Everyone seems convinced that the next ʻukulele is going to make them sound better, these strings are going to make them sound better, this, that, is all going to make them sound better. And to a certain extent it’s true. A Kamaka sounds better than a Mahalo. Worths sound better than the plastic strips put on the Mahalo. But you get to a certain point and you have a nice instrument with good strings. Then what? Is the next ʻukulele going to make you sound like Jake?
I’m not referring to playing ability here either. What I’m getting at is that you sound like you. No matter what. Of course the “you” sound will change over time as your playing level, emotions, and whatever else contributes to tone alters over time. Tone is in your fingers. James Hill could play your ʻukulele and make it sound just like James. Jake and Herb could do the same. You could play Jake’s $6000 custom Kamaka and sound like you.
I’ve been aware of this fact for quite some time, but recently I had an opportunity to see it first hand. During one day at the Kahumoku Workshop, I was sitting with Uncle Herb in the library playing my Kamaka and he was visiting with all of our friends. I constantly pick Uncle Herb’s brain when he is around (“Show me how to play this”, “What do you think of this?”, etc.) and that moment was no different – I asked him what Stevie Wonder songs he knew. He took my ʻukulele and started playing “You Are The sunshine of My Life”. It sounded just like Uncle Herb. My ʻukulele has a very different sound than his, but the way he attacked and fretted the notes was more the source of his tone than the custom Koaloha he had upstairs in his room.
Later I had the chance to play Uncle Herb’s ʻukulele. It’s the nicest instrument I’ve yet to play, so naturally I spent as much time as I could with it. Guess what? Even with a spruce top and ebony back and sides, I still sounded like me.
So you can go to town collecting many instruments (and there is nothing wrong with that), but keep in mind that what you are buying is only the overall sound and the looks.
Tone is completely different – it’s in your fingers.