Buying a Ukulele
It's common knowledge that the ukulele originated in Hawaii, but did you know its roots go all the way back to the 1880s? The first ukuleles were made in that decade by Portuguese immigrants, who styled them after guitar-family instruments that were common back home. Native Hawaiians gave this new instrument the name "ukulele," which comes from the term for "jumping flea," based on the way a player's hands move across the frets.
The humble ukulele would go on to become a Vaudeville smash hit in the 1920s, a pop culture icon of the jazz era and an occasional guest star in pop music through the 1940s, '50s and '60s. This was followed by a quiet period until the 1990s, when the ukulele began a sweeping comeback that's still going on today. With cameos in virtually every musical genre and countless popular performances streaming online, there's no doubt that the ukulele is here to stay - so there's never been a better time to pick one up for yourself.
Read on for a breakdown of uke essentials, so you'll know what to look for when you set out to choose your instrument.
In this Ukulele Buying Guide
- Measuring Up: Ukulele Sizes and Shapes
- Anatomy Lessons: Ukulele Parts and Construction
- Piece by Piece
- Exotic Instruments: Specialty Ukuleles
- Extended Range
- Banjoleles and Resonators
- Getting Started: A Primer
Choosing the Right Ukulele
There are four standard sizes and tonal ranges for the ukulele, and the first question any new player inevitably asks is "which one is right for me?" Those sizes are the soprano, concert, tenor and baritone, and the truth is that, like most instruments, there's no right or wrong choice - it's a matter of personal preference. Having said that, there are a few factors that can influence your decision. For instance, is the ukulele for you or your child? The smaller the uke, the closer the frets, which makes them easier to reach for small hands. You can also consider playing style: a soprano or concert uke tends to be better for strumming, while tenor and baritone instruments stand out for finger-style.
With time, you will likely have the opportunity to try out each variety of ukulele, and experience will tell you which one is the right fit. But you'll need to start somewhere, so here is a broad comparison of the four standard types to help you decide which one to try out first.
Sometimes referred to as a "standard" ukulele, the soprano ukulele has a 13" scale length (the vibrating length of the strings) with an end-to-end measurement of 21". This was the original size of the earliest ukuleles, and it has two possible tunings. In the modern ukulele family, the soprano is the smallest, with a bright sound and easy handling that makes it ideal for young children. However, some adults may find that the soprano's tiny frets make it challenging to play.
A soprano ukulele delivers a traditional look and sound, with the drawback of reduced warmth and resonance compared to its larger siblings. A good word to describe the soprano uke would be "tinkly," and the high-pitched jangly tone it produces can easily be heard even when played together with other instruments such as acoustic guitars.
The next biggest version after soprano is the concert ukulele, measuring 15" in scale and 23" in length overall, as well as being wider than its smaller sibling. There are three tuning options for this size uke, and it sounds similar to a soprano, albeit deeper and louder. Concert ukuleles, along with tenors, were first created in the 1920s to meet the demands of players who wanted an instrument like a soprano, but with a larger fretboard and lower-pitched sound.
The concert uke is a popular choice for beginners, since it balances the traditionally light ukulele sound with a slightly larger, less finicky design. It also has a higher number of frets than the soprano, entailing a broader range of notes.
The tenor ukulele is another common choice for new players, with a 17" scale length and measuring 26" long in total. There are four potential tunings to choose from on a tenor uke, and its size makes it another step deeper and more resonant when compared with a concert model. The number of frets is similar to a concert ukulele, but everything is scaled up.
If you have large hands, consider starting out with a tenor ukulele. This will make it easier to learn how to fret chords for the first time, and once you know the basics, you'll have an easier time downsizing when you want to try a smaller instrument.
Some players like to play "low G tenor," meaning that they've fitted their tenor ukulele with a G string one octave lower than usual. It's a common technique for Hawaiian players following in the footsteps of "slack-key" guitarists, and if you would like to try it for yourself someday, a tenor ukulele is a must.
The largest of the standard ukulele varieties is the baritone ukulele. Its scale length is 19", with a total length of 30", making it significantly larger than the others. The baritone ukulele also uses a different tuning from any other uke variety, being tuned the same as the four highest strings on a guitar. This unusual tuning goes hand-in-hand with its bigger size to make the baritone capable of far deeper bass notes than the smaller ukuleles.
