3 Essentials for a Good Ukulele: Volume, Tone and Sustain

Pete Howlett uke

This is a guest post by Pete Howlett, who builds and sells his one ukuleles in his workshop in Gwynedd, UK. 

With 23 years making ukulele I think I am beginning to finally refine for my brand the three essentials for a good ukulele (in order) volume, tone and sustain. Greater minds than mine might have a different set of criteria or have these three in a different hierarchy; however I have most often witnessed that these, in this order are how people assess a ukulele.

So you may ask, “How have you achieved this so confidently?”

This week I number up my 860th ukulele. There is no substitute for repetition when you are refining a craft. For any single craftsman the opportunity to try again is another chance to improve. I’m still at it! I have been away from the workshop for a few days and this have given me headspace to think about tweaking my bracing for the umpteenth time. Sitting in a hotel room preparing this blog, I can’t wait to get into the workshop and try this out on the next instrument in the hope I might improve the tone more.

Having an open mind and constantly researching is another essential work-habit. I had resisted the side port for years just thinking it was a gimmick until I
tried it 10 months ago. Now it is on every instrument except my Martin Simpson model or unless otherwise declined by the client. And it’s true! It
really does improve the player experience and improve that all important volume constraint caused by the size of the instrument. I’m so sold on the idea
that I now make a tool for sale that enables you to add a side port in 2 minutes.

Sustain is all about literally and actually walking to the edge. It’s about that balancing act between brace placement, thickness and profile coupled with the
elasticity and deflection of the top achieved by careful thicknessing. I am not a fan of ‘tap-tone’ tuning. I really do not think it has relevance for me. However,
David Hurd’s theories on deflection certainly resonate with me and I am by 10ths of a millimeter, getting to a final thickness coefficient with each of the top
woods I use.

Now all this looks like I am some AR nerd that has a ‘recipe book’ of all the changes and nuances in my work. Not a bit of it; nothing is written down, not even measurements! Invited to write a blog I have translated the things in my head that constantly whirr round, into a coherent form that will help you understand the continuing mastery of my craft. According to Katsushika Hokusai who at 75 said, “I think I am beginning to get this right…”, I have a long way to go.