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View Full Version : What role does the luthier play in the ultimate sound vs the tone woods?



Patchenu
11-30-2017, 10:31 AM
By now I hope the ukulele community has had a chance to listen to the recordings HMS did of the Luthiers For A Cause instruments on Vimeo (Thank you Andrew Kitakis) . https://vimeo.com/theukulelesite/videos

I know when I first started down my ukulele journey I saw a lot of discussion around what's important when selecting a ukulele. I saw lots of discussion around wood and wood choices were really important and I saw lots of discussion around pick a luthier that you like and work with them. One of the reasons this project excited me is that we (the ukulele community) can finally get some answers around what role does the luthier play in the ultimate sound of an instrument vs the wood. I wanted to share my thoughts as I was one of the few people who had the chance to play and hear all of the instruments live and I wanted to share my thoughts on this thread. I hope others will join in and share their thoughts.

A bit of background on me and my preferences when it comes to ukuleles.
People have different opinions of what matters in a ukulele but for me it would be: 1. sound, 2. looks, 3. feel and 4. Longevity. I feel this way because first and foremost, this is an instrument and meant to be played and the sound is critical to an instrument. I put looks ahead of feel as I am a combination of collector and player so I want interesting/good looking instruments and I am not such a good player that the feel will stop me from playing. As long as the action is right, I can play different necks, different finishes, etc and adjust to the instrument. Longevity, one of the key decisions a luthier needs make is the trade-off between sound and longevity. I prefer a luthier to build with both in-mind but slightly skewing towards the sound.

Thoughts on the instruments
First, this isn’t and was never was a competition about which one is best. As everyone has a different sound that they like, there isn’t a subjective “best”. I know that when I started my uke journey I was looking for the “best” but quickly found out that I liked certain types of sound better than others but everyone has a preference and everyone is right.
Insight 1: I was surprised by how similar they sounded. In hindsight, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised given the level of the luthiers but I thought that the difference in sound would be a lot more apparent. It took listening to many people playing the instruments a number of times to really hear the difference and determine which one(s) spoke to me.

Insight 2: I was surprised by the weight difference. I have always heard that you need to have a light instrument to have great sound. The reason given was that the extra weight will impact the sustain, resonance and volume that the instrument is capable of. The Joji ukulele was the lightest of the group while the Beau was the heaviest and the weight difference was big. Both ukes have great resonance and sustain so the weight argument is maybe a good starting rule of thumb but a luthier can get great sound, sustain, resonance and volume even if their build is not light if they are good.

Insight 3: The style of play matters a lot. I had determined about a year ago in that different luthiers build for a specific sound and that the sound they aim for, usually is better for a specific style of music. While some instruments can be great at many different styles, so far, I haven’t heard one ukulele that is perfect for all styles of music. (Hawaiian vs Jazz vs Bluegrass vs Classical, etc) What I didn’t think about is how much the playing style of the music comes into play on top of the style of music. I could really hear the difference when I heard the different playing styles.

Conclusion
They are all great instruments and they all sound great. They all had a unique look and feel and had a character all to themselves. The sound differences were subtle but you can hear them. Some were a bit brighter up the neck, some had a more even tone across the strings, some had a richer tone and some came to life when you moved into the 9th frets and beyond. In the end, I have come away with the fact that the luthier has a the ultimate role in the sound of an instrument and they are more important than all other factors. I am curious what did you hear and what did you take away?

One last thing….We looked at a few ways to sell the instruments and we even looked at doing a lottery. When we investigated the lottery, it turned out it was illegal in many states and we didn’t want to do anything to tarnish the reputations of those involved so we gave up on the lottery idea. We also intended to put the instruments on auction. I was hoping to acquire one or two myself but in the end, the opportunity to raise a lot of money for the Ukulele Kids Club and keep the instruments together presented itself and that was too great to pass up.

Sorry for the long post.

mds725
11-30-2017, 11:52 AM
Interesting insights. Thanks for sharing them.

I thought all the instruments sounded great, and I think it was wonderful for each participating luthier to build and contribute an instrument. I support Ukulele Kids Club and think it's a great organization, and I'm glad that it was the beneficiary of this project. I noticed that in your conclusion, you wrote that "some" had certain tonal properties and "some" had other tonal properties, but you did not identify which were which. I'm sensitive to comparisons -- I have instruments built by some of the luthiers involved have played instruments built by a few others -- so I'm mindful that identifying which instruments had which tonal properties could potentially become problematic. On the other hand, it might be very helpful for someone shopping for a luthier to put names to your conclusions. Just a thought. i don't want to start any trouble, :)


Finally, I noticed that in your paragraph about selling the instruments, you write "we." I apologize if I should already know this but don't, but are you associated in some way with Luthiers for a Cause?

Thanks again for your post and for starting this thread!

Peace Train
11-30-2017, 12:26 PM
Thank you for sharing your insights, Patchen. I agree that every preference is valid, and opinions and preferences can and do change according to mood, experience, passion, and so forth. I found what you had to say to be quite enlightening from the perspective of a firsthand observer and player.

I's interesting to hear your thoughts on sound and playing style since you arrived at a similar conclusion to what I had experienced listening online. My take was that there were some detectable differences with some of the players. When it came to Kimo Hussey however, well, he really plays to the instrument. Maybe it was the recording, but the differences in the ukes were barely perceptible when Kimo played. Actually, they were subtly perceptible, but in different ways. Doing blind listenings with each of the performers, I discovered that I truly enjoyed different aspects of each of the ukes involved. And while I now have my top six next ukes picked out, this actually gave me a bit of a surprise.

