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View Full Version : The Hype: "Wood Opening Up" or "Breaking In"



Funtick
01-05-2019, 01:40 PM
I believe cheap ukulele will "open" its' sound in few years. And expensive in few months.

What is different? It is not "wood opening up". Expensive Ukulele is made from (in average) 50-years-old wood dried under managed conditions 2-3 years, to the internal moisture 6%-8%, before it was used for making the instrument. So, obviously, 5-7 months of hard strumming would add nothing to such wood... maybe very little to wood structure (are you sure? wood was being 'strummed' by winds during 50 years at least!)

So, where is the trick?

Glue. Builds. Bridge. Nut. String stretch-ups. Bridge getting into proper place (some micro-adjustments). How else can we explain that few months of using improves tone?

You may say that 50-years-old vintage Ukes have definitely different tone and sustain: yes, but main subject of this discussion is "why few months of playing improve tone?" - and I believe it is not related to wood being aged.

What do you think?

kerneltime
01-05-2019, 03:14 PM
There have been discussions in the past around this topic.. I have experienced instruments improving.. and some times cracks can do magic! Bottom line a good uke can get better but you canít make an apple from a lemon if you wait

peterbright
01-05-2019, 03:42 PM
Not everything improves with age but my experience is that wooden instruments usually improve in tone and volume after being stimulated by playing, sitting in front of a speaker or using a vibrator such as a Tone Rite. Having used all three methods, playing is the most enjoyable, speaker vibration irritates others and the vibrators are excellent on brand new instruments or ones that have not been played in a while. I own and use 3 Tone Rites myself as I have been known to be a bit impatient. I tried another vibrator that actually turned the instrument into a speaker. It would not be my choice due to the noise it produces. It doesn't change the characteristics of the wood, but it does affect joints where top, back and sides are joined. I have had instruments that went a bit "dead" if not played for a while that improved with just 15 minutes of playing or artificial vibration. People who like to "save money" have used aquarium air pumps and personal pleasure items to accomplish this same effect, and I have heard a few horror stories about the DIY approach such as marred finishes and damaged relationships.

kerneltime
01-05-2019, 04:01 PM
Not everything improves with age but my experience is that wooden instruments usually improve in tone and volume after being stimulated by playing, sitting in front of a speaker or using a vibrator such as a Tone Rite. Having used all three methods, playing is the most enjoyable, speaker vibration irritates others and the vibrators are excellent on brand new instruments or ones that have not been played in a while. I own and use 3 Tone Rites myself as I have been known to be a bit impatient. I tried another vibrator that actually turned the instrument into a speaker. It would not be my choice due to the noise it produces. It doesn't change the characteristics of the wood, but it does affect joints where top, back and sides are joined. I have had instruments that went a bit "dead" if not played for a while that improved with just 15 minutes of playing or artificial vibration. People who like to "save money" have used aquarium air pumps and personal pleasure items to accomplish this same effect, and I have heard a few horror stories about the DIY approach such as marred finishes and damaged relationships.
That was a fun read! Well put!!!

merlin666
01-05-2019, 04:12 PM
It's a myth. If you think your uke is not great to start with but seems to improve over time then it's not the uke but your skill in making it sound better.

MopMan
01-06-2019, 12:00 AM
This is an age-old question.

It happens. No one completely understands it. Some don't believe in it. None should rely on it.

I say: just relax and enjoy the ride. Your uke will change. Play it, love it, take care of it. Don't worry about factors beyond your control.

Rakelele
01-06-2019, 12:46 AM
My understanding is that the effect of "opening up" or "breaking in" is happening because everything "falls into place" in the first few months after a instrument is finished and then played for a while. This affects micro adjustments in the glue, bridge and nut, like you mentioned, but also the finish, joints and kerfing, and I'm pretty certain that the wood is "moved" by the vibration of the sound waves as well (my method is to use a capo at different frets to provide different pitches for this process).

Don't hope for a dull sounding instrument to become a cannon, though. A poorly built instrument will not sound miraculously better over time. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that a vintage instrument will necessarily sound all that much better than a new one.

Croaky Keith
01-06-2019, 02:17 AM
All manufactured wooden instruments 'settle in' - it's just a fact of life - some more than others. ;)

tomthebaptist
01-06-2019, 02:48 AM
It's a myth. If you think your uke is not great to start with but seems to improve over time then it's not the uke but your skill in making it sound better.

Merlin, Iím inclined to agree. Iíve found that my right hand fingernails have the greatest affect on tone. At least thatís my experince.

Tom

Rllink
01-06-2019, 02:50 AM
I've said this every time the subject is brought up, which is probably at least a dozen times, but why is it that the change is always positive? I will buy into the logic that over time there will be some shifting or settling in, glue drying, whatever, that causes change, but why would it always for the better? That same logic that makes me believe in the change makes me think that it could go either way.

