Get Good Tone: Making Martins Out of Mahalos

Of all the ten commandments, the one I find most difficult to live by is, “Thy shalt not covet thy neighbour’s uke.” I’ve often found myself browsing eBay or YouTube, ogling the ukes of others and contemplating harvesting the organs of my uglier children to raise the cash to buy one. But my moral compass got the better of me. So how do you get a better sounding ukulele without shelling out for one?

1. Holding the ukulele

I’ve seen it suggested that you should hold the uke by smushing it into your chest; that is entirely the wrong way to go about it. Being so small, it’s easy to smother all the tone out of a ukulele. You want to be touching the ukulele as little as possible. You need to allow the front and back of the uke to vibrate as much as possible to wring all the tone and volume out of it as possible.

Watch how the masters like Jake Shimabukuro and Roy Smeck hold it. They have the uke angled away from the body and their forearm resting very gently on the corner of the uke. The area of the uke they are touching is very small and mostly limited to the corners.

2. Use good strings

The quality of strings you use can have a huge effect on the sound of the ukulele. Buying top of the range strings is far more affordable than buying a top of the range uke and can yield almost as much of an improvement in tone. Aquila and Worth strings are generally considered the best ukulele strings around. But I still love my pink KoAloha strings. Find more about ukulele strings here.

3. Find the sweet spot

The place where you strum the uke can have a big impact on how it sounds. If you strum close to the bridge (where the strings are tied on), then you’ll get a very thin, reedy sound. Each uke has it’s own sweet spot but it’s usually somewhere around the point where the neck meets the body.

4. Don’t use a guitar pick.

The number one mistake guitar players make when transferring to uke is hacking away at the uke strings with a thumping great rhino’s toenail. Guitar plectrums are far too hard for nylon uke strings (you can just about get away with it on steel strings) and as a consequence they make a harsh sound. If you have to use a pick, use the dedicated ukulele felt picks.

5. Look after your uke.

Ukes react very badly to humidity. If you’ve got a cheap instrument you may not want to fork out for a humidifier but don’t leave your uke on a sunny windowsill or near a heater. The latest edition of UkeCast (episode 222 – the number of a third of the beast) has a list of tips for looking after your uke (I did not know that suncream can damage ukuleles).

So you might not be able to make a Mahalo sound like a vintage Martin ukulele (that was just an excuse for a very tenuous pun) but you can certainly improve the sound it makes.

Do you have have any other tone tips?

View Comments

72 Comments

  1. Howlin' Hobbit December 29th, 2007 8:56 pm

    Just found this via the ezFolk thread. Don’t know how I missed it first time around.

    Good post!

    HH

  2. Pete Woodman May 12th, 2008 9:30 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with point 2. If you’ve got a Mahalo then change the strings – the ones it comes with (whatever colour it is) are rubbish. Some good strings will make a huge difference to the tone and volume.

  3. Woodshed May 12th, 2008 2:36 pm

    Thanks, Pete. I can understand it with cheap ukes like Mahalos, but I’ll never understand why people selling high or mid-range uke would sell them with sub-standard strings.

    I’ve just checked out your site. Very nice work. Do you ever make ukes?

  4. Bob Roberts September 2nd, 2009 4:31 pm

    I assume the manufacturers don’t know how long the uke will be sitting there. There’s no point them paying for good strings that are dull by the time it’s purchased, and ukes aren’t exactly a high-volume sales item, even with everything that’s happened recently.

  5. Woodshed September 2nd, 2009 6:56 pm

    Bob: Good point. But I would expect quality strings to hold up better over time.

  6. mediahead January 18th, 2010 7:52 pm

    The thing with the strings probably has the same awkward reason why turntable manufacturers put a twenty quid cartridge on a thousand pound sterling machine: They want to save money and allow for later upgrade sales (which is keeping the retailers happy). Covering it up as “keeping the item price down and not forcing anyone’s choice of accessories”. Yeah, we all know…. :-))

    @ woodshed:
    They don’t. As far as I know from electric guitars, highly priced strings deteriorate just as slowly or quickly as cheap ones. If not quicker…

    Let’s uke ‘em all, guys!

