Lately we see slogans reading “bigger is better.” In the stringed instrument world this equates to “louder is better.” But is this true? Is louder better? In other words, some believe that a guitar or ukulele with more volume/louder projection is higher quality. This is what John Kitakis of Ko'olau & Pono Guitar & Ukulele Company has to say about the matter:
First of all John, how is volume of a ukulele increased?
"Partially by the type of wood, in particular, woods used for the top soundboard. But it’s important to note that it’s also determined by the thickness of body woods, including internal bracing.
Let’s first clarify that all of this information pertains to solid woods, not laminates or plywood. Laminated wood (sometimes nicknamed “layered wood”) can be extremely thin. They are crisscrossed layers of wood, glued together, which becomes a very sturdy piece of plywood, and less prone to cracking. Laminated woods are solidified, or you might say, cast in cement (glue), and thus unable to age. There is no aged flexibility. The instrument can be loud, but it will lack tone (pitch quality and duration)."
Why should a ukulele buyer be weary of an overly loud ukulele?
"Solid woods are great, and when cut very thin, they will vibrate even more. This extreme vibration will produce a loud and projecting tone. Some think this is impressive. But is this better? Is this really what we are trying to achieve in an acoustic instrument?
For some, there is a misconception that this increased volume, though impressive, is higher quality. They will tell you “my guitar or ‘ukulele seems to jump out … it’s loud.” But is loud better? Or do we want “tone"?
Why do some guitar and ‘ukulele manufacturers construct heavier instruments, with thicker woods? Especially since it seems that the overall volume and projection are somewhat diminished. Is there some other reason? Are there other beneficial qualities to a more robustly built instrument? ….. Yes."
What is the case for more robust ukuleles with thicker tops?
"Tone: Research and studies have proven that an instrument constructed with slightly thicker wood produces a warmer, full, and rounded tone, with improved sustain. This is due to more wood mass, which supplies more mass to “sustain” the top's vibration. Interestingly, even the thickness of the neck can greatly affect sustain.
Durability: A second benefit of thicker woods is greater durability. A strongly built guitar or ukulele is made to last and can withstand abuse and the elements of nature. Of course, the finish coating will still be vulnerable to damage, but the wood underneath is rigid and tough.
Integrity: A third factor to consider is the integrity of the wood. In other words, its strength and ability to retain its shape through time, both flat pieces and contours. Thus the instrument is less likely to warp under adverse climate conditions. We all have that one warped instrument don't we. I have heart it said before, that the best sounding guitar or ukulele would only last a day, whereas the longest lasting instrument wouldn't sound at all."
What would be your final message to ukulele enthusiasts?
"A guitar or ukulele made correctly will last for many generations, in other words… it has been built to last.
In summary, a stringed instrument can be impressively and strikingly “loud” … but this is not necessarily better. In the short term, a thinly built guitar or ukulele can have great volume, and some prefer this, but louder is not necessarily better, nor an indicator of a higher quality instrument."