One of the most enjoyable aspects of ukulele is the ability to carry the instrument wherever you go. With the recent surge in ukulele sales and interest in the instrument, you may have noticed ukuleles popping up everywhere. Perhaps you spotted a street performer strumming a ukulele on a park bench, seen one peeking out of an open back pack, or strapped to the back of a bicycle.
Because of the rise in popularity, ukulele players are also becoming collectors. Once you buy one, it’s hard to stop. Collecting guitars can be a bank-breaking, cumbersome endeavor, but ukulele hoarding is much simpler based on size and wallet-friendly prices. Ken Middleton, UK representative of LA-based company, Ohana Ukuleles, has 30 Ohana ukuleles in his house, 10 of which he owns. “I have one in every room,” says Middleton. “I have different ones for different styles of music just like someone would play an electric, acoustic, or Spanish guitar for different sounds.”
There are several factors that affect the tone and sound of a ukulele. For one, there are four different sizes to choose from: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The soprano is the most popular and is the smallest version with the iconic tone most would associate with Hawaiian tunes. The concert ukulele, sometimes referred to as the alto, has a 15 inch fretboard compared to the usual 13.5 inch fretboard on a soprano, so it is a better choice for those with bigger hands who want more range or a fuller and louder sound. The tenor, the next size up from concert, generally has a greater volume than the two previous sizes because of a longer fretboard, making it a popular instrument for soloists like Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill. Lastly the baritone, the least popular size, carries the deepest sound of all other models. Tuning on this size is often the same as the bottom four strings of the guitar DGBE instead of the traditional GCEA for the soprano, concert, and tenor. With the baritone, there are more 6-string and 8-string models, where specific strings are doubled up.
Some other factors in varying sound within a body size like soprano, is the amount of air in the hollow body, the type of wood, type of strings it’s fretted with, then the shape. “The traditional wood for ukuleles in Hawaii, is koa, a hard wood that only really grows there and produces ukuleles with a rich, but bright sound,” says Middleton. “Another wood is mahogany that has a very sweet mellow sound. Then you can use a spruce or cedar for the fretboard, and rosewood maples for the back and sides. The most popular and expensive koa or mahogany for the soundboard (front panel).”
Collectors and manufacturers can really have fun and experiment with the ukulele shape. For the ukulele enthusiast who has seen it all, here are some unusual ukulele body shapes, made by Ohana, and descriptions of how they compare to the traditional guitar-shape.
The Vita ukulele has a pear shape and looks like a mini-mandolin. Invented by “Wizard of Strings” Roy Smeck, a stringed-instrument virtuoso who appeared in early films, the Vaudeville circuit, and toured the world, the Vita-Uke was originally distributed by the Harmony Company in Chicago. Because of its wide body, the sound is very loud compared to the figure eight shape. “There is a lot of room at the front for the sound to get out basically,” says Middleton. “The sound hole in a different place, also.” While most people want their first ukulele to look like a traditional one, the Vita is a very popular model for collectors or people wanted a second ukulele.
Hawaii-based ukulele maker and owner of Kamaka Ukulele, Sam Kamaka, invented the pineapple shape in the mid 1920’s and patented the design in 1928. The oval shape produces a resonant, mellow sound, which is quite different from the plucky, upbeat soprano. This Ohana model is made from solid mahogany. The pineapple shape has a good, loud middle register and a weaker upper register unlike a traditional shape.
Soprano-SK 50 MG
The soprano is the standard size, shape, and the jumping off point for body shape variations and larger sizes with longer fretboards. This figure-eight body shape model looks like a small acoustic guitar and features a solid cedar top, flamed-mahogany back and sides, gotoh friction tuner, rope-style bindings, and aquila strings.
Bell- SKB 35
The solid mahogany body in this unique shape provides a rich tone. “The bell, doesn’t sound traditional, and it’s not a traditional shape,” says Middleton. “It’s designed to be unusual, designed to be loud, it has a slightly, different sound.” Since the bell is little bigger than the traditional soprano, some might be uncomfortable with the shape, but it gives a good quality bass sound.