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Interview with renowned ukulele builder Pat Megowan

Updated: May 18

(Builder of ukuleles for James Hill, Kimo Hussey, Elisabeth Pfeiffer and many others). 


I recently had the pleasure to interview Pat Megowan who has built ukuleles for some of my favourite players – including Kimo Hussey, James Hill, Elisabeth Pfeiffer, Donald Bousted, Giovanni Albini, Gerald Ross and Arden Fujiwara.  Now if that list isn’t enough to pique your interest, I don’t know what is.  Pat very kindly agreed to answer some questions on his perspectives as a Luthier. 


Note from Pat: 

Paul, thank you for the extremely generous introduction, and let me emphasize that there are many wonderful builders with far more experience—I hope you can chat with some of them in the future. 

A couple clarifications: I completed Donald’s uke (named Ariel, a “spirit of the air” from Shakespeare’s Tempest) just weeks before his sudden death from cancer, a deep loss. It’s a spruce/Amazon rosewood tenor with a 41cm scale joining at the 12th fret, sporty but old school; maybe I should paint it racing green like an old MGB! Giovanni is still waiting for Beatrice because of my darned-but-also-awesome backlog. But I’ll finally deliver a Lyric Tenor to Elisabeth Pfeiffer at the upcoming Ukulele Festival of Great Britain, which I’m thrilled about!


  1. It interests me that you went from Lutherie and diverted along the way into furniture making – the exact opposite of how the 3 founders of Ukulele manufacturing, Dias, Nunes and Santo started out.  Can you tell me more about this diversion and how you got started in Lutherie.


My lutherie was pragmatic; in college I was into guitars, and tinkering was a useful and natural extension of the woodworking and model-making I’d done since childhood. However, describing this college-era work as lutherie is too generous: more like guitar tech with a side order of clueless confidence. 

After college the most pressing need was furniture for our home. Starting with a bookshelf it progressed to dining tables, cabinets, jewelry boxes with ridiculous curving joinery, a trebuchet, and a good bit of home construction. 

During this time the memory of an ill-fated refinishing of an old Gibson Melody Maker during college came to haunt me, growing into a conviction that lutherie was far beyond me, even as my woodworking skills became very advanced. My furniture-building mentors—brilliant makers—wondered why I didn’t make instruments, but I “knew better”. 

The turning point was the confluence of two renowned guitar makers insisting “you can clearly do this” (and to quit being a chicken, though they said it nicely) with major shoulder injuries that prevented me from building my commissions. I built the first uke in desperation, to have an entry for a woodworking show. 

With serendipity that can’t be overstated, I also took uke No. 1 to some events where it was played and examined by Kimo Hussey, James Hill, and the aforementioned great guitar makers. While No. 1 was almost humorously mandolin-like in certain respects, sporting a deep V-shaped neck of curly maple, my experience as a guitar/mandolin player and fancy-pants furniture maker resulted in a well-built instrument that sounded good and played well. With kind encouragement and stellar guidance from the amazing duo of Jeffrey Elliott and Lynn Dudenbostel, ukes simply elbowed furniture work out of my shop. 

And so, 35-odd years after neutering the poor Gibson, I was back to musical instruments. I still enjoy fine furniture making and hope to do more someday, but I love the people and work in the uke universe. 


2) What do you look for in a wood when you make a ukulele?


Wood!!! <rubbing hands> I thought you’d never ask😄.

Let’s start with a little reality check: with sufficient knowledge, a competent uke (or fiddle, guitar, balalaika…) can be made of mediocre or even kinda lousy wood. In many places and times builders have done exactly that because better wood wasn’t available. Nevertheless, centuries of lutherie show that great wood is a great starting point. 

There are numerous factors in choosing excellent wood, some obvious at a glance, others subtle and geeky. I’d summarize the top factors as reliability, looks, sound, and workability. (There’s method to that seemingly heretical order, which I’m happy to explain over drinks!) There’s a time dimension as well; all woods take time to season and (in some cases) develop tonally, and the time scales can vary greatly among species. 

