Table of Contents
- Action: The setup of the strings in relation to the ukulele body and neck. This typically relates to the height of the strings above the fingerboard. Too high of an action will make the ukulele harder to play and may create some tuning accuracy issues. Too low of an action can cause the strings to buzz and/or reduce the quality of the sound.
- Binding: This is the decorative finish applied around the edges of the ukulele body where the top and back meet the sides. This is usually done in a contrasting color or material and is used to hide the joint between the top/back and side woods. Binding can also be found along the fingerboard and around headstock. This is not something that is essential and is just meant to add to the beaauty of the instrument.
- Body: The part of the ukulele that the neck connects to. It’s the part with the sound hole in it. This includes the top, back, and sides.
- Bracing: These are thin strips of wood that are placed on the under side of the top and typically on the back which give the wood extra strength while allowing them to vibrate. There are a variety of styles of bracing, and different luthiers will use different styles depending on the tone they’re trying to achieve. Most commonly, spruce is used for the bracing wood.
- Bridge: The piece of wood that is glued to the top of the ukulele below the sound hole. Sitting on top of the bridge is the saddle which is what the strings pass over, and acts as the end point for the vibrating end of the string. Some ukes have a one piece bridge without a saddle, where the saddle is molded into the bridge itself. There are four main types of bridges which changes the way the strings are tied off at the end. These are: Pin, Slotted, Tie Bar, and Through Body.
- End Block: A solid piece of wood inside the ukulele at the base of the instrument that provides structural support to the instrument and, if installed, provides support for an end pin for a strap or a pickup.
- Fingerboard: The top area of the neck where the strings run along and where the frets are located. The fingerboard is where your fretting hand holds the notes by pressing down on the strings between the frets. Fingerboards are often made out of ebony or another hard wood, such as rosewood, applied to the neck of the ukulele.
- Finish: The term used to describe how a ukulele body is finished by a luthier. This is typically done in either glossy or satin. There are a variety of methods and materials used in the finishing process.
- Fret: The thin strips of metal set into the fretboard of a ukulele that determine the notes being played. By holding a string between frets, the fret nearest the bridge now acts as the nut and shortens the length of the string. The further you move toward the bridge, the higher the note.
- Fret Markers: These are dots inlayed in the top and sometimes the side of the fretboard of the ukulele to help with finger placement and finding notes. The standard markers found on the ukulele are 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, and 15th frets.
- Headstock: The flat piece of wood at the top end of the neck that holds the tuning pegs and usually displays the ukulele’s brand logo. These can either be a solid or slotted.
- Neck Heel: The base part of the neck that widens as it attaches to the ukulele body adding stability and support for the neck.
- Kerfing: These are the little strips of wood that are glued in a line around the inside seams where the top and back meet the sides of the instrument to add strength and stability. Sometimes these will be notched to make them fit the curve of the body, but on some ukuleles these will be made from bent strips of wood.
- Lower Bout: The term given to the bottom part of the body of the ukulele. This is typically the widest part of an ukulele body.
- Neck: The piece of wood that holds the fretboard, and runs between the headstock and the body of the ukulele.
- Nut: The strip of material, typically made of either hard plastic or bone, located at the top end of the fingerboard. The strings are held in slots as they come from the tuning pegs down over the fretboard and to the bridge.
- Pickup: An electronic device that picks up the vibration in either the body of the instrument or the strings, and converts it to a signal that can be sent to an amplifier.
- Purfling: A decorative component that is made up of several binding strips that are laminated together to create a design often inlaid around the sound hole and or the edge of an ukulele.
- Saddle: A piece of material, typically either plastic or bone (like the nut), that sits on top of the bridge. The strings will run over the saddle before they come to the attachment point in/on the bridge. Accurate height of the saddle is critical in determining the action and intonation of the ukulele.
