In your hunt to purchase a ukulele you will have noticed that there are a variety of different wood types you can buy - but how do they affect the sound?
In this guide I will give you my views on how the wood used in a ukulele affects the sound. This is in respect (in the main) of solid top instruments, not laminates. Laminates do vary by wood type, but the differences tend to be more in respect of how good a quality laminate it is. Solid woods though can have a big impact on the sound of the instrument.
(for more on woods - see my guides on wood here - Ukulele wood & More about ukulele wood )
Firstly, there is no right and wrong when it comes to wood types, and there is certainly no "best" wood. All woods differ and they sound they make has also got to be something you like the sound of. What sounds best to your ears may be different to mine. That said, I list below some of the main wood types you will encounter when ukulele shopping and their common characteristics.
One of the most common woods in ukulele making, it has a reasonable grain finish providing good looks, but provides a good balance between the bright trebly sounds the ukulele is famous for, whilst beefing up the bass sounds a little too. Also projects sound well with good volume. Its also cheaper than many other tonewoods, and as such provides, in my opinion, the best value for quality.
Koa is a Hawaiian hardwood, and a ukulele wood held in very high esteem in those islands. The wood is beautiful to look at with amazing grains (particularly the curly variety), and provides a sound that suits the ukulele perfectly. Very sweet sounding and warm. Loud rich, and used in the finest ukuleles, but very expensive. Koa instrument prices show the premium!
A common, reddish soft wood often used in acoustic guitars, cedar has a plain finish, and provides a very warm sound, evenly distributed amongst the strings. To my ear, a little too muddy sounding for the ukulele for which I appreciate a bit more treble, but a good wood nonetheless.
A very common, pale yellow wood used in guitar manufacture. Now seen on many cheaper ukuleles on the top only (usually with rosewood or mahogany backs and sides). It is a tough wood that makes for excellent strong soundboards and the Sitka variety is characterised by a very bright and rich tone, with less of the bass rounding that Mahogany provides. They are also very loud woods, but a touch TOO bright for my ears. Engelmann spruce is a slightly more mellow version which is often used in classical instruments.
A hard, resilient wood that is often chosen for its dramatic looks, particularly flamed or spalted woods that are stunning to look at. It provides a very very bright tone on the ukulele.
A beautiful looking, orange wood with beautiful grain, that is used increasingly as a more sustainable wood choice (as Mango is a fruit tree, the wood is harvested after the tree is no longer efficiently producing fruit, and is then replanted). Mango provides a warm yet bright tone, similar to walnut.
The woods above are amongst the most common you will find, but there are many others, each with differing properties (too many to go into in this beginners guide!) including Bubinga, Acacia, Lacewood and Myrtle. If you are going into the exotic wood direction, speak to a maker and ask opinions on sound, or better still, play before you buy.