Each of the four big factors above is a rabbit warren, and I’m struggling to know where to begin. How about this: imagine a giant stack of woods in front of us, which we’ll examine together. Looking now at the first piece on top… 

…the first impression is obviously visual! Is it a species I’m even willing to consider its track record in performance, repair shops, and wood science research? Is it lovely and intriguing in ways I can imagine never getting tired of? Does it have showstopper defects, or evoke unease in a less obvious way? 

What does the fiber line look like (the path of the long skinny cells that make up most of wood)—straight, arcing, undulating, running wild at the ends, acting happy or weird? How do I feel about the earlywood/latewood distribution and differences, cells that grew at different times of the year and that speak of the history and stresses on the tree? Are the ray cells prominent, which means the wood is well quartersawn (almost always the most stable orientation of tree rings relative to the face of the board)? 

What about figure, those fancy patterns and colors; do I trust that figure for the planned use? For instance, I often use bearclaw but never use curly wood for the top. Bearclaw is fairly neutral in structural terms and well proven on historical instruments. Curl, on the other hand, is weaker in important structural respects, the undulating fiber line vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Though sometimes spectacular, I also pass on spalted wood for the top, back and sides, neck, and other parts where structure matters. Those pretty colors and squiggles represent battle lines between competing colonies of fungi that have been eating—i.e. decomposing!—the wood. Some is safe for strictly decorative applications like the rosette and end graft, but that’s my limit. 

Note that my earlier career was in design for so-called fail-safe systems, so maybe I was just born to worry!

Picking up the wood now, I either discard it (based on that first look) or examine the other side (for all the above things), the ends (for more info on ring orientation), and the sides (for more info on the fiber line, particularly how straight it is and how parallel to the surface). The extent to which the fiber line is not parallel to the surface is called “runout,” and significant runout is less optimal in structural and workability terms. I also check for warpage (in several flavors of varying concern), feel the weight, and estimate the density, about which I have opinions for any given part of an instrument. 

There is also a first impression of how it feels and sounds under my fingers, which I then follow with judicious flexing and some of that good ol’ time tapping and listening (discussed more in a later question). Eventually it goes into one of two piles: Nope, or Maybe. After every stick in our giant stack has been sorted, the Nope pile is sent off and we do the whole process again with the Maybes, as it takes multiple looks to really tune into a piece of wood. Often I come up empty handed, but on a really good day we find something exciting. 

Once back in my humidity-controlled shop, I trim and clean each piece up, inspect again, seal the end grain to slow the drying process and discourage cracks, measure and write notes on some (e.g. top density), and store them carefully so they stay flat while still letting air circulate around them. Some parts—neck blanks and bridges, for instance—are cut to rough shape and a perfectly straight reference surface established. 

I visit the woods periodically over several years, doing the full inspection process again with particular attention to how the wood is moving, and how the top wood sounds. Neck blanks and fretboards get extremely close attention for wood movement—the first rule of wood is that it moves—and I correct any deviation in the reference surface and record that change. If it is still changing significantly after a few years—when we know it's at full moisture equilibrium and had plenty of time to redistribute the internal stresses of being cut to rough shape—I will eliminate it as a candidate, setting it aside in hopes it’ll work for smaller parts after the wonky sections have been cut out. 

Eventually it’s time to choose wood for a particular player’s instrument—Woo-hoo! Now the focus is on how the different woods in the build will work, sound, and look together. If someone is in love with a swoony set of Macassar ebony for instance, what tops feel like they’ll complement those sides and back to bring magic to the player’s music.  What brace wood, in what cross section and configuration? This process is heavy on experience and intuition and light on science of course, but what can you do?! 

Close attention continues throughout the build—every operation may reveal something new, so inspections don’t end until…well never, really (that “worrier” thing again). It's certainly a small miracle when an instrument is ready for the first coat of finish. 

