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Thread: Mahogany vs Koa

  1. #1
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    Default Mahogany vs Koa

    No, I'm not trying to start an argument about which is better. That is purely a matter of opinion.

    What I do want to discuss rather is which tonewood is more suitable to which kind of music style. I've been wanting to buy a solid koa uke for some time now but I'm mostly a strummer with some pluck strumming added to the mix, a la Roy Smeck. In general, I play more jazz type music, so I'm wondering if a koa instrument suits that sort of style or if mahogany instruments are the best I can get already. Personally, I've associated koa ukes with the more mellow style of Hawaiian music but I'd appreciate any comments if people have other opinions or experiences.

    Also, I've been looking into which koa uke I'd be hypothetically getting and my favourites so far are KoAloha and Kamaka sopranos, the first one because of the looks and the latter one because of the history and heritage. I've also heard that the Koaloha is supposedly a tad lighter and louder, whereas the Kamaka has a more rounded and balanced sound. Any comments regarding the difference of these two would be highly appreciated as well.

  2. #2
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    The actual timbre, sustain and projection are mainly subject to the design and skill of the luthier. I recently played a Grimes ukulele that had the most sweet and mellow voice and it was spruce and rosewood, a combo that is often too bright in lessor designs. But if all things were equal—same luthier and design— mahogany tends to have more midrange sweetness than koa, koa being a little brighter. I've noticed that most of the local jazz ukulele players lean toward more guitar-like tone wood instruments, e.g., cedar and rosewood, spruce and rosewood, etc. With that said, the essence of jazz tone comes out of your fingers and you can go with any good tone wood and sound great.

  3. #3
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    Build matters more than wood. A mahogany KoAloha will likely sound more similar to a koa KoAloha then it will to something like a mahogany martin.

    If you want that early 20th to mid 20th century mainland sound (e.g. Roy Smeck) a Martin or similar uke from the era (Weyman or Gibson) or good modern Martin copy (e.g. Kiwaya) in either mahogany or koa would likely give you the tone you want (though mahogany would be much more common).

    If your not trying to match the sound of a specific person or period the sky is the limit. Go with the tone that YOU like the most.

    KoAloha's in particular have a very distinct sound. They sound great but very very different from the old Roy Smeck martin sound. Listen to a lot of good quality sound samples of KoAlohas to determine if that's the sound you want. I briefly owned KoAloha soprano. It was absolutely lovely but I sold it because it was soooo different from what I think of as a traditional soprano sound and wanted something more similar to an old Martin. Admittedly, I regretted selling it almost immediatly, but personally if I had to choose between that and a good vintage martin (or similar) I'd go with the Martin. Wish I'd kept it though because I'd really like to have both!
    Last edited by CPG; 12-15-2019 at 08:48 AM.
    Weymann Model 10 Mahogany Soprano (c. 1918)
    David Hanson (Cripple Creek Mandolins) Mahogany Teardrop Soprano

  4. #4
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    I pretty much agree with the above posters, let me see if I can add some insight as to why this is the case. Wood is not an engineered material. Every species will have a broad set of properties, that can vary widely in some cases. Koa, for instance is one of the more varied species. I have had billets of koa that are as light and soft as most western red cedar, and some that are as heavy and dense as rosewoods. This is where the skill of the individual luthier comes into play. Based on their experience as well as testing the physical properties of the wood, they decide how best to use any particular pieces in the overall design process. And this is far from an exact science. Many times master luthiers have demonstrated their skill by building wonderful sounding instruments out of junk wood. The wood selection is one of many variables that go into building a particular instrument. In your case, you need to listen to the brands that appeal to you. If you are considering a custom ukulele, it is best to hear and play any luthier’s instruments before ordering. Most of us will have a distinct sound among the same design.
    Brad
    Bradford Donaldson
    Kekaha, HI and Cannon Beach OR
    bradfordj48@outlook.com

  5. #5
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    A while back, someone mentioned makore to me as a good possibility of a wood for jazz. I didn't look into it since I don't play jazz, but thought I'd mention it, in case someone else has an opinion on it, pro or con, and in case OP wants to consider it.

  6. #6
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    Then there's Maple and Myrtle and even Pine! I've heard jazz played on those except the pine.

    What kind of jazz? Ragtime? New Orleans? 20s pop? Big Band? Straight Ahead? West Coast? Bop? Be Bop? Free? Soft?

    What sound are you looking for? If you want the '20s '30s type, I think mahogany was very popular then. And a bright bark with lots of projection seemed to be common.

    Then, you have to consider the strings. Bright, warm, Nylon, Nylgut, Fluorocarbon hard, medium or soft. Wound vs. plain.

    My WAG is a mahogany soprano (Martin vintage) with Aquila Nylgut strings would be in order. I don't think you could go wrong with a Martin or a copy of a period Martin. But that's pure speculation.
    There is a subtle yet profound difference between the learning of something and the knowing of that thing.
    You can learn by reading, but you don’t begin to know until you begin to try to do.

    —Lou Churchill, Plane & Pilot Magazine

  7. #7
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    Historically, mahogany ukes were associated with the Martin style that dominated the tin-pan-alley/vaudeville music of the pre-war decades of the last century, and koa with Hawaiian ukes that were mainly popular with Hawaiian music. In modern times these concepts don't apply anymore. Martin has given up on ukes for decades and only recently has come back with generic mainstream product. Kamaka is the last of the traditional Hawaiian brands, but their ukes are also used by many contemporary artists for all genres. KoAloha and Kanile'a are more recent Hawaiian brands that build the most modern quality ukes and added many new developments to uke design. KoAloha is very popular on the Japanese market, but they also have a broader appeal with their new punchy sound and they are priced slightly lower than the other K brands. Kanile'a targets the upper level profesional market, and their ukes I find very powerful with appeal to the soloist performer. Any of them should be well suited for jazz, so it's just a matter to find the one that suits your style, so go some stores and try them out.

  8. #8
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    It really isn’t a question of mahogany or koa, but KoAloha or Kamaka. You already want to get a a Hawaiian koa ukulele. I’d go with the KoAloha. I had one years ago. Good volume and has a certain hark to it. But just to throw a curve... a Kamaka pineapple might be interesting.

    I’m sure Kamaka owners can provide more info.

    John

  9. #9
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    I have read through this thread and I think I have something to add which won't be redundant.

    Mahogany versus koa? It really doesn't matter, sound-wise. We've invoked jazz in this discussion. So, listen to something like Duke Ellington's "Jeep's Blues" a few times. The first time through, turn the bass or treble dial a little bit to the left. Next time, move the dial a little to the right. The difference between the two listenings is the difference between koa and mahogany.

    Therefore, the issue isn't about sound; it is about the player and what emotions/significances/ideologies that the player puts into the ukulele and its components.

    I could go on with exempla but I will cut this short lest we ruffle some feathers by regarding the ukulele as a fashion accessory. Just realize that any tonewood can play any music--so get what you've set your heart on without any fear that you may be barred from playing certain genres because of your sound board.

  10. #10
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    With you all the way, Ripock!

    John Colter

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