- Scale Length: The measurement along the length of the strings measured between the nut and the saddle. This length needs to be accurate in relation to the placement of the frets to ensure accuracy in the notes being played. The top of the 12th fret always denotes the exact halfway point of the string.
- Side Port: A hole that is typically placed on the upper bout on side of the ukulele facing up toward the player that allows for the sound of the ukulele to be projected up to the player.
- Sound Board: This is the flat piece of wood that makes the top of the body of the ukulele and holds the bridge and the sound hole. The soundboard creates the sound a uke makes when the strings are vibrating from being plucked or strummed. The soundboard is the primary driver of the type of tone a particular ukulele has (bright vs. warm).
- Sound Hole: The hole in the sound board, usually directly under the strings, that provides projection of the sound created by vibrating the top of the instrument. The sound hole is also sometimes placed to the side of the strings to allow for more vibration of the sound board directly under the strings.
- Upper Bout: The term given to the upper part of the body of the ukulele. This is typically not as wide as the lower bout of an ukulele body.
- Waist: On a traditional shaped ukulele, the waist refers to the narrow part of the body between the upper and lower bouts.
- Tuners: Tuners typically rely on friction or gears that work by tightening or loosening the tuning peg against the mount. Lower end/quality tuners can often be jerky or can slip. Higher-end friction tuners are typically smooth and will hold tune very well.
Common Ukulele Sizes
- Soprano (21 inches)
The soprano ukulele is the original and traditional ukulele size, and gives the look, sound, and tone you most likely associate with the instrument. Soprano ukulele is also one of the smallest instruments in the ukulele family and a great choice for beginners, depending on the size of the fingers. The soprano is typically used as a strumming instrument; although there are many who will play fingerstyle as well.
- Concert (23 inches)
Concert ukuleles are a little bit larger and have more space between the frets. It’s a suitable option for uke players with larger hands and those who struggle with the size of the soprano. The sound of a concert ukulele is a bit louder and more full due to the higher resonance from the instrument’s body. This size is great for those who need a little more room on the fretboard and may be looking for more volume, but want to stay as close to that traditional ukulele sound as possible.
- Tenor (26 inches)
Tenor ukuleles are the next size up and have a deeper sound. Many of today’s professional ukulele players play a tenor size. Players like Jake Shimabukuro, Aldrine Guerrero, Andrew Molina, and James Hill typically or solely play the tenor size. The larger size means it’s easier to do complex fingerpicking as well as other more intricate techniques and performances because there is more space between the frets on the fretboard. If you’re looking to play something with a deeper and more resonante tone and/or you’re looking to try a bit more complex and challenging songs than just regular strumming and chords, give the tenor a try.
The tenor is also where the conversation about the High and Low G string comes into play. Many fingerstyle players prefer to put a low-g string on their tenor ukulele as it gives a deeper and more mellow tone and also provides more flexibility for those who play harmonies as the low-g gives the player more notes to work with without having to transpose because of the 4 strings.
- Baritone (29 inches)
The baritone ukulele is the largest size of the four common ukulele sizes. It has an even deeper tone than that of a tenor, and its sound resembles that of a nylon, classical guitar. If you have particularly large hands, you might find that the extra space between frets offered by a baritone ukulele could come very handy, making it easier to play. Also, if you are familiar with a guitar, the typical baritone tuning is DGBE which is the same tuning as the first 4 strings of a standard guitar tuning (EADGBE).
Other Ukulele Sizes
- Sopranissimo (17 inches)
Sometimes called the “Pocket Uke”, the typical length of a sopranissimo, from top to bottom, is around 16-17 inches, it has 10-12 frets, and its scale length is 11 inches. This scale length is 1 inch shorter than the sopranino and 2 inches shorter than the more common soprano.
This tiny ukulele is so small it can fit into a handbag, tote, or backpack (or some pockets, I would presume) and is quite portable. It is also sometimes called the “mini”, “pocket”, or “tiny” ukulele due to its minuscule dimensions. Several ukulele makers offer models of the sopranissimo size, however, the names vary and will sometimes refer to the ukulele by one of the previously mentioned nicknames.
