Ukulele Bracing Evolution: Asymmetrical Lattice Bracing

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.

Rodriguez Tenor Ukulele

Tenor in the mold.

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:

—–15–
—–12–
—–o—
—–o—

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).

Rodriguez Lattice Bracing

Ukulele Lattice Bracing by Thomas W. Rodriguez

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.

Thomas W. Rodriguez Ukulele

Another view of asymmetrical lattice bracing.

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!

Thomas W. Rodriguez Tenor Ukulele

This bracing has been modified slightly for concert and soprano size ukes too.

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.

Fingerboard inlays made from ebony and ivory piano keys!

Fingerboard inlays made from ebony and ivory piano keys!

Yup, you know you want it.

Yup, you know you want it.

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Soprano Ukulele Wood Sets

Here are a few available soprano ukulele sets! This is a great looking straight grained mahogany that is old growth from the 1800’s.

Soprano 1800's Mahogany

Soprano 1800’s Mahogany

 

Up next is a really striking Bird’s Eye Maple back.  Can’t wait to see this turn into a uke.

 

Birdseye Maple Soprano Ukulele

Birdseye Maple Soprano Ukulele

Birdseye Maple Soprano Ukulele

Birdseye Maple Soprano Ukulele

 

Two great looking Brazilian Rosewood back and sides sets. The first has some wonderful colors in it that will come to life with a gloss finish.

 

Brazilian Rosewood Soprano Set

Brazilian Rosewood Soprano Set

Brazilian RW Soprano Uke Back and Sides

Brazilian RW Soprano Uke Back and Sides

Some more Mahogany with nice tight, symmetrical grain.  This set could be a full uke: top, back, and sides.  It would make a great vintage Martin style soprano.

 

Cuban Mahogany Soprano

Cuban Mahogany Soprano

Ebony is not the most commonly seen wood (other than for fingerboards) but is makes an amazing looking back and sides.

Rodriguez Ukulele

Ebony Soprano Uke Set

Here is some great looking Flamed Sapele.  I love the look of these wood sets.  A little bit of naptha shows what this would look like when finished.

 

Rodriguez Ukulele

Flamed sapele soprano set

Rodriguez Ukulele

Flamed sapele soprano set

 

Here are four Honduras rosewood sets with the sapwood (which was the living part of the tree) still attached.  This is usually cut off when the wood is milled, but it makes for a very appealing contrast.  One of my favorites for sure.

 

Rodriguez Ukulele

Honduras Rosewood Soprano set

Rodriguez

Honduras Rosewood Soprano set

Rodriguez Soprano Ukulele

Honduras Rosewood Soprano set

Rodriguez Ukulele

Honduras Rosewood Soprano set

 

Some great looking Madagascar rosewood sporting some cool grain patterns.

Tommy Rodriguez Ukulele

Rosewood Soprano Uke Set

 

This is a nice block of highly quilted maple!

Quilted Maple Raw

Quilted Maple Raw

Tommy Rodriguez Ukulele

Quilted Maple Raw2

Zircote is an amazing looking tonewood.  It has a look similar to rosewood but slightly busier.  Supa cool!

Thomas W. Rodriguez Ukulele

Zircote Soprano Ukulele

 

 

Rodriguez Spruce/Rosewood Tenor Ukulele

Rodriguez Spruce/Rosewood Tenor Ukulele

I had the pleasure of briefly test driving this wonderful Thomas W. Rodriguez tenor ukulele today.  It sits firmly on the “small classical guitar” end of the sonic spectrum, which I quite like!  The sound was rich and warm with tons of projection and clarity.  The uke was completed only days ago so it is still opening up and relaxing, but already has a stunning and complex tone.  I can’t wait to hear this one a few months down the road. I should also ad that this ukulele is already sold, so sorry for those waiting for some available Rodriguez ukes.

The back and sides, peg head veneer and bridge are Brazilian rosewood reclaimed from an 1800’s table top. The top is 100 year old Adirondack red spruce (old growth). The neck is100 year old cuban mahogany. The nut ,saddle, tie block and neck dot markers are mastodon ivory (10,000 to 30,000 years old).  Tommy is well known for seeking out the highest quality materials that you can find to build his instruments out of, and this ukulele is no exception!