Though long, this answer is still just an overview, but I hope it gives a sense of my life with wood. 


3) You have made ukuleles for some of the most inspiring players out there – do they tend to request a specific wood or do they leave that up to you?


Let me first say that my experience with uke players across the board has been delightful. From beginners to pros they’re a diverse, fascinating, and good-hearted bunch—I feel tremendously lucky to work with them! 

To your question, the answer varies: Arden wanted great koa back and sides but was flexible on the top; Kimo and Gerald Ross wanted redwood tops but were open on the back and sides; Elisabeth Pfeiffer broke a tie between two types of spruce; James Hill and Donald Bousted left it entirely up to me. 

But I hold a top-secret advantage that you must NOT reveal to anyone under pain of…no butter on your toast for a full month! I only keep woods that I believe will make wonderful instruments, and after learning about the player, I show only sets that feel promising for their music making. In that sense I always choose the woods. I’ve learned I can only maintain the energy and focus that building requires by using woods (and designs) I believe in, and feel will delight the player. 

Another point worth emphasizing is that it’s not primarily about the wood species; it’s about the individual pieces of wood you choose, and how those pieces (top, back, sides, braces, etc.) work together. While it’s true that there are statistical differences between species in factors that affect sound, the variation among individual pieces of wood is huge. The statistics are virtually irrelevant to a single instrument. There are useful things to keep in mind about different species of course; but choosing a species does not assure a certain sound. There have been some wonderful experiments with control groups and double-blind testing that confirm this. 

4) One of my favorite guitar makers is Michael Gee from the UK.  I read that he was in a foreign country once, walking over a bridge, when he looked down at the bridge and knew immediately that the wood on the bridge would make a wonderful sounding guitar.  Now I’m not 100 % sure how true the story is, but is it something you can relate to?

Ha, yes! I was once moving a timber of western redcedar for a massive outdoor gate commission. Slipping from my grip, it dropped a few inches to the floor and hit the concrete with a resounding gong, a giant marimba key I could feel as well as hear. I saved the offcuts from that gate project, using them much later for the top on my first uke! 

In the same vein, back when logging flumes were used in certain spruce-rich areas of the European Alps, I’ve heard that canny luthiers and wood suppliers would listen for logs that were exceptionally resonant as they careened down these original Disneyland water rides. 100% true or not, it is at least consistent with my experience of wood in all different sizes.  

Back to your story, guitars and ukes are technically percussion instruments, and walking on a bridge is a percussive input, like the tapping that builders compulsively do when they evaluate pieces of wood.  While some folks think all this tapping is delusion (and posing), I think tapping gives useful information on responsiveness, harmonic spectrum, hidden cracks, and more. But whatever the acoustic physics, each builder’s tapping, flexing, and Jedi mind tricks collectively form a unique “organic algorithm” for selecting wood and making decisions during the building process, forming part of their signature. 

What these stories don’t reveal is that wood from a single tree can vary widely. In fact, consecutive slices sawn with greatest care from a single billet (“chunk”) can sound night-and-day different even though they look identical.  Mysterious! Tops and backs are most often two consecutive cuts from a single billet, so we want to attend to their individual merits and their compatibility. Occasionally I get an unhappy surprise when two great pieces don’t sound as good after joining as they did individually. I cut those back apart and either make them into smaller parts or use them to start the woodstove. There’s a rueful old saying that nothing burns like well-seasoned musical instrument wood.

I’d like to wrap up with a couple more points about “great wood”. Tons of wonderful music has been made on instruments with average or even un-promising wood. The heart of music’s magic lives in the player, the composition, and the connection created with each listener. There is also considerable magic in the design of the instrument—heck, I’ve heard fabulous guitars that were made of plywood. Don’t spread this around, but I’ve even heard some pretty great sounding pieces of plywood. 

