So…………………………a lot has happened in the last 6 months within the confines of the Rodriguez Ukulele laboratory. Tommy has been experimenting with various design elements, one of which is “asymmetrical lattice” bracing on tenor, concert, and even soprano sized ukes.
I should add that this is not exactly new territory for him. Tommy has been using variations of this bracing system on his concert classical and flamenco guitars for 10+ years with astounding results, which makes it not exactly a surprise to see it sneak into his ukulele construction.
I have played several of these instruments, and can say that without a doubt he is onto something special. It’s easy to pick up an expensive uke, and be impressed by pure volume or projection, but this equation goes much deeper. Many builders can create a uke with volume, sweetness, complexity, as well as good tone, but the real trick is crafting one that has these features in EVERY SINGLE NOTE on the fretboard.
Many ukes will sound great below the 5th fret, but lose some of the punch and sustain above the 7th, or certainly the 12th. In fact, I pretty much have grown to expect that from the vast majority of ukuleles, it comes with the territory, right? Well, not anymore.
A good way to demonstrate this phenomenon is to play this chord, one string at the time:
This is just a C major chord played with 1/2 of the notes an octave higher above the 12th fret. Listen carefully to the sustain, or duration of each note individually. The open strings will ring twice as long as the fretted notes, in most cases, and can often have a tinny and almost out of tune timber. This is one of the great challenges of stringed instrument construction (well, one of many great challenges I suppose).
Mr. Rodriguez began experimenting with asymmetrical lattice bracing in attempt to surmount this and several other problems innate to ukulele construction. His latest designs have exhibited wonderful results. In fact, the first thing that I noticed was the balance and continuity of the entire fretboard. For once, volume, or lack thereof, wasn’t the first thing I noticed while test driving a high end uke. Every note rang true with brilliant and complex sweetness. The higher frets on the uke melted into the lower register with a very satisfying clarity, and the mid-range was expressive yet not “honky” or nasal sounding, no matter where I played.
Another detail I noticed with Tommy’s new bracing was that the position of my strumming hand had a dramatic impact on the tone. Picking close to the bridge saddle yielded bright and sparky punch, without the typical “canned” tone that can be encountered in that position. Picking up the neck in front of the soundhole produced warm, rich, and round tones with just the right mix of velvet. In fact, everything in between these extremes brought forth slightly different but 100% useable tones!
Anyhow, I hadn’t had much contact with Tommy in the last few months until last week he called me over to check out some of his latest builds, which is when I got one of the lattice braced ukes in my hands for the first time. It left quite an impression on me, so much that within days I found myself at his doorstep with the deposit on a custom tenor for myself!
Here are a few photos that Tommy was kind enough to share with me. You can see the bracing and the linings. Tommy will be exhibiting some completed instruments this year at the 2014 Virginia UkeFest at the Glen Allen Cultural Arts Center, so if you are going, be sure to stop by his booth, you won’t regret it.