Koa is the traditional wood used for making ukuleles. But the best wood for the ukulele is often a personal preference, and depends on the player’s requirements. Some tonewoods offer a warm, deep, resonant sound, while some are bright and crystal clear. The top wood is responsible for the tonal projection, and can make or break the instrument’s sound.
If you’ve ever done any research on ukuleles, you’ve probably come across terms like ‘solid koa’ and ‘Sitka spruce top’. It’s only natural to wonder what these terms mean – the wood you use for your ukulele can dramatically influence how your ukulele sounds.
So what’s the best wood for ukulele? The choice of wood dramatically affects ukulele cost, and can be the difference between a $50 ukulele that you don’t like playing and a $500 uke that is your prized possession. We’ve broken down the technical jargon so you can understand the key factors and pick the wood that sounds, looks, and feels best in your hands.
How Does Tonewood Affect the Sound of a Ukulele?
It can be confusing to understand how wood influences the instrument’s tone if you’re new to the ukulele. Since the ukulele is a simple acoustic instrument, the tonewood is a crucial component ukulele anatomy, and each type of wood imparts a unique sound.
Luthiers and musicians generally use words like bright, warm, mellow, cool, and even rustic to describe how their ukulele sounds. The wood that makes the ukulele will transmit sound waves differently based on its density, and this plays a part in the resonance and loudness of the uke.
When you pluck the strings of your ukulele, the strings’ vibration sets the air molecules around them in motion. If the sound waves inside the tonewood also vibrate at a frequency matching the frequency of the strings, it causes resonance, which makes the uke sound louder and clearer. But too much resonance could also make it sound ‘boomy’, which you may not like.
Not all woods can transmit sound waves with a frequency matching the ukulele’s strings. However, woods like spruce, koa, mahogany, cedar, maple, and several others do the job well, albeit with slight differences.
This difference is why choosing your tonewood carefully is so essential. While the best way to do that is to try them all out in a store, here are some of the key things to look out for.
Tonewood Guide: What’s the Best Wood for Ukulele?
Koa is often considered the best wood for ukulele due to its tone and historical significance. Hawaiian ukuleles were said to have been made initially only from koa wood, making this the “original” ukulele tonewood. When you picture what a typical ukulele looks like, chances are that you’re thinking about a koa ukulele.
Koa, also called acacia koa, originates in the Hawaiian islands, which makes it an exotic wood. Ukuleles made with this tonewood sound sweet and mellow with some warmth, and have excellent sustain regardless of whether you’re picking or strumming. The rich-looking wood grain is also gorgeous, adding to the sheer visual appeal of the instrument.
Since ukuleles are small instruments, they tend to have a more pronounced higher range than the lower range, and koa ukuleles focus on just that. These ukuleles tend to have a balanced midrange with very clear high frequencies, making them the perfect tonewood for soprano ukuleles.
Koa ukuleles are certainly not cheap and are made for players looking to spend a little more on a unique piece of craftsmanship. Almost all koa ukuleles are made in Hawaii and are commonly used by professionals.
If you can’t find a koa ukulele in your budget, you could easily go for a mahogany ukulele. Both mahogany and koa sound similar, even though mahogany tonewoods make the ukulele sound a little richer in mid-range and low-range tones. If you play a tenor ukulele, mahogany is a strong contender for the best tonewood.
Mahogany is relatively cheap, making it one of the most used tonewoods for ukuleles. Even though it is a hardwood, it is surprisingly low density, which explains the focused mid-range in mahogany ukuleles.
Most entry-level ukuleles have mahogany necks, but you can find solid mahogany ukuleles in higher price ranges. A mahogany top ukulele should be perfect for just about any beginner to the instrument and encourage them to learn further with good sound quality.
For a lot of musicians, spruce instruments are synonymous with bass response. Usually seen in acoustic guitars, spruce makes for a robust ukulele too, with its wide availability and moldable form. Its tone is vibrant, crisp, and resonant.
If you’re looking forward to playing in front of a crowd, a solid spruce ukulele is your best friend. It is louder than any other tonewood used to build ukuleles, and surprisingly – a spruce ukulele sounds nothing like a spruce guitar!
Spruce ukuleles are known for their gorgeous mids and lows, making them the perfect choice for a baritone ukulele.
Spruce is one of those tonewoods that ages with time, so it will sound even better as your uke ages. Its light color will stand out among darker ukuleles, and if you’re looking at budget options, you’ll find several spruce top laminated ukuleles that sound pretty great.