Then we have the stubborn fact that instruments made of exquisite woods by the greatest builders—Strad, Hauser, Smallman, you name it—can vary widely in performance and appeal, sometimes dauntingly so, for reasons that can be stubbornly opaque. 

So is all the conversation about great wood really just an intriguing but mostly irrelevant pastime? No—again, great wood is a great start…but only a start. Like the movie title, It’s Complicated!


5) I play a lot of classical music on ukulele and I often get asked ‘what wood sounds good for classical music’.  I always find that a rather odd question as I believe it is much more about the angle of attack of the fingers when playing ukulele that makes for a good sound.  Do you have favourite woods for certain styles of playing?


Classical music?! Paul, what on earth do you think you’re doing? I suppose you’ll try to fool me into thinking the Bach Dm chaconne belongs on uke, or that modern classical composers aren’t still seeing therapists to process Tiny Tim’s music on Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In” all those years ago? Maybe I’ll believe it when I hear Yo-Yo Ma accompany a uke player. 

Ha!! From Martina Schaeffer’s Bach chaconne (on Austrian TV no less!) to Yo-Yo Ma playing with Jake Shimabukuro, from John King’s Chopin transcriptions to modern pieces by Sam Muir and Bryan Johanson (not to mention the Notorious Paul Mansell!), it feels as if the uke is experiencing a classical flowering analogous to Segovia’s project a century earlier to bring the “lowly” Spanish guitar to the great classical performance stages. Today’s marvelous ukulele community is growing something wonderful. 

“What woods sound good?” is not a surprising question to me though, not after finding multiple online discussion groups for…straight razors. Yes, the kind Sweeney Todd uses! We’re in an era obsessed with “best-ness”; the best laptop, best Cabernet Sauvignon, best dog food for heaven’s sake. Maybe we should ask ChatGPT? 😆 Hey, I asked “how to make the best ukulele”! 

Back to your comment, I’m with you that playing technique and musical sensibility are huge. But as a player long before I built ukes, I was always drawn to highly dynamic and “colorful” sounding woods, only later learning of their extensive use in “classical” instruments, where they excel in exploring the expressive richness of that repertoire. 

For ukulele tops—the biggest influence on sound—I particularly love Euro spruce from the Alps of eastern Switzerland and northern Italy (renowned in the violin family for centuries, and later for classical guitars), Engelmann spruce from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Idaho, and sinker redwood from a tiny region of northern California. Port Orford cedar from another teeny area on the Oregon coast and western redcedar from a comparatively large region of the Pacific Northwest are also very fine woods, seductive.

But wait a darn minute: given the primacy of koa (and other Hawaiian woods) to the history of ukulele, isn’t there a risk that rosewood, spruce, and all these other guitar-ish woods doesn’t make a uke at all, but rather a tiny guitar? It may be fair question…but if so someone better rush out and tell a whole lot of our festival performers and teachers! Three cheers for diversity and exploration, right? 

Whatever happens in the future, what’s “good for classical music” today is delightfully diverse. My memory might not be exact, but I think Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham captures it well: 

I can play it with a fox, I can play a tune of Bach’s; 

Flea and Kamaka, we’ll strum some Tchaikovska; 

spruce or koa, just give us moa; 

I do so like them all I say, 

just bring them all, we’ll play and play! 


6) A few years ago, I was lucky enough to chat extensively with Kimo Hussey about Ukulele and I know he favors the Bb6 tuning – down a whole tone from the usual C6.   Do you think this is more suited to slightly large ukes rather than the Soprano?


I love Kimo and originally designed my GT (grand tenor) for him, a body to complement his signature 19” scale and Bb6 tuning. But to quote “Spamalot” (which I saw a few nights ago): “Find YOUR Grail”! Try it and see—it’ll obviously sound different as the size changes, but every size uke will make those notes; if pleases you, yay! 

