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View Full Version : How much does figure/flame affect tone?



dkpianoman21
02-28-2013, 11:43 AM
I've been browsing the 'ukulele porn' thread quite a lot and I've seen some absolutely marvelous ukuleles made with beautifully figured woods.

My question is, how much affect on the tone of the instrument can you expect with an ukulele that was built using a highly figured wood set?Generally speaking, is there any difference in tone, or is it merely cosmetic?

Has anyone tried two identical instruments where one was significantly more figured than the other?

Thanks

SamUke
02-28-2013, 12:11 PM
It does not affect it.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
02-28-2013, 12:25 PM
I can only speak of koa with any authority as it is the wood I am most familiar with. As a "general rule", all other things being the same (stiffness, strength and density of the wood as well as build quality), plain, non figured or lightly figured wood with straight grain will almost always be a better choice for an instrument. The differences may or may not be subtle but there is a difference. It makes sense since the wood structure itself is different. Curly (or flamed if you will) is wood grain on a roller coaster ride. Since many people listen with their eyes, people will often choose the "prettier" wood.

chuck in ny
02-28-2013, 12:29 PM
interesting topic and another example of using as little creativity as possible.

DewGuitars
02-28-2013, 12:30 PM
Since many people listen with their eyes, people will often choose the "prettier" wood.

Yep. That's for sure.

mm stan
02-28-2013, 12:38 PM
Yes I too believe straight grain is better .......that is the heart of it all....:)

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
02-28-2013, 12:40 PM
interesting topic and another example of using as little creativity as possible.

I'm not sure I know what this means but I'm pretty sure i would disagree with such a generalized statement.

Dan Uke
02-28-2013, 12:50 PM
However, I bet a non-experienced luthier with straight grain will not make a better sounding instrument than an experienced luthier with curly grain...Ultimately, the luthier is very important.

With that said, I would pay a premium for curly grain from an experienced luthier as I sure do feel good playing a pretty instrument..

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
02-28-2013, 12:55 PM
However, I bet a non-experienced luthier with straight grain will not make a better sounding instrument than an experienced luthier with curly grain...Ultimately, the luthier is very important.

With that said, I would pay a premium for curly grain from an experienced luthier as I sure do feel good playing a pretty instrument..

And what I'm saying is that the builder might do even better with less figured wood. As I mentioned, the differences may not be huge and they may not be important to some people, but they are there.

mm stan
02-28-2013, 01:13 PM
I'm not sure I know what this means but I'm pretty sure i would disagree with such a generalized statement.


Aloha Chuckie,
He has no Idea who you are and what you make....You're one of the most highly reguarded and sought uke builders ....:)

hmgberg
02-28-2013, 01:17 PM
interesting topic and another example of using as little creativity as possible.

Huh? Doh! Wha?

OldePhart
02-28-2013, 01:23 PM
I almost jumped onto this thread before it had any responses. My response was going to be pretty much what Chuck said but I realized it would be second-hand info as I've never done any really scientific testing. However, it would be second hand info from a lot of different sources... :)

Just consider, for decades (maybe a century?) Englemann spruce was considered the absolute best choice for guitar soundboards. In fact, it still is, at least within the spruce family, and it is only the rarity/cost of Englemann that causes so few soundboards to be made of it today. Englemann spruce is also some of the straightest, tightest, grain you'll find in the spruce family (or was, until reduction of old-growth resulted in smaller trees being harvested).

I'm all about sound. If I were going to have Chuck, or another premium luthier, build me a uke it would have very plain grain on the top - maybe lots of figuring on the sides and headstock veneer, but give me nice straight grain with maybe just a hint of subtle curl in the right light for the top.

Realistically, though, as Chuck implies it's probably one player in a hundred, and maybe one listener in a thousand, that would notice the audible differences between straight and figured grain. And as he put it so well, a lot of people listen with their eyes...

John

Dan Uke
02-28-2013, 01:24 PM
And what I'm saying is that the builder might do even better with less figured wood. As I mentioned, the differences may not be huge and they may not be important to some people, but they are there.

That's great because I got a 3A koa from you so mine sounds bettah than all you suckas that have 5A koa from Chuck!! LOL

JUST KIDDING!!

