There’s lots of advice out there on the web about how to buy a ukulele — and some of it, naturally is contradictory — which means, of course, you need to read several opinions and decide which you feel is best for you. So, here’s another set of opinions. Ready?
The first thing, or one of the first things, people wonder about is cost. How much do ukuleles cost? How much should you spend? With instruments generally, very often when people decide to take one up, they think “well, I’ll buy a cheap one and see if I really want to play before spending the money on a really good one”. Here’s the problem with that approach: the less you spend on an instrument, the less you’ll want to play it. Buy a cheap enough instrument and you can practically guarantee you won’t enjoy playing.
But I’m a beginner, a good instrument would be wasted on me! Nope. A beginner needs a good instrument more than a pro does. Give Chuck Berry the cheapest, crappiest guitar Wal-Mart carries and he can sound amazing on it, because he has the chops to deal with its shortcomings. A beginner is struggling with lack of knowledge and experience; why also struggle with a lousy instrument? I’ve been there. As a two-weeks-in beginner once I had a chance to play a really nice instrument (a concertina) and was blown away by how much better I could do with it than with my cheap one. Couldn’t afford it unfortunately…
But what if I decide it’s not the instrument for me? Sell it. A quality instrument’s resale value, if you buy it new and keep it in good condition, will approach what you paid for it. A cheap crappy instrument? Might as well just throw it away rather than try to resell it.
So how much should you spend? How much are you willing to spend? Spend that much. If you have $2000 in your pocket and you don’t have anything better to do with it than spend it on a ukulele, buy a $2000 ukulele. You can get yourself a beautiful, hand made instrument, one that sounds great and plays like a dream. You’ll love it. I’ll be mad jealous.
You probably aren’t willing to spend $2000. You don’t have to. If you have $200 to spend? Buy a $200 ukulele. You’ll get a mass produced instrument, not as beautiful, not as great sounding, but still fine.
If you have $75 to spend? Buy a $75 ukulele. You can get a perfectly serviceable, decent playing, fun instrument. You’re likely to want to upgrade later (not when you’re good enough — you’re good enough right now — but when you have the money) but it’ll do just fine until then.
If you have $20 to spend? Buy a pizza and rent a movie. Trust me, you’ll get more enjoyment out of them. Yes, there are ukulele-shaped objects out there available for $20 or $30. Generally they should stay out there. Probably they won’t play well, they won’t sound good, they won’t stay in tune, they’ll fall apart before you know it. Yes, you can get a good ukulele cheap, but usually not that cheap (unless you’re lucky enough to find a good used one and the seller isn’t trying to get as much as possible for it). You can do surprisingly well for under $50 (street price) but much lower than that is probably a bad idea.
Shapes and sizes
Ukes come in a lot of shapes and sizes, with various design features; some of these choices are really just matters of taste, others are things you might want to try out someday but probably should skip for your first instrument.
The most common sizes are known as soprano (small), concert (larger), and tenor (larger yet). Pick one of them. There also are sopranino (really small) and baritone (even larger) ukuleles, which a beginner probably should stay away from, and bass ukuleles which really are a whole different instrument, more short scale bass guitars than ukuleles. (You could start with a baritone uke, if you’re studying on your own with a teacher who knows baritone or a baritone uke book, but if you’re taking group lessons, forget it. The tuning is different.)
Despite the names, soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles, as conventionally tuned, play at exactly the same pitch. In fact tenors usually can play higher notes than sopranos. The terminology is stupid, let’s face it. The difference in size has pretty much four implications, one aesthetic and three practical. The aesthetic: the different body sizes produce different tone qualities. The tenor resonates at lower frequencies, producing a sound with more (relative) bottom to it. Some people prefer the tenor sound, some prefer the soprano or the concert. Pick which one you like. (Of course other aspects of the instrument, like the material of the top, will also affect the tone quality.)
The practical: First, the larger instruments will have longer necks, with more space between frets. This may be a good thing, if you have fat fingers. (Less crowding when making certain chords.) It may be a bad thing, if you have short fingers! (More stretching when making certain chords.) If you don’t have unusually fat or short fingers, you can probably deal with any of the three. Second, concert and tenor necks usually are disproportionately long compared to soprano necks, with more frets — which is why they can play higher notes than sopranos. That’s pretty much irrelevant for a beginner; you won’t be playing above the twelfth fret any time soon. And third, soprano ukuleles tend to be more readily available at lower prices than concerts and tenors. That might be your deciding factor: for $150 you can get a better soprano than a tenor, and for $60 you aren’t likely to find a tenor worth buying. But if a concert or tenor appeals to you more and you are willing to pay the extra, by all means get one. And if it doesn’t, don’t. Simple!