Kimo needs an instrument that will fill a hall, a comparatively specialized use that can also be addressed with a microphone or pickup. Sure, longer strings and a larger body help with sustain, and change the balance and tonal character, but whether you need and prefer those differences is your call. Given how out of tune it went when I took it backpacking, I don’t doubt my old Lanikai soprano was in Bb or even lower at times, and I liked it just as much. 

I think we sometimes over-constrain our thinking. Martina Schaeffer tuned her 17” tenor down to C (a whole tone below baritone low D) for the Bach chaconne and sounded amazing (though it took a little hunting to find the right string)! Somesmall-guitar-sized baritones sound wonderfully rich alone, but a smaller and brighter instrument might actually hold its ground more readily in a mix of instruments.

Theorize, but then experiment! 


7) Who would your dream build be for?  You have already made ukes for the cream of the crop, but is there anyone out there you would really like to see one of your ukes in the hands of.  Also what projects are you currently working on?


Ha, trick question! How about Julian Bream, Petra Poláčková, Chris Thile, Jimmy Page, Alison Krauss, Aiofe O’Donovan, Cecilia Bartoli, Michele Obama, and the entire cast of Harry Potter…for starters! 

Seriously, there are so many wonderful uke players, and each time I hear them I’m ready to start building right then! From a learning perspective as well it’s great to have super-skilled players, and of course it’s thrilling to hear great music on a uke I’ve built. Then throw in the photo Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer shared with their ukes on the Miillennium Stage at Kennedy Center—wow, I was over the moon! 

And yet…

…when I reflect on what truly sustains me day to day, it’s truly as satisfying to get a note from players whose renown happens to be in parenting or finance, biotech or birdwatching. It’s all joy. 

Speaking again of dreams and builds, I will admit to a sense in which I build every commission for the client…and for Bream or Poláčková. From a musical tradition I’ve known my whole life, they transport me with their expressiveness and heart, awesome guides in the landscapes of musical beauty. Plus it tickles me to imagine them on ukulele, fumbling at first with the unfamiliar size and reentrant tuning! 

But sometimes I’m knocked out of my Bream-ey state with an unexpected side to a uke I made. At a festival years ago I heard someone a few tables away tearing up the blues on what sounded like an amplified uke, but when I went over it was a new friend playing my demure little spruce/myrtle tenor named Prim (from The Hunger Games. Note to author: Prim has a secret nightclub life, with cheap gin, cigarettes, guys on the make—a sequel?).

Current projects: along with the backlog of commissioned instruments, there are designs I’m itching to carry further, including a compact-yet-warm baritone (fitting an airline overhead like a tenor), a couple 5-course ukes (rajão-ish, with various tunings), a GT that fits in a Hoffee case, some tempting new wood combos, a 5-course electric uke in Gibson cherry red, and probably some stuff I’m forgetting.

8) I recently played an ukulele made from bamboo, which is a very sustainable wood.  What is your opinion on the future of Lutherie when it comes to sustainable wood.

It’s tough to grow faster than bamboo! And of course, sustainability both recommends and imposes itself as unsustainable choices fade out. But I admit with embarrassment that I don’t closely follow this topic; though important and interesting,  have more wood than I can possibly build in my lifetime, and have to prioritize completing instruments for my extremely patient clients over developing future sources. 

A hopeful point for anyone who fears all ukes will be 3D printed before long: some of the best sounding and most reliable woods are reasonably plentiful, carefully managed, and in little danger of disappearing (e.g. East Indian rosewood and Euro spruce, to name two that I love). In addition, wonderful instruments can be made of many species other than “the usual suspects”. Aaron Keim in the uke world and Kevin Aram in the guitar world come immediately to mind in this regard, and there are many more. While I build with rosewoods and ebonies, I also love Oregon myrtle, and I’m eager to build with black cherry, which sounds super-promising when I jostle or accidentally drop pieces in the shop.

