June 27th, 2010

Chasing Sound

Chasing Sound

I started building ukuleles to chase sound. I have played a lot of different ukuleles and most of them sounded different; except for the mass produced plywood crap. Those are just like MacDonald hamburgers in that they all look the same and sound the same no matter where you buy it. I can understand the need for a lower priced ukulele, but those I have played don’t have that good unique sound that I have found in solid wood ukuleles. Many of my guitar playing friends have experienced the same with guitars. From my experiences I have found that solid wood instruments sound better than plywood ones.

Time Takes Time

From experimenting with different woods with different thicknesses, I have come up with combination’s that I like. What I also have found is that they get better over time. The Uke that I play today I built three years ago. When I first strummed it, I did not really like the sound so I put in the closet for 6 months. When I got it out to show someone I strummed it again. It was one of my best sounding ukuleles. In fact it is almost the only one I have played for the last 3 years. I play it so much that am starting to wear a hole in it. On the other hand I built a Uke for a friend that when I was done I almost did not give it to her because it was the most beautiful sounding ukulele right off the bench. Since I mill my own wood (some from green logs some from billet stock) I can keep sets that match and can work with combination’s that I know sound well together. I am finding that it takes time for most solid wood Ukuleles to relax and move to reach their full sound. A laminated plywood instrument will never achieve this.

The Metamorphosis of an Uke

A solid ukulele starts with a piece of wood that has taken many decades to grow. Much of that wood has been at the bottom of the tree and has had enormous weight  and pressure put on it . It may have been a branch that stretched out again with weight  and stresses on it for years. In my opinion (or theory) this puts enormous stress and pressure on the wood cells and molecules. We as luthiers start to relive the stresses… but…we put it under other stresses such as steaming and bending sides, molding slight arches in
the tops, and larger arches in the back. These bends may have been in the complete opposite direction that the tree had grown. So when taken out of the mold these instruments begin to relax. Slowly they take their new shape and then we combine these stresses with the vibrations of the music we play, and the wood begins to relax and move to accept the shape that we have given it. As the vibrations start to warm up the wood, so does the tone and over time each instrument becomes truly and completely individual. No two can ever be the same. Each will have it own unique sound that cannot ever be completely duplicated. I believe that this can never be achieved out of a plywood or plastic box.

So I continue my quest for great sounding Ukes.  Each time a brand new instrument leaves the mold, it has the potential of becoming the “perfect” Uke.  You never can tell. The only thing for certain is that it will not be a cookie-cutter duplicate of the thousands of other Ukes on the market. So if you are truly looking for something that is a one of a kind instrument that can compliment the music you are playing there are many great U.S. luthiers that can help you achieve this goal. Go look!

James Hellar
Maker of Monkey Wrench Ukuleles- lives, works and plays on
Orcas Island WA.
Reach him at www.monkeywrenchmusic.com )

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