Here’s a comparison between spruce and koa ukuleles to get you better acquainted with their tone:
Another hardwood that’s perfect as a tonewood, maple is mainly used to balance the lower range frequencies. This just means that it is ideal for anyone who wants to highlight and clarify the natural high frequencies of their ukulele.
Finding a solid maple ukulele might be difficult since they’re usually used to make the back and sides along with a spruce top. You can often see maple used in a concert ukulele.
If you’re someone who wants to use their ukulele for recording purposes, maple ukuleles will serve you well. Their big selling point is their ability to “clarify” the instrument’s tone, which means that the recording will sound almost as faithful as the real deal. Plus, the wood grain is gorgeous and lends incredible decorative appeal.
For fingerpickers, cedar is undoubtedly the most chosen tonewood in ukuleles. Even though it may not seem striking in appearance, it more than makes up for it in tone. Cedar ukuleles feature a tone much darker and crisper than spruce ukuleles and offer volume control that is second to none.
Cedar’s soft and warm tones offset the “muddy” tone and louder volume compared to spruce. The dark brown color is gorgeous in itself, with uniform surfaces featuring minimal grain.
The less emphasized mid-frequencies appeal to beginner ukulele players, making them their favorite soundboards.
Despite the more or less neutral tone, cedar does serve complex overtones owing to the density of the wood, so playing a cedar ukulele is always guaranteed to be a treat. You’ll find cedar topwood with laminated bodies in several budget ukuleles as well.
Rosewood is a cherished tonewood for several reasons. It is one of the rarer woods for instrument making, and its unique brown color is guaranteed to make anyone look twice.
Rosewood makes for some of the most robust and most expensive ukuleles, which is why you should consider yourself lucky if you manage to get your hands on a solid rosewood uke.
Despite the high price tag, a rosewood ukulele is worth it, with a bright and rounded sound and incredibly long sustain. It accentuates your instrument’s crisp highs and deep lows, helping you showcase your uke to its best capability.
Brazilian rosewood is rarer, so you’re more likely to find Indian rosewood, even though they both perform just about the same. You’re more likely to find rosewood backs and sides in the cheaper range, coupled with another softwood top.
You might not find a mango ukulele unless you search far and wide since they’re not as common as they used to be. One of the more traditional ukulele tonewoods used along with koa, mango wood originated in India and is perfect for ukuleles.
Mango ukuleles are among the most affordable solid wood ukuleles produced, and they boast terrific tonal quality with a warm, resonant sound. To top it off, they’re tough and are sure to last you a long time, making them worth every penny.
A mango ukulele is hard to ignore due to its gorgeous grain and markings. All ukuleles made with mango tonewood – either topwood or solid ukuleles – tend to look different from one another, and their bright sound will let you know their origin immediately.
Usually found only in fretboards and finishing because of its rarity and price, finding an ebony ukulele should feel like winning the lottery.
Ebony tonewood is heavy, dense, and compact, with resonant higher frequencies and deep bass as well. Ebony is very dark-colored and has almost no grain, which has an aesthetic appeal of its own.
Another dense and heavy tonewood, walnut isn’t used to make ukuleles very often. It sounds more or less similar to maple, with the higher frequencies more toned down.
A walnut ukulele is sure to catch your eye with its gorgeous, deep brown shade with beige graining. They sound quite balanced with a warm but clear tone.
There are several other ukulele wood types like ash, wenge, douglas fir, and exotic dark woods like Australian blackwood, etc., but these are quite rare and expensive.
Building a Ukulele – Which Wood Do I Use For Each Section?
Luthiers often used different tonewoods for different parts of a ukulele. In this section, we go over some of the common choices.
The tone begins with the soundboard on the ukulele’s top. The wood used for the top and the soundboard bracing play the most significant role in the ukulele’s tone, as with most acoustic instruments. Thus, the best wood for ukulele tops is solid wood, since this has a great affect on tone.
So regardless of which tonewood’s aesthetic value you may like, make sure that the tonewood whose tone you want to have reflected in your ukulele sits right on top.
The most commonly used tonewoods for the top of a ukulele are koa, mahogany, cedar, and spruce.
The stiffer the tonewood, the better. This does not mean that hardwoods necessarily perform better than softwoods, since they have different densities, and the part of the tonewood used varies from instrument to instrument. Unless you’re custom building your ukulele, we suggest you ask around for stiff tonewoods since they perform the best regarding durability, tone, and volume.
Several tonewood species perform better with age, so if you’re interested in a spruce ukulele, give it some time to develop and show its true colors. Your ukulele might sound different even an hour after stringing it up for the first time, so we suggest playing it for some time before you make your final decision.