Down Up Dick
01-06-2019, 03:00 AM
All my wooden instruments sound just as bad as they always have and make about as many mistakes —ahhh, well . . . :old:

Jeffelele
01-06-2019, 03:11 AM
but why is it that the change is always positive?.

The space for sound to improve is much smaller than the availability of ways it can sound worse. The sweet spot is a small target.

I believe, not know, that getting used to a uke’s voice and making small adjustments in playing are underestimated in their effect.

I loaned my universal underestimating estimator to a friend who is now afraid to answer his phone. If I can get it back I’ll make it available here for a small fee.

jelow1966
01-06-2019, 07:26 AM
The golden rule of opening up is that you should never buy a wooden musical instrument hoping it will open up. Buy it because of how it sounds on the day you buy it, if it does open up that will be a bonus. Never spend more on a uke, hoping that it will open up.

Unless you are buying a teak sitar. No serious player will ever buy a teak sitar for the way it sounds new, but rather, for the way it'll sound after a few years of playing. Tun sitars open up as well over time but not to the same extent. A sitar however is constructed much differently then a uke or guitar, obviously, so the amount it will change over time is much greater. There just isn't that much wood on a uke to open up.

John

kohanmike
01-06-2019, 07:58 AM
It's a myth. If you think your uke is not great to start with but seems to improve over time then it's not the uke but your skill in making it sound better.

Before I started playing uke about 5 years ago, I played guitar for almost 50 years, so I have plenty of experience and skill. There's no doubt that my Bruce Wei custom gypsy jazz tenor with solid flame maple top and solid Indian rosewood body has opened up since he made it for me 4 years ago. In the first year or so I felt it had limited projection and sustain, but using it more often in the last 2 years, the projection and sustain has definitely improved a lot. I keep all 8 of my ukes in a humidity controlled cabinet when I'm not playing them.

8 tenor cutaway ukes, 5 acoustic bass ukes, 10 solid body bass ukes, 7 mini electric bass guitars

• Donate to The Ukulele Kids Club, they provide ukuleles to children's hospital music therapy programs. www.theukc.org
• Member The CC Strummers www.youtube.com/user/CCStrummers/video

Jarmo_S
01-06-2019, 08:02 AM
It's a myth. If you think your uke is not great to start with but seems to improve over time then it's not the uke but your skill in making it sound better.

This I agree most. Some minor sound adjustments can be had of course.

jelow1966
01-06-2019, 08:03 AM
I've said this every time the subject is brought up, which is probably at least a dozen times, but why is it that the change is always positive? I will buy into the logic that over time there will be some shifting or settling in, glue drying, whatever, that causes change, but why would it always for the better? That same logic that makes me believe in the change makes me think that it could go either way.

It doesn't have to be always positive. A bright uke opening up could lead to one that is too bright. Perhaps that is why I don't like my flamenco uke much anymore. Or perhaps I'm just older now and more sensitive the very bright sound it has. But, again, there isn't that much wood to open up in the first place on a uke.

BTW, going back to sitars, they do open up too much over time. Professionals often 'gift' their old sitars to students who are thrilled to get them but the truth is they are just disposing of an instrument that has opened up so much it's basically worn out.

Nickie
01-06-2019, 01:52 PM
On the other hand, I'm not convinced that a vintage instrument will necessarily sound all that much better than a new one.

My take on this is, old ukes were built from old wood, that grew slowly, and are denser than what you can get now. The old wood is gone, mostly.
New ukes are pretty much built from new wood. It's harvested younger, and is less dense.
If you can find an old piece of tonewood, thump it, then thump a piece of new tonewood. Hear the difference?
I hope to be able to get my next uke built from older wood, that has be allowed to age and dry naturally.
My uke just gets really dirty from playing it. It sounds just like it did the day I got it. It just dosn't look or smell quite as nice.

Bill Sheehan
01-06-2019, 02:09 PM
Lost in this discussion is Jeffelele's wisecrack about having loaned his "universal underestimating estimator" to a friend. That is one of the funniest posts I've seen here. I'm not sure why. But it is. :)

kissing
01-07-2019, 12:22 AM
It's a myth. If you think your uke is not great to start with but seems to improve over time then it's not the uke but your skill in making it sound better.

I am going to agree fully with this.
It's an old myth that is repeatedly discussed on the internet, especially for old guitars.

Degradation of glue and parts from time is not a reliable or objective means for our subjective perception of an instrument's sound to "improve" over time.
If the sound was so heavily influenced by an instrument changing physically over time, more often, you are likely to suffer with a worse tone with time.