Let me briefly wade (with questionable caution) into another topic as long as we’re here. Some rare and costly woods are all but worshiped, replete with testimonials of tonal transcendence: Brazilian rosewood, The Tree (a famous mahogany), “Adirondack spruce” (actually two species), and various charmingly named salvage redwoods (i.e. “Tunnel 13”) to name a few that come up in ukes and guitars. Taking nothing away from these amazing trees, I’ll just say again that fantastic woods don’t guarantee greatness, even from top builders. Moreover, some of these famous woods can be cranky; numbers of the world’s top builders won’t touch Brazilian rosewood because of its propensity to wake up one day and decide to crack just for the hell of it. Finally, with wood that sells for a zillion dollars per set, it’s hard not to imagine enthusiastic hyperbole creeping into its description. 

They're just woods after all, as variable, quirky, and “human” in their tree-ish ways as we are. Dream away—I build with some of them—but with eyes open.

It must be a wonderful thing to build a uke, an inanimate object, and then see it go off and have a new life in the hands of its new owner.  What is your favorite part of the build, from commission to seeing the end product played?

It is wonder-full—kindred to making music in that way. Prosaic as well of course (again like making music), with some drudgery and the occasional trauma thrown in, like breaking a side from The Tree while bending it. Not that I’d know anything about that. 

There are many “favorites”, of differing qualities and moments. It verges on mythic to work a soundboard with a razor-sharp handplane as morning sun streams across the bench, the katsura tree just outside making the light dance. I’m sure this is in Dante somewhere, the earthly paradise if not above!

The relationship arc between builder and player is beautiful: the mutual tingle of first inquiry and getting to know each other; the engrossing work of choosing wood; little victories (or setbacks) shared in photos and texts; hearing again of their delight years later. 

The first meeting of new uke and player—yes, yes. I wish I could deliver each one in person, but I can feel the energy whether it arrives via phone call, email, or even owl. Perhaps a single in-person delivery can stand in for all. 

It was River, my first for James Hill, a spruce/blackwood tenor built under a challenging deadline to deliver at Tunes in the Dunes (a nearby Oregon festival). Stepping into fragrant coastal air after the 90-minute drive, James met me outside; their young son was napping, so we took a narrow path around the side of the house to a weathered deck in back. There—in the morning light, under alder trees lining the Salmon River just a few feet away—James played, and looked, and played. His wife Anne joined after a bit, and when the nap ended a final audience member toddled out to his reserved seating (in Anne’s arms). And still James played and played, the sun and river bright, the leaves rippling, bugs flying. I remember a comment: “It’s like seeing a magic trick explained and finding that it’s still magic”. The moments were simple, bright, resonant, happy. 

I build for these.


8) I had an amazing chat with Shawn Yacavone, who runs Ukulele Friend.  He owns several of the really early ukuleles and has even recorded them and taken photos of the insides of them.  Is the historical building of Ukuleles something that interests you?


Shawn is great! I first encountered his early ukes , and I’m eager to visit again, see amazing instruments old and new, and eat poke and pastries at food carts on the north shore! I have long studied what makes for longevity in furniture and instruments; any instrument that makes good music 100+ years after being built is a treasure. 

The histories of guitars, mandolins, lutes, and violins also intrigue me, and from the beginning I’ve incorporated experience from these, the classical guitar world especially. In the same family of instruments as ukulele, the tremendous expressive range of great guitars is a rich resource as players and composers create a new “classical” repertoire for our mighty little friend. The failures and victories of generations of luthiers have resulted in alluring tonal colors and great dynamics that we can shape with the techniques you mentioned in an earlier question, and I want all that beauty and range on ukulele as well!

As for actually building historic reproductions, for the foreseeable future I’ll watch in admiration as Aaron Keim and others carry that flag. I applaud! 

--

Thanks again Paul, great fun! Let’s shoot for coffee at the festival in Cheltenham! 


You can find out more about Pat's amazing ukulele's at www.Patmegowan.com





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