The tuning of this little ukulele is flexible. Some say the best sound is achieved by tuning it up a bit higher than a standard tuning to get more volume and projection, but it’s a subjective thing. The string gauge will also need to be taken into account. If soprano strings are put on a sopranissimo, the tuning will only go so high, but if equipped with strings made for such a small instrument, there are more options. If you wish to produce higher string tension for a bright, sparkly sound, try tuning higher than the standard G-C-E-A tuning. In theory, the tuning is really up to the player. Commonly discussed tunings include a step higher (A-D-F#-B), a step and a half higher (Bb-Eb-G-C) a fifth higher (D-G-B-E), and an octave higher than standard tuning.
- Sopranino (19 inches)
With a 12-inch scale length and an overall length of around 18-19 inches, the sopranino is only slightly larger than the sopranissimo ukulele.
Tuning for this instrument is also subjective and it comes down to what sound the player is trying to get out of this small uke. Some players choose the standard ukulele tuning of GCEA, but some like to add more string tension for the smaller sopranino for the same reasons as the sopranissimo. Most commonly, the sopranino is tuned one octave higher than the baritone ukulele at D-G-E-A.
Ah, Wood—at any moment liable to spark poetry or argument—how shall we choose thee? An ocean of thoughtful descriptions, fervent testimonials, “magic wood” lore, and intricate processes awaits the curious. I suggest, however, that you focus directly on the visual, tactile, and tonal qualities that you want.
I list tone last not because it is least important—au contraire!—but because it makes sense to see if woods that catch your eye can also create the sounds you want. Visuals are an entirely legitimate part of our relationship with instruments. Furthermore, wide tonal variations often exist within a species. Using this, I shape the sound with a thousand choices (more, really) throughout the process to create projection, responsiveness, expressive range, clarity, sustain, and delight across a variety of woods.
The most effective way to learn how woods can sound is to hear them in good instruments; in person is super, while recordings are often more practical. And don’t worry, if a wood seems unlikely to give you the results you want, I’ll tell you. So go ahead—start by seeing what woods call to you. We’ll chat and listen to music to refine the search, then look at individual sets to home in on something wonderful. Preparing you in advance for a soapbox I often climb onto: it’s about the individual set, not the species!
With that, let’s talk about different types of woods used for the back and sides first and then we’ll move on to top woods and finish with accents (binding, rosette, etc).
Back & Sides
Before going into details about specific woods, I, again, refer to Pat Megowan when thinking about the back and side woods:
Volumes are written about the tonal effects of various back and side woods, but while (and, frankly, marketing) utility to some of these assertions, the effects of scale length, body design, top wood selection, builder decisions, string choice, and player technique are vastly more important. Furthermore, individual boards of the same species–even consecutive cuts from a single plank that are visually identical– can vary widely in sound. Help me understand your playing style and desired sound, then I can guide you toward good options.
There are numerous other things a luthier considers in collecting and using wood, including critical factors in how the wood is sawn and seasoned, and long term reliability with certain types of figure (fancy visual qualities). I’ve already rejected wood that I don’t trust or like, so unless you are very sensitive to some issue (I’m allergic to cocobolo, for instance), don’t worry about them. I say…
…start with your eyes!
Now, let’s get into the details of different woods. The list below goes from what is traditionally warmer sounding to brighter sounding. I want to give credit to Mya-Moe Ukulele for some of the details below. Others are pulled from my own experience and doing research on wood reseller and luthier-focused sites.
- Koa – Koa, grown exclusively in Hawaii, is the most traditional and common wood used for ukuleles. It is the wood that the first Hawaiian luthiers used, and is what builders like Kamaka have typically used. Koa is likely the most varied wood that luthiers work with. While most of the sets are acoustically very warm, some sets are naturally brighter. The color of koa can vary widely including reddish, dark brown, tan, and an even lighter shade when you include the sapwood. In terms of visuals, some sets are very straight-grained while others will show heavy curl.
