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Before you go looking for a uke, you have first to read my ukulele buying guide to learn what you need. Sure most ukuleles are cheap but, let’s make sure you buy a great uke, shall we?
Originating in Hawaii, the ukulele has been around for over a century and has made many comebacks in that period of time. The most recent ukulele revival has equipped today’s youth to inundate us with cutesy and quirky covers of every song that has ever existed.
Why is the instrument so popular? For one, it’s incredibly easy to play. It’s very small and only has four strings, making it an ideal first instrument for kids and an easy one to pick up for adults. It’s also generally inexpensive, but if you’re looking to get it on the craze, there are three main factors you need to take into consideration, budget, type, and tonewoods.
How Much to Spend
Beginners should probably spend $50 to $150 on their first ukulele. There are many good-quality ukuleles in this price range that will last for a long time.
The reason you don’t want to go lower than $50 is that extremely low-end ukuleles tend to have problems with their construction. This makes them very difficult to play and keep in tune. They also might be made of cheap materials that can’t hold up to normal wear and tear.
But you don’t want to spend too much because after a certain price point you are paying for improvements in cosmetics, tone, playability, and longevity that won’t really matter to a beginner.
An exception to this rule is in regard to the size of the instrument. If you’re buying a larger ukulele, you might spend a little more on your first one.
If you are an intermediate player looking for another uke or an aspiring ukulele collector, we have written about the differences between sizes and tonewoods further below.
Which Ukulele Should a Beginner Get?
Get the best one you can afford within the $50 to $150 range mentioned earlier.
Closer to $200 are the KALA KA-GATU-S and Kamoa E3-S.
Ukuleles don’t really need straps, as they are so small you can just hold them while you play. In fact, most ukes don’t even come with strap buttons. You don’t need a pick either; it’s best to just strum with your fingers.
You will, however, need a tuner. Clip-on tuners and tuner phone apps are available for a very cheap price.
The Parts of a Ukulele
The parts of a ukulele are the same as the parts of an acoustic guitar and have the same names.
The body is the hollowed-out part where the sound is amplified and projected out of the soundhole.
The neck the long, thin part that the fretboard lies on.
The headstock is at the other end of the neck and is home to the tuning machines.
The strings are stretched from the tuning machines over the plastic or bone nut down to the bridge and over the saddle, which is usually plastic.
Different Types of Ukuleles
Depending on the size of your hands, you might prefer a larger or smaller ukulele. Different sizes also have different sounds.
Sizes are categorized by the scale length of the ukulele; that is, the distance from the headstock to the bridge.
Sopranos, Concert and Tenor ukuleles have a standard tuning of GCEA, while baritone has DGBE.
They are also known as “standard” ukuleles, having a 13-inch scale length. The first ukuleles were standard, and they have the tinny, bright and “classic” ukulele sound.
With a length of 15-inch scale, they have something very close to the “classic” sound but are a little louder. If you have bigger hands, you might prefer a concert instead of a soprano as the longer scale length means there is more distance between the frets.
Tenor ukuleles are pretty large at 17 inches scale. They sound more like a nylon-string (classical) guitar.
Also similar to a classical guitar, they are actually tuned to DGBE, which happens to be the standard tuning of the four highest strings on a guitar. If you are interested in fingerpicking, you might wanna try baritone but keep in mind that it’s a lot different than regular ukuleles.
Beginners may benefit more from buying a soprano or concert ukulele, as they can get a higher-quality instrument at that size for a lower price. They will also sound more like — well — a ukulele. But this doesn’t mean you ought to.
Figure-eight ukuleles are the most common. They are shaped like tiny guitars. Some are available with a cutaway shoulder that allows easy access to the highest frets.
Pineapple ukuleles originated in Hawaii and are shaped like a vertically-split pineapple.
There are specialty ukuleles available that have different body types, but they are less common. One is the banjolele, which is exactly what it sounds like; it’s a ukulele-sized banjo that is sometimes even tuned like a ukulele. However, it will give you a sound and experience completely different from either of the instruments it is based on.
