Something I am seeing more and more of lately is the misconception that a laminate bodied ukulele is automatically 'junk' and a build made of solid wood, even a solid top is somehow a ticket to guaranteed 'great' quality musical instrument. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You are buying the myth if you think that.
|Kiwaya Eco Series - example of a great laminate|
I touched on this in my recent blog post about badly described ukes on dealer websites but wanted to go further. You see what prompted that post, and indeed what I think prompts sellers to be 'economical' with the truth is that they are riding on the myth amongst many buyers that laminate equals bad and solid equals good. It doesn't. You see, as with most things in life, there is good and bad in both of those types of uke construction.
Let's go back to basics though first. A laminate uke means the body is not made from solid pieces of timber, but rather from thin pieces of wood that has been sandwiched together from much thinner pieces. Plywood for want of a better term. A solid wood uke means that the wood pieces, as thin as they are, are simply very thin slices of wood from a solid piece of timber. There is a lot of stuff and nonsense about the differences, but VERY generally speaking, laminates cost less and tend to be the preserve of many bargain basement ukes, though not always. The theory with solid woods is that they provide their own character to the sound of the uke - the character of the tone wood, in a way that is impossible for laminates to do. They are said to vibrate more freely as the wood grains and fibres are still in one piece, unlike a laminate. Solid woods will also supposedly age in time and get mellower - although that is a huge point of debate in musical instrument circles. For laminates, they tend to be more one dimensional in sound, and don't carry the character of whatever wood is veneered on the outside. Oh it does get me when I see people talk about 'lovely zebra wood tone' of their laminate uke... but that is beside the point I am making. Laminates are however far stronger than solid woods and favoured by players in harsh climates as they are less prone to splitting.
To my ears, with a solid wood uke, assuming a good build, I have a good idea what it's tonal character will be, whether mahogany, Koa, Spruce etc. With a laminate I won't necessarily have a clue. Doesn't mean it won't make music though and it also doesn't mean it won't sound nice.
|Baton Rouge - a great laminate that won't break the bank|
But as with so many things in the ukulele world, myths spread and soon become realities in some peoples heads, especially if they have a tendency to being pompous about what they own. And that one myth that really irritates me is the thinking that 'oh I bought a solid wood / top uke and therefore it must be better than your laminate one'. Total rubbish. Get off your high horses.
You see there is much more to it than one being naturally being better than the other. For that to be true one must totally ignore other important factors, most notably the quality of the actual build of the rest of the instrument. You see, whilst there are many poor quality laminates (which literally are nothing more than cheap thick plywood) there are good laminate builds too. Likewise I have come across a great many 'solid wood' instruments with terrible build quality. In the world of solids, that is usually signified by thick, heavy tone woods, fat bracing and a general shabby approach to the instrument. Such things can kill a solid wood instruments tone stone dead. These solid woods are solid for the sake of it, and dont carry any great character like people believe they will.
I would go further and state categorically that I have seen many laminate bodied ukes that have played better, sounded better (and just felt better) than many 'solid' wood ukes. Laminates are actually used by terrific guitar makers such as Taylor and Martin who use 'professional instrument grade laminate' which really is rather sublime. Sadly you don't see it much on ukuleles as manufacturers tend to revert to cheap plywood at the cheap end, but on models such as the Kiwaya KS5 you will see what I am talking about. But it doesn't always come at great cost either - the Baton Rouge Sun models are a great example of thin, tidy laminates coupled with a great general build that will knock the spots off a cheap 'solid top' ukulele that has been over built or just has no character to the build because they went solid for the sake of it. Sure, there are woeful laminates too (too many to name) but they are not a guarantee of bad sound in every case.
And then you have that ever present scattering of brands that sell laminate ukuleles and claim they are solid wood. YES these brands still exist, and YES they are doing this because they are tapping into the myth in an even lazier way. They assume 'solid' is more saleable, only in such cases they dont even make them solid. That's fraud actually...
So new players should, I feel, understand more of what goes into making these instruments before shouting that 'I bought a solid wood uke so it MUST be good' nonsense. There are a great many bad, bland and average solid wood ukes out there - some of them truly terrible and no amount of using the word 'solid' is going change that. They are just badly or lazily built.
Are there laminates I dont like? Yes, plenty of them. The cheap, thick, heavy rough and boxy models that we have all seen. They could not be further away from good quality laminates. Look at the edge of a sound hole for a clue - it should be thin. The cheapest ukes like entry level Mahalos are thick, thick thick and that affects the sound. But that poor quality control on these lower end modesl is really part of why all laminates seem to be tarred with the same brush and people have this mad rush to solid wood.
|When laminates are bad - cheap, thick, horrible...|
There is no shame in a lot of laminate bodied ukes - they work for a certain price point. Sure, I own many solid wood ukuleles, some high end, and given the choice and budget I would always buy them, but I also have laminate instruments too. It's horses for courses. One thing you won't find me doing is looking down on laminates as a whole other than looking down on badly made instruments as a whole. Doesn't matter what they are made of, if it's bad, it's bad.
And as the myth perpetuates, so confusion remains the order of the day when shopping for ukes. If it's a laminate - just say so. If it's a bad laminate, then improve your ukulele rather than trying to hide the fact. If it's a solid or solid top instrument that is NO guarantee it's going to have any character whatsoever.
So what do I advise? Well, same as I always advise - take advice, read impartial reviews, and spend as much as you can reasonably afford on your ukuleles. If you can get into solid wood uke territory, bear in mind that you are looking at the intermediate to high end before you can guarantee yourself a killer tone, so don't overlook laminates. And certainly don't overlook laminates in place of cheap solid wood ukes with no tone whatsoever, that is just madness. As I tell anyone, I would take a good laminate over a cheap solid wood instrument any day of the week.
© Barry Maz