  7. Steve Provost (rockinstephen) February 25th, 2010 4:20 pm

    As far as guitar picks go, I agree that a thick pick isn’t a good choice. However, I sometimes use a thin (46 mm) nylon pick. It flexes nicely when using a struming motion and brings out a lot more volume…

  8. Woodshed February 25th, 2010 6:37 pm

    Steve: I’m really not keen on the sound of strumming with a pick. But there are definite advantages to using it for single notes.

  9. Phil Doleman February 26th, 2010 10:04 pm

    Good tips. When you talk of finding the sweet spot, there’s also the way you attack the string. Thumb? Finger? Nail? Flesh? even the angle of the finger or whether it’s an upstroke or a downstroke can make a massive difference. I think the key thing is to listen to the sound you make carefully and how you can change it.

  10. Woodshed March 2nd, 2010 10:46 pm

    Phil: Thanks. I shall have to do a post about that at some point.

  11. andrew April 4th, 2010 10:18 am

    The issue I have with my new uke (not the cheapest, but mid-price I would guess (it was a gift)) is that it will not sound in tune and even if you get it to briefly sound in tune through much effort it will not stay in tune, not for more than a minute. The tuning adjustment is so fine that a tiny touch on the pegs sets it way off. The pegs seem to have screwheads at the rear to adjust the tension, I don’t really understand how to set those for the best. Unscrew them and the tuning flies all over the place. Screw them in so it stays more or less where you set it and it is virtually impossible to adjust. Baffling. Will better strings tune better? Thx.

  12. Steve Provost (rockinstephen) April 5th, 2010 1:25 am

    I believe that new nylon strings, whether good or cheap, will streach at first. So your new uke may take a few days for the strings to “settle in”. You are correct in that the screw heads in back of the tuning pegs will adjust the tension. The trick is to get it just right so that they don’t slip. A good set of new strings will probably improve the volume and tone but will need that break in period. There’s probably nothing wrong with your uke. Take some time and get familiar with it. Once you do, you should be all set…Good luck!

  13. andrew April 5th, 2010 10:24 am

    Steve, thanks for this kind advice. There certainly seems to be a lot of stretch in these strings so I will persevere although I do also suspect a slight issue with intonation on the C string (downside of getting an instrument as a gift), either that or I am pushing it sharp as I finger it. I googled my uke (to coin a phrase, it’s a Koloa soprano) and others have commented on the 1:1 tuners being a bit fiddly so I guess it’s not just me. Thanks again.

  14. Woodshed April 5th, 2010 1:05 pm

    Andrew: Steve is dead right. The string should bed down after a little while.

    If you’re still getting problems, it might be the tuning pegs. Friction tuners on cheaper ukes have a tendency to be a bit rubbish.

  15. Loopas April 19th, 2010 8:57 pm

    thanks for the advice, but i cant seem to be able to strum with my fingers, so i use a guitar pick. any tips on strumming with just fingers?

  16. Woodshed April 19th, 2010 11:11 pm

    Loopas: I wrote a few tips on the strumming for dummies post

  17. Loopas April 20th, 2010 4:05 am

    ahh, this helped. thanks!

  18. Woodshed April 21st, 2010 9:14 pm

    Loopas: Glad you found it useful.

  19. Leah May 16th, 2010 2:06 pm

    Hi just wondering, when will you post the introduction to barre chords? I still have no idea what a barre chord is..

  20. Steve Provost May 16th, 2010 5:05 pm

    Leah, Check out a good chord chart. It will show you how to play chords in several positions. Some will require that you “barre” or lay your 1st. finger across the fretboard while using your other fingers to fret the notes. Once formed, a barre chord may be moved up and down the neck to play new chords. Have fun!

  21. Leah May 17th, 2010 9:17 pm

    Oh okay, thank you!

  22. Woodshed May 18th, 2010 10:10 pm

    Leah: I’m planning on doing a post about barre chords at some point. But, yeah, what Steve said.

    Steve: Thanks for answering it.