As for shape, most of what’s out there is your basic guitar-shape uke, but there are pineapple-shape ones, pear-shape ones, round (grapefruit-shape?) ones, and others too. And they’re all fine, whatever feels and sounds good to you. There also are banjo ukuleles, which are built like small banjos with a skin head over a frame instead of a wood body. They tend to cost more, they sound different, they may require more TLC, and they are likely to be something you’ll be better off saving for later. But if you fall in love with a banjo uke, go ahead and get it. It’ll work.
There are some plastic ukuleles out there, and some that are partly plastic (plastic back and sides on the body, with a wood body top and neck). Some are even pretty good. Mostly, though, ukes are made of wood.
If you go by what the manufacturer or seller tells you, there’s “wood” and then there’s “solid wood”. As opposed to liquid or gaseous wood? No. “Wood” means “laminate” and “solid wood” means “not laminate”, and “laminate” means, essentially, “plywood”. Not quite the same plywood Home Depot sells in 3/4″ thicknesses, but the same idea: cheaper wood, sliced thin and glued together in layers.
As you might imagine, laminate tends to be used on cheaper instruments, solid wood on more expensive ones. But ignore anyone who tries to tell you laminate instruments are trash and you should never consider anything but solid wood. There are some very decent laminate instruments available. Does solid wood sound enough better to justify paying the higher price? You decide; it’s your money. If a laminate uke sounds good enough to you, don’t be afraid to buy it.
Laminates do have one advantage: They’re more resistant to cracking. Cracking can be a problem with any wood instrument, especially if it’s stored in low humidity conditions. Your home might have a humidifier, or you can buy or make an inexpensive humidifier (pretty much just a sponge in a container with little holes) to go with your instrument inside its case, to get you through the dry winter months if that’s what your local climate is. But if humidification is a problem and dry air is a concern, a laminate instrument is less likely to be damaged by it.
Again, sometimes you find a mix: laminate back and sides, solid top.
Which wood? You can find ukes made of traditional Hawaiian koa, or mahogany, acacia, spruce, maple, or lots of other woods. If it’s laminate it doesn’t much matter: the acacia or whatever is just a veneer. If it’s solid wood, it still matters relatively little what the back and sides of the body are made of. The top is where the sound is produced, and there, the wood makes the most difference. Mahogany makes for a warmer tone than spruce, for example. But it comes down to what sound and what visual appearance you prefer. And your budget, of course. Koa costs a lot more than spruce. And again again, often you’ll find different woods on the top than on the back and sides.
There are a few different kinds of tuners — the things you turn to tune up the strings, I mean, as opposed to the electronic devices you use to see if you’re in tune, which confusingly are also called tuners. The most traditional type is friction tuners, which you can find in some of the highest quality ukuleles available. And some not so highest. They’re like violin pegs, pressed tightly into a hole, turned directly and relying on friction to stay in place. Aside from presenting a traditional appearance they have the advantage of light weight. On a little soprano uke the weight of the tuners can be a significant fraction of the whole, and friction tuners throw off the balance of the instrument less. On the other hand they can be very finicky to use.
Geared tuners are heavier, and lack the traditional look, but are easier to use. If you play with a strap, the weight and balance issue is pretty much moot. Most lower cost ukes will have geared tuners. They can be sealed or open. Open tuners generally have an screw lacking (or at least inaccessible) on sealed tuners, allowing you to adjust the tightness, but that’s not a big issue most of the time. It’s possible to swap between open and sealed tuners. Changing between geared and friction is usually impractical, though there are planetary geared tuners that look like friction and can be more readily substituted for them.
Amplification: Most ukes are purely acoustic, but some have pickups built in to allow plugging into an amp. They may have volume and equalization controls on board. Of course these add cost (and a bit of weight), but if amplification appeals to you, check them out. There also are solid body electric ukes, usually with magnetic pickups, for all your rock ukulele needs. Probably not what you’d pick for a first uke.
Ukulele strings usually are nylon or fluorocarbon or some other such synthetic. Originally gut, of course, and it’s still possible to get gut strings, if that’s your thing. Magnetic pickup electric ukes will use steel strings, but otherwise ukes generally aren’t built for the higher tension of steel strings and they should be avoided. What strings are on a ukulele when you buy it may be an unspecified factory brand (often terrible, on low cost ukes). Or not. A lot of ukes come these days with Aquila strings, a pretty well regarded brand with a reputation for being an especially good choice to bring out the best in a cheaper uke. There are lots of other brands and multiple varieties within brands, though, and you can have your music store install something else or just buy the strings and put them on yourself (it’s pretty easy). Best advice is probably to slap some Aquila Nylguts on if it comes with no-name strings.