Acoustic-electric ukuleles are available if you’d like to plug into an amp. You can actually get them in solid body form like an electric guitar. But more common are acoustic-electrics designed with piezo pickups. They are meant to sound better amplified.
Koa is a dense wood native to Hawaii. Many higher-end ukuleles are made with koa. It has a balanced tone with an emphasized midrange, making it perfect for ukuleles in particular.
Mahogany has a warm tone and emphasizes low frequencies. It is a very common tonewood.
Spruce is often found on acoustic guitars as well. It has a very bright sound with a lot of volumes.
Cedar is less dense than spruce — so a little less cutting — but similar in that it can get pretty loud. If you want to stand out from the other instruments but emphasize the lower frequencies instead of the higher ones, cedar is a great choice. It’s also more responsive at low volumes.
Redwood is an expensive wood that gives the ukulele a clear and bright upper range, though not quite as bright as spruce.
Rosewood is more often used for fretboards, backs, and sides than tops, but rosewood-topped ukuleles do exist. They have powerful low ends and rich harmonic overtones. Brazilian rosewood is coveted by some ukulele enthusiasts.
Maple has a very clean and clear sound. This tonewood is popular in the guitar world because it is so good for studio recording.
Exotic woods such as cherry are mainly used for their unique wood grains rather than their sound. This doesn’t mean they sound bad, but they usually sound similar to another tonewood.
There isn’t really a “best” tonewood despite how it may seem. It comes down to your personal needs and preferences.
Keep in mind that the differences between tonewoods can be subtle. This has led some people to believe that tonewood doesn’t matter at all, and while this isn’t true, you shouldn’t overthink it on your first purchase.
Laminated vs. Solid Wood
Laminated wood is generally looked down upon in the acoustic stringed instrument world. It is usually the telltale sign of a “cheap” model, and it’s likely that your first ukulele will be laminated, but there are actually some benefits to laminated wood.
First, let’s talk about what it is. In a laminated instrument, the interior of the body is made of an inexpensive wood ply or other low-quality material.
The outside is finished with a higher-quality wood so it at least doesn’t look like crap. But the tone is still affected and of a lesser quality than instruments made of solid wood, which are the same all the way through.
However, laminated instruments are a little more durable. They can be slightly more resistant to humidity changes, which can cause warping in solid wood instruments.
It can also be harder to dent and scratch them depending on the solid wood you are comparing them to.
Solid wood may be way bit expensive than the laminated ones, it lives up to its quality standards. Most solid woods age well, which means as time pass by, the quality will just get better compared to the latter.
Other than that, they produce much better sounds which would be much more appealing to advanced players.
Carbon fiber instruments are becoming increasingly common. If you are going to subject your ukulele to considerable wear and tear — on camping trips, for example — consider investing in one of these if you have the money.
Otherwise, you should just take a cheap beater with you. Wooden instruments do not do well when exposed to the elements. Everyone knows someone who left their acoustic guitar in the trunk all summer and it turned out fine, but this is not the case in general.
The main problems are rapid changes in temperature and humidity. These cause the wood to expand and contract, and this can detune your ukulele, cause deeper intonation problems, warp the wood, and even break it.
Carbon fiber is totally impervious to this. You can take it anywhere, leave it in the rain and drop it on the ground. It will still play fine at the end of the day.
The only real downside is that carbon fiber ukuleles are still very expensive. This will probably change in the future as carbon fiber instruments become more common, but for now, you’re looking at a minimum investment of $500.
Final Words of Advice
While there is not quite as much diversity between ukuleles as there is between guitars, many ukulele enthusiasts amass large collections of instruments. The community has even coined the term “ukulele acquisition syndrome” to describe the never-ending thirst for new ukuleles.
It’s certainly an enjoyable pastime and has fewer barriers to entry than many other musical pursuits.
Hopefully, this ukulele buying guide has helped you in the development of your hobby!
Best Ukulele – This is my top 10 list of the best ukuleles out there!
Best Ukulele Strings – If you need a new set of strings, I’ve listed the top 5 strings fit for your ukulele.