This is why buying a ukulele online is a tough decision that may end with a ukulele unsuitable for you. Purchasing a ukulele in person lets you play the instrument and hear the tone for yourself so that you may make minute observations and choose the one you like the most.
It’s easy to be tempted by aesthetics, but focus on the tone. If you’re a beginner, choose a ukulele with the tonewood you like best as the top wood since laminated wood won’t make much difference in the lowest price range for ukuleles.
Back And Sides
Back and side woods color the tone of your ukulele. If you’re dedicated to reproducing an authentic ukulele sound but do not have the budget to buy a solid koa ukulele, you can invest in mid-range ukuleles featuring koa back and sides,
Mahogany and claro walnut are good alternatives for koa backs and sides if such ukuleles are still too pricey for you. Like koa, most claro walnut ukuleles show the same dramatic graining, while mahogany tonewoods show roughly the same qualities as koa with similar tone projection and sound.
Rosewood is also a sought-after option since it provides bright sound and contrasting aesthetics to the lighter top. Just make sure your tonewood is sustainably sourced, and you’ll be ready to rock some Hawaiian blues.
Neck And Fretboard
The neck and fretboard are more about playability, comfort, and durability, and the wood choice here won’t have a major impact on your sound.
The neck and fretboard of your ukulele require strength not to get stressed under the tension from the strings. Regardless of which tonewood you end up choosing, make sure that it does not bend under string tension, or else you’re up for some pricey repairs.
Mahogany and cedar are the most widely used and trusted woods to make ukulele necks, while fretboards almost always use rosewood or ebony. If you want a tonewood for the neck similar to the body, you can use walnut or maple for both.
Fretboards go through much wear and tear due to repeated abrasion from fingers and strings, which is why denser woods like ebony and rosewood are the best choices. Even though you can use koa for the fretboard, it won’t last you quite the same time as an ebony fretboard.
Check that your fretboard uses wood that is completely dried and free of defects since the tension of the strings is considerable – not to mention the added force from strumming or plucking.
Should I Go For Solid or Laminated Wood?
Laminated wood comprises two or more very thin slices of wood glued together, with their grains perpendicular to one another. This makes for an instrument that is almost unparalleled in longevity. Since making laminated wood is machine operated, the production costs of these ukuleles are pretty low, so you’ll find them in the budget range.
Solid woods expand and compress as you play them. This makes for gorgeous sound, but longevity may differ from tonewood to tonewood. Solid wood instruments transmit sound much better since they are free to vibrate at their resonant frequency.
While laminated wood ukuleles are cheaper and more accessible to beginners, they may not sound as good or luxurious as a solid wood ukulele. If you choose to buy a laminated wood ukulele, make sure you’re buying one with a solid wood top since the topwood determines most of the instrument’s tone.
If you’re still not sure which one to go for, here’s a video comparing the two:
Frequently Asked Questions About Ukulele Wood
Can I use plywood for my ukulele?
Yes, you can use plywood for your ukulele, but it will be at the cost of tone. Most plywood is laminated wood. If you’re going to use plywood or laminated wood for your ukulele, costs will be much lower, but your uke’s sound will be hampered.
If your budget is tight, you can go for a solid top laminated ukulele since it should sound almost similar to a solid wood ukulele.
Can all parts of my ukulele use the same tonewood?
Yes, all the parts of your ukulele can use the same tonewood, but it might hamper the longevity of your instrument. The first ukuleles were made entirely from koa wood!
There is a reason why the different ukulele parts use different wood. Most tonewoods do not tick all the checkboxes which allow them to be used for all the elements of a ukulele, but if you really want a solid wood uke made from one type of wood, you can consult a local luthier about the best wood available for you, or try one out at a local store to see if it fits you.
Will my ukulele sound different with time?
Yes, your ukulele will sound different with time if it’s a solid wood ukulele.
Most tonewoods expand and contract with time, temperature, and humidity changes, making your ukulele sound different. But don’t worry, as your ukulele will simply “grow into” the sound which the tonewood is most known for, and you’ll have a more rewarding experience playing it.
However, if you’re playing a laminated wood ukulele, expect it to sound almost the same with time. The layers of wood do not get a chance to age since they’re glued together.
Is spruce or mahogany better for ukulele?
Both spruce and mahogany are widely used tonewoods for ukulele, and they lend the instrument different tones. Spruce offers balanced mids and lows with a loud projection, while mahogany is quite mid-focused and generally a bit clearer and softer.
Every player will look for a sound unique to their instrument, and if you find it in your ukulele, that’s the most important factor for buying an instrument you’ll love!