Simply changing the strings... adjusting the action through a setup and changing out nuts/saddles... and most importantly, your changing playing technique would greatly overshadow an effect (if any) of minute changes to glue and wood of your instrument.

bazmaz
01-07-2019, 12:26 AM
An age old topic that has been active online since the internet developed - see guitar forums for a flavour.

My issue with the topic is how utterly impossible it is to measure in any meaningful way. Whilst I believe that solid wood instruments DO change over time, whether they change for better or worse, greatly or minimally is impossible to demonstrate.

Take a ukulele, made of solid wood, bought in 2000 by a player. It is now 2019 so many years have passed and the player believes there is a difference. Perhaps there is, but surely there is a difference in the player too. We change as much as the ukuleles do. As such there is no way to quantify it. You would need the exact same strings, recorded in the exact same room and conditions in 2000 and 2019. The harder bit is you would need the exact same level of skill and touch from the player too - and that simply cannot be mimiced.

So I say - sure there may be a change - but dont fret about it, just play the thing.

Rakelele
01-07-2019, 12:29 AM
It doesn't have to be always positive. A bright uke opening up could lead to one that is too bright. Perhaps that is why I don't like my flamenco uke much anymore. Or perhaps I'm just older now and more sensitive the very bright sound it has.

Is this really a thing that a bright instrument will "open up" to sounding even brighter? My understanding, coming from Spruce top guitars, is that the process of opening up implies that a bright sounding instrument will sound warmer or "darker" over time.

merlin666
01-07-2019, 03:56 AM
Is this really a thing that a bright instrument will "open up" to sounding even brighter? My understanding, coming from Spruce top guitars, is that the process of opening up implies that a bright sounding instrument will sound warmer or "darker" over time.

Yes, I have a guitar that I bought new about 40 years ago and it still smells new and looks mint, but when I bought it it was bright and shimmery and now it's really on the mellow and "warm" side (as far as I can tell), and has way too much overtones to be useful. So it is definitely a case where aging was very detrimental to sound changes.

Rakelele
01-07-2019, 04:11 AM
Yes, I have a guitar that I bought new about 40 years ago and it still smells new and looks mint, but when I bought it it was bright and shimmery and now it's really on the mellow and "warm" side (as far as I can tell), and has way too much overtones to be useful. So it is definitely a case where aging was very detrimental to sound changes.

So if I'm understanding correctly, your guitar used to have a bright tone that has become mellow and warm over time? This is exactly what I meant: the process of opening up usually refers to an instrument becoming warmer sounding, not brighter like someone stated above. (If this process is to one's liking, of course, is up to one's individual taste.)

Mik
01-07-2019, 04:32 AM
An age old topic that has been active online since the internet developed - see guitar forums for a flavour.

My issue with the topic is how utterly impossible it is to measure in any meaningful way. Whilst I believe that solid wood instruments DO change over time, whether they change for better or worse, greatly or minimally is impossible to demonstrate.

Take a ukulele, made of solid wood, bought in 2000 by a player. It is now 2019 so many years have passed and the player believes there is a difference. Perhaps there is, but surely there is a difference in the player too. We change as much as the ukuleles do. As such there is no way to quantify it. You would need the exact same strings, recorded in the exact same room and conditions in 2000 and 2019. The harder bit is you would need the exact same level of skill and touch from the player too - and that simply cannot be mimiced.

So I say - sure there may be a change - but dont fret about it, just play the thing.

As someone married to a scientist whose work revolves around scientific evidence, I must say I have to concur with you on this.

jelow1966
01-07-2019, 05:18 AM
Yes, I have a guitar that I bought new about 40 years ago and it still smells new and looks mint, but when I bought it it was bright and shimmery and now it's really on the mellow and "warm" side (as far as I can tell), and has way too much overtones to be useful. So it is definitely a case where aging was very detrimental to sound changes.

So if I wait another twenty years my flamenco uke might warm up a bit? :)

On a serious note it is now 22 years old and I can't say that there is any noticeable more warmth to it then new but a guitar has a heck of a lot more wood then a concert sized ukulele.

John

Rakelele
01-07-2019, 05:47 AM
So if I wait another twenty years my flamenco uke might warm up a bit? :)

On a serious note it is now 22 years old and I can't say that there is any noticeable more warmth to it then new but a guitar has a heck of a lot more wood then a concert sized ukulele.

Just to be clear: What I was trying to say is that the process of "opening up" usually refers to instruments sounding warmer over time. This wasn't to say that this happens to all instruments, nor that it happens at all. Nor that there weren't any other possible processes that might affect the sound in a negative way. My intention was merely to clarify the semantics. If your guitar sounds brighter now, this wouldn't qualify as "opening up" (to my understanding).