A side-effect of the baritone ukulele's unique tuning is that it's a very approachable instrument if you already know how to play the guitar. So if you're a guitarist expanding your musical horizons, a baritone uke may be the best option starting out. But, if you do, make sure to look for baritone-specific song books and chord charts, because material written for the other three sizes won't apply.
The ukulele family is surprisingly diverse when it comes to shape, and you'll find that you have a few to choose from when you go shopping for your instrument.
The most common ukulele body shape by a huge margin is the figure-8, or guitar shape, so called because it resembles a guitar. These ukuleles have a body with a narrow waist, the neck side of which is called the "upper bout" or "shoulder," and the opposite side the "lower bout." Usually the upper bout is smaller, and in some ukuleles, it features a cutaway, meaning that there's a gap beside the neck, which makes the top frets easier to reach.
Two more shapes that you may encounter are pineapple and boat paddle ukuleles. The pineapple shape is distinguished by its rounded back, which is how it earned its name: turned front-side-down, it looks like a pineapple. The boat paddle has a similar silhouette as the pineapple uke, but with straight sides and a flat back. With the exception of one-of-a-kind custom ukulele designs, the boat paddle is the rarest shape.
Anatomy Lessons: Ukulele Parts and Construction
Before setting out to select your ukulele, it's a good idea to get familiar with the basic parts that each one is made of. In this section, you'll also learn about the construction methods used to build ukuleles as well as the different woods that are available, and how each of those can impact the instrument's sound.
Piece by Piece
Here are the basic components that make up any ukulele:
- Body: Consisting of the top, back and sides, this is the main sound-generating part of the ukulele. The top is the front face of the body, where the bridge and sound hole are located. Because the job of the top is to transmit the strings' vibrations to the inside of the body, it is sometimes referred to as the "sound board."
- Neck: Mounted at the narrow end of the body, this is the long piece over which the strings run.
- Headstock: This is a wider piece at the top of the neck, containing the tuning pegs and serving as an anchor for one end of the strings.
- Tuning pegs: Available in several styles, these are gear-driven mechanisms embedded into the headstock. One end of each string is wound around a tuning peg, and turning the mechanism to tighten or loosen the string allows it to be tuned. Other names for tuning pegs include tuning heads, tuning machines, tuning keys, and tuners.
- Nut: Located where the headstock meets the neck, this is a grooved strip that holds the strings at the proper height off the fretboard and consistent distances from one another.
- Fretboard: The fretboard, also known as the fingerboard, is the front face of the neck. Raised frets are found at intervals along the fretboard, and holding certain strings against certain frets will determine the ukulele's note or chord when you pick or strum the strings. A fretboard is usually decorated with dots or other markers to help you locate specific frets.
- Bridge: This part of the ukulele is mounted to the top and anchors the strings at that end. The bridge transmits the string vibrations into the top, allowing the instrument to produce sound.
- Saddle: Located on the bridge, the saddle is the counterpart to the nut. Together, the two are responsible for keeping the strings properly positioned.
The vast majority of ukuleles are made of wood, with the exceptions ranging from synthetic materials to metal and even carbon fiber. For your first uke, the best choice is almost always to go with a traditional wooden model, and there are a few things to take into account when it comes to the way they're built. Some are made entirely of one type of wood, while others are combinations. An explanation of different wood varieties is coming up, but before that, it's worth taking a look at a very important aspect in ukulele design: the difference between laminated and solid woods.
As a rule of thumb, the lower the price of a ukulele, the more likely it is to be made with laminates. This is because laminates, which consist of multiple thin layers of wood glued together, are much less expensive to manufacture than solid woods. There is a cost to these savings: the uke loses some of its resonance, and it won't mellow out with age the way a solid wood ukulele will. On the other hand, laminates tend to be stronger and less susceptible to splitting or cracking in extreme climates.
It's tempting to dismiss laminates in favor of solid wood when shopping for a ukulele, but if this is your first one, take a moment to think about the advantages they offer: improved durability, stable sound over the life of the instrument, and a lower initial cost. When you're just starting out and the finer details of tone are not yet as important as simple practicality, a laminate ukulele can be a very good choice.
