The ukulele is a great instrument to learn, for several reasons. It’s fun, it’s easy to learn, it can help the beginner learn skills that will transfer to the guitar, and starter ukuleles can be very cheap. But are the cheapest ukes worth buying? How much ukulele does a beginner need, anyway?
There are 3 main factors that go into choosing a ukulele: size, materials and price. Below is a quick, simple rundown of what to look for in buying that first ukulele – and how to get the most ukulele for the money.
Choosing a Ukulele Size
Basically, there are 4 main sizes of ukulele to choose from: soprano (or standard), concert, tenor and baritone.
Soprano ukulelesare the most common size of ukulele and the most likely to make the classic “plinky” ukulele sound that most people associate with the instrument. The soprano ukulele is about 20-21 inches long, and is a good size for a child or someone with smaller hands (although many players with larger hands play soprano ukes with no problem). Soprano ukuleles can be bought cheaply, and a good one can be had – usually with a gig bag included – for about $30-50. Beware, though, of really cheap souvenir soprano ukuleles with Hawaiian scenes painted on them. They are more for displaying than playing.
Concert ukuleles, at about 23-24 inches long, are the next size up from the soprano and deliver the classic ukulele sound with a little more room to maneuver on the fretboard. They are also a little louder than sopranos, which is why they are good for concert playing.
Tenor ukuleles are 26-27 inches long and are even louder than the concert ukulele. Tenor ukuleles are usually the ukulele of choice for professional players. It’s important to note, however, that tenor ukuleles are sometimes strung with a low-G string instead of the traditional high-G string, which adds more bass (because the G is an octave lower) but sounds less like a traditional ukulele.
Baritone ukuleles are the largest of the ukulele sizes, and are different from the three smaller sizes in an important way. Whereas soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles are tuned GCEA (the classic “my dog has fleas” tuning), baritone ukuleles are often tuned DGBE – the same tuning as the bottom 4 strings of the guitar.
Many ukulele players don’t even consider the baritone a true ukulele for that reason, but the guitar-like tuning makes the baritone a great choice for people who want to try the ukulele and then transition to learning guitar or those who already know guitar and want to learn ukulele.
Popular Ukulele Brands
Some of the more popular ukulele brands include Kala, Makala (made by Kala), Mahalo, Oscar Schmidt and Lanikai. Most of these ukulele makers offer “starter” ukuleles at an affordable price for those who want to see if the ukulele is for them before paying more – and they also make great gifts for musicians who play other instruments.
At the other end of the price spectrum, Martin, the venerable guitar company, was one of the main ukulele manufacturers during the ukulele craze of the 1920s and 1930s. Vintage Martins are highly sought after (and highly priced!).
Ukulele Materials – Wood or Laminate?
Most lower-priced ukuleles are made of laminates – layers or pieces of wood glued together. Solid wood ukuleles have a fuller, richer and louder sound than laminates, but solid wood is also more sensitive to humidity and other environmental factors and can change slightly in tone. Laminates are built for strength and will usually keep their tone.
Ukulele Woods and Strings
Solid wood ukuleles are usually made from mahogany or koa wood (a native Hawaiian wood). A nice compromise is a ukulele made of better quality laminates (i.e., from pieces of mahogany). And since the soundboard (the top of the ukulele) transmits more sound than the back and sides, a ukulele with laminate sides and back but with a solid wood soundboard is also a great choice at a lower price point than a solid wood ukulele.
Besides mahogany and koa, other woods sometimes used in ukuleles include spruce, cedar and mango.
For beginners who need the best ukulele sound for a low price, good quality strings can also make a cheap ukulele sound like a much higher-quality instrument. Some of the most popular ukulele string makers are Aquila, Worth and Martin.
Ukulele Resources: Need Help Choosing a Uke?
It’s not easy choosing that first ukulele, particularly if it will be bought online. But there are many online ukulele enthusiasts and communities to help with all aspects of learning to play the ukulele – from choosing that first ukulele to online video lessons. Ukulele Underground is one such site with comprehensive ukulele resources, and it’s a great place to start.
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