PereBourik
01-07-2019, 06:25 AM
My Beau Hannam tenor really opened up when Sarah & Craig each played it. Closed up when they gave it back to me. I suspect the reult would be the same if I handed them my Clara.

Like Schroedinger's thought experiment, the observer influences the outcome.

Rllink
01-07-2019, 07:23 AM
My new Ohana and I opened up to each other last night. Started out with a rum and Coke, just singing some songs, the Ohana accompanying me. But after three or four of the rum and Cokes, I really opened up to it. We talked about past failures, future expectations, how much we liked playing together. We talked about whether I would take it with me to San Juan this winter. I'm sure that it overheard me earlier saying that I would rather take my older more experienced ukulele, maybe the cute little soprano. I really feel like it is too early in our relationship to take it travelling right now. I really think that it was trying to get me a little drunk, kind of like that Christmas song that everyone was all goofy over about it being cold outside. I think that it was trying to get me to say that I would take it along. Didn't work, I never let myself drink so much that I don't know what is going on. Maybe next time. Anyway, it was really nice to open up like that to each other. I feel like we really made some progress getting to know each other better. I have to admit, this new one is easy to open up to. I've had a couple of ukuleles who were a bit standoffish. They really would not open up and express themselves like this new Ohana has already. I can see us getting much closer, but I just want to take it slow, get to know each other first..

Nickie
01-07-2019, 08:16 AM
My new Ohana and I opened up to each other last night. Started out with a rum and Coke, just singing some songs, the Ohana accompanying me. But after three or four of the rum and Cokes, I really opened up to it. We talked about past failures, future expectations, how much we liked playing together. We talked about whether I would take it with me to San Juan this winter. I'm sure that it overheard me earlier saying that I would rather take my older more experienced ukulele, maybe the cute little soprano. I really feel like it is too early in our relationship to take it travelling right now. I really think that it was trying to get me a little drunk, kind of like that Christmas song that everyone was all goofy over about it being cold outside. I think that it was trying to get me to say that I would take it along. Didn't work, I know how to keep my head about me when I'm drinking. Maybe next time. Anyway, it was really nice to open up like that to each other. I feel like we really made some progress getting to know each other better. I have to admit, this new one is easy to open up to. I've had a couple of ukuleles who were a bit standoffish. They really would not open up and express themselves like this new Ohana has already. I can see us getting much closer, but I just want to take it slow, get to know each other first..

I love this!

Nickie
01-07-2019, 08:19 AM
An age old topic that has been active online since the internet developed - see guitar forums for a flavour.

My issue with the topic is how utterly impossible it is to measure in any meaningful way. Whilst I believe that solid wood instruments DO change over time, whether they change for better or worse, greatly or minimally is impossible to demonstrate.

Take a ukulele, made of solid wood, bought in 2000 by a player. It is now 2019 so many years have passed and the player believes there is a difference. Perhaps there is, but surely there is a difference in the player too. We change as much as the ukuleles do. As such there is no way to quantify it. You would need the exact same strings, recorded in the exact same room and conditions in 2000 and 2019. The harder bit is you would need the exact same level of skill and touch from the player too - and that simply cannot be mimicked.

So I say - sure there may be a change - but don't fret about it, just play the thing.

Baz, this makes so much sense, logically....I'm not gonna concern myself with it anymore, I'm just gonna play the h--- outta my ukes.

Now, I wanna discuss what happened when I dropped my G harmonica on the sidewalk....

besley
01-07-2019, 08:44 AM
I put all this into the same category as folks who say they can detect: a difference between bone and ebony bridge pins, a difference between Brazilian and Indian rosewood backs, a difference between Indian rosewood and ebony fretboards, a difference in sound between silver-nickel and stainless steel frets, and so on. I'm not saying that none of them are real, but I sure can't hear any difference - and I frequently detect a certain snobbishness in the discussions towards those of us who don't appreciate the "finer" things.

One thing I do find fascinating about the whole "opening up" issue is that luthiers who have made instruments from hundred year (and more) old sunken logs that have been reclaimed from bogs and lake beds report that the wood is already "opened" from day one. I'll have to take their word on that, but it does suggest the the phenomenon (if real....) is inherent in the wood structure itself, and not an issue of glue or joints settling in.

dcuttler
01-07-2019, 09:09 AM
There was an article a very long time ago in scientific American where they evaluated some very old violins, and came to conclusion that the better sounding instruments were due to the glued joints drying out over time. This allowed the front and back to move more freely resulting in greater volume and improved tone. They felt this was a greater factor than the differences in tone wood.

dcuttler
01-07-2019, 09:14 AM
I did a Google search and found the article. Its in the October 1981 issue. They discuss violin front and back plates.

Search for "October 1981 scientific American" , and about half way down the page you can find a free pdf download. It's heavy but interesting reading.