So the uplifting sounds of a ukulele got you hooked, and you’ve decided to get one. However, you’re confused by all the ukulele models and sizes available. Well, you’ve come to the right place. This ukulele buying guide will explain everything you need to know before spending money on one of these four-string instruments.
You’ll learn what to expect from a budget option and why you should avoid cheaper instruments. Also, I’ll explain how size affects the instrument’s tone and other good stuff. So keep reading to learn how to buy a ukulele!
To buy a ukulele, take the following steps:
- Set a budget. A uke priced between $50 and $100 is fine for beginners.
- Choose a ukulele size. The three main uke sizes are soprano, concert, and tenor, in order of size and skill level.
- Keep a ukulele’s build quality in mind.
- Pay attention to the instrument’s shape.
- Purchase your ukulele.
How to Buy a Ukulele in Five Steps
Now, let’s go into more detail on what to consider when taking each step to buying a ukulele, whether online or at the local music store.
Step One: Set Your Budget
The first step to take when buying a ukulele or other acoustic instruments is to set a budget. In my opinion, your skill level should dictate your spending amount.
If you’re a beginner, I wouldn’t advise you spend more than $100 or less than $50. You can get a quality instrument that falls within the above price range and, depending on the ukulele brand, your purchase may even come with accessories like spare ukulele strings and tuning pegs.
Frankly, spending more when you’re still learning the ropes is financial overkill, while anything less may mean the manufacturer sacrificed the instrument’s quality for an affordable price.
Avoid Cheap Ukuleles
I need to stress that lower prices may not translate to a sensible ukulele purchase. Most instruments priced below $50 are very low-quality, negatively impacting your learning experience.
A new ukulele should encourage and inspire you to play, not frustrate you with hours spent messing with tuning machines because they don’t sound right. Therefore, if you want to advance your ukulele skills (perhaps to join the ranks of professional uke players), avoid cheap ukes like the plague.
Quality to Expect From a Reasonably-Priced Uke
There are advantages to paying a fair price for a ukulele. Even without breaking the bank, you can get an instrument:
- made with solid woods and superior craftsmanship;
- featuring higher-quality materials like exotic woods and Aquila strings;
- that comes with high-tech ukulele accessories like an electronic tuner; and
- that makes provision for connectivity to amps like guitars and other amplified instruments.
To summarize, budget ukuleles don’t necessarily mean lower quality, so the only limit to your spending amount should be your proficiency level.
Step Two: Choose Among Ukulele Sizes and Types
When shopping for a ukulele, you can choose from three main sizes and tonal types: soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles. Additionally, a fourth ukulele size, the baritone, is available, though, for reasons I’ll get into below, it falls in a separate category.
Soprano ukuleles are the smallest of the available uke sizes. These instruments are approximately 21-inches long (with a 13-inch scale length), making them the perfect ukulele for young children and players with small hands. As such, the soprano ukulele is usually the first ukulele beginners learn to play.
At 23-inches long and with a scale length of 15-inches, concert ukuleles are slightly bigger than soprano ukes. You’ll find more frets on a concert-size ukulele compared to a soprano one, so it can produce a deeper, more voluminous sound.
As one of two beginner ukuleles (along with the soprano), you can get a concert ukulele if you’re new to ukes and have large hands, as it’ll be more comfortable to play than the slightly smaller soprano size.
Tenor ukuleles are 26-inches long (with a 17-inch scale length), making them the largest type of ukulele available. These instruments come with a wider fingerboard and produce a resonant and deep sound.
Professional and skilled ukulele players use them, as tenor ukes have the most notes and well-spaced frets and produce the widest sound range. Consider investing in a tenor ukulele once your playing skills have improved beyond the basics.
The last ukulele size you can get is the baritone ukulele. Baritone ukuleles are closer in size to guitars and are tuned similarly, so they’re a little removed from how a traditional ukulele should look and sound.
Since baritone ukes sound different from what can be classified as standard ukulele music, it’s debatable whether baritone ukes should be classified among the three common uke types.
How Size Impacts Sound
So we know some ukuleles are better suited for players with smaller hands than others due to their size. But is that all a ukulele’s size affects? Not really. Size can also affect a uke’s playability and tone.
- Playability: A soprano ukulele’s scale length is much shorter than concert and tenor ukuleles. Scale length refers to how far a ukulele’s nut and saddle are from one another and how widely the frets are spread. With wider frets, your fingers have more space for navigating the fretboard.
- Tone: A good rule of thumb regarding ukulele size is the larger the instrument, the fuller its tones will be. Soprano models (being the smallest size) produce bright and warm tones. Meanwhile, concert and tenor ukes produce deeper tones the farther you ascend the ukulele size scale.
Step Three: Pay Attention to Build Quality
The materials used to construct a ukulele affect its sound. Let’s explore what that means for your ukulele purchase.
Woods Commonly Used in Ukulele Production
You’ll find at least one (or a combination) of the following wood types in a ukulele with an excellent build quality:
- Mahogany: Mahogany is the commonest wood used to manufacture ukuleles of all sizes and prices. Most solid wood ukuleles contain a small percentage of this wood, usually for ukulele necks. Ukuleles made with mahogany produce soft and warm tones.
- Koa: Koa is a wood native to Hawaii, the birthplace of the ukulele. Also called Acacia, this wood type features a unique wood-grain pattern and produces an equally unique tone. Koa isn’t as commonly used as mahogany, so you’ll find it in more expensive ukulele models.
- Cedar: Cedar isn’t as dense as the other wood types, producing a more varied range of tones (soft, dark, warm, and more). So, if your play style on a stringed instrument involves a lot of strumming and string plucking, a uke with cedar wood will be perfect for you.
- Spruce: Spruce is used in ukes and other stringed instruments like guitars. This wood is commonly used for ukulele tops and has a higher volume and resonance. As such, uke manufacturers combine it with mahogany or maple to give the final ukulele a more subtle tone.
- Rosewood: Ukulele manufacturers use rosewood for ukulele backs and sides. In addition, you may find it used in a uke’s fingerboard. Manufacturers may pair this dense tonewood with spruce or cedar, as it produces rich overtones.
- Maple: Like spruce, manufacturers favor maple in guitar production. However, you’ll find it used for ukulele fretboards and bridges. It has densely-packed grain, which gives ukes made with this wood a high-quality appearance.
- Redwood: Redwood combines the best of both worlds that spruce (clarity) and cedar (warmth) bring to a ukulele’s tonality. Unfortunately, ukuleles made with this wood are expensive, as its scarce due to overharvesting.
The above are just a few wood types used in ukulele production. You might find ukuleles manufactured with Ovangkol, Beech, Cherry, Sapele, Cocobolo, and more.
Solid or Laminated Wood?
In addition to wood type, you’ll need to consider whether you want a uke with solid or laminated wood construction. Let’s learn the difference:
- Solid Wood: When a ukulele is said to be constructed with solid wood, it means the manufacturers used a layer of wood when building it. That translates to an instrument that can produce more vibrant tones, as the sound can resonate more freely.The con of ukes constructed this way is they’re usually more expensive and aren’t as immune to environmental factors like temperature and weather.
- Laminated Wood: Ukes with a laminated wood construction incorporate several thin layers of wood. It’s more common to find this construction in beginner-oriented ukuleles, and even though the tones produced pale in comparison to solid-wood-constructed ukuleles, it’s still sufficiently good quality.These ukes are sturdier than solid wood ones and aren’t as susceptible to environmental wear and tear.
Step Four: Consider Ukulele Shapes
In addition to a ukulele’s build quality, you might want to consider the instrument’s shape. Most ukuleles can be categorized into three shapes: guitar, pineapple, and paddle. Let’s briefly check out each one.
Ukuleles shaped like guitars (or a figure 8) are the most common type you’ll find in a music store. As with guitars, the ukulele’s upper half, or shoulder, is narrower than its lower half. Additionally, you may come across ukuleles whose top half has a cutaway for easier access to the instrument’s frets.
As the name suggests, pineapple-shaped ukuleles look like pineapples! These musical instruments have rounded backs that the Kamaka Ukulele Company pioneered and have a stronger island vibe than guitar-shaped ones.
Once again, based on its name, you can guess how a paddle-shaped ukulele looks. However, this ukulele shape is the rarest of them all, resembling a boat’s paddle.
Step Five: Purchase Your Ukulele
Now that you’ve set a budget and picked your ukulele according to size, shape, wood type, and construction (paying attention to how these things affect its tone and playability), it’s time for the moment of truth: buying your uke.
But not so fast! You need to consider one more thing before parting with your hard-earned cash: brand recognition. I’m assuming you’re a beginner since you’re wondering how to buy a ukulele. Therefore, purchasing a ukulele brand that’s well-received by customers will make more financial sense in the long run.
Renowned ukulele brands like Cordoba, Kala, Bondi, Ohana, and the like have been in the ukulele manufacturing game for a long time and are known for high-quality products regardless of price. Therefore, you can’t go wrong with one of their ukes, even the ones meant for beginners.
I’ve mentioned above that some ukuleles come bundled with accessories like extra strings. However, if your chosen instrument doesn’t, here are some you should consider buying:
- Electric tuner: These tools make ukulele tuning easier and faster, so they’re worth including with your uke purchase.
- Case or Gig Bag: Gig bags and cases come in handy when transporting your instrument and protecting it from damage, so if you hope to get good enough to play on the beach someday, you’ll need one.
- Pick: Maybe you’re not big on the idea offinger calluses. In that case, consider getting a pick. You can get either a felt or standard guitar pick, and these things don’t cost the Earth.
- Strings: Your chosen uke may come with nylon strings, which can be hit or miss, so eventually, you’ll need the upgrade. Take the initiative by grabbing some higher-quality ones before it comes to that.
The ukulele is a wonderful musical instrument, so kudos for deciding to buy one. With all of the above steps and considerations in mind, you can get a uke that suits your needs and meets you where you are on your musical journey.