When the absolute best tone is a must-have, the added richness and the beneficial effects of aging make solid wood the way to go. While the specific woods don't make a significant difference in a laminate uke, that's not the case for solids. If you're buying a solid wood uke, or a model with laminated back and sides but a solid top, the choice of wood will have a noticeable impact on the tone. For that reason, the soundboard wood of a ukulele is called a tonewood, and here's what you can expect from the typical varieties you'll run into:
- Koa: This is a wood native to Hawaii, which makes it an understandable choice for ukuleles - in fact, it was the traditional tonewood for many years. Its grain pattern and colors remain popular today, and it produces a balanced, versatile tone.
- Acacia: A relative of the dense, tropical koa, this wood has similar characteristics.
- Mahogany: This tonewood can be difficult to predict, since it's grown in many regional varieties worldwide. In general, however, you can expect a dark and warm tonality. Mahogany is also frequently used to craft the necks of ukuleles.
- Spruce: As a favorite of acoustic guitar builders, it was only a matter of time before spruce trickled down to the ukulele as well. The dense gain of spruce makes for a ukulele that's bright and energetic.
- Cedar: Compared to spruce, cedar is softer and that leads to a correspondingly mellower, well-rounded tone. Cedar is often found on tenor and baritone ukuleles, where it helps to bring out their lower notes.
- Redwood: Sitting between spruce and cedar in terms of tonal characteristics, redwood blends spruce-like clarity with cedar-like warmth. Because of overharvesting and the vulnerability of redwood trees, this tonewood is pricy and hard to find, but tends to make for a really unique ukulele since redwood used in instruments is often salvaged from old furniture and decks.
- Rosewood: Just like in guitars, rosewood in ukuleles is most frequently used to make fretboards. But it can sometimes be found in uke bodies, where its hardness delivers focused sound and its handsome good looks create a striking visual impression.
- Maple: This is another example of a tonewood inherited by the ukulele from the guitar, though it's usually found in bridges and fretboards rather than tops.
That sums up the most common ukulele tonewoods, but with so many different kinds of trees in the world, it's far from an exhaustive list. Dozens of other woods may crop up in your search for the perfect uke, including beech, bubinga, cherry, cocobolo, mango, myrtle, nato, ovangkol, pau ferro, sapele and wenge. If you encounter one of these or an even more exceptional wood, consider doing a little further reading to find out how they'll perform.
The primary piece of hardware on a ukulele is a tuning machine, but that is by no means the only thing you will find on ukes "in the wild." Some would consider the nut and saddle to be a piece of hardware, and if you're looking at specialty ukuleles, there may be additional hardware like electronics or a resonator (more on those below). In all of these cases, quality matters: for instance, higher-end tuning machines operate more smoothly and hold their positions more securely. So no matter what type of ukulele you're planning to purchase, have a look into the hardware on all your candidates to make sure it's up to snuff.
Exotic Instruments: Specialty Ukuleles
If there's one thing you take away from this buying guide, let it be this: not all ukuleles are created equal. Still, most ukes of the same style are fairly similar to one another. But the recent popularity of the instrument has led to a few varieties that are wildly different from other ukuleles. If you're looking for something really special, or if you're an experienced player craving something that stands out from the norm, one of these specialty ukes might be the answer.
The standard ukulele is acoustic: that is, they produce sound through purely mechanical means, bouncing vibrations around through the air inside the uke body. An acoustic-electric ukulele does that too, but it also has an electronic pickup that converts the vibrations of the strings into signals which an amplifier or sound system can use. This solves some of the challenges of playing into a microphone - for example, you won't need to sit still in front of a mic, and you won't have to worry about feedback.
Acoustic-electric ukuleles are ideal if you want to play your uke onstage as part of a band, or if you'd like an easy way to record. You can even plug in with effects pedals, just like an electric guitarist. With its built-in preamp, an acoustic-electric uke puts volume and tone controls right on the instrument, and some models even have a built-in digital interface with USB output for use with your preferred recording software.
Extended range, in simple terms, means more strings. For ukuleles, the usual varieties are 6 and 8 strings, which are typically based on the tenor or baritone ukulele scale length. A 6 or 8-string ukulele is not usually a choice for beginners, but if you're a guitarist looking for a small travel instrument or an experienced player wanting to try something new, one of these ukes might be for you.
Banjoleles and Resonators
These are two examples of hybrid instruments: the banjolele is a cross between a uke and a banjo, while a resonator is similar in principle to a resonator guitar. On the banjolele, you'll find a banjo-style head, rim, brackets and resonator. This is not to be confused with the resonator on a resonator ukulele, which is rather like a miniature version of a guitar resonator and often paired with a fully metal body. In both cases, these instruments are a sort of folk fusion, blending the mellow Hawaiian character of the ukulele with the bluegrass roots of the banjo and resonator guitar.
