The Best Ukulele Buyer’s Guide
Finding the right musical instrument can quickly go from fun activity to unbelievable headache, since there are so many important factors that you need to think about in order to make the right choice. Shopping for a ukulele is just like shopping for any other instrument, but that doesn’t mean it has to turn into a headache-inducing hassle. I put together this buyer’s guide to help you navigate the sometimes confusing work of sorting through the different options, so you can spend less time looking up terms or deciphering confusing descriptions and more time finding the instrument of your dreams.
String Instrument Basics
Before you get into any of the specifics of ukuleles, it’s important to understand some of the basic terms and concepts behind stringed instruments so that you can get a solid footing. The term “stringed instrument” can refer to a wide range of items, from electric basses to violins. Ukuleles are part of a smaller class of stringed instruments known as lutes, which are very similar to the acoustic guitar. The main components that you’re going to be looking at on a ukulele are the body, the neck, the bridge and the tuners.
The body and the neck, as you might guess from the names, make up the general frame of the instrument. The neck also has a separate piece of wood on top of it called the fretboard, which is the part you press the strings against in order to create the different notes while you play. The bridge is the piece of wood at the bottom of the body where the strings attach, and should be a strong and sturdy wood in order to hold the strings in place. The tuners are the little metal knobs at the top of the ukulele, known as the headstock, which allow you to keep the strings tight. There are two different types of tuners, each of which has different benefits.
The tuners on a ukulele are also known as hardware or machine heads, and are the components that allow you to tune the ukulele. The two main types of machine heads are geared tuners and tension tuners. Tension machine heads don’t have any special mechanisms to keep them from moving, relying on the tension of the strings wound against the pegs sticking out of the headstock to keep them tight. These types of tuners are more prone to falling out of tune, and thus mean the ukulele requires more frequent tuning. If you’re already comfortable with tuning an instrument, either by ear or using an electric tuner, then this might not be an issue.
I prefer geared tuners because they keep the strings in tune better and are easier to turn, thanks to the locking gears. Geared tuners are easier to turn because you don’t have to apply as much force to wind the strings. Since the gears don’t just move on their own, they also prevent slipping, which causes the strings loosen and fall out of tune. The geared tuners can make ukuleles a little more expensive, but in my opinion are definitely worth it for any player, especially a beginner. It just means one less thing you have to worry about every time you play.
Type of Wood
The type of wood used in a ukulele is probably the most important factor in both the price and the sound of a ukulele. Certain types of woods are going to be more expensive due to availability, the harvesting process, and other outside factors that determine how easy it is for manufacturers to get them. Many of these more expensive woods also help the ukulele have a richer, deeper sound because they do a better job reverberating the sounds. However, more expensive wood does not always mean that the ukulele will have a better sound, so keep that in mind while you’re looking at different models.
Generally speaking, a ukulele with a body made of solid mahogany is going to have a strong, full-bodied sound. However, it can also carry a bigger price. Other types of hard woods, like rosewood, also give you a great sound, though rosewood is more commonly used on bridges and necks as a secondary component. Softer woods, such as agathis, that are native to areas of Asia are a common choice for less expensive ukuleles because they are more abundant and easier to harvest. Agathis typically has a wonderful sound compared to other woods in its price range, working best when the neck, fretboard, or bridge is made of a harder wood.
There are also several different styles of ukuleles available, each of which has a slightly different design. The four most common ukuleles you are going to see are the soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. A soprano ukulele is the traditional style, and the one you are most likely to run into when you’re looking at the different models available. Soprano models are a great choice for beginners and professionals as they give you the most authentic and recognizable ukulele sounds.
A concert ukulele is like a soprano, but a little big larger. The bigger size helps it achieve a louder sound, and gives you a bit more room for your fingers, as well as more frets. Tenor ukuleles have a lower musical range than sopranos, so they’re better suited for more experienced musicians instead of someone new to the ukulele. Finally, baritone ukulele is considerably bigger than all the other styles, resembling a small acoustic guitar. Since it also has tuning that matches the higher strings on a guitar, it’s a good choice for anyone transitioning between the two instruments, since you can use a lot of your guitar knowledge without having to learn too many new chord fingerings.
Another key factor to consider when looking for a ukulele is the location in which you are most likely going to be playing. If you plan on just strumming in your living room for fun, or want a neat instrument to bring with you on beach trips with friends or family, then you probably want to stick to soprano ukuleles. Soprano ukuleles are also a great choice for beginners, since they are typically cheaper and can be easier to learn from the ground up. If you plan on doing a lot of traveling or playing in outdoor settings, then a ukulele made of composite materials might also be a good choice, since some of these can better withstand exposure to water and other elements.
If you plan on playing live on a stage or recording in a studio, then a concert ukulele could be a better choice because of its louder and richer sound. Performers might also want to look into an acoustic electric ukulele, which comes with built-in electronics that make it possible to plug directly into an amp without any additional components. Serious musicians looking for an instrument to provide new sounds to an existing musical setup should think about the other styles of ukulele, since each fits into the larger musical world its own way. If you really want a unique sound, you can even try out a banjulele.
Existing Skill Level
Soprano ukuleles are the best choice for anyone who is new to the ukulele, or new to music in general. While each type of ukulele has its own tuning, the soprano is designed for simple playing that is much easier for new players to pick up without having to contend with tricky finger patterns. There are also some wonderful beginner bundles out there that include soprano ukuleles along with helpful accessories such as bags and tuners.
Guitarists or other skilled musicians can consider the other styles of ukuleles according to their specific needs. However, there’s a good chance that the classic soprano is still going to be the best choice, since it has such a distinct, recognizable sound. This one really does come down to personal choice for anyone already familiar with the musical world.
Portability and Weight
Again, if you plan on taking your ukulele with you places on a regular basis, then you’re most likely going to want to get a soprano. They’re the smallest of the standard ukulele sizes, and since they’re also the most common size you can usually find an affordable gig bag or case without much effort. Tenor and baritone ukuleles are going to be heavier, since they are longer and have bigger bodies. Acoustic electric ukuleles are also going to be heavier because they include the electronics inside them.
Acoustic versus Electric
This is another area that is probably going to come down to personal preference, but there are a few basic considerations that can help guide you here. First of all, you don’t need an acoustic electric ukulele if you don’t already have an amplifier. Since acoustic electric models are typically more expensive than full acoustic models, you probably don’t need one if you’re not planning on playing any live shows or doing any serious recording. However, investing in an acoustic electric model up front can help keep the door open on recording and performing in the future, saving you more money in the long run.
Look and Appearance
One thing I love about ukuleles is that they come in so many fun colors. There are also a lot of ukuleles that have distinct etchings and patterns on them, which can really make a statement when you play. Just know that these colors and designs are usually only available on soprano ukuleles. Once you move into the other styles, you’re limited by the natural finish of whatever type of wood is used in its construction. There are definitely some unbelievably beautiful tenor and baritone ukuleles out there, but a rich mahogany is going to be quite different from an electric hot pink.
Hopefully you’ll be able to make much better sense of the ukulele world after reading through this guide. Even though there are a lot of different elements to consider, remember that the most important aspect is that you feel comfortable with your instrument. Don’t rush on a purchase because it seems like the cheapest option, or shell out major bucks because you think expensive automatically equals quality. Look at what’s out there and think about your own comfort level, and you’ll be able to find a ukulele that matches your personality and style.