  23. catriona June 14th, 2010 12:30 pm

    I really need help. I bought a cheap mahalo uke a while ago but i am at a total loss. It doesnt tune well, doesnt really sound right to what i think it should and of course, it being cheap an all, has plastic strings. I’m only using it for purely basic learning and I’m trying to find lessons to go to to help me out a bit with it all but none have come up yet. Any pointers? :)

  24. Steve Provost (rockinstephen) June 16th, 2010 8:12 pm

    Catriona, You should start with a new set of quality nylon strings. Remember, they will stretch at first. Make sure the tuners are tight enough to keep from slipping; they can be tightened by the phillips screw in back. Tune to a pitch pipe, electric tuner, or piano. Get a chord chart and learn some easy chords like C, G, F, A,D as well as some of the 7th’s. Good luck!

  25. Bobalou July 13th, 2010 5:00 am

    I’m new to uke. New to stringed instruments period. Am currently in sponge mode. Still trying to get the strumming part down so it is smooth and even. Have looked at just about everything on the web and am not sure I am doing it correctly. Any suggestions?

  26. Steve Provost (rockinstephen) July 19th, 2010 2:11 pm

    Bobalou, Just before I purchased my first uke, I sat and watched a native Hawaiian player in Kawaii. He used his thumb for the downstroke and his index finger for the upstroke. Practice this, and you should develop the steady rhythym you’ll need to become proficent. Good luck!

  27. Riikka September 18th, 2010 4:55 pm

    Oh I’m so happy! I’m only starting out, and have been puzzled by the instruction to “smush the uke into your chest”. My reasons: I don’t live in Hawaii, I wear clothes and the uke slides if I try to do it. So it’s wonderful to know I’m not doing it wrong!

  28. Woodshed September 20th, 2010 10:11 pm

    Riikka: Glad to help!

  29. Patrick October 18th, 2010 4:10 am

    I am going to Hawaii and I plan to buy a ukulele. I do not want to be ripped off. I want a plain no frills but good sounding soprano. Any advice?

  30. Steve Provost (rockinstephen) October 19th, 2010 1:25 am

    You can buy ukeleles everywhere in Hawaii. As long as you’re there, you should consider buying one made there – you’ll be glad you did! Ask to be sure, as many are Chinese imports. Look for one made from koa, the prefered native wood. Do some on line research before you go to learn some of the local makers, what they offer, and how much they are asking. Doing your homework will ensure that you don’t get burned.

  31. SSppennccerr November 13th, 2010 8:35 am

    ive been looking at your site for wahile. i played guuitar and siwtched to uke, started playing Ukulele 9 days agp. i can already play everything in your beginner section. the bottom line is thus : Keep up the good work! this site totally rocks and i’d be pretty upset if it went down. ive even facebooked about it a few times. thanks for the amazing site!

  32. Woodshed November 13th, 2010 10:52 am

    Steve: Thanks for pitching in the advice.

    SSppennccerr: Thanks very much for the kind words and for spreading the site.

  33. Dane November 27th, 2010 8:50 pm

    Another Tone Tip: This might have been mentioned already. You can really bring out your tone differentiation by playing with fingernails. It takes a while to learn the proper way though and shape is essential. Also you must maintain them.

  34. ShambleBobbleDibbleDooble December 24th, 2010 2:35 pm

    Help!! I replaced my Mahalo strings with Martin strings, they were all cut to the right length and ready to go, then as I tuned my A string, it came straight off! It didn’t snap, but now I can’t get it back on cause now its too short!!! I also can’t get new strings now cause its Christmas Eve and snowy everywhere. Is there any way I can get that Martin A string on my uke without needing to get a new one?

  35. ShambleBobbleDibbleDooble December 24th, 2010 3:56 pm

    Never mind, I’ll just buy new ones, I need a felt pick and some pitch pipes anyway :)

  36. Steve Provost December 25th, 2010 7:59 pm

    Sham, try a set of Aquila strings. Lots of others use them. They are long enough and maintain good tone quality for a long time.

  37. Claudio April 1st, 2011 4:26 pm

    Yeah I use a cheap Mahalo for holidays and general bashing around when I’m too worried about bringing my other ukes.