Chuck, do you want to confirm that mine sounds bettah than all those curly koas? hehehe

DewGuitars
02-28-2013, 01:33 PM
Just consider, for decades (maybe a century?) Englemann spruce was considered the absolute best choice for guitar soundboards. In fact, it still is, at least within the spruce family, and it is only the rarity/cost of Englemann that causes so few soundboards to be made of it today...

Most of the guitar builders and players I know much prefer Red Spruce or European Spruce to Englemann Spruce. Englemann has a more complex sound than Red, but not more than European. Adirondack (Red) has more head-room than either of those though, and is preferred for Bluegrass. Personally...I like Red and Sitka the best. Not a big fan of Englemann myself...

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
02-28-2013, 01:44 PM
My apologies. In order to answer the question more thoroughly some further things need to be mentioned. There's a lot more to the question other than is curly or plain wood better for an instrument. Please don't overlook what I mentioned in my first response when I said "all things being equal". What's most important to me when choosing tone wood is it's physical characteristics, although visual clues can often be helpful as well as "listening" to the wood. I consider stiffness, strength and density first. Either highly curly or rather plain wood can exhibit all of these traits. But all curl is different. Fiddleback koa, for instance, with it's tight rows of curls, can be extremely stiff. Crotch or compression curl with it's random width bands of wild curly can be very floppy and unstable.
Let me ammend my response by saying that highly figured wood does not necessary make a superior instrument and in fact, often times the reverse is true.
OK, everybody happy now?

lakesideglenn
02-28-2013, 02:45 PM
I once read that none other than C.F.Martin, founder of Martin guitars, preferred a tight straight grain in the center of his bookmatched tops that got wider towards the outside to get the best sound. Since the uke is basically a small guitar, I would guess the same holds true.

hawaii 50
02-28-2013, 03:54 PM
I'm not sure I know what this means but I'm pretty sure i would disagree with such a generalized statement.



I will disagree too..what ever the person meant?

MGM
02-28-2013, 04:00 PM
I am not sure but if my ukulele player had a great figure and she got burnt by flames i guess her tone would be a little stern and upset...lol....as for the real question for a generalized rule it is difficult to say in every case thathe woods flame and curl vs. straight grain affects tone...so many factors come into a piece of wood in addition to the look......i do agree that many buy with their eyes...nothing wrong with that..great look and great sound

BlackBearUkes
02-28-2013, 04:22 PM
Most of the guitar builders and players I know much prefer Red Spruce or European Spruce to Englemann Spruce. Englemann has a more complex sound than Red, but not more than European. Adirondack (Red) has more head-room than either of those though, and is preferred for Bluegrass. Personally...I like Red and Sitka the best. Not a big fan of Englemann myself...

I have to agree, Englemann is my least favorite spruce and I wouldn't use it for guitars or ukes unless there was nothing else. I like it for violins if the grain isn't too wide.

John, don't know where you got your information but Englemann has never been favored over other spruces by luthiers that I know.

OldePhart
02-28-2013, 04:39 PM
I have to agree, Englemann is my least favorite spruce and I wouldn't use it for guitars or ukes unless there was nothing else. I like it for violins if the grain isn't too wide.

John, don't know where you got your information but Englemann has never been favored over other spruces by luthiers that I know.

As I said (or at least thought I said), it's not popular now because there's nothing left but relatively small trees that yield twisted grain - all the big old growth trees have been gone for decades. Decades ago when the old growth was available it was quite popular (probably the reason there isn't any old growth left). Here's what Taylor guitars has to say about Englemann...


Engelmann is also known as white, European or German spruce, although they are technically different species. It is usually visually distinguishable from Sitka by its creamier complexion. We're almost out of the “good stuff.” Engelmann trees these days are so small and twisted that we get a fair amount of runout (grain that doesn't run parallel to the surface) and as a result, mismatched tops.

Sonically, Engelmann has a mature tone, and yields a slightly richer midrange than Sitka, which makes a guitar sound a bit older. Old growth Engelmann tends to have a sonic attribute of smoothness or refinement to it, but the days of older growth Engelmann trees are essentially gone for now.
http://www.taylorguitars.com/guitars/acoustic/features/woods/top-woods/engelmann-spruce

When I was young Englemann was favored by many guitar makers and players and Sitka was considered "next best thing if you can't get Englemann." Now, you're lucky to get good Sitka. :)

I've been fortunate enough to play a couple of Taylors with the "good stuff" and I really like it - awfully pricey, though.

