won't go over all that again. But it does tend to be the preserve of those cheaper 'buy me!!! I'm SOLID wood' types of instrument that exist.
Generally speaking a good sounding ukulele needs a nice mix of tonal clarity and volume projection and those things come in a large part from the way it has been built. More specifically in how the sound board wood has been finished and then braced. In a perfect world a ukulele would have very thin woods in the soundboard and the bracing that keeps the soundboard in one piece, but it's a balancing act between keeping things light and not creating an instrument that will implode and split under the tension from the strings. This is why good laminate ukes can be much thinner, as the laminate wood is naturally stronger.
Think of the sound box of the ukulele as a taut drum, and in part it is the tension of those strings keeping the sound board top (the bit that does most of the work) tight and resonant. It's the vibration of the strings travelling down through the bridge and creating vibrations in that taut sound board that gives the ukulele it's tone and projection. Consider an over built ukulele as being like a drum that has a bunch of old rags stuffed inside it... Alternatively, you would never buy a drum whose head was made from thick plastic.
So how do they over build them? Well, the most obvious casualties are seen in the thickness of the soundboard (and to an extent, the back and sides) and in the thickness of the bracing. I have found that at the cheapest end some of the main culprits of this practice have used noticeably thick sound board woods and bracing that look like pieces of skirting board taken from a house! Add on top of that there is the common tendency for these sort of instruments to come with an extremely heavy gloss finish (these makers seem more concerned at how they will look on the wall of a music shop than how they actually sound) and you have another factor in killing that tone and volume. The more you add to that vibrating body and the more you are going to dampen the sound.
Hang on Baz.. we are talking cheap ukes here -why would they use MORE materials? Surely they would skimp on materials wouldn't they? Well, no actually. The use of a thick soundboard or heavy braces is not, in the bigger scheme of things, really any more expensive than thinner / smaller ones. In fact the process of getting a thin soundboard made to a standard that will not split yet sound resonant and a brace into a nice thin delicate scalloped shape takes time, effort and skill. And that time effort and skill costs money.
And there is another reason this tends to happen (and, indeed where I see many examples of this from the 'guitar makers ukes' - you know - the famous guitar brands who have stuck their name on the headstock of a generic Chinese instrument in order to climb on the ukulele bandwagon...). You see the heavier a uke is, the less likely it is to split and crack and that means less chances of a return or bad reviews appearing online thus damaging their reputation. Any ukulele can split with the wrong treatment, and even the highest end ukes can suffer if there is an inherent flaw in the finely balanced woods it is made from. But if you work in a numbers game, importing factory made ukuleles at a budget from China, and if you have a respected brand name attached to the headstock, the last thing you want is a flood of returns.
So for such builders, it's not only cheaper and quicker to build a ukulele without much care and attention to tone and volume, but it's safer too.
So how can you tell? Well first of all, bear in mind that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Do your homework and compare prices at all ranges in the uke world. If something stands out far too noticeably in the 'how can they make a solid ukulele at that price' stakes, then chances are you may want to take some care. But most of all you are really best advised to play the thing before you buy it. How does it feel compared to other ukes? Does it feel heavy in the hands? Warning sign! It should not be heavy! Does it feel resonant? Tap the soundboard with your fingers - does it sound like a drum or does it sound dead? I would argue that a ukulele body that doesnt function as a half decent hand drum with some snappy response from the fingers will never really sound great as a ukulele. Play the thing - ukuleles are not really known for their sustain, but you should get some. Do the notes just die off very quickly? How is the volume? A well made ukulele can get a surprising amount of projection and volume, but that will quickly be sapped by heavy woods and braces.
I'm no luthier who would be able to explore all sorts of other factors that come in to play, such as brace placement, bracing shapes and patterns. In fact there are also plenty of armchair enthusiasts who will debate this subject until the cows come home (time better spent playing the thing I say). But the general rule of thumb has to be this. If the uke is built with too much wood and too heavy a construction, it will kill the tone and resonance. There was a reason why, as children, we strung rubber bands around tissue boxes and not around bricks....
And finally, to repeat an old theme. Just because it says solid wood does not been it's 'better'. If you are in a shop and play a few and the laminate model projects and sounds better - get the laminate. Because after all, eye candy and misconceptions are not what playing a ukulele is all about. Surely it should be about sound and playability. So to the builders who just throw them together with little care other than making sure they are shiny and that your makers logo is applied in sparkly mother of pearl... Shame on you. Why not direct your efforts into making a good sounding instrument instead?
(Also note, that whilst the over built cheap uke is almost certainly the most common, there are also some cheaper end models where they have gone for ultra thin cheap woods in order to make that projection stand out. Sadly, I've seen countless examples of these that have split or bowed. I think it says more about their quality control standards on building and lack of expertise than anything else. A nicely made, thin, light solid wood ukulele takes the skill of a builder to pull off. Go carefully!)
© Barry Maz