    The strings it came with were crap. Aquila’s made it much better. The tuners on the Mahalo are not great.

    When you move up to a £100 uke like a decent laminate Kala, everything is much better.

  38. Sal Pedi May 3rd, 2011 7:58 pm

    I”m new with the uke. I just purchased a Lanikai LU 21B uke and hope I can make some sense out of playing it.
    Don’t really like the ‘HAWAIN” sound with a uke. Prefer the
    modern “Joe Pass” kind of sound. Don’t know if I could ever get that kind of sound with a four string baritone uke, but I”ll give it a try.

    First, I”ve got to tune it up right. I”m going to put a low G string on it and use Aquila nylgut Baritone uke C tuning.
    As for using the acoustics of this uke, I”ll wait until I can play this uke first.

    Don’t know if this forum is very active or not. If it is, it would then be a great place to voice our questions about ulelele’s.

    Okay, hope to get some comments back from this forum soon. Ciao!……

  39. claudio May 4th, 2011 8:53 am

    Not many people have a baritone in C tuning. Most C tuning is re-entrant. What made you go for this? Usually there’s an interesting thought process. You know you will suffer UAS big time :-D

  40. russell May 17th, 2011 10:26 pm

    i have started playing with a guitar pick and i am haveing a hard time switching over to fingers

  41. Woodshed May 18th, 2011 9:41 am

    russell: Keep at it. It takes a while to get used to but it is worth it.

    claudio: Thanks.

  42. Steve Provost May 18th, 2011 1:22 pm

    russell, I sometimes use a very thin (.46 mm) guitar pick for strumming. It helps increase the volume and won’t hang up on the strings. But keep working with your fingers – you’ll get it!

  43. Woodshed May 19th, 2011 6:38 am

    Steve: Yeah, if you have to use a pick thin is the way to go.

  44. Chase May 27th, 2011 10:33 pm

    I just received my uke in the mail last night, it’s an $80 Makala. My problem is that if I press the strings too hard, they make no sound at all and the chords sound nothing like they do in the videos I’ve been watching. How much pressure should I be putting on the strings? Am I doing something wrong or is there a problem with my uke?

  45. Woodshed May 28th, 2011 8:12 am

    Chase: You only need to press the strings down hard enough so the ring clearly when you strum. You don’t want to be pressing them down hard or you will get problems.

  46. David June 29th, 2011 1:38 pm

    Hi!

    I am left handed and I am not able to find any information for learning to play the Ukulele without being righthanded. This ofcourse is very frustrating hence I would like to get some help for those who are left handed ukulele interested people. Thank you

  47. ken July 3rd, 2011 6:33 am

    David,

    I’m also left handed, and I’ve been playing the ukulele about a month now using a regular right handed soprano. There’s just not much out there for us lefties. It would be much easier on you if you can manage playing right handed. Other-wise you will be restringing your instrument and doing the mirror thing with all your chord charts. But look on the bright side; your strong hand will be forming all those funny chord shapes and barres. Just work hard on loosening up your right hand for strumming.

  48. JOhn July 3rd, 2011 5:18 pm

    Wondering about humidity. Is it the lack of humidity or too much that’s bad for the instrument?

    I live on a boat in a tropical climate and if there’s one thing I’ve got it’s humidity!

  49. Steve Provost July 3rd, 2011 5:25 pm

    My guess is that if you’re a beginner, it’s possible to learn to play right handed as both hands are learning a new process. If you can master this, you’ll be far better off in the long run as left handed instruments are very difficult to find…

  50. Bob Baker July 20th, 2011 10:18 pm

    I have to agree with Steve’s comment from May 11, 2011. I play Tenor Uke professionally (40+ gigs this year) and I have had the absolute best luck with the .46 mm nylon pick (Jim Dunlop for example). I strum where the neck meets the body or even a little higher up the neck and I get much more volume and better tone than I could ever get from my fingers or nails. Now maybe that’s 45 years of guitar playing habits that I cannot break but since I can’t break the habit this particular pick has been a godsend!! Happy uking everyone!

