What creates the sound of your ukulele?
Contrary to popular belief, it's not the strings that make the sound of your uke. Of course if you didn't have any, it wouldn't make a sound unless you turned it over and hit it like a drum, which actually sounds great. I have done that on a recording of mine.
The main contributing factor in the sound of your uke is the top (the part with the hole in it). This section of your uke is often called the soundboard. Why is it called this I hear you ask? Because it is the board that produces the sound of the ukulele. Many people believe the wood of the whole body makes the sound, but this is not actually true. I have had many discussions with uke builders (luthiers) on this topic and they all confirm to me the back and side wood is for show and the top is for sound.
So as you can see from this it is important to get the right type of wood for your soundboard to get the sound you are after. Of course, other factors do play a part in overall sound - string selection, playing technique, size of the uke - Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritone, and last but not least, the tuning you use. But the soundboard creates the foundation and the majority of the overall sound. The strings, size, and tuning is like a little colouring in the picture.
So let's look at some soundboard/tonewood options and generally categorise them. Please keep in mind every piece of wood is unique in its tonal quality but generally speaking all wood of a certain type will be similar. This is also by no means a complete selection of wood , there are many others. I have just focussed on the more common woods.
I would put woods like - Koa, Cedar, Mahogany, Sapele to a certain extent in the warmer or middy tonal qualities. The mahogany and Sapele is also very punchy and has strong mid tones. Their tone is great for bluesy styles of playing like some down home finger picked folk blues Yip Yah!
Next up the ladder you have woods like Redwood. Redwood is a fantastic soundboard wood featuring the best of both worlds. It has a sound somewhere between a cedar and a spruce - warm, yet crisp and with attack.
Finally what I personally believe to be the king of sound boards. I put two woods in this category - Huon Pine and Spruce. Both woods are loud bright and full of attack. It may be a personal thing for me, but I love the brashness of these woods. A great thing about spruce is if you really dig in and play hard you don't get a distorted tone like some of the other woods, it remains crisp and clear. Both these woods are "In Ya Face " types especially if you play hard.
There are many varieties of Spruce out there in the world. The most common spruces are Red Spruce (also called Adirondack), Sitka, Engelmann (which is a more whiter looking spruce) and European spruces like Carpathian, German etc. They all do vary slightly in tone, but generally speaking they are all spruce and are bright with lots of attack.
So if you are intending to buy a new uke soon think about what music you like to play and consider what soundboard would be a match for you. Generally if you want a warmer richer tone go for a Cedar or Koa. If you want something with a bit more punch or a more woody, middy tone consider Mahogany or Sapele. Or if bright, loud and full of attitude is more your go, grab a spruce or huon pine top uke.
I hope this has helped you Trevor to get a better idea of woods - it is a very interesting topic