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Thread: Tonewood Hoax?

  1. #1
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    Default Tonewood Hoax?

    The Heretic's Guide to Alternative Lutherie Woods, by John Calkin.
    http://www.guitarnation.com/articles/calkin.htm

    I came across this article stating that the tonewood concept is a hoax. I just want to hear what others have to say. Controversy always stirs up a good conversation.

    I thought these statements raised some eyebrows:

    Can you tell what a guitar is made of while listening to an unfamiliar recording? No one I know claims they can. No one at the blind listening sessions I've attended could reliably distinguish between mahogany and rosewood guitars, or maple and koa guitars for that matter.
    The tone of a guitar lies more in the hands of the builder than in the materials from which it is constructed.
    It's been my experience that hardwoods thinned to the same flexibility as a plate of softwood produce similar tone qualities, though very hard species will be dangerously thin by the time this point is reached.
    The mahogany used in vintage guitars/ukuleles (Honduran?) were used because it was cheap and in large supply. Nato "eastern mahogany" is now the budget wood that traditional mahogany once was. These days, we consider traditional mahogany to be one of the best tonewoods. I'm just curious to hear other opinions.


    Successful sellers: Nuprin (Mele Tenor Koa/Mahogany Electric on 11/2009)
    Successful buyers: Tomdini (Pono Tenor Mango Cutaway Electric on 10/2009)

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    I am always getting flamed for expressing similar ideas. My experience is based on:
    1. Building 400 ukulele in all sorts of wood
    2. Researching, measuring and playing an extensive American ukulele collection
    3. Recently playing part of a 120 Hawaiian ukulele collection

    So, although not an expert here is my views - and please don't chop me down for it. They are what I have come to rely on to help me produce good ukulele and earn, after 14 years a small place in the pantheon of modern builders

    I cannot often tell one wood from another in the blind test thingy although koa does have its own distinct bright sound. This can also be achieved by tightening up the front of an instrument with a curve or stiff bracing and adjusting the front thickness. And yet, for some bizarre reason, Mahogany seems to make for my designs the best soprano and tenor ukulele. I agree that in the old days it was the wood of choice because it was perceived as being cheap - but so was koa! It is only since the dwindling supply of Brazilian Rosewood has really bitten the musical instrument trade that koa is now considered in the same league and is almost as expensive as Brazilian.

    However mahogany is now protected like Brazilian Rosewood and I personally am turning to local indigenous woods. I have found English yew (USA will have pacific yew) to be great for soprano and concert and I have my first tenor commission to build. I am trying cherry, walnut and London plane (USA sycamore) and have just had my Finnish friend Sepi find some masur birch for me.

    I think we have to think seriously now of breaking away from traditional tonewoods and going for local - you lucky hawaiians carry on... the rest of us will have to make do! And yet, if I could justify it there would be many American woods I'd try. Top of my list would be naturally seasoned walnut - not the plummy stuff you get from Builders Supply or Home Depot. Dom's recent tenor he featured on this forum was made with such stuff and it looked and sounded great. American cherry can also make spectacular ukulele and although neither of these woods is yet considered a traditional tonewood, their time is soon coming...(I know Taylor, Breedlove and bespoke luthiers use these woods so watch for everyone elso to fall in line as they realise the potential on their own doorstep.)

    It's just a matter of time that the big hitters will change the way we think about wood. I built ladder braced blues guitars out of Oak and spalted low grade red spruce in the late 90's and they really sounded like the real thing. We need to wean ourselves off of the traditional tonewoods and take a leap of faith. I am and it is working

  3. #3

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    So Pete, if you had to build a uke for yourself and it would be the ONLY uke you could ever own, ever, would select the wood based on the look?

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    It would always be curly koa - I'm in love with it but it would break the rules wouldn't it? So it would have to be English yew - the sound is unique but the look is just, so, in your face gorgeous!

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    I started debating the whole tonewood thing just yesterday after I played a Greg Bennett concert ukulele made of mindi wood, typically used in making furniture, and a flat finish. It was constructed really well, but the strings were horrible. My perception at the moment is it seems like all you need is a well-constructed uke, the proper strings, and someone to play it for an awesome sound.


    Successful sellers: Nuprin (Mele Tenor Koa/Mahogany Electric on 11/2009)
    Successful buyers: Tomdini (Pono Tenor Mango Cutaway Electric on 10/2009)

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    When I was doing guitar shows in the US, in the dealer/exhibitor hour as we toured the hall looking for bargains my partner would not let me play any of the other vendors' instruments... I could demo ours but not try theirs since he claimed they would put up the price... guess you are right.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SuperSecretBETA View Post
    and someone to play it for an awesome sound.
    i bet anyone that if i gave aldrine or jake a $10 tourist "uke" they can make it sound like a million bucks (as long as it is decently in tune)

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    Quote Originally Posted by h-drix View Post
    i bet anyone that if i gave aldrine or jake a $10 tourist "uke" they can make it sound like a million bucks (as long as it is decently in tune)
    And with this remark, the circle is closed again: the construction would be a key factor here, and that can not be had for $10. Nice conclusion.

    (I picked my main ukulele because it gives me shivers every time, even if I strum it with my clumsy rake-like paws)
    Last edited by UkeNinja; 10-19-2008 at 03:47 PM.
    sigs disabled kthxbai

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    Truth be told, I am new to the luthier game, having only been doing this just over a year.
    But I will say one thing. I can play my Kala tenor ( koa veneer body ) and then I can play my Hana Lima tenor ( western red cedar soundboard and bubinga back and sides ) and the differences are startling.

    I am more of an artistic right brained thinker, so i couldn't quote you statistics of various woods, but I do know that there is a difference between woods. Especially for the soundboard. The back and sides don't matter as much ( case in point the paper mashay guitar in the smithsonian, ) but the soundboard, and the bracing that is attached to it are everything ( ok just about n e ways )

    That's all I wanted to say.
    Bob

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    Quote Originally Posted by acabooe View Post
    I can play my Kala tenor ( koa veneer body ) and then I can play my Hana Lima tenor ( western red cedar soundboard and bubinga back and sides ) and the differences are startling.
    A laminate/veneer seems perfectly understandable to have a difference in sound compared to a solid wood ukulele. I would think that falls into the category of its construction--including their different build plans. If the Kala built a uke of the same Hana Lima woods, I'm willing to bet the differences would remain startling. This is merely a speculation of mine, but it seems to make sense to me.


    Successful sellers: Nuprin (Mele Tenor Koa/Mahogany Electric on 11/2009)
    Successful buyers: Tomdini (Pono Tenor Mango Cutaway Electric on 10/2009)

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