- Mahogany – Mahogany is another traditional wood choice for ukuleles, offering wonderfully warm tones with a simple but beautiful grain structure. It was the wood of choice for the vintage Martin ukuleles (along with koa), and is often paired with ivoroid or maple body binding to replicate that vintage look. There are a number of different types of mahogany woods from various locations, but the most common is Honduran. This wood can be used for back and sides as well as tops and is also a very common wood used for necks. Another sought after mahogany is Cuban. Cuban is slightly more dense and less porous than Honduran, and builders and musicians alike find it produces fuller mids and more pronounced low-end tones than its cousin. Cosmetically, Cuban mahogany is similar to Honduran with the notable addition of beautiful, tight flame figuring.
- Sycamore – Like Myrtle, Sycamore is a sustainable domestic hardwood. It’s tone falls pretty much in the middle of the acoustic spectrum. Aesthetically, it has a dramatic grain structure and is sometimes mistaken for lacewood. While its balance makes it wonderful in a resonator, it is also a wonderful wood for a classic 4-string or 6-string. As the instrument opens up, sycamore delivers wonderful depth, sustain and warmth while retaining the attack of the individual notes. An all-Sycamore tone is very similar to that of an all-Myrtle or all-Mango instrument.
- Mango – Mango has an unusually warm sound, a deep, resonating bass, exceptionally good mid-range, long-lasting sustain, and a sonic clarity throughout a wide tonal spectrum. It has some similar characteristics to that of walnut.
- Myrtle – Myrtle is a stunning domestic hardwood which grows plentifully on the Southern Oregon coast. You’ll often see sets that have tight curl and the grain is distinct with tones of tan, green, brown. and even red. All-Myrtle instruments have become quite common and you’ll see it as a staple with Mya-Moe Ukuleles. Acoustically, myrtle falls in the middle of the spectrum. It offers a wonderful blend of warmth, sustain, depth and brilliance.
- Walnut – Walnut is generally medium brown to dark chocolate in color, often with hints of gray or purple. Its straight, even grain allows it to be worked very easily by hand or by machine and bends particularly easy. Many describe walnut’s tone as falling naturally between rosewood and mahogany. Walnut’s low-end response is strong and closer to that of a rosewood, while its mids and highs tend to be more organic and warm like mahogany, but with a bit more sustain.
- Zebrawood – Zebrawood is super dense which provides a lot of volume and a dark, warm tone. The wood also looks stunning, making it an aesthetically pleasing choice for acoustic back and sides. Because it’s so challenging to work with, zebrawood is rather rare in small and large luthier shops alike.
- Rosewood – Rosewood has long been used for making musical instruments, especially acoustic guitars. All rosewoods are strong, dense, and heavy, pushing them to the brighter sounding side. But the term “bright” is a bit misleading when describing rosewood’s sound. It’s more of a scooped sound meaning you’ll get more of the bass and treble and less of the midtones.
The most sought-after rosewood, Brazilian Rosewood, has become very scarce and expensive due to over-exploitation. It is now heavily regulated and is on the CITIES I list which also makes it hard to obtain and to ship overseas. You can still find it with a number of custom luthiers who will sometimes have a stash they’ve had for years. The more common rosewoods that are more easily obtainable are Indian Rosewood, Cocobolo, and other South American rosewoods such as Amazonian and Panamanian.
- Maple – A hard, resilient wood that is often chosen for its stunning looks, particularly flamed or quilted woods that are pretty amazing to look at. Maple provides a very very bright tone which is why it is often seen paired with redwood or cedar for the top.
The top is widely considered the voice of the instrument; choosing good wood (including the braces), building to its potential, and playing it lots are all big factors in how an instrument will sound.