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?

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74 Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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!

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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…

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

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

  9. 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

  10. 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!

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. 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

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

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

  16. 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,

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

    thanks

  18. 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.

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

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. trevor woolley May 30th, 2015 5:48 pm

    Hi, what a great site, i’m new to the uke after being a very mediocre guitar player for about 50 years. i’ve bought a Korala (most likely chinese crap) cost me £80gbp ($100ish?)it is all solid wood and looks very pretty, aquila strings and stays in tune very well.do you think they are any good?
    Only really posted this to say what a great site and your sense of humour has had me in stitches, keep up the good work

  24. Woodshed May 31st, 2015 8:11 am

    trevor: Sorry, I haven’t played one. Thanks very much for the kind words!

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