Edit to add - okay, I went and read my previous post again and I can see where I didn't express what I meant well at all. I said something like "still is, except for price yada yada" - it would have been clearer if I'd said something like "and still would be if good specimens were available at a reasonable price" :)

John

Paul December
02-28-2013, 04:41 PM
interesting topic and another example of using as little creativity as possible.

I too have no idea what he meant ...
... but am going to agree, just to be different :D

sukie
02-28-2013, 05:19 PM
I'm glad my ears aren't that good, I guess. Isn't it beautiful?
http://i1143.photobucket.com/albums/n627/sukie2709/7305cef75e47328d32ed38e62715af2b_zps50c30a85.jpg

Dan Uke
02-28-2013, 05:37 PM
My apologies. In order to answer the question more thoroughly some further things need to be mentioned. There's a lot more to the question other than is curly or plain wood better for an instrument. Please don't overlook what I mentioned in my first response when I said "all things being equal". What's most important to me when choosing tone wood is it's physical characteristics, although visual clues can often be helpful as well as "listening" to the wood. I consider stiffness, strength and density first. Either highly curly or rather plain wood can exhibit all of these traits. But all curl is different. Fiddleback koa, for instance, with it's tight rows of curls, can be extremely stiff. Crotch or compression curl with it's random width bands of wild curly can be very floppy and unstable.
Let me ammend my response by saying that highly figured wood does not necessary make a superior instrument and in fact, often times the reverse is true.
OK, everybody happy now?

Chuck, everyone who owns one of your ukes is very proud and believes they got the best of the bunch!! I bet Jeff now believes he got the best!!

hmgberg
02-28-2013, 07:03 PM
I too have no idea what he meant ...
... but am going to agree, just to be different :D

By "different," do you mean "creative."

dkpianoman21
02-28-2013, 07:17 PM
Wow, thank you VERY much for everyone who replied! I didn't expect to receive such a great education on this topic. I am not an experienced ukulele player, but I have played guitar for several years, and I had long suspected that instruments made out of fancy looking woods did not sound any better than their plain jane siblings. All that being said, it's tough to buy with your ears and not your eyes :p

Rick Turner
02-28-2013, 07:22 PM
"Engelmann is also known as white, European or German spruce, although they are technically different species."

Now there's a load of crap! What a fantastic sentence of disinformation. The marketeers take over the lutherie biz every now and then...

Picea engelmannii = Englemann spruce Picea abies = German spruce Picea rubens = Red or Adirondack spruce Picea sitchensis = Sitka spruce. Etc., etc, etc., and each spruce species has it's own average range of density, stiffness to weight both longitudinally and laterally, tensile strength, etc. The characteristics overlap to a large degree, but there are generalized averages that do count. On average, Picea rubens has the highest stiffness to weight numbers of all the spruces, and that's why it's considered so great. But you can have a very stiff piece of Englemann and a floppy piece of Red. Caveat emptor. And we all do in the lutherie biz, but that statement above is just pure crap.

Also, I've had some exceptional Engelmann...high altitude grown from Canada with stiffness specs right there with Red (Adirondack) Spruce. But that was a rare catch. It is true that some of the less honest of German wood dealers at one time imported Engelmann spruce to Europe and then sold it back to unsuspecting luthiers as "German Spruce"...which it was not, even though it "came" to them from Germany. The look is similar, though it tends to be softer...except for this high altitude stuff which I got from Todd at Allied Lutherie about 12 years ago.

I'm with Chuck on this stuff, as usual. All other things being equal, the straight grained, kind of boring stuff can be worked to sound a bit better. That's NOT to say that we can't make really fine ukes out of high curl stuff, but it's got to have decent longitudinal stiffness or we'll have to adjust bracing to get it there.