Something I hadn't considered was the type of music being played. While I do prefer certain tonewoods (and even sizes of instrument) for certain genres of music, it's a great point you make considering these ukes are all of the same woods, and one I will have to go back through to hear the differences in how each instrument relates.

I also like that you mention the differences in weight. as this is something lost to the online listener. Since woods are virtually identical, density doesn't really come into play, only the size, style, compounds, and aesthetic each builder employs. I believe all tuners were also the same except one.

You do mention neck as being a non-issue for you, so this may be the only sticking point for some in terms of feel.

Taken separately, each instrument showcased is a phenomenal performer. As a group, the nuances can help us as players determine preference. And while the rich, open soundscape of a few of these really stood out for me, I don't think I'd be complaining to have any of them in my quiver. Since we are human, it may ultimately boil down to things like personal aesthetics--mine are always changing and evolving, luthier/brand image,--I do my best to keep an open mind, and that ever so undefinable je ne sais quoi...but which one of us could ever grasp what that means?! ;)

The outcome of this seems like a win/win to be had by all--the kids, the luthiers, and the ukulele community as a whole. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Patchenu
11-30-2017, 02:02 PM
yes, I am the co-organizer of Luthiers For A Cause. I should have made that clear.

mds725
11-30-2017, 02:28 PM
yes, I am the co-organizer of Luthiers For A Cause. I should have made that clear.

Kudos to you and the people you worked with to pull off such an amazing project!

southcoastukes
11-30-2017, 03:35 PM
Sorry for the long post.

No problem! That was an excellent post; the insights were valuable. As far as a lack of difference in sound, they are all standard Tenor Ukuleles and are all tuned the same. That, in and of itself, will limit how much difference you will hear. But I think your insight #3 is the best. An instrument well designed for a certain style of playing will always be better in that function than an instrument designed with no particular purpose.

As far as your topic, "luthier vs. tone woods" think of cooking as an analogy:

A great chef can take the most humble ingredients and prepare a meal you will remember for a lifetime.
A poor chef will take the most exquisite of ingredients and present you with a revolting mess.

Ukulele Eddie
11-30-2017, 03:47 PM
Yes, Patchen has been co-organizing this effort. And Jay Lichty's wife Corrie Woods was the other person who helped organize this whole project. I'm so thankful for their contributions!

I generally agree with what Patchen wrote. I thought they all turned out great, both aesthetically and tonally. It was really interesting to see the different aesthetic approaches to essentially identical sets of wood. As to tone, I was also surprised that the differences weren't more pronounced. In retrospect, it would have been cool to have a few less seasoned builders in the mix to compare to these six world-class builders. If only I had a time machine. LOL.

Adding to the shocking weight difference Patchen shared, many luthiers who visited our exhibit in Hawaii were also very shocked at the magnitude of the difference. I thought this was fascinating because, as Patchen noted, some people generalize that lightness equals tone and resonance. What matters is WHERE the weight is. In the end, Beau's top was probably very close in thickness/weight to Joji's. The weight is in areas that don't affect tone (e.g., neck block). This demonstrated very well that building super light IS an approach, but there are other approaches that can produce equally fabulous tone.

Also, there were quite a few different approaches to bracing that were used. I recall at least four different approaches.

We can't conclude anything scientifically, but this was never intended to be scientific. Still, for me, I came away from this with the impression that any given wood has a range of potential in what it can produce tonally. These were outstanding woods with which to work. Being world-class, these luthiers all got great results. I suspect less experienced luthiers would have likely shown a lot more variability in tone as they struggled to get to the woods full potential.

This first Luthiers for a Cause effort ("The Voice of the Luthier") will keep us plenty busy for awhile as we look to ways to use the set to create awareness about music therapy and The Ukulele Kids Club. We have some ideas for future projects (e.g., sustainable woods; vintage reproductions; etc.) and also encourage people to make suggestions for future projects should they have them. You an PM either Patchen or me or visit our website and use the contact form.

We really appreciate how supportive everyone has been!

ProfChris
12-01-2017, 01:33 AM
As a vastly less-experienced hobby builder with about 50 under my belt, my perception is that the sound is very largely from the builder. I can't reliably build for a particular sound, and what seems to happen is that all my ukes have "my" sound - they are clearly related, whatever woods I use.

Within that sound, the wood choices colour what I get.

It might also be relevant that these differences are quite noticeable to the player, but far less noticeable to an audience. The further from the uke they are, the less perceptible the differences in sound. They don't disappear completely, but some of the things I hear when I'm playing I can't hear when listening to others play my ukes.

DownUpDave
12-01-2017, 01:49 AM
As a vastly less-experienced hobby builder with about 50 under my belt, my perception is that the sound is very largely from the builder. I can't reliably build for a particular sound, and what seems to happen is that all my ukes have "my" sound - they are clearly related, whatever woods I use.

Within that sound, the wood choices colour what I get.

It might also be relevant that these differences are quite noticeable to the player, but far less noticeable to an audience. The further from the uke they are, the less perceptible the differences in sound. They don't disappear completely, but some of the things I hear when I'm playing I can't hear when listening to others play my ukes.

Very insightful comments and my experience has been the same. Luis of LfdM was tap toning some tops while I was in his shop and commented that he was looking for a certain sound. It was a light bulb moment, he went on to say all luthiers have a sound that they prefer and that they try to achieve. Hence the "builders" tone or sound we talk about.

You are spot on about the player noticing the most difference. We did a blind sound test of 4 high end but different ukes. When my back was to the player the difference were subtle, when I was the one playing they were REALLY noticable.

A big thanks to everyone involved in the project and sharing so much good stuff with us.