Until the U-Bass was introduced, the only things ukuleles and bass guitars had in common was having four strings apiece, and each being part of the guitar family. This crossover changed that, though: with its special extra-thick strings, the U-Bass is like packing a full-sized bass guitar into the body of a ukulele. They're usually fitted with acoustic-electric hardware, and once amplified, they sound surprisingly similar to their much bigger cousins.
Getting Started: A Primer
One of the best things about the ukulele (and one reason why it's such a popular introductory instrument to music in general) is that it's the easiest fretted instrument to learn how to play. With less than an hour of practice, you can learn to strum three simple chords and play basic songs. And since the uke uses nylon strings, the learning process isn't too rough on your fingers, either. It goes without saying that you'll get better with more practice, just like any other instrument, but the barrier to entry for the ukulele is refreshingly low.
It's a lot of fun to own and play a ukulele, but if you want to get the most out of your instrument, there are a few things you should look into to go along with the uke itself. With the right accessories on hand, you'll have what you need to take care of the ukulele and ensure it keeps on making that sweet, mellow sound for years to come. Here are some ideas for your uke toolbox:
- Electronic tuner: Every ukulele needs to be properly tuned in order to produce the correct notes and chords when you play. A tuner is a simple-to-use device that makes tuning your uke a breeze.
- Case or gig bag: When you need to transport your ukulele, there's no better way to do so than inside a case designed to protect it from the dangers of the road.
- Strings: Naturally, your new ukulele will come with a set of strings already provided. But no ukulele string lasts forever, and it's a great idea to have spares. You'll also find that different strings can create different sounds, and you might even like to have a few sets to swap for that reason. Traditional strings are made of nylon, but there are other materials available, including titanium, aluminum and fluorocarbon. Experiment to your heart's content; just remember that the strings you buy need to be the right size for the ukulele you own.
- Pick: Although the uke is most often played with bare fingers, some players prefer to use a felt ukulele pick or even a standard guitar pick. Since their surfaces are quite a bit different from fingertips, picks can extract different sounds from the strings, which makes them an interesting way to explore your instrument's potential.
- Ukulele sheet music and books: For a beginner, these resources are a must. You'll find that they're indispensable for learning chords and ukulele fingering techniques, as well as how to play specific songs. There are also plenty of advanced books available for experienced players. They may be based on a specific musical genre or theme, and often include tutorials, online content and even tips and advice for tuning, cleaning and care. When shopping for chord charts and song or method books, be sure to check which types of ukulele they're written for: because of their different tuning, material for baritone ukuleles is different from that for other ukes.
- Stand: This is a simple accessory that's easy to overlook, but it can be extremely helpful, especially when you're working with chord charts and song books. A stand will give you a stable place to put your printed materials while you play, and a collapsible model can even be folded up to take with you to lessons and recitals.
The fine details of tuning will surely be covered by your instructor or your method books, but here are a few quick notes to serve as a general introduction to ukulele tuning and help you understand what to expect when your instrument arrives.
The standard open-string tuning (that is, the notes the strings have when they're not being held down) is the same for soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles: G-C-E-A. For baritone ukuleles, the typical tuning is D-G-B-E, just like the four highest strings on a guitar. There are some alternate tunings for certain uke sizes - for instance, some players like to change their ukulele to D-tuning (A-D-F#-B) to create a sweeter sound - but these are the "de facto" configurations that you will likely start out with.
The ease of keeping a ukulele in tune depends on a number of things, from the quality of the tuning machines to the design of the bridge. If you find that your uke has trouble maintaining its tuning, try tightening the set screws located on the tuning machine keys (if present). And don't worry too much if a brand-new set of strings won't initially stay in tune: it's normal for nylon strings to stretch, so they will need more frequent tuning for the first while and should stabilize eventually.
The word "aloha" is more than just a greeting - it's used to describe love, peace, and contentment... which makes it a good word to describe the warm, mellow, and relaxing qualities of the ukulele. Choosing the right uke is a matter of finding the one that will give you that "aloha" feeling, and with your newfound knowledge about how ukuleles are made and the traits to look out for when you're searching for one of your own, you're well on your way to finding it. So go on and explore all the wonderful options the ukulele world has to offer, and get ready for the good vibes this little instrument is sure to bring.