hmgberg
02-28-2013, 07:57 PM
An excellent and timely topic.
For me the "traditional" ukulele is about mahogany or koa. Not spruce. Spruce is a traditional guitar wood. The best sounding and most sought after old traditional ukuleles are Martins made out of mahogany and old koa made in Hawaii. Most old Martins which have stood the test of time have plain mahogany wood. Some of the old koa ukuleles have figure and some don't. The old koa instruments with a lot of figure that I have seen seem mostly to be the Martin 5K style which are not really played a lot and are expensive and kept in collectors cabinets.
Who can argue with a maker like Chuck over the benefits of figure in wood?
Fiddleback figure is so-called because it has been a very popular choice for the backs of violins for at least the last 100 years. Violins that is.
If you look at the marketplace here today, you will see instruments which are being sold by buyers who bought with their eyes and not their ears. This is the case in several other marketplaces on other boards now in March 2013 as the hipsters and guitar players find out about buying good ukuleles. It is rare to see a good sounding custom ukulele not being played and played by its new owner, and common to see ones which don't have the sound the new owner wants that are for sale. Of course if the new owner claimed that there is a problem with the sound of a relatively new ukulele, it would need to have a lower price, so you wont see a lot of that. And also there are many ukuleles for sale which have been played and played over several years because they sound great, but the owner needs to move on or get some ready cash.
With the age of ukulele hipsters, there is a lot of ignorance about ukuleles and a lot of pretty woods and "new" designs being marketed as "creative" or "innovative". Hipster wannabes need something new to take out and be seen. As our species has seriously damaged the sustainability of many species of trees on this planet, we do need to look at other species of timber like the various acacias and other tone woods which can be grown sustainably. But still, If you want to get a ukulele in any price range that you will not put down, you need to re-read what Chuck has typed and keep reading it until you understand it, before you spend any money on a ukulele.

I suppose if you want to get really "traditional," you might say that the origins of the ukulele are in the Portuguese machete. The tops on those were neither mahogany nor koa. When the original Portuguese makers set up shop in Hawaii, they used native wood, koa. I do like the sound of mahogany and koa, but some really great sounding ukuleles I either own or have played have spruce tops; the Harmony Roy Smeck Vita Uke and a fantastic Kamaka Ohta-san I played at the factory come to mind immediately.

I think the real issue, and maybe this is what you are saying, is that a lot of not-so-great ukuleles are made and sold to people who have not yet developed a discerning ear. They may spend a few bucks more for something that appeals to them visually. You can't really fault people for this. It is not so new either. Harmony sold more ukuleles than any other maker in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of them don't sound particularly great, but are visual appealing to some folks. Moreover, they are comparatively inexpensive, and they can be great fun, especially if one is interested in novelty and not so serious about them as musical instruments. Back then, the manufacturers used paint, stencils and decals. Now, they use different woods, often laminates to spruce up ... er, make the ukuleles more attractive.

Chuck has reiterated that, all other things being equal, a ukulele made of straight grained wood is likely to sound better than one made with curly wood. I think that's physics. Although I am not scientific enough to mount a defense, it does make sense. Typically, though, all other things are not equal. Luthiers like Chuck can make a good instrument out of bad wood more easily than most can make one out of good wood. In the grand scheme of things, tone is affected more greatly by concerns other than the degree of figure. I mean, Chuck, if you feel like disposing of all those highly figured koa ukuleles, I'll take them off your hands. Again, Harmony and Martin both made ukuleles out of fairly plain mahogany. I do love my solid mahogany Harmony ukuleles. I just love my Martins more.

electrauke
02-28-2013, 08:01 PM
Yeah I have wondered this too, but, man, there are some NICE woods out there :)

Paul December
03-01-2013, 04:34 AM
I'm glad my ears aren't that good, I guess. It's it beautiful?
http://i1143.photobucket.com/albums/n627/sukie2709/7305cef75e47328d32ed38e62715af2b_zps50c30a85.jpg


So beautiful, it must sound terrible! ;)

pulelehua
03-01-2013, 06:15 AM
Presumably, as with all things sound-related, the top being straight grained is more likely to have a positive effect than the back and sides? Or at least a more easily perceived effect?

I'm thinking that for makers who use softer woods for the top, having say a straight spruce top with curly-something-else back and sides is going to more often be better than a curly spruce top with straight-something-else back and sides. Yes?

Not sure I expressed that well at all...

OldePhart
03-01-2013, 06:21 AM
"Engelmann is also known as white, European or German spruce, although they are technically different species."

Now there's a load of crap! What a fantastic sentence of disinformation. The marketeers take over the lutherie biz every now and then...
trimmed for space...

But, Rick, didn't you really go on to say pretty much what the Taylor site quoted says :confused: - did you miss the last sentence? They basically said just what you did, different species, often called by the wrong names.

As for the exceptional Englemann you mention - I think that is what Martin was using on their "extra-fancy" pearl inlaid guitars back in the 30's or 40's, but they called it German spruce, even though it was from the NW US. What's more interesting to me is why they used it on those specific guitars? I wonder if it was for its tone or because the tight-straight grain and slightly harder character of the old Englemann gave less problems with chipping, etc. when doing inlay? Just speculation but would make sense especially seeing as how that seems to be the only guitars they used that wood on.

Also interesting to note the high-altitude and cold-weather factor on the samples you mention. I suspect that is why the grain is so fine on those boards. Trees grow much more slowly there so I guess it makes sense for the grain to be smaller. That's also probably the main reason that it is getting so hard to find great samples like that - most of the old growth has been logged and it takes many decades for trees to grow to usefull size in that climate. When I was stationed in Iceland back in the 80's I visited one of their reforestation projects (when Iceland was first founded they paid taxes to Norway? in charcoal). They had planted a bunch of fir trees (not sure of species) near a lake - the planting had taken place something like twenty years before and the trees were still only about shoulder- or head-high.

I think Taylor is the only one of the "big three" using Englemann and they only use it on a handful (700 series and supposedly available on some of the 500 series). I've played a couple of the 700 series and loved them, but I've never found one for sale. Even a big local dealer that carries all the high-end presentation grade stuff almost never has the 700 series in stock. I don't know if he doesn't like them or can't get them. I do know that the only time I saw one in his shop it was already spoken for. :(

Of course, it's just as well now as I hardly ever pick up a six-string anymore.

John

John

mm stan
03-01-2013, 06:34 AM
One thing for sure, and nobody can say that they know how their uke will sound before the string it up...ahh you always can assume but not be sure..
too many variations in the building process and different materials...every uke
will have a voice of their own...

hawaii 50
03-01-2013, 06:39 AM
One thing for sure, and nobody can say is that they know how their uke will sound before the string it up...ahh you always can assume but not be sure..
too many variations in the building process and different materials...every uke
will have a voice of their own...



You are right as usual Stan but I would take a chance with Chuck,Eric and Rick everytime..
you think Chuck might read this..just wishing and hoping haha

didgeridoo2
03-02-2013, 09:56 AM
Chuck, everyone who owns one of your ukes is very proud and believes they got the best of the bunch!! I bet Jeff now believes he got the best!!

Yeah, well, now that you mention it, Daniel... ;)

BlackBearUkes
03-02-2013, 10:32 AM
Presumably, as with all things sound-related, the top being straight grained is more likely to have a positive effect than the back and sides? Or at least a more easily perceived effect?

I'm thinking that for makers who use softer woods for the top, having say a straight spruce top with curly-something-else back and sides is going to more often be better than a curly spruce top with straight-something-else back and sides. Yes?

Not sure I expressed that well at all...

I am very grateful there is no such thing as curly spruce, what a headache that would be. I know some like to refer to spruce with bear claw as something special, but the funny thing is, bear claw spruce used to be considered a defect and wasn't much good for anything. Now it is consider special by some and it adds to the price. Oh the power of marketing.

stevepetergal
03-02-2013, 10:45 AM
I can only speak of koa with any authority as it is the wood I am most familiar with. As a "general rule", all other things being the same (stiffness, strength and density of the wood as well as build quality), plain, non figured or lightly figured wood with straight grain will almost always be a better choice for an instrument. The differences may or may not be subtle but there is a difference. It makes sense since the wood structure itself is different. Curly (or flamed if you will) is wood grain on a roller coaster ride. Since many people listen with their eyes, people will often choose the "prettier" wood.

Very nicely said.

I know that with piano soundboards, most of the sound vibrations travel along the grain. So, the straighter and more even the grain, the truer the travel of these vibrations. Consequently, the better able the construction of the instrument is to direct the sound to the most capable portion of the board, and to distribute the sound across that area. My bet is the same principle applies to ukulele soundboards to a lesser degree (because of size). Listen to an ukulele with a straight grained spruce or cedar top. The sound travels across these woods effortlessly.