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Ukulele History

Image of Martin 3K Professional Ukulele
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Roughly translated as “jumping flea”, the ukulele has long been associated with music from Hawaii, where it originated and was developed as a concoction of the Madeiran braguinha and raj√£o.  Being similar in appearance as the cavaquinho, the braguinha originated from the city of Braga, thus its name.  With regards to its tuning, the Madeira raj√£o is tuned D-G-C-E-A, while the Portuguese cavaquinho is tuned D-G-B-D, in G-Major chord.  Both the D and G strings are re-entrant, which means that they are always tuned an octave higher than what is usually used in regular low-high string course.  The GCEA strings of the raj√£o, on the other hand, is the basis for the tuning of the modern ukulele.

Ukuleles made from Koa wood or Acacia Koa is one of the most expensive types of ukuleles today, which can easily sell for thousands of dollars.  They are well-known for their elegant color and appearance, as well as their exceptional tone.

US Mainland

During the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the ukulele started to gain popularity due to the regular performances by the George E.K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartette in the Hawaiian Pavilion, which featured an ensemble of guitars and ukuleles.  These performances started a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs among Tin Pan Alley songwriters.  They were also the one who introduced the lap steel guitar and ukulele in the United States mainland music, where it was highly popularized by theatre performers in the likes of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards and Roy Smeck.

The ukulele then started to become an icon of Jazz Age, attributable in part to its portability and inexpensive nature, which also have become a hit for amateur musicians coming into the year 1920.  This can be seen in the introduction of tablatures for ukuleles in most music sheet publications at that time.  Examples of well-known manufacturers of these instruments include Harmony, Regal and Martin.

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Wood Types

Acacia koa (wood).
Image via Wikipedia

Different kinds of wood can be used in making ukuleles.  Each one will bring a unique beauty, tone and luster to your musical instrument.

One of the more commonly used species of wood is the Koa wood.  This wood has gained reputation as the best hardwood in Hawaii.  The Acacia Koa is native to the forests of Hawaii, and is given that much respect.  In the Hawaiian language, Koa means bold.  When someone mentions about Hawaiian ukuleles, you can’t help but think about the excellent sounds and exquisite craftsmanship that only Koa wood can provide.

Another well-known species of wood is the Hard Rock Maple.  This wood is popular for its sturdiness, heaviness and resistance to damage, which also gives the ukulele a more trebly tone.

Mahogany wood has medium range density, usually has a redish color and tends to be bassy and bright.  This wood is also best used with maple and is the material of choice for ukulele bodies, as seen in the vintage types.  Despite its lack of eye-catching grain patterns found in wood, I personally like this one when it comes to the quality of sound produced.

Rosewood is available in a variety of colors and textures, and is currently utilized in the making of fretboards.  Try listening to a ukulele made of this type of wood and you’ll find the tone quite round and sweet.  Brazilian rosewood has already been extinct for a long time now, but there still are other species available.

Redwood on the other hand is very tough and durable, and give the ukulele a deeper bass sound.  Imbuia also is quite similar, but is considered to be more on the exotic side because of its magnificent grain patterns: a perfect choice for the tops and back of the ukulele.  Ebony, which is also used in the black keys found in pianos, is also used in ukuleles to make the fretboard.

Maple has excellent density and very durable.  It gives the instrument more treble.  Variants of maple include spalted, flamed, curly, quilted and burl.  Grain patterns can also be found here.  Spruce is more of a close-grained wood, used to lend the ukulele an elaborate and dynamic tone.  As for me, I love the mid-priced ukuleles which have soundboards made of spruce, and sides and backs made with mahogany.

Cedar wood has colors ranging from light to reddish, and is mainly used to make the soundboards.  The best sounding ukuleles I have had were made with cedar wood, which was made by a local luthier.  The wood slats used came from the maker’s back yard fence, which is already 40 years old.

Composite woods refer to types of ukuleles made with plastic, which has prints of wood in it.  Typically, small stringed instruments need to have a very thin construction, which is usually 0.0625 in thickness.  Based on this measurement, the wood can have some tendency to easily break or have grain separations when it is left to dry.  In order to solve these problems, manufacturers have designed what is called composite type of woods.  Quite simply, these materials can also be called “plywood”, but is very much different from the ones you see in junk yards.

Composite materials are specially designed for use with musical instruments.  With this type of material, instruments can be made as thin as possible without compromising its durability.  Although the finest and most elegant types of ukuleles are the ones made with natural wood, more and more people are becoming practical and would rather have composite instrument that almost have the same quality with their expensive wood counterparts.

High-quality composite musical instruments are now common these days.  A good example is the Hohner Lanikai collection, which are well-known for their excellent sound quality and bang for the buck.  But if you have the money to spend, then the wood variants of ukuleles is still the best choice, they are simply unrivalled in term s of sound quality and beauty.  Just make sure you properly take care of them.

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