  51. Steve Provost July 21st, 2011 8:47 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Bob. Last winter I had the opportunity to play Sunday afternoons with two different groups of guys who were mostly interested in playing old country songs. As there were usually enough guitars, I would sometimes play my brass bodied resonator uke. I would always use my .46mm pick to get the necessary volume. BTW – a uke can be a very nice compliment to country music!

  52. Bob Baker July 23rd, 2011 11:44 am

    Hi Steve, I agree–I used to play bass in a bluegrass band and a couple of months ago I pulled out some old videos of the band and started jamming along with the uke–with the pick it sounded almost halfway been a banjo and mandolin strum. For years I was guilty of underestimating how serious and versatile the uke really is.

    As for its size and portability–in my next lifetime I would want to be a ukulele player and be one of the guys in the band who does not own the PA system!

  53. Richard August 31st, 2011 7:28 am

    Hi, just bought a new Ukulele about a month ago.It’s one of the Mahalo ones. I also bought the Dummies guide to Ukulele which I find very good. The only thing I seem to have a problem with, which really I find frustrating is on the strum up, strum down seems fine, but when I bring my finger up, I always seem to catch the strings, and sound horrible. Would it be the strings, or could it be just me, needing the practice. I try to get in at least 30 mins to hour. I stay loose, and only use the wrist action. Any tips would be nice.

    Thanks

  54. Bob Baker August 31st, 2011 7:04 pm

    Hi Richard, sadly it’s one of those “practice, practice, practice” things. You might want to go onto YouTube and search out something like “The Best Strum Lesson–Ukulele”, etc–that might give you some practical excercises. As for me, I wimped out and use a .46 mm Jim Dunlop nylon pick (see previous postings!) so, do as I say–not as I do!! Good luck, Bb

  55. Richard August 31st, 2011 7:21 pm

    Hi Bob, thanks for your message back. I will try that. At Least I know that with a lot of practise it should come a long nicely. Will try not to get to frustrated when I hear the “twang” noise when my finger gets caught. Also read one tip, to make sure nails are nice and short!

    Richard

  56. Randy Montón (Spain) December 18th, 2011 8:10 pm

    Hola amigos.
    Mi experiencia con el Uke es muy corta, menos de un dia con mi nuevo Kala Soprano de mahogany laminado.

    Solo he tenido problemas para afinar G; no sabía que era una octava mas alta y me quedaba muy floja y al pisarla hacía benz.

    Una vez solucionado, suena muy limpio y dulce y los afinadores son de suficiente calidad para la tensión que soportan. A mi Gibson Les Paul Custom se los tuve que cambiar por unos Gotoh y es una guitarra bien cara…

    Como aconseja Steve, voy probando donde y como suena mejor y con el pulgar hacia abajo y el indice hacia arriba, funciona muy bien.

    En principio, no parece un instrumento demasiado difícil; otra cosa será con canciones de muchos acordes y de ritmo complicado.

    Me gusta mucho esta sección; leyendo opiniones y soluciones se aprende mucho y es muy útil.

    Muchas gracias, y un abrazo y Feliz Navidad para todos

  57. Randy Montón (Spain) December 18th, 2011 8:13 pm

    Me gustaría conocer marcas de ukes auténticamente hawaiianas; en las paginas web dan estilo hawaiiano, pero no hablan de su procedencia…
    Posiblemente muchas lo sean en sus modelos mas caros, pero creo que en sus gamas media y baja, como casi todo, procedan de China…

  58. Steve Provost December 19th, 2011 1:34 am

    Randy, hope you get an answer. Sorry, yo no comprendo mucho Espanol…

  59. Randy Montón (Spain) December 19th, 2011 11:26 am

    Hello friends.

    I will repeat my post, now in English

    My experience with the Uke is very short, less than a day with my new Kala Mahogany Soprano laminate.

    I had only a trouble tuning G, not knowing it was an octave higher and I was very weak and was treading benz.

    Once solved, it sounds very clean and sweet and tuners are of sufficient quality to withstand the stress. My Gibson Les Paul Custom is the one I had to change by Gotoh and is a rather expensive guitar …

    As advised Steve, I’m trying out where and how it sounds better and with the thumb and forefinger down up, works great.

    In principle, the instrument does not seem too difficult, something else will be featuring songs from many complicated chords and rhythm.

    I really like this section, reading opinions and solutions you learn a lot and is very useful.

    Thank you very much, and a hug and Merry Christmas to all

  60. Kees January 25th, 2012 9:06 pm

    thou shalt tighten thou screws! specially on a Mahalo, so i’ve noticed. Now I can’t play, but at least I’m in tune!

  61. Arlo James Barnes July 22nd, 2012 9:02 am

    I have had a Mahalo for a few months (a hand-me-down gift from a friend) which I started to learn on (much thanks to you and YouTube and to a lesser extent UltimateGuitar/Chordie) and I recently bought a Martin with my paycheck. Aside from all the things mentioned (the five point list, how the string is handled, how hard fretting is pressed, picks?, tuning, et cetera) one big difference I have noticed is the size of the frets – the Mahalo fretwires are very large and make it difficult to do slides, and in addition slightly change the pitch depending on pressure applied. In addition, the Martin machine heads (being direct rather than geared) require much less rotation. I am not sure what could be done to improve sound in these aspects without changing the instrument, but as always fiddling around helps!

  62. Woodshed July 23rd, 2012 4:22 pm

    Arlo: Yeah, I was being facetious with the title. There’s no way you’re going to get a Mahalo to sound like a Martin.

  63. Liam August 5th, 2012 12:02 am

    im buying a ukulele soon and would like to know if D’addario soprano strings are good quality

  64. Liam August 5th, 2012 12:26 am

    i will be using them on a new Mahalo LP Style Ukulele with EQ if that makes any difference

  65. Woodshed August 6th, 2012 4:50 pm

    Liam: I haven’t tried them myself but I’ve heard that they’re not great.

  66. Randy Montón August 8th, 2012 8:40 am

    Para mí las cuerdas ideales son las Aquila Nylgut; además si deseas afinar en Low G, desde junio ya tienen las nuevas Red Series.

    Efectivamente, como dice Woodshed, un Mahalo nunca sonará como un Martin…

    Ahora ya no tengo el Kala KA-S, lo vendí y su nuevo propietario está encantado y yo guardo un estupendo recuerdo.

    En marzo ompré un Kamoa E3 tamaño concierto de color rojo y la construcción con madera maciza se nota muchísimo.

    Recientemente mis amigos me regalaron un Gretsch Tenor con el que también estoy muy contento.

    Los laminados son ideales para empezar, así como para poder llevarlos a la playa o de fiesta sin preocuparte demasiado, pero sin duda el sonido de la madera sólida es muchísimo mas brillante …

    En breve visitaré Portugal y me compraré un APC de acacia (koa europea con magnífica relación calidad precio) los fabrican en Braga y tienen una tienda en el centro de la ciudad,

  67. Liam August 8th, 2012 9:40 pm

    thanks

  68. Adrian January 17th, 2013 7:51 am

    I play a top of the range Kala Tenor, a Cordoba Concert and a Gold Tone Banjo uke. Some time ago I bought a little Mahalo Sunburst soprano for my 9 yo grand daughter to mess around with and teach her some chords to play along with me.
    The little Mahalo is a nice looking instrument and sounds great, stays in tune and has quite a “mellow” sound for such a cheapie($AUD 79)
    I got it before I had read all the “bad press” about Mahalo otherwise I would have been put off and not bought it.
    Perhaps I got a rare “good one!)
    She loves it and it goin great.

  69. Woodshed January 18th, 2013 5:51 am

    Adrian: There are definitely good Mahalos around. Glad you got one.

  70. Neil January 23rd, 2013 4:16 am

    Steve, Thanks for your tip on strumming:
    Using thumb for the downstroke and index finger for the upstroke, makes all the difference.

  71. Tim December 12th, 2013 1:00 am

    I’ve noticed some uke players use a thumb pick, Brittni Paiva comes to mind. She’s pretty darn sporty on her uke.

  72. Woodshed December 13th, 2013 9:08 am

    Tim: Yeah, I’m not a fan of thumb picks but she makes her work with her style.

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