Tommy has been focusing on quite a few tenor ukulele builds and has some great ideas involving adaptations of the “asymmetrical lattice bracing” system he has developed for his classical and flamenco designs.  I can’t wait to see how this plays out and I should have some samples to share in the next few months.

I am going to try to get a few videos or sound samples for those wishing for a perspective on what Mr. Rodriguez can do in the tenor department.  Trust me, you won’t be dissappointed!

Rodriguez Spruce/Rosewood Tenor Ukulele

Rodriguez Spruce/Rosewood Tenor Ukulele

 

Tommy uses lacquer finishes on all of his instruments rather than polyurethane.  Many people have different opinions on which is better, and every builder will choose one vs. the other based on their opinions and situation.

One of the advantages of lacquer based finish is that much of the solvent evaporates off the instrument as it dries resulting in a lighter and more vibrant instrument that isn’t weighed down by a “hard candy shell” of gloss finish.  Lacquer is much easier to repair as well, unlike a poly finish, because it never “cures”, or becomes permanently solid.  This means that scratches or finish damage can be “melted” away by the application of thinner and more lacquer (as long as it is done properly).

Check out the glassy mirror-like sheen of this gloss lacquer finish!

Tommy Rodriguez Tenor Ukulele

Rodriguez Tenor Gloss Ukulele

 

This tenor uke also sports a K&K Aloha Twin passive pickup.  I really like what K&K does as far as uke pickups.  You never have to worry about changing a battery, but don’t have to sacrifice sound quality either, which is a hard combination to come by.  Most pickups rely heavily on onboard pre-amps and tone shaping tools to compensate for the thin and tinny tone of “under the saddle” vibrational transducers.  This pickup uses two flat vibration sensitive pads that attach to the bridge plate inside the uke and hear the top of the instrument rather than just the saddle.  This results in a much more acoustic sounding timber more akin to well placed microphone than a quacky piezo system.

Rodriguez Spruce Tenor Ukulele

Check out the rosette and binding on this one!

 

Another characteristic of Tommy’s ukulele building style is the stiffness of the back and sides.  His concept is to fabricate a structure that focuses the vibrations into the top of the uke (somewhat like a drum).  He also bends the linings into the shape of the body rather than notching them like most builders.  This adds to the rigidity of the framework and further focuses the sound into the top.  I’ve found that this translates into a very musical instrument with tons of projection.  There are many ways to build a uke that is “loud”, but often this is done at the expense of focus, clarity, and structural stability.  It is quite another to create a balanced and resonant instrument that projects in a harmonious way.

Rodriguez Tenor Ukulele Rosette

Yep, you wish it was yours!

 

These Peghead tuners are great!  They are really light in weight, which is good for the balance of the instrument (meaning it’s not neck heavy) and they are geared with a 4:1 ratio which makes them much less of a headache than a standard friction tuner.

 

Rodriguez Tenor Ukulele Headstock

Peghead tuners have that classic look but with a 4:1 tuning ratio.

 

Peghead Ukulele Tuners

Rodriguez Tenor Ukulele Headstock

 

Rodriguez Tenor Ukulele

 

Thanks for taking the time to check out some of Thomas W. Rodriguez’ work.  I’m hoping to see more tenors in the near future, so stay tuned.  If you have any question about getting a Rodriguez ukulele, Tommy can be reached at 804-358-6324 or tom@rodriguezguitars.com.  If you would like help selecting wood for a custom order or with any general questions, feel free to contact me (John Gonzalez) at Fan Guitar and Ukulele in Richmond, VA (804)-254-4600 or fanguitarandukulele@gmail.com.

Ukulele Fingerboard Options

This shows off some of Tommy’s fingerboard options.  Ebony and Rosewood are probably the most popular choices due to the high density of the wood, as well as the aesthetic match with other common tone woods.  These pics display some high quality choices!  Ebony is often died these days to get the rich black coloration that is associated with the wood.  I prefer the more natural looking ebony that has somewhat similar grain pattern to rosewood.

Rosewood Fingerboards

Rosewood Fingerboards

Ebony Ukulele Fingerboards

Ebony Ukulele Fingerboards

Tenor Ukulele Wood Choices

Check out a small sampling of Tommy’s available Tenor size ukulele timber!  The first few are Honduras Rosewood with some of the sapwood still visible.  These are some of my favorites.

Tenor Honduras rosewood

Tenor Honduras rosewood with sapwood

Tenor Honduras rosewood

Tenor Honduras rosewood

Tenor Honduras rosewood

This Honduras Rosewood is about 30 years old.

This is some Cuban Mahogany that is about 100 years old.  Very tight grained and sure to make a really sweet sounding ukulele.

Cuban Mah 100yr1

Tenor Cuban Mahogany

Tenor Cuban Mahogany that is 100 years old.

Tenor Cuban Mahogany

Tenor Cuban Mahogany

These cuts of Sapele show a unique curl to them that will really come to life when finished.

Curly sapele1

Tenor Curly Sapele

Tenor Curly Sapele

Tenor Curly Sapele

Tenor Curly Sapele

Here is a 30 year old Rosewood back.  Amazing quality rosewood that is very vibrant.

30 year old Rosewood

30 year old Rosewood

 

Concert Ukulele Tone Wood

Here are a few sets of back and sides that will become Concert size ukuleles in the not so distant future.  Part of the magic of a Rodriguez uke is derived from the quality of the wood in Tommy’s collection.  He uses very stable “old growth” wood whenever possible, and a lot of it was milled 40-100+ years ago, which means that it comes from trees that were likely to be 100’s of years old!  Hard to come by these days….. Notice the quilted 3-dimensional grain pattern in this set.

Quilted Maple Concert Uke back

Quilted Maple for a concert ukulele back!

Quilted maple ukulele back

Quilted Maple concert uke back.

Here are some very cool concert sized rosewood samples.  Rosewood has a wide variance as far as grain patterns which makes for an aesthetically expressive look.  It is a choice tone wood as well, and has been used for 100’s of years in instrument building.  Brazilian Rosewood is probably the most sought after for instrument building and is now very difficult to come by.  Tommy has been known to buy old furniture from South America and have it shipped up to his shop in Richmond where he mills the Rosewood into usable sizes.

Brazilian Rosewood concert back and sides.

Brazilian Rosewood concert back and sides.

Brazilian Rosewood conert uke

This one has quite a nice grain.

Here are a few examples of some very old Mahogany back and sides sets.  Good luck finding wood of this quality, you will be searching for a long time these days.  This set is from the 1800’s.  Notice the tight and consistent grain pattern…….this is ideal for building ukes because of the consistent and predictable density throughout the timber.  This sort of old wood provides spectacular stability when properly milled and stored.

1800s mahogany concert

1800’s mahogany concert ukulele back

Mahogany concert uke back

A little Naptha applied to the wood shows the dark and rich color that will result with finish.

Birdseye Maple has a very striking look, which makes is a desirable choice if you are looking for a great sounding back with very decorative aesthetics.  It is my understanding that nobody has really been able to determine what causes this grain mutation with any provable certainty.

Birdseye Maple concert

Again, Naptha brings out the grain!

Birds eye maple concert uke back

Now without the Naptha.

Bridseye maple concert set

Back and sides set, this will make someone a really special ukulele!

Here are a few more Rosewood selections from the extensive Thomas W. Rodriguez collection.  Tommy is unique in his intimate involvement in every aspect of the process.  He is truly a “one man operation” which guarantees the quality and accuracy of his instruments.  He is one of a dying breed of craftsman who are driven by artistic perfectionism rather than production quantity and profit margins.  His personal investment in each fine uke is a truly rare phenomenon in the economic climate we live in.  Few dare to favor “more quality” over “more money”, but to those that do I say “touche sir, well played!”

Brazilian rosewood concert size

Very cool grain on this one.

Brazilian rosewood concert size

Naptha showing it off!

Brazilian Rosewood set for concert uke.

Brazilian Rosewood set for concert uke.

Rodriguez ukes are custom creations in the true sense of the word.  Probably 75% of what he builds is done on the “custom” level, which means that in order to get one you have to pick the woods you would like and discuss the details of the build with Tommy.  For ukes his wait time is between 2-4 months on average (from the time of deposit to the the completion of the instrument).  

For more info on ordering you can contact Thomas W. Rodriguez directly at Rodriguez Guitars or get in touch with me (John Gonzalez del Solar) at Fan Guitar and Ukulele  (804) 254-460o. My email is fanguitarandukulele@gmail.com.  Thanks for reading!