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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