(Note that some people like to play in linear, as opposed to re-entrant, tuning. If you don’t know what that means, just know that for your first uke, you probably want re-entrant tuning, commonly called high G, not linear or low G, strings and setup.)
Speaking of setup… A good music store can adjust the setup on a ukulele — adjusting string heights, dealing with slightly uneven frets, and so on. Some people insist a factory setup uke needs to have this done. I haven’t worried about it with mine and so far I’ve been reasonably happy. If you encounter buzzy strings, uneven tone, or intonation problems, having a setup done might be a good idea.
Where to buy
Ideally you’d walk into a brick and mortar music store with a good selection of different types and brands of ukuleles. You’d talk to a knowledgeable salesperson who would help you select some good candidates, show and explain the features, and let you try them out for as long as it takes to figure out what you like and dislike. Then you’d go to another few stores and do the same.
Lucky you. You live in Hawaii, don’t you?
If you’re like a lot of us you might have two or one or zero stores nearby with any quality ukuleles at all, and a staff whose knowledge of ukuleles ends at “smaller than a Stratocaster”. A road trip might improve the situation, but this is starting to get ridiculous if you’re just looking for a $60 basic instrument.
You can shop online instead. There are big downsides. You can’t try before you buy. You can’t compare and select — unless you buy several instruments and then take advantage of a generous return policy. You need a knowledgeable friend (who also could help with local stores with dopey staff) or you’re on your own. On the other hand the selection is huge and the prices often beat brick and mortar prices, so there’s some tradeoff.
I’ve bought most of my ukes online — all but one in fact. I’ve never had a serious problem, but I don’t recommend it if you have good brick and mortar alternatives. Look for vendors with good reputations (check reviews, check at ukulele online forums, ask knowledgeable friends) and good return policies. Shop carefully, keep your eyes open, and you’ll probably do okay.
Some ukulele brands I’ve either had experience with or heard good things about, focusing on low to mid price ranges:
- Caramel: This looks dangerous, an online seller shipping mass produced instruments direct from China with suspiciously low prices. Yet I did make an impulse buy of one of their sopranino ukuleles and found it to be surprisingly good, very decent build quality. There are some generally quite favorable online discussions of their ukes in more traditional sizes too. I’m not sure I’d advise a beginner to shop from them, but if you have a uke-playing friend to check out what you get, it might not be a mistake to try them.
- Islander: Kanile’a makes well respected higher end instruments by hand in Hawaii. Recently they’ve been importing mass produced, good quality ukes from Asia which they sell under their Islander brand. I have an Islander tenor I’ve been very happy with.
- Kala: This is one of the biggest names in mass produced, Asian import ukuleles. Large selection, varied prices. Their Makala line is the lower end, and lately they’ve introduced their Kala USA line of higher end instruments made in California. My first uke was a solid wood Kala soprano and it’s still one of my favorites. I also have a Makala Dolphin, a surprisingly nice instrument at a very low price. Not as pretty or as good sounding, but it plays well and is cheap and sturdy enough to take anywhere without worrying about it. (There’s at least one in Antarctica!) Makalas generally are an excellent choice if your budget is near the bottom end.
- Lanikai: This is Hohner’s ukulele brand, if you know Hohner. Mass produced in Asia, again (though, like Kala, it looks like they’re recently starting to make upscale instruments in America, specifically Hawaii), and also a good choice for a low cost instrument. I have a Lanikai baritone uke I like.
- Luna: I’ve never played one for long, but Lunas tend to be very pretty looking and people I know seem to be happy with them.
- Mainland: I’ve never even seen one in the flesh, but Mainlands have a great reputation online. Called “Mainland” because the company (really a guy named Mike) is headquartered in Indiana; the ukuleles, again, come from Asian factories.
- Magic Fluke: So far as I know this is the only company making lower cost ukuleles in the United States. Western Massachusetts, specifically; I’ve visited their little factory/showroom. Quirky instruments, with wood tops and rounded resin backs, similar to Ovation guitars. Flat bottom oval shapes that can be stood up on end. Friction tuners and resin fretboards with molded-in frets are standard but you can order upgrades. I used to have a Flea soprano and liked it okay, but sold it because I was playing my Kala more.
- Ohana: I haven’t played an Ohana, but they’re another major, well regarded importer of mass produced Asian ukes.