Koa is NOT worth it?!
Just thought I’d share my thoughts as a tonewood supplier and ukulele builder, since I get asked a LOT about whether or not a player should spring the extra $$ for an all solid Hawaiian Koa guitar and ukulele wood.
Simple answer - Yes, if you can afford it. But why?
Is a Hawaiian Koa ukulele any better than a maple, walnut or mahogany? Will it produce a better sound? And will the epic looking curly koa sound better?
First, I will address the issue of tonewood selection in particular - and I’m going to assume that whoever we are getting the ukulele from has built a well-made quality ukulele no matter which wood is used. Every wood is going to sound different and even the selection of fretboard wood matters. Fortunately a small instrument can get away with a huge array of woods and still sound good assuming the wood chosen is a “tonewood”.
A tonewood is simply a wood that will successfully produce a pleasing sound. There may be other, more exacting Webster definitions , but that’s just what I came up with to keep things simple. In essence, probably every single wood is a tonewood by that definition, but here we are talking about an ukulele tonewood and more specifically for the top, back and sides. But these days, the music market in general, has a number of known tonewoods that are grown and harvested specifically for the purpose of using them for making instruments. That cannot be said for every single wood in the world.
For example, oak will generally not produce a good sound, whereas rosewood is one of the most desired tonewoods for many acoustic instruments.
Fortunately for us in Hawaii, our native, endemic Koa tree turned out to be a fairly decent tonewood with its own unique warm tones. And it was also quite available, being a massive tree that grows naturally throughout the islands. So Hawaiian Koa was, and still is, the go-to wood of choice when the demand for Ukuleles grew over time. Initially many were made with mahogany, but not being native to Hawaii it just made more sense to use our own wood.
So is Hawaiian Koa “better” than the other more typical tonewoods found in other stringed acoustic instruments? Of course it’s better! Hah, just kidding. Actually it’s no better nor worse. The tone is different than mahogany or rosewood or maple. But built to the right specification there will be many who swear by the Hawaiian Koa ukulele.
Why? Not necessarily for the “better” tone, but more for the fact that it is the traditional wood with which the ukulele was built and in turn many, many Hawaiian songs were written. So, to achieve the same sound and feeling of authenticity, using an instrument built the traditional way seems to follow suit. Imagine trying to play classical Spanish on a steel string over sized Gibson guitar. Probably not going to have the desired effect, whereas if you start jamming on your Ramirez classical guitar built with Rosewood Back and sides and a Cedar top (traditionally used), well, now we can really feel like we are sitting in a side street cafe in Madrid. The same will be true when trying to replicate Bruddah Iz’s “Over the Rainbow” (he usually played a Soprano sized ukulele BTW).
Is the super expensive, incredibly sexy looking “curly” Koa (aka figured, fiddleback, beeswing, etc.) produce a better sound? Well, no, but it just looks so much better! And it is more difficult to build with. It is so crazy difficult to bend super curly koa sides. There is always a percentage that will snap, at which time many of us also cry. No seriously, we shed real tears!
That, and the fact that such a very small percentage of the trees produce a curly grain pattern, plus the huge demand for curly koa, and well, economics 101 will tell you that the price of curly koa sky rockets. And indeed it does. The wood alone it can be sometimes 5 times higher than regular-grained koa, just for cost of the the wood - the raw material. So that can mean a super curly tenor ukulele will cost $1,000 just for the top, back and sides. What I mean is that a regular solid Koa ukulele might cost $1,000 and to upgrade the top, back and sides to a 5A grade of Hawaiian Koa could add $1,000 to the price and turn it into $2,000 for the exact same ukulele. Oh, in the tonewood industry, we often refer to the grade of “curl” in the wood on a 1A to 5A scale with 5A being the curliest and a 1A no curl but having straight enough, quarter sawn grain to be considered useable to build with. (Maybe I’ll make another post about the importance of how wood should be cut and how much it matters for a quality instrument. Is there interest in that post?)
So is curly Koa worth it? Will it make you play better. Both answers: Yes! If you can afford it. Personally, I like to compare it to driving a car. Ever drive a friend’s super nice car or get a really good upgrade on a rental? Or maybe you own a super nice car. Well, it’s like that. I found myself wanting to drive it more. I also paid attention to all the various ways I could drive it better, learning how to manual shift (the auto). Best experience, albeit with sweaty palms, was hitting 250 km /hr on the German autobahn! Okay, so it was only for 8 seconds but I still did it! So having an instrument you are proud of, enjoy showing off, sounds killer, stays in tune, all mean you will surely practice and play more and for sure get better!
I’ll end with something I will never forget what Jake Shimabukuro said, “You should always buy the best instrument you can afford”.