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Thread: Sound of a "classic" tenor ukulele

  1. #1
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    Default Sound of a "classic" tenor ukulele

    So, I'm going to open a can of worms here and I know it, but I want to talk about sound properties of tenor ukulele. Here is my dilemma. I've been playing acoustic and classical guitars for many-many years and dozens of high end instruments went though my hands. So I have a pretty good idea of sound properties different guitars have and what I personally like.

    Not so much with ukes. I got introduced to them about a year ago with a gift of a $30 soprano painted in white. I thought it was a toy until I realized I can play it. Since then I've been playing ukulele almost every day. But going to local stores I can only try pretty basic examples. Out of may be 30 ukuleles I played only handful were over $150. Most of them sounded not that much better than the one I was gifted and only a few were tenors. So, I did an extensive research on the subject and ended up with tenor all solid wood Mainland I bought online. I have chosen Cedar/Rosewood since I am a guitar player first and it seemed like a logical choice. Indeed I like the sound of my Mainland, it sounds almost like a mini classical guitar if I can draw such a comparison.

    But in my head I knew that a "real" ukulele should be made of Koa. So, after playing my Mainland for about 6 months I bought a high end Koa tenor (not going to name a maker for now, but much more expensive than Mainland). When uke arrived I could immediately see and appreciate the quality of built. It's virtually flawless. But from the sound perspective I almost didn't like it at first. It is bright, loud, with a very good separation, but lacks the bottom end and warmth my Mainland has. For some reason I expected a "whole new world of sounds", but what I got seemed like just a different part of spectrum. After playing it for a while I grew to like the sound and enjoy almost bell like properties of it. But I still have a question...

    What should a "classic" tenor uke sound like? I wish I could try a bunch of Kamaka, KoAloha, Martin and other tenors by respected makers, but I can't. Listening over the internet doesn't do me too much good either. So, in your opinion, what are the properties of a "classic" tenor uke sound?

    Sorry for a long post and thanks.

  2. #2
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    I think you're giving a very accurate description of what a "classic" ukulele vs. a more "modern", more guitar-like build like your Cedar/Rosewood Mainland would typically sound like. Sounds like your new addition would be great for high G tuning and strumming, while your Mainland, I imagine, shows its full strength at low G and fingerpicking. To me, it's precisely those two different voices in their "extremes" that are providing the full range of what ukes can do. Like you said, they just pronounce different parts of the spectrum. You can use different strings to either reinforce these different tonal qualities or even them out (my bet would be fluorocarbon strings to warm up your Koa uke).

    My personal impression is that out of the brands you mentioned, KoAloha will give you the most "modern" sound, whereas Kamaka and Martin are more "traditional", both in terms of sound and build. Of course, all of the above is just generally speaking and somewhat exaggerative. Even from the same builder, the voices may vary widely.
    Enjoying instruments by - Beau Hannam - Jay Lichty - Jerry Hoffmann - Luis Feu de Mesquita - Kala - Kamaka - Kanile'a - KoAloha - Ko'olau - Moore Bettah - Pono - Romero Creations - and others

  3. #3
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    I only play tenor, reentrant tuning and cutaway. In the last six years I've gone through about 21 ukes of various price ranges and manufacturers, I have 9 now. I played guitar for almost 50 years before that. There are enough differences in my ukes that I couldn't describe a classic tenor sound; solid, laminate, side sound holes, nylon strings, fluorocarbon strings. The wood, the construction, the strings make each different from the other. Seems to me you have a good couple of choices to give you variety of sound.


    This is Michael Kohan in Los Angeles, Beverly West near the Beverly Center
    9 tenor cutaway ukes, 5 acoustic bass ukes, 11 solid body bass ukes, 9 mini electric bass guitars (Total: 34)

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  4. #4
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    To me the "classic" 'uku timbre is that of a simple all solid mahogany instrument: sweet and rich midrange and optimized for flesh strums over the fingerboard. Not the best for using nails or fingerpicking but the beautiful harp-like voice is the classic tone of territorial Hawaii. So instruments like the Martin 1T IZ on the high end or a Pono MT on the low end. Personally I prefer a more classical guitar-like timbre response and thus gravitate towards spruce or cedar tops and rosewood or maghony bodies. I find these combinations of tone woods fit better with my finger style technique and playing with nails over the sound hole. I don't think of that sound as "modern" as the spruce tops and hardwood bodies were the norm for the 'ukulele prototypes brought to Hawaii in the late 19th century.
    Last edited by gochugogi; 06-22-2019 at 10:10 PM.

  5. #5
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    Maybe what IZ gave us(?) - that has the 'classical' Hawaiian sound to me.

    My preferences lie with traditional mahogany, or acacia.
    Trying to do justice to various musical instruments.

  6. #6
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    My thoughts on a classic tenor ukulele should be made of Honduran Mahogany or Cuban Mahogany. Koa is seemingly more suited for soprano and concert due to the bright tones.

    @OP what kind of string do you have on your koa tenor? Nylon may gives more of that classic voice that you’re looking for.
    Kamaka HF-1 || Martin S-1 Uke || Eddy Finn EFTS-20-S || Martin C1K Uke || Enya EUT-M6E
    Check out my ukulele themed paintings in UU forum thread

  7. #7
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    Gentlemen, thank you for all your replies so far. A great question was asked about strings. This is one thing I failed to mention. Of course I use same kind of strings on both tenors, otherwise it would not be a fair comparison as string can make all the difference in the world. Both ukes are stung Martin M620 Fluorocarbon. Thanks.

  8. #8
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    I have tried many ukuleles of most price ranges, sizes, and material combinations. One thing I noticed is that that the coveted Koa wood typically sounds dull and unimpressive on non Hawaiian ukes, and even ukes from the three K brands can be hit and miss. It is a tricky tone wood and needs special luthier skill to make it sound right.

    I own a Mahogany tenor that I have strung linear and a Kamaka 6 string. I like Aquila strings on both whereas I have fluorocarbons on my KoAloha concert.

  9. #9
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    So, after reading all your replies, suddenly I had an idea! I went to my strings box, pulled a 4th string from a nylon set and replaced a G on my Mainland. Now a have two completely different sounding instruments. One tenor that sounds bell-like crystal clear and one that sounds like a tiny classical guitar. To the point that when I went to my wife and played it she said "congratulation, you just made a full circle and came back to a guitar, but lost two strings in process" :-))) Oh, now I'm having fun playing them against each other. It's a madness, but I enjoy it.

    On the separate note, I've noticed that a low G sounds a little odd compared to other three strings, but only in open position. I've used a DAddario ProArte nylon. Is there a string that would work better? Or a set with a low G that provides a good warmth to the sound? Thanks.

  10. #10
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    I would suggest getting a Low g set such as worth brown or clear low g set. but that’s fluorocarbon too. You could try Aquila low g sets too
    Kamaka HF-1 || Martin S-1 Uke || Eddy Finn EFTS-20-S || Martin C1K Uke || Enya EUT-M6E
    Check out my